Natasha Salmon travels to Cambridge to visit Light Blue Travel, which is celebrating 25 years in business
Light Blue Travel has been a travel agency at the heart of the tight-knit Cambridge community since 1992, supported by the rise of graduate start-up companies and local businesses.
It began as a high street agent, then moved to larger offices on the edge of town after expanding into specialist travel. The business is now divided between business travel, sports and activity holidays, a leisure and villa tour operation and as the general sales agent for America Queen Steamboat Company.
Despite the many strings to its bow the team consists of just nine people.
Managing director Rupert Thomson says: “It all began when many of us worked for an agency called Beach Villas, which was based in Cambridge. When the company was sold, I decided we should set up our own agency – and Light Blue Travel was created.”
The company started out in a small high street premises, selling mainly leisure holidays. In 1995, Light Blue Travel opened a smaller back office after setting up its own tour operation to the Algarve and later Croatia. Three years later, the company moved to premises off Histon Road, where it remains.
— Natasha Salmon (@Tash_Salmon) July 21, 2017
Thomson claims Light Blue Travel was probably one of the first travel agents to have a website. “Because of the university, Cambridge is a hub for start-ups in science and technology,” he says. “In 1993, we were approached by one that wanted to put us on the world wide web.
“Our Algarve villa collection for that year was put online. But obviously this was before everyone had computers, so we don’t think anyone ever saw it. Maybe it is still floating around out there now.”
Business and sport
The company has two members of staff who deal with business travel and two who sell on the retail and leisure side.
“A lot of the trips we sell are deemed ‘bleisure’ because they’re a combination of a business trip and a holiday,” says Thomson.
“We started focusing on business travel about 15 years ago in response to the huge number of start-up companies and new businesses in the area.”
Light Blue Travel’s tour operation offers villa holidays in Portugal, Majorca, Croatia and the Algarve. Tracy Marwood focuses on selling activity and sports holidays.
Thomson says: “I first met Tracy in the late 1980s, when she would escort sportsmen and women during trips organised by Beach Villas.
“Business travel is about 50% of sales, our tour operation is about 30% and leisure is 20%.”
The company is extending its reach to the sports travel market by becoming a ‘mobile travel agent’.
Thomson says: “This is mainly for our sports and activities holiday. Tracy will go to a local gym such as David Lloyd, set up a desk and then speak to people about holidays.
“That is working really well – it’s part of us being proactive in selling holidays. It’s taking the holidays to the type of people who would want them and who maybe don’t have the time to look, but do have the money and want a personalised service.”
River line agency
As well as the main retail arm of the business, Light Blue Travel has grown by 30% since becoming the general sales agent for American Queen Steamboat Company in 2013.
Thomson says the US river specialist’s popularity in the UK has grown significantly in the past four years and boosted the interest in travel to little-known areas of America.
“It was really thanks to our own hard work and [American Queen Steamboat Company managing director] Graham Clubb that we were chosen. He helped American Queen set out its expansion plans internationally and we were delighted to be a part of that.”
Many of the Light Blue Travel team have worked together for more than 30 years, which gives the office a real family feel.
Upon learning I had never been to Cambridge, I was promptly escorted to Rupert’s car and given a whistle-stop tour through the city.
The glorious weather made it a pleasant trip – we even stopped to pose in front of the University of Cambridge’s King’s College.
Light Blue Travel is so called because of the university’s official colours. The business is run by locals and a lot of the customers are based in the area.
After 25 years, it has become a significant fixture in the town. We even bumped into a business owner and friend of Rupert within minutes of setting off on our tour.
With business, sport and villa holidays, Light Blue Travel has many strings to its bow. I’ve no doubt Light Blue Travel will be here for another 25 years and beyond.
Meet two of the team
I’ve been at Light Blue Travel… since we set up shop 25 years ago. I began as a building surveyor and worked for a company that built and bought villas in Spain. I began to promote the villas with an estate agent and this grew into packaging holidays. In 1971 I started at Beach Villas, where I met Rupert.
I am a specialist in… business travel. I have a lot of corporate clients and companies that I work with on a regular basis.
The best part of my job is… every day is different.
The strangest requests I’ve had are… to places such as Antarctica, Siberia and China – many of my clients work in the metal industry and have to visit remote areas to inspect mines.
My favourite destination is… home, but I loved going to New Zealand to watch the British and Irish Lions play.
I’ve been at Light Blue Travel… for 10 years. I also worked with Rupert at Beach Villas, hosting athletes and British rugby players at international competitions when they booked through us. Then I did seasons in the south of France and a ski season in Austria, before spending several years in Dubai.
I am a specialist in… sports holidays. I hold regular hot-desk sessions at a leisure centre, which has proved great for getting more bookings for sports and activity holidays.
The best part of my job is… getting people to try sports holidays who maybe have never done one before or even considered it.
The strangest request I’ve had… was to arrange for a man to be able to take his artificial legs with him as hand luggage.
Favourite destination… Croatia. We’re starting tennis holidays there and think they’ll do well.