In the southwest London suburb of Southall there’s a pub called the Glassy Junction that proudly claims to have been the first in the UK to accept Indian rupees.
Not far away there’s a small high street travel agency called Southall Travel that to the passer-by belies nothing of the growing travel giant that sits behind it.
Southall is one of the UK’s most vibrant ethnic communities. It is described by many as ‘little India’ and is famous throughout the subcontinent from where many of its locals originate and to where they return regularly to visit friends and family.
It was this lucrative market that Southall Travel tapped into and on the back of which it has developed to become a growing force in the mainstream market as a consolidator to the trade.
The firm’s headquarters are now in Iver, Middlesex, almost directly under the Heathrow flight path. From here, managing director Kuljinder Bahia has plotted its expansion into mainstream travel, mushrooming from a £500,000 turnover in 1991 selling flights “mainly to people we knew” to the £240 million business it is today.
But it all could have been so different. Bahia said he only opted to continue with Southall Travel after failing to find a buyer in 1997.
“I don’t think there is any other trade like travel,” he added.
“It’s got the glamour, it’s constantly changing and there are always opportunities to expand.
“Destiny has played a role in why I’m here, but I have met so many people in travel who have given me suggestions, they are always talking and I am always picking things up.”
Changes there may have been, but Bahia says many fundamental principles behind the business have remained constant and he’s keen not to complicate things.
“We are doing the same things we were doing 10 years back, it’s just our volumes have gone up.”
Asked about claims from sections of the trade that Southall Travel is harming the industry by buying market share, he said: “Go on Companies House, pay £2 and look at our accounts”.
It is Southall’s strict control of its cost base – Bahia does not have his own personal secretary – and its non-corporate approach that made it so competitive, he said.
“We have grown in stages, and all our technology is ours. We try to have zero wastage of money; everything is run very simply.”
Bahia believes companies can emulate Southall Travel’s success by finding their niche, establishing themselves and then using that as the platform from which to grow and achieve significant size.
The Holiday Team
And through Southall’s business-to-business arm, The Holiday Team, which is only three-and-a-half years old, this is what Bahia said he was helping agents to do with its content and technology.
“We deliver value to agents, commercially, through service and content,” he said. “You have to be able to cover all three.”
It is The Holiday Team’s job to ensure its technology is good enough to spur the 1,700 agencies with access to use it over rivals’.
“We are different from others in that our decision-making is very quick and I’m very involved in a hands-on basis,” adds Bahia.
“A lot of travel companies are either owned by a large company or private equity and it’s difficult to change, but we have been able to adapt to situations very fast.”
It’s safe to say call centres in India do not enjoy the best of reputations, but Southall Travel operates its own and is building a new one. Bahia said: “Once people try us and find the service is good all these concerns go away.”
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