The death of Colin Heal on Saturday saw the passing of one of travel’s most liked and admired elder statesmen – a man dubbed “Mr Worldchoice” after the consortium he was integral in establishing.
It is said he came up with the Worldchoice name after it changed from Artac, the group he became chairman and managing director of in 1992.
But that achievement was mere gloss on a long and distinguished career in which Heal was credited with nothing short of shaping the future of the UK travel industry as we know it today.
The Worldchoice organisation, which looked on Heal as a father figure, honoured him two years ago at its last overseas conference in Spain by making him lifetime president.
Then, under new ownership following the merger with the Travel Trust Association which Heal led, a tribute praised him for his “fairness and integrity, but also for his boundless energy, passion and absolute love of all things travel”.
In a fast moving industry Heal was, possibly unfairly, seen as the old guard. But he was central to the formation of the Triton Travel Group in 2005 – an attempt to unite the independent travel sector to secure its future.
He trailed the announcement of Triton by telling the trade media that it would “blow your socks off” and, despite its eventual disbanding, he always continued to believe it had been the right thing to do.
Indirectly, the Triton experiment led to the Worldchoice-TTA merger, a bold move bringing together one of the trade’s more traditional consortiums with arguably its most innovative and forward thinking.
This interest in working in partnership had been seen last in the 1990s, when he forged a strategic alliance between Worldchoice and Carlson Leisure Group.
Heal spent just over 20 years in travel – he started in 1989 when he became partner in Gillingham travel agency Far Horizons – a lot less time than many of his senior colleagues in the sector.
But, unlike many of them, he also had not one but two successful early careers in very different sectors before he came to travel after serving in the RAF.
This saw him awarded the MBE, the OBE and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal, and he played a key role in the Falklands War in the 1980s when he organised the logistics for troops fighting thousands of miles away from home.
He took early retirement from the RAF and became general manager of aviation in the Trafalgar House Group.
Prior to joining the RAF Heal, a trained chemist who was educated at Bristol Grammar School and Bristol College of Technology, worked in the oil industry.
Both his early careers saw him rise to senior positions rapidly, and after he joined the RAF it was not long before he was made a group captain and then a Royal Air Force station commander.
In travel outside his work at Worldchoice, Heal held senior positions with key industry bodies including Abta, of which he was a director. He was also a trustee of the Abta Lifeline Fund and was a director of the National Training Organisation for Travel and Tourism and Events.
Those who knew him well will still be coming to terms this week with his sudden death on Saturday.
But for those at the conference in Lake Bled, Slovenia – which he was instrumental in securing as a venue – there was comfort taken from the fact that he died doing what he loved most.
It would be easy to read crass symbolism into the circumstances of his passing at a conference headlined ‘Shaping Your Future’, but many delegates agreed that it would have been what he had chosen.
But he would not have wanted too much fuss and he certainly would not have wanted his death getting in the way of the vital work of the organisation he loved forging its future.
Heal is survived by his wife Valerie, two daughters, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
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