Wanderlust is a common affliction but most people treat it within the means of their annual holiday allowance. Craig Burkinshaw had a better idea – to set up his own travel company, so he could earn a living taking clients on unforgettable journeys. From placing a few ads in the The Sunday Times, his business, Audley Travel, has grown into the most successful bespoke travel agency in the UK, recording a whopping £55m turnover last year.
Craig launched the business in 1996 with John Brewer, whom he met at the London School of Economics. “In order to fund my travel cravings, I decided to put some small adverts in the back of The Sunday Times to take excursions to Vietnam,” he explains. The two travel enthusiasts were increasingly asked to arrange guides and sort out visas for individual customers, which whetted their appetite for the broader travel business. And so, with no financial backing, the pair scraped together £50,000, through selling their cars, and applying for several credit cards. Meanwhile John continued to work full time as an IT contractor to help finance the business. “We were both working seven days a week at that time,” Craig recalls with a subtle sense of relief in his voice. Things have certainly improved for the entrepreneur and his business partner.
Originally called Asian Journeys, Audley Travel was launched without much research and planning. Although, with hindsight, Craig realises this was probably unwise, he affirms that extensive research would have scared them from taking the plunge because the travel industry was extremely ruthless. “I knew there was a market for it because there was clear demand, but I was pretty naïve back then – a lot of travel companies were making a loss.”
Without external funding, Craig and John re-invested all their own money back into the business and lived a frugal lifestyle for a number of years. “As long as we could afford a few beers at the weekend, it was okay.” However, by 2001 it was evident their hard work was paying off, as the company started to enjoy rapid growth. “More people started asking us for customised services – the business really ballooned from there.” Thanks to their outstanding reputation for excellent customer services and attention to detail, Audley Travel embarked on worldwide expansion, which Craig attributes to their solid base of loyal customers. They were clearly doing something right. “Our plan was always to build on repeat business and recommendations, because the cost of advertising was worryingly high – it’s much cheaper to retain customers than to seek new ones”. Aside from running a few press trips and some advertisements in newspapers, Audley Travel has been kept fairly under the radar. “We focus on getting the product right, because if the product is right and people enjoy it, they will come back and tell their friends.”
It’s this customer focus that’s helped build Audley Travel’s reputation and consequently led to such impressive growth. It offers 100% tailor-made trips, allowing customers to travel at their own pace rather than being dictated by a group, and their focus on ‘cultural touring’ promises clients much more than just a beach holiday. Craig explains that wildlife expeditions are by far the most popular among his clientele, so this is an area his employees really excel in, offering unparalleled knowledge and expertise in their chosen field. Observing polar bears, the great migration and whale and dolphin watching are some of their exhilarating wildlife itineraries. Add to this the importance the company places on responsible travel, such as its promise to always use locally owned hotels, regional agents and guides, and their continued support of carbon reduction projects and initiatives, it’s no wonder Audley is such a hit with environmental globetrotters.
Listening to customers and market demands has also helped Craig and John to set their prices reasonably. Customised trips can become extremely expensive, however Audley Travel prides itself on its flexibility to suit different budgets. “We adapt to what people want to spend. It’s easy with travel for trips to become very expensive, but it’s important that we’re affordable.” Make no mistake, these are not holidays on a shoestring, however with clients ranging from the rich and famous, to low-profile travellers, there are trips to suit most budgets, which Craig says is essential to maintaining their wide and loyal customer base.
The financial downturn has meant the tightening of belts for many Brits, but austerity measures haven’t affected Audley Travel, whose turnover is predicted to rise to £60m this year and Craig aims to double its size over the next few years. An ambitious plan? Not judging by the string of awards the company’s won in recent years, most notably the prestigious title of Conde Nast Traveller readers’ favourite specialist tour operator 2010. “As long as people want more than just a beach holiday, we’re in business,” says Craig.