The founder of slow-travel specialist Byway Travel, Cat Jones, tells Juliet Dennis about how the one-year-old company is tapping into demand for flight-free holidays.
Q. Why did you launch in March last year?
A. I was managing director of [venture capital firm] Founders Factory and we invested in businesses across travel. In my job, I was tracking travel trends. I had seen enough data to tell me that this was the right time to launch. People were making sustainable travel choices and realising the impact of flying. We decided at Founders Factory we needed to think about starting up a business of our own. When Boris announced we were going into a national lockdown, I left my job and we incorporated the company the following week.
Q. Why ‘slow travel’?
A. This is the time for slow travel. It’s been around for a long time but we were seeing it accelerate on Instagram and converging with the trend for slow food and a more thoughtful attitude among consumers. The catalyst for setting up Byway was Covid and the fact travel as we knew it was going to have to reset. I’ve always travelled a huge amount myself, mostly in the UK by bike and train, but never owned a car. I love the flexibility you get by travelling through rather than flying over the best bits. My husband and I make an annual trip to the Jurassic Coast where we get the train to Bournemouth, get the chain ferry and have our bikes with our three and five-year‑olds on the back. That makes the journey an experience. It’s a really seductive way to travel but no one has the will to do it, to work out the train timetables and get the tickets. It becomes complicated. I had a bee in my bonnet; I wished slow travel was easier.
“When Boris announced we were going into a national lockdown, I left my job and we incorporated the company the following week.”
Q. How did you set up the company?
A. I spent a long time talking to people and travel firms and scoping the idea. My belief was we needed a technical product that makes slow travel easier. Dynamic packaging is so easy for online travel agencies but it doesn’t work when you want to get trains and buses everywhere. We have built our own bespoke system; we have raw live feeds from transport companies and accommodation providers. We spent the first three months working on the business and were ready by July. It took time to get the Abta bond, and we spent time working out who our customers were.
Q. What types of trips do you offer?
A. Our business is about slow travel: travelling more slowly on transport that allows you to be flexible and opportunistic. It’s a mindset too. It’s about embracing the unexpectedness of places and the joy of travelling through a landscape. We only offer places where we have people on the team who have specialist knowledge. We have started off with around 12 UK regions, such as Cornwall, the west of Scotland, and Yorkshire. We already have some partnerships with destinations which combines our expertise with local, on the ground partnerships.
“Dynamic packaging is so easy for online travel agencies but it doesn’t work when you want to get trains and buses everywhere. We have built our own bespoke system.”
Q. What has the first year’s trading been like?
A. We’ve been flat out! We didn’t expect it to be profitable in the first year, but it’s been better than we thought. In November, we won a Covid recovery grant. We got £100,000 from Innovate UK’s Sustainable Innovation Fund, which invests in new projects that create jobs and tackle climate change. Our application focused on the fact the travel industry had been decimated and we wanted to help people who have been in lockdown to get out and access remote areas. There was overtourism in certain areas in the UK last year because you couldn’t go abroad. The funding enabled us to hire our chief technical officer, who has built our journey-planning system. As soon as the government announced its plan in February to end lockdown, everything went mad. We’ve not done any marketing but bookings have been rolling in.
Q. How many of you are on the team?
A. There are six of us full-time. We are hiring for five more: two technical roles to work on our dynamic packing booking engine, a head of customer experience role to talk to customers and manage trips, a growth marketing role and a travel advisor role.
“In November, we won a Covid recovery grant. We got £100,000 from Innovate UK’s Sustainable Innovation Fund, which invests in new projects that create jobs and tackle climate change.”
What has been key to providing top-notch customer service?
I set up a WhatsApp group to be close to customers and see what they liked about our trips. I send them a quick 30-second video before they go, wishing them a happy holiday. We WhatsApp them during their stay with ideas about what to do based on the weather forecast or remind them they might need to take raincoats or midge spray.
“I set up a WhatsApp group to be close to customers and see what they liked about our trips. I send them a quick 30-second video before they go, wishing them a happy holiday.”
We’ll tell them where they can find a cosy pub nearby or, if they stay longer somewhere one day, when the last train goes. The key reason I set it up was to get feedback on our holidays, and by default people sent us videos and tips about where to go. Suddenly we had an array of people who could tell us the best places to go or things to do. It’s critical [to offer personalised service] because this is slow travel – it’s unexpected and opportunistic, and you can change your plans. Clients might be at Loch Lomond and want to stay longer, so we have train timetables at our fingertips. And we’ve had lots of people signing up to our mailing list and hundreds wanting to go on holidays.