Amid all the talk about how the distribution of travel products is changing thanks to technology and the internet, you’d think finding a successful agent that puts bricks and mortar first would be nigh on impossible.

But that’s precisely what long-haul specialist Trailfinders does. And after more than 40 years in the business it has no intention of ditching its core principal of putting customer service first.

Managing director Tony Russell recalls being told many times how the company wouldn’t survive because it doesn’t have a booking engine on its website, but it’s still here – and growing.

This year its revenues will hit £620 million, £500 million of which is from the UK alone, and the company expects to surpass the £13 million profit it made last year as well as expand its portfolio of 23 UK stores plus two in Ireland.

Russell says: “We have always believed in the importance of giving good advice, of acting truly as a travel consultancy and really helping people in our market for what is a big-ticket purchase.

“They want financial reliability and the comfort of bricks and mortar and somebody to talk to.

“The travel industry has become highly commoditised in recent years and the internet has played a part in that, where the common denominator is price and price alone. But I think there is more to it than that.

“We are an organisation that competes on value for money, rather than price, and on service.”

Few complaints

This attitude to doing business, Russell says, is what allows Trailfinders’ 600 consultants to serve 400,000 customers a year and yet, due to the low levels of complaints, employ only three people in its customer relations department. “If people have an issue they write to us and they will get a reply.”

The customer service ethos comes direct from Trailfinders’ founder, Mike Gooley, a former SAS officer who, unusually for travel industry bosses, you won’t find courting publicity and espousing his views to anyone who cares to listen.

“He has instilled that customer service is paramount,” Russell says. “If we get customer service right then no matter what we have to weather we will weather it. Trailfinders benefits from the fact that it is a private, closed company owned by one man.

“I have seen some competitors that were great companies who we really respected and who were absolutely versed in the same kind of ethos, and they have been taken over either by private equity houses or large conglomerates and they have been ruined.”

Russell says he finds it difficult to identify the companies he considers Trailfinders’ nearest competitors today. But he says that 10 years ago the list would have included Travelbag, Gold Medal, DialAFlight, Austravel and Bridge the World.

Bricks and mortar works

A rapid expansion of Trailfinders’ shop portfolio since 2006, during which time it has opened 10 stores, underlines “how emphatic we are in our belief that bricks and mortar works”, says Russell.

“I have been in the travel industry a long time and can remember in the 1970s the travel press reporting on the imminent demise of the independent small travel agency, but many of them are still with us.

“Many suppliers have told us the internet is the panacea, it’s the way ahead. It’s no use saying that it hasn’t had an impact, of course it has, but it’s not proven to be the panacea it was seen as a few years ago.

“As a model for selling distressed inventory it’s hard to find a better solution for doing so than the web, but you cannot sell everyone a £199 transatlantic flight. We do not have the model to do that. People say we don’t have a website, but that’s not true – we have 5,000 pages – we just don’t have a booking engine.

“Mike took the view, and I think it was a wise decision, that with the type of business that we are you do one or the other. We either believed in our bricks and mortar model and the way we had always done things or we went the other way and believed the internet was the solution and we should invest all our energies into it.

“We nailed our colours firmly to the mast in the late 90s, early 2000s – and that was to continue with our business model.”