Pictured: Qasim Gulamhusein and Mark Widdowson
Lee Hayhurst spoke to childhood friends Qasim Gulamhusein and Miqdaad Versi after the pair clinched the deal to buy the operator and consolidator
Business partners Qasim Gulamhusein and Miqdaad Versi are childhood buddies with a friendly rivalry dating back to their school and university days.
They attended rival schools – Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ and Merchants Taylor’s – and as university students were on opposite sides of the Cambridge-Oxford divide.
After graduating they went on to work for rival financial institutions: Gulamhusein initially with Goldman Sachs then McKinsey, Versi at Oliver Wyman and Royal Bank of Scotland.
However, a shared entrepreneurial spirit and a mutual love of travel saw them forge a partnership to buy London-based consolidator and tour operator Major Travel.
The duo say of all the sectors they could have chosen to put their business experience and insight to the test, travel stood out.
“Going on holiday is the most fun part of the year for most people. It’s the one thing that really transforms lives,” said Versi.
“We liked the idea of being part of that and in a growing industry. In particular the customer service element was a core factor for us.
“What we have got with Major Travel is a really good proposition that puts those elements together, with a really strong legacy, to make a good business grow.”
Gulamhusein also stressed what he sees as the growing importance of customer service, not just in travel but business in general.
He said experience as a consultant in the telecoms sector had shown him how firms with a customer-first perspective prosper.
“It sounds so simple, but very few firms actually do it,” said Gulamhusein.
“People think they know what the customer wants because they’ve been in the sector for a long time. But no one actually asks them. There is increasing diversity in companies’ customer bases and if you ask them what they want you can give it to them.”
It’s early days for Major Travel’s new owners but they have been full time in the business every day for the past two months as the acquisition was worked on.
Versi said it was apparent the firm has many loyal trade partners who highly value Major’s service and product, but that in recent years the company had not been able to “focus on growth”.
He said former sales director Mary Arpino, a driving force for trade relations, left a year-and-a-half ago to set up her own travel business, while the owners, managing director Mark Widdowson and financial director Panos Panayiotou, both of whom are in their 70s, were looking for someone to “secure their legacy”.
Feedback from the trade suggests they want improved ability to create their own holidays, a wider range of destinations and more packages as well as flight-only.
In the future, Major Travel will work to re-establish its cruise offering and will also explore opportunities in the emerging accommodation rental sector.
Versi said: “We have identified what agents want and we are going to be aligning a lot of our capabilities with that.
“We want to make sure we do things in a measured way that consolidates and supports the business properly to expand.”
Moving more into the luxury tailor-made sector puts Major Travel in a competitive market in which well-known brands such as Kuoni, Gold Medal and Travel 2 are dominant players.
Versi said Major Travel, which has an Atol licence to carry 33,000 passengers a year, has a long way to go to rival those for size, but said: “The market is big enough and growing fast enough. There is a big enough pie for us to target.”
Versi and Gulamhusein appreciate loyalty can never be taken for granted in a sector not lacking in suppliers willing to shave a few pounds off their margin to win business.
But Gulamhusein is confident a customer-first and 100% trade-only approach will cement old friends while winning new ones.
“Price competitiveness is a factor, but it’s not all about the price,” he said. “There is no silver bullet solution; there are always going to be situations where people go elsewhere.
“Our proposition will be to care for their needs and if they go somewhere else for a £5 discount and get screwed over, that’s not good for them.”
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