The business travel guru died at the end of June following a lifetime in the sector. Ian Taylor looks back on his life.
Ian Allan, founder of Ian Allan Travel, died at the age of 92 following a lifetime in the sector – although unusually for one of the industry’s founders, travel was incidental to his love for railways.
The travel business grew out of the railway excursions Allan organised following an explosion of interest in the locomotive books he published and the trainspotting club these spawned. Travel became one arm of the Ian Allan Group alongside publishing, a motor company, an organic fertilizer and seeds business, hotels, an events business and a masonic regalia retail operation.
Born in 1922, Allan lost a leg at the age of 15 in an accident on an Officers’ Training Corps exercise. He worked as a clerk in Southern Railway’s communications office at Waterloo during the war.
His son Paul said: “People kept coming in asking for the numbers [of locomotives]. He asked Southern Railway if it would publish a book of the numbers. They said: ‘We run the railway. If you want to do it at your own expense, we won’t stop you.’ So he did.” The book sold 2,000 copies and was reprinted, something unheard of in the war.
“Kids were going on the rail tracks at the time. The railway blamed my father, so he wrote a list of rules on how to behave around the railways. That was the beginning of the Ian Allan Locospotters Club.” The club had 230,000 members at its peak.
His success in publishing rail books led Allan to move into magazines and other forms of transport. He opened an office in Shepperton in 1962, placing a 1921 Pullman rail coach in the middle – it is now the boardroom.
Allan had offered rail excursions to club members since the 1950s. When he began organising these from Shepperton, he found local people requesting other trips. So in 1964, he opened a travel shop. Subsequently, he signed a deal with Debenhams to open in-store travel agencies.
By the 1980s, Allan had 35 travel shops and four business travel centres. In 1988, he sold the travel business to WHSmith. Two years later, Smith offered the business travel centres back and Paul, who had been working in the shops since 1975, “jumped at the opportunity”.
Ian Allan Travel retains a leisure agency but continues to focus on corporate business. The family-run group retains publishing, motor, and fertilizer and seeds businesses, although travel contributes three‑quarters of the annual turnover of about £60 million.
Paul noted: “My father stopped coming into the office every day only at the age of 81.”
Ian Allan OBE died on June 28, aged 92. Wife Molly and sons David and Paul, chairman of Ian Allan Travel, plan a memorial service in the autumn.
Tribute from son Paul
“My father was never a travel man, but he fell on the opportunity.
“He didn’t travel far because of his artificial leg. He found hot climates uncomfortable.
“I asked him about losing his leg and he said: ‘I thought, damn, I’ll have to learn to ride a bike with one leg.’ He was walking into his 80s.
“He always had a twinkle in his eye. In 1946, he walked into the dressing room of Laurel and Hardy at the London Palladium and persuaded them to appear at the reopening of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent. They did it for nothing. He was that kind of man.”
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