Hippy trail leads to the high street

Roger Trapp charts the rise of a travel agent that started out selling trips to Kathmandu
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The Independent Online
When Mike Gooley set up Trailfinder, the travel company, in 1970 he could have had little idea that 26 years later it would lay claim to being Britain's largest travel company, with a dominant position in a key London high street.

Last week, Mr Gooley opened what is said to be the largest retail travel outlet in the UK, onLondon's Kensington High Street. The pounds 5m, 11,500 sq ft location served by 110 consultants is opposite the company's other outlet and connected to it by a pedestrian crossing.

Mr Gooley, a former SAS man who started by running overland trips to the hippy paradise of Kathmandu, jokes that it would probably be more effective to have a single "emporium of travel" of the same sort of size as Barkers, the nearby department store. But the price of being in such a fashionable part of town is that suitable properties do not often become available. In fact, Trailfinders had waited several years for the shop next door to become free before giving up and setting up across the street.

Not that west London is any longer the company's only location. Five years ago it opened its first regional office in Manchester, because Manchester airport makes a good alternative international departure point for those in the area.

These were followed by outlets in Glasgow, Bristol and Birmingham, and Mr Gooley is looking at another regional office in Dublin.

"Why should somebody from Glasgow, say, have to come down to Heathrow or Gatwick to fly abroad?" he says. "And even if they do come to London to fly they sometimes want to visit the shop."

On top of this, he has expanded abroad, buying the Bloomfield Wilderness Lodge in the far north of Queensland, Australia, as well as a small airline with which to serve it, and opening travel offices in Brisbane and Cairns.

Although these locations, as opposed to the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne, seem to demonstrate that Trailfinders has not strayed far from its roots in exotic, independent travel, it does also cater for the mainstream holiday maker.

The changes in air travel since Trailfinders appeared on the scene mean that customers are just as likely to call Trailfinders if they want a bespoke family holiday as they are if they are looking to book a rock- bottom price trip to the Far East. And Trailfinders' inability to deal with the rising demand in the 1980s spawned what Mr Gooley calls clones and imitators.

Now, although Trailfinders still appears healthy, it made a profit of pounds 5.6m on turnover of pounds 196m last year, the market is so saturated that "nobody has left to set up on their own for at least seven years".

Moreover, margins are extremely tight, with the profit on a pounds 990 flight amounting to no more than pounds 6 to pounds 7.

In fact, much of the company's profit last year (which was reduced through pounds 1m being spent on setting up a charity with which Mr Gooley intends to assist youth and sports projects) came from investment income generated by the company owning its own freeholds rather than operating profit.

He explains: "There's a lot of competition. It's a lot tougher." Some multiples that have sought to get into the market have pulled out, he suspects because they lack the expertise in dealing with this sort of trade.

Unlike conventional travel agents, consultants at Trailfinders, who are expected to be keen travellers with experience of long trips, do not mix arranging long-haul flights with booking cross-Channel ferry crossings or bus trips to Scotland.

This focus is one factor in the company's continuing success, Mr Gooley believes. But he also thinks that culture is important. While there is no bar on people who have worked for other travel companies, they tend not to be hired because "it's quite difficult to turn people from another way of doing things".

Customer care is paramount. Most mistakes are forgiven, but if a consultant does something to upset a customer they are in deep trouble, says Mr Gooley.

In an industry that is notorious for leaving travellers stranded when a company collapses Trailfinders has sought to differentiate itself by offering repatriation services that do not require insurance to be taken out.

And then there is the teamwork, which is carried to such an extreme that those who do leave a staff that now comprises just less than 550, including those in Australia, often regret the loss of the social life. "We sort of work hard and play hard," says Mr Gooley, revealing that, even on the strict criteria that both parties must have been in full-time employment in the company at the time of meeting, there have been 23 marriages between employees.