Interview: Peter Kerkar, Cox and Kings

Cox and Kings global chief executive Peter Kerkar regales Edward Robertson with how he has developed the company over two decades and how it stands today

Peter Kerkar, global chief executive, Cox and Kings

When Peter Kerkar took over Cox and Kings in 1987, it’s fair to say the company was at a bit of a low ebb.

Kerkar was presented with 20 files in a plastic bag which were the entire company’s records, while the two staff he also took on had no office to work from.

Having returned the company to its core travel business, 21 years later it proves to be in fine form – recording 10,000 passengers with a turnover of £26 million in the 2007/08 financial year.

Cox and Kings operates both group tours and tailor-made private tours around the world and enjoys a healthy relationship with the trade, with about 28% of total sales made via agents.

Now as it celebrates its 250th anniversary, Cox and Kings global chief executive Kerkar speaks exclusively to Travel Weekly.

When you took over Cox and Kings there was very little else apart from the brand name. Was that a help or a hindrance?

It was a real trial and a test, especially as I also didn’t know much about travel. However, it was also a great opportunity as I had little to lose.

Cox and Kings’ historical links with India go back more than 200 years, when it worked with the military there. Did that influence your decision to launch your first programme in the country?

It helped. Cox and Kings has always had a strong presence in India as we’ve operated out there since 1758 and had offices in the country – the itinerary was a natural extension of our product range.

In 1989, with our shipping interests and business travel we had about 500 members of staff out in India – the first thing I did after taking over was to cut the number of people in the company to 28. These employees became primarily responsible for handling our clients when they travelled out to India.

India was a  destination that attracted a certain class of people – a class that has always had very strong links with the country. It wasn’t a big charter destination – charter flights to India only started in 1993, so we had thousands of people as opposed to hundreds of thousands.

What were your other key objectives once you’d taken on the business?

There were three core things to do as the new owner. First off I wanted to computerise the business and have good technology – this has helped us work fairly efficiently.

Good technology also helps you to control the scale of your business, and expand it without necessarily having to take on extra personnel and downsize the operation depending on how your business is doing.

I also needed to expand the product base and create a company that would offer what I believe travel should be like. I always wanted to go for the best and I wanted to offer a seven-star experience but with five-star prices.

The next programmes you launched were in South America. Why did you make the decision to go there and not stay focused on the east?

We were tempted into going to Latin America because it wasn’t very developed. We are trying to give our customers a cultural experience in an area that they cannot contemplate visiting by themselves.

We want to take customers’ hands and create a bubble around them that can still be permeated by the sights and sounds. However, we had to educate our clients and tell them that the accommodation they were staying in was the best available in Latin America at that time.

How involved has Cox and Kings been with responsible tourism?

Very. We launched our Environmental Journey programme in 1990 and we were the first company to start offering responsible tours. Although it did take off it didn’t really expand the way we wanted it to.

We really believed in green issues and were selling on so many fronts. We were thinking about the impact travel was having on the destinations.

However, our enthusiasm did not carry forward into the customer’s pocket – they wanted the best value holiday rather than making donations, so we changed tack. We informed the client about the charities we supported and then let them send their own money accordingly.

For the 250 years Cox and Kings has been in business, it has retained its independence. Would your company be the same if you had been the subject of an acquisition?

A lot of the bigger companies tend to acquire brands and their flaw is to take away the feel of the brand once they have done so. There are few companies that have been successful in retaining their individuality and identity as brands once they’ve been bought.

New owners must ask themselves: are we sensitive enough to allow the company the space to do what it does best or do the men in suits come in, close the back office and centralise operations elsewhere – ultimately destroying the company’s ethos?

So you’re glad you’re not a big company?

Cox and Kings will never be huge but we will always be able to offer that bit extra. We are driven by different motivations – other operators can package a product and say customers are staying in the best hotel somewhere but our customers can get in the hotel manager’s private residence and have a cocktail with him too.

We are special because we managed to develop that reputation by building up a client base of people who believe they are the best and want the best too.


Profile

  • Lives: Has homes in West Hampstead, London; Mumbai, India and Kerry, Ireland.
  • Status: Married with two young daughters.
  • Education: BA in Anthropology and Economics from Stanford University in the US.

Employment History

  • 1986: Joined Cox and Kings as general manager.
  • 1987: Took control of the company and within three months relaunched its then only programme to India.
  • 1993: Kerkar acquires 50% of the UK arm of Cox and Kings.

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