Former Tui Travel customer director Tim Williamson has returned to the travel industry as chief executive of Ireland’s leading escorted touring company, The Travel Department.
The operator is poised to expand into the UK, the US and China.
Williamson was headhunted for the role by former First Choice specialist business managing director Richard Prosser who now works as an adviser to private equity firms and is chairman of global business CarTrawler.
Prosser becomes non-executive director of Williamson's new business, The Travel Department.
Prosser said: “The Travel Department is a great, profitable business which can internationalise - not just in the UK, America and China, but other English-speaking countries. But it needed a very high-calibre chief executive to lead it into the next phase of its growth.”
Speaking exclusively to Travel Weekly, Williamson said: “It’s rare to come across a business as good as this. It’s doing 50,000 passengers out of just 27 staff in Dublin. It's extremely low-risk and drives a great cost-efficiency model with great pricing and quality.
“To come into the UK and launch an escorted touring business from nothing would be pretty tough but, with this base, plus a few new routes to market, we have a great opportunity.”
About 30% of the company's business already comes from the UK, US and China, but both Prosser and Williamson believe they are just scratching the surface and could do much more.
In Ireland, The Travel Department has been built up purely direct to the customer through traditional reader offers and inserts in national newspapers.
But with national newspaper circulations falling, Williamson, a former marketing director of First Choice, intends to concentrate on sophisticated personalised e-marketing to target the “surprisingly online-literate market” that he’s after. He is currently looking for good in-house digital marketers or external agencies to execute his planned campaigns.
He is also keen to work with good, independent travel agents that have a specialism in escorted touring or particular destinations, or with client bases of older customers, such as specialist cruise agents.
“Cruise forms a large part of our business in Ireland where we combine cruise and tours and we have a great relationship with Royal Caribbean. The cruise market is something we should really tap into in the UK,” said Williamson.
He added: “This is a relatively recession-proof market: pretty affluent customers who tend to travel six or seven times a year, often in the shoulder seasons as they don’t have children and are not looking for sun.
“Our job in the UK is acquisition and in Ireland it’s retention.”
Williamson will also use his recent experience helping to establish Tui’s operations in China to help grow The Travel Department's Chinese business.
Prosser said: “We have a Chinese outbound licence, which is like gold dust. We have an established JV already for our inbound business but now, with Tim at the helm, there’s a huge opportunity to operate outbound.”
Whereas you could fill the same tours with Irish, British, Americans etc, the Chinese needed their own buses, food and guides, Prosser added.
“The Chinese are not yet confident travellers. They want to see all the iconic sites of Europe and quite quickly as they want to pack a lot in."
Williamson said recommendation was the best form of marketing in China, so his strategy there would focus on blogging, PR and face-to-face sales to become trusted.
Once Williamson has grown the UK, US and China markets, he will look at Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Scandinavia.
He said: “I aim to double the profitability of the company and I believe it’s possible through internationalisation and digital marketing. In Ireland we have strong partnerships with British Airways, Aer Lingus and Royal Caribbean, and I want to create new partnerships in the UK with airlines, cruise lines and good agents alike.”
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