Big Interview: Saga boss sets out ambitious growth plan

The managing director of Saga’s four tour operating brands tells Lucy Huxley how she plans to double the business within five years

When Jeannette Linfoot says ‘if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’, she’s not joking.

It’s exactly 12 months since she joined the over-50s holiday specialist and she’s already over-achieved her 2016 budget, says she will deliver a five-year plan set in 2013 to double the division’s profitability a year early, and has set her own new five-year plan, which she says will see the division double in volume and revenue by 2021-22 – all profitably.

It’s an ambitious target, but Linfoot says the numbers are all based on organic growth of the four businesses in her portfolio – Saga Holidays, Saga Cruises, Titan Travel and Destinology – not on acquisitions.

“We are going to double the size of the division and there’s nothing in the plan to say we have to buy businesses to get there,” she says.

But she adds: “We wouldn’t rule out acquisitions. There are some good businesses out there and if they were a good fit, and something we couldn’t do ourselves, then they could be of interest. But we don’t need to acquire anything to double in size in five years, so the focus over the next 12 months is to leverage what we’ve already got.”

Extensive research has been carried out among existing customers and those who have never considered a Saga, Titan or Destinology holiday, looking at what customers want and the company’s brand positioning.

“Currently 75% of our customers are repeaters, which is fantastic,” says Linfoot. “But for us to grow as aggressively as we want to, we are going to need to attract first-time buyers.

Brand refresh

“Saga has a great brand, but it just needs some repositioning, so halfway through 2017, we’ll be looking to refresh Saga with a new logo, among other things.”

Linfoot says the group has already started to re-segment its product “in preparation for the shift in brand perception”.

“Previously, we’ve segmented our product by geography into short and long-haul, Mediterranean etc. But our research shows that people are really looking for inspiration.

“The over-50s account for over 58% of all money spent on travel and tourism in the UK (outbound, inbound and domestic). People are living longer – men to 83 and women to 86, on average – and they increasingly see themselves as travellers not tourists. People are wanting to feed their minds culturally, maybe learning a new language, doing some volunteer work or something adventurous, so we are re-segmenting what we’ve already got, and introducing product we haven’t got.”

The four new segments are:

• Unwind: within which there is ‘classic’, offering the more traditional, single-centre Saga holiday, and ‘select’, focusing on higher-end options, such as international chains and more contemporary hotels.
• Stay and Explore: aimed at clients who want to stay in one place but get out locally, for an authentic experience in boutique-style, family-run properties.
• Discover: Saga’s classic touring product but with more flexibility.
• Go For It: offering more soft‑adventure options, such as white-water rafting on the Zambezi River, for example.

New brochures, due out by the end of the month, will feature the four new segments, albeit still within their geographical areas.

Linfoot reveals: “We’ll be producing some specific standalone brochures around the segmentations by June next year.”

Prior to that, she is planning a big multimedia campaign for the new year, confirming the division’s marketing budget for January has been “significantly increased”.

Saga’s key consumer message for January is a £99 low deposit offer – and agents are being offered a £100 shopping voucher for every cruise booking and a £20 voucher for every holiday sold. It is also running a daily prize draw, with treats ranging from Michael Kors handbags to Take That tickets.

For Titan, the January deposit offer is lower still at £49, plus free membership to The Gourmet Society worth £69.95. Agents, meanwhile, will get a £10 shopping voucher per booking and the chance to win prizes ranging from coffee machines and Apple Watches to weekend breaks and Mulberry purses, in a ‘Jackpot January’ daily draw.

Trade role

Linfoot says agents are crucial to her business. Trade bookings account for 30% of Titan sales and 7% of Saga Holidays sales, but she believes these proportions can go up as the company grows.

“I can imagine a scenario where agents are accounting for 20% of Saga Holidays’ business, which itself will be significantly larger,” she says.

Encouraging customers to try Saga Holidays for the first time is where agents excel, she adds.

Agents have been instrumental in the success of Titan’s trial of smaller group tours – so much so, it is increasing the number from two to 15 next year – and in that of its first full-ship charter of the river cruise vessel Serenade.

“Its main 2017 departures are almost sold out, so January will be the last time agents will be able to sell it,” she says. “It’s been so popular, we’ve added some extra sailings towards the end of the year for the Christmas markets – and we will definitely be looking to grow river cruising still further in 2018 with more dedicated, committed full‑ship charters.”

Cruising is to get a greater focus by the third brand in Linfoot’s portfolio, Destinology. “We’re launching a luxury cruise section on the Destinology website, selling the likes of Seabourn, Silversea, Regent and more,” she says.

Linfoot also reveals that Destinology is considering opening a second high street store, in either Knightsbridge or Chelsea in London, in the wake of the success of its first one in Wilmslow, Manchester.

“The trade is so important – not just as a distribution channel, but because they get our voice out into communities,” she says. “65% of customers who book through the trade have never booked with Saga before. That’s really valuable to us.”

60 seconds with Jeannette

Q. Where are you most ‘at home’ when abroad?

Home from home for me is without a doubt India.

Q. What’s the best advice you ever received?

From my dad: “Treat people as you’d like to be treated”. And from my other half: “It’s not a dress rehearsal; make it count and enjoy the ride along the way.”

Q. What was the last book that you read?

A Fine Balance, by Roheaton Mistry.

Q. Do you prefer a night in or a night out?

A night in midweek and a night out at the weekend.

Q. What did you want to do as a career when you were young?

I aspired to be a translator.

Q. What is your favourite film?

Eat, Pray, Love.

Q. What is your most-prized possession?

My camera, to capture those precious moments in life.

Q. Favourite thing to do at the weekend?

A long run in Richmond Park followed by Sunday lunch and a few beers in the local – what a perfect day!

Q. Favourite TV show?

A League of Their Own.

Q. Do you have any pets?

No. The most I ever had as a kid was a goldfish.

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