For someone who always insisted he had no plans to take his business outside its northern heartland, Steve Heapy is certainly not tiptoeing lightly down the M1. Or, to be precise, the M1 and M11.
In July, Jet2 unveiled a base in Birmingham. Then, a fortnight ago, it revealed a significant programme out of the distinctly southern Stansted, driving its tanks on to Ryanair’s lawn.
The moves take Jet2’s number of regional bases to nine and, unsurprisingly, the carrier’s chief executive is in a bullish mood about the prospects for the airline and its package brand Jet2holidays.
“We are putting six aircraft into Stansted, which equates to 800,000 seats,” says Heapy.
“But this is not about going head to head with Ryanair. We think package holidays are under-served from Stansted. There are a couple of Cook aircraft and a couple of Tui planes, but mainly it’s flight-only.
“We think there’s a big desire from people in the Stansted catchment to be able to travel with an Atol-licensed company on a fully protected package from their local airport. At all our bases, we have a roughly 50:50 mix of flight‑only and packages, so we’ll be happy with that at Stansted.”
He adds: “We will compete with Ryanair on most of the routes with flight-only, except Madeira which is exclusive to us, but we already do so at many of our other bases such as Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh. The big gap is that people in north London and the east of England are driving right past Stansted to get to Gatwick for their package holiday.”
Despite this clear opportunity, Heapy acknowledges that Jet2 has a “huge job to do” on brand awareness in the Stansted catchment area.
“Everyone has heard of us in the north, but in the south we’re largely unknown. Not a lot of people know us in north London and the east of England. We have a huge job ahead of us letting people know about our product, so you are going to see a lot more from us.”
The company has already taken a number of coverwrap adverts on the London Metro newspaper and Heapy says its first television and radio adverts went live in the Anglia region last week, adding: “We’ve gone from being a small, start-up regional player almost eight years ago to being a big company, and a national company, so we have to communicate that.”
In addition to the consumer-awareness drive, Heapy confirms that agents will be key to growth.
“We will be spending a lot of money promoting ourselves to agents, making sure they know who we are and what sets us apart,” he says. “They need to know that we own and operate all our own aircraft; that we offer 22kg of luggage, a £60 deposit and complete flexibility on durations; have free resort flight check-in in three resorts, rising to eight in 2017; and that we are fully Atol‑protected.”
Jet2 will be running two overseas conferences this year for agent partners – both in Cyprus in November. The first will be for new trade partners selling Jet2holidays and flights from Stansted and Birmingham, followed by a conference for “established” agents who have been selling Jet2 for much longer. There will be between 150 and 160 agents at each event.
“We have a proven track record of building strong, long-lasting relationships with travel agents,” says Heapy. “And that will continue. We want to engage new partners and also continue to look after our existing, loyal agents.”
Jet2holidays has recently appointed Craig Davidson from Belleair Holidays to join its trade sales team, led by Alan Cross, and Heapy says the company will be looking for further recruits.
Heapy says the line’s current order of 30 new aircraft will fulfil his growth ambitions. Sixteen will come into service this winter, with the other 14 slated for delivery next winter.
However, he insists he will not be looking to branch out into long-haul, other than the 21 shopping trips operated to New York each year.
Neither does he plan to expand into other sectors such as cruise or experiential holidays. So what, then, is Heapy’s ambition?
“Our mission is to provide the people of the UK – and no longer just the people of the north – with the best flight or package holiday that their money can buy,” he says.
“We invest millions in customer service; we have been ranked above our competitors for flight-only and packages by Which? for the past two years; we’ve been named best airline in the UK by TripAdvisor and Skytrax; and our strategy has remained consistent.
“It’s more of the same, as we think we have a winning formula. So we will just keep growing by doing what we are doing.”
Asked if leapfrogging Thomas Cook to become the UK’s second-largest holiday company was a goal, Heapy says: “We are catching up with Thomas Cook – and will wait for the Atol renewals to come out at the end of the month to see where we are. But Jet2 is still a nimble, fast-moving and responsive company.
“We like saying we are the third-largest tour operator and the third-largest airline in the UK, but the ranking doesn’t matter. What’s important is that we fulfil our growth aspirations profitably.”
Robust and profitable
Heapy stresses that Jet2’s expansion came off a financially solid base. “We are extremely financially robust,” he says. “We are a profitable, secure, confident company, despite Brexit.”
Asked if the vote to leave the EU had derailed his plans in any way, he says: “There is always a risk that things could go wrong.
“But I don’t think from what you’ve seen from us over the past eight weeks, that these are the actions of a company that is cowering in the shadows of Brexit.
“We had big growth plans and have stuck with them. And we’ll be employing another 1,000 people to support those plans, taking us to 5,500 people in the business.”
As the expansion outside Jet2’s heartland begins to take shape, Heapy clearly feels well positioned to meet customers’ needs. And following the collapse of businesses such as Lowcost Holidays, he also feels there is a resurgence in demand for the reassurance of a package.
“At the end of the day, we live on a cold, wet island and people want to get away to the sun,” he says.
“A holiday is one of the last purchases Brits are prepared to put on hold – especially when we’re offering them at such a great price and at such great quality.
“They want to put their feet up and let us do everything. And they also want to know that their money is safe.”
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