The chairman of £120m turnover agency tells Lucy Huxley the time has come to branch out into full-blown holidays
Occasionally, even after 18 years reporting on the travel industry, I come across a travel business I’ve heard little about. Usually, it’s a small one that’s slipped under my radar, but in the case of Moresand Group, that is certainly not the case.
From modest beginnings as a one-branch agency in London’s Kensington High Street in 1981, the agency and consolidator now employs 500 staff in offices around London and call centres in Sri Lanka, Delhi and Pakistan.
It turns over £120 million, and last year made £1 million operating profit.
In 2013, Moresand’s impressive turnover growth led to its inclusion in the London Stock Exchange’s ‘1,000 Companies to Inspire Britain’ list, which makes it all the more surprising that I knew very little about the company or its ambitious growth plans.
The company’s chairman, PS Kang, invited me to one of his offices in the former Croydon airport – the world’s first purpose built airport terminal and London’s first airport – to tell me his story, and how he is looking to engage with the mainstream trade with his tour operation Moresand Holidays.
Friends and relatives
Kang tells me that the Moresand Group, which operates brands including Crystal Travel, Travel Centre UK, Air Travel Guide and now Moresand Holidays, has never made a loss in its trading history.
The business is particularly strong in the visiting friends and relatives sector. “We are number one in the UK for sending people back home on VFR travel to the Philippines since 1983, when revenues were £350,000. We have always been profitable,” he says.
“It’s tough out there, but we are one of the largest independent VFR travel agents in the UK.
“Our business is diversified; we are strong in the Philippines, China, Zimbabwe, Ghana and other parts of Africa, and increasingly South America.”
Moresand Group is constantly looking to open up new markets and opportunities, and Kang says the company has recently begun to cater for the UK’s Muslim population. “One of the most exciting developments in recent years has been the growth of hajj and umrah pilgrimages,” he says.
“The hajj to Mecca happens once a year and umrah is yearround. There are over two million Muslims in the UK and, according to Islam, every Muslim must make this journey once in their lifetime. As the majority are third-generation Muslims, with spending power as big as any other community, the itineraries can be complex, but our staff are trained to deal with that.”
Kang says Moresand is taking good share in this new market as customers like the reassurance of booking with a large, established company and the option of booking online, by phone or in person.
“There used to be plenty of small agents doing it, but there were loads of horror stories of people running off with customers’ money. There was a real vacuum of serious players doing it, so we started,” he says, adding that it wasn’t straightforward as a special licence is required.
“We strive to offer great service: we have a licence to issue visas, we issue our own tickets, customers’ money is safe, we have allocations on Saudi Arabian Airlines, and we deliver on these promises.
“The great thing is the same clientele who make these pilgrimages naturally also book annual holidays in the Maldives and weekend breaks in New York.
“We’re optimistic that once we have built their trust on VFR travel and pilgrimages, and delivered the goods, they will utilise our services for their alternative travel needs, which we cater for.”
Kang believes the time has come to expand the business from mainly flight-only ticket sales and VFR travel into selling package holidays both to his customer base and through third-party travel agents.
“We haven’t particularly concentrated on holidays in the last 32 years; ticket-only has been our focus, and we’ve left holidays to high street agents. But now we’re changing, driven primarily by our customer base.
“We’re reacting to customer demand and the changing market and so will start selling full holidays in six months’ time. Two years ago we launched Tour Center, which specialises in European short breaks with great success last year we carried 25,000 passengers. Now the time is right to offer long-haul packages.
“We have a very large mailing list that we’ll start with, but we also want to sell through agents. Agents already use our consolidator, Air Travel Guide – our wholesale arm, featuring over 70 airline net fares – so we are confident they will use our services for holidays too.”
Referring to the company’s new-found Muslim customer base, he added: “We’re now into the third generation of Muslims here in Britain and they aren’t like their grandparents. They want to stay in the best resorts and hotels on ‘proper’ holidays, not necessarily with relatives. They are just like any customer who wants good quality and good value when they travel, so we think there’s an opportunity to target them too.”
Working with agents
Discussing his move into thirdparty holiday sales, Kang says Moresand Holidays will offer something different from the options that are currently available on the market.
He has also recruited former BA Holidays and The Holiday Team executive Sam Eliatamby to lead the new tour operation.
“We will offer unique destinations and holidays that no one else is doing yet, and in terms of product we are catering for all budgets,” he says. “We’ve got good platforms and great relationships with all the carriers – Emirates, British Airways, Qatar Airways, Etihad, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Philippine Airways, Ethiopian Airways and Air France/KLM, to name just a few. This has always been our strength and we are looking to build on that.
‘We won’t undercut’
“We also won’t undercut agents online as many tour operators do. We will never undercut the trade.
“We will eventually be a fully fledged tour operator, and will have a brochure and bookable website ready for November.”
Despite the challenges of adapting his business model, Kang remains confident that Moresand is up to the task.
“We’ve adapted our business model before,” he says. “We used to sell roughly 25,000 flights to Europe, but then the low-cost airlines and likes of Skyscanner came in and we had to adapt.
“Going forward, we are in the process of joining Abta because customers look for it. We were members until the late 1990s, then left, but now we feel the time is right to join again.
“We’re among the top 50 largest Atol-holders in the country and it’s a very exciting time for us.”
Leaving the offices after the interview and passing the former airport’s old control tower, I am struck once again by the fact that such a large company with such ambitious plans has so far operated largely unnoticed in the mainstream travel industry.
If PS Kang has his way, though, 2016 will be the year that changes for good.
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