Travelopia chief executive Andy Duncan spoke to Lucy Huxley about his colourful and successful career and how he plans to transform the collection of travel brands.

Being the man who launched ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter!’ is some claim to fame.

Beating Sir Richard Branson to sponsorship of the (Flora) London Marathon – and fending him off for 14 years – was also a bit of a coup.

But Andy Duncan, chief executive of Travelopia, has plenty of success stories across his varied career, which includes senior roles at Unilever, the BBC, Channel 4 and Camelot.

It’s quite a CV and one of the reasons Travelopia’s private equity backers, KKR, approached Duncan to run the business after it was sold by Tui in 2017.

Stellar career

Duncan, who is known in leadership circles as a ‘transformational chief executive’, says: “Tui’s Specialist Holidays Group was non-core to Tui and hadn’t been a strategic priority since the 1990s. It was a neglected part of the business with not much financial investment.

“KKR got a good deal, but it was a very fragmented, mixed bag, all run as individual local businesses.”

Duncan says KKR was attracted to his consumer, technology and marketing skills, which he honed across a number of big roles.

After 17 years at Unilever, and when his two daughters were small, Duncan decided he didn’t want to work for the same company all his life. So he joined the BBC and led the launch of the corporation’s digital channels and Freeview. After three years, he moved to Channel 4 where he was chief executive for six years, growing the channel’s market share and winning loads of awards, including eight Oscars for Film4’s Slumdog Millionaire. He was also presiding over the channel during the Big Brother Jade Goody v Shilpa Shetty race row, describing his tenure as “great but remarkable times”.

After a short spell at HR Owen, the UK’s largest luxury car dealership, he joined the National Lottery run by Camelot, presiding over its digital transformation; it remains the largest digital lottery in the world.

Duncan says: “All my roles have been commercial or for public benefit, or a nice hybrid. Travelopia is sort of the same. It’s highly commercial, but it has a social purpose because we are selling a holiday product, which is a lovely thing to be involved in.

“The job is about brand, marketing, digital and people, which is everything that I love. And I have always had a real passion for travel.”

Duncan pauses to tell me about his own wanderlust. After working at Camp America aged 18, he spent four months at a Mother Teresa mission in Kolkata, and has been to Ethiopia three times in the last two years.

“I went to support a Christian charity, Tearfund, and fell in love with it. It’s a remarkable country. It has very gentle, striking people and beautiful countryside,” he says, showing me videos of gelada baboons in the Simien Mountains.

Travelopia

He has been at Travelopia for 18 months. When he joined, it had 53 brands. “They ranged from some really standout brands, to some mediocre ones and some that just didn’t fit with the rest of the group,” he says. “Most were making some money, so they were commercially OK, but clearly an opportunity to grow.”

Duncan recalls identifying the group’s strength as “the amazing experiences” it offered. “Customer satisfaction was good, but it was not really joined up,” he says. “The group was poor on tech and sharing of best practice was weak. We needed to adapt. There was some understanding of that, but no focus on it.”

He says this was in part because Tui had starved the businesses of investment. KKR wanted to invest.

“KKR are proper investors,” he explains. “The average for them owning an asset is seven years. They like to buy and improve businesses in a way that is sustainable. They don’t just buy it, cut costs, spruce it up a bit and sell it on.

“KKR won’t be the owners forever but they allow me as the CEO, to make the right long term decisions for the business.”

Duncan has made a decent start. At the end of this financial year [September 2019], he had grown the group’s profitability by 20%.

His focus has been on identifying the crown jewels in the business and he has sold or is in the process of selling those that are non-core.

This has included the education division, which had 11 brands, a Dutch adventure business, some events and sports businesses, and Flexiski so far.

The plan is to reduce Travelopia group’s brands from 53 to 10 or so core ones. Duncan reckons he is halfway through the journey and will complete it in six to 12 months’ time.

The remaining brands will include polar business Quark Expeditions; private jet company TCS; yachting businesses Sunsail and The Moorings; adventure business Exodus, which includes International Expeditions and Zegrahm Expeditions in the US; canal boat company Le Boat; its tailor-made division, which includes Hayes & Jarvis, Citalia and Sovereign; plus American Holidays in Ireland and MyPlanet in Scandinavia.

Acquisitions

But it’s not all about selling. Duncan made his first acquisition, in May, of Munich-based high-end luxury tailor-made business Enchanting Travel.

“We are looking to buy more,” he says. “My vision is to be the world’s best experiential travel company. In some ways, we’re already unique – we have leading brands in lots of areas. There isn’t a company like ours with the breadth of experiences we offer.”

And as Travelopia acquires more businesses, Duncan expects staff numbers, which have dropped from 4,000 to 2,500, to “go back up again”.

As well as acquisitions, Duncan says the group is undergoing a significant data and customer-driven tech investment programme.

“It’s the customer-facing tech we need to improve and are well into a three-year programme of spending tens of millions on smarter customer relationship management (CRM). Media has been through the biggest curve; travel is much less mature.”

Duncan sees an opportunity for growth in trade and online channels, and working with agents will be key.

“My aspiration with Travelopia is to keep all the amazing experiences we offer and add the bits that are missing – data, personalisation and CRM. It’s a really inspiring business.”