Travel entrepreneur Ali Shah, chief executive of Travel Up Group explains how he turned a one-man operation in his living room in to a £200 million business, Lee Hayhurst reports
To have achieved what Ali Shah has achieved in just 12 years, having come to the UK from Pakistan, speaking no English and with no experience of the UK outbound leisure market, is nothing short of remarkable.
And yet, most people in the travel sector will not have heard of him.
Shah, whose firm Travel Up emerged from relative obscurity two years ago when it bought the assets and brand of failed rival Bookable Holidays, likes to fly under the radar.
He says keeping his head down while training his sights on the future trends that will shape travel has helped Travel Up develop almost unnoticed by its competitors.
“That’s been key to our success,” says Shah. “Our competitors say they did not notice while we came up and overtook them.”
Shah claims Travel Up is the UK’s second-largest Asian-owned private travel company behind the mighty Southall Travel, whose owner Kuljinder Bahia has featured in the Sunday Times Rich List.
Still some way behind but determined to catch up, Travel Up has followed a different path from Southall, which grew its business out of a high street store specialising in the Indian diaspora in London visiting friends and relatives.
Travel Up began life as a Teletext-based leisure travel agent, specialising more in Asia and Australasia holidays than short-haul fly-and-flop breaks.Shah says despite the challenges of not speaking English, running an agency in the UK was relatively simple compared with working as a business travel agent in Pakistan.
“Travel in Pakistan was really complicated at that time,” he says.
“There were no computers. I used to create tickets longer than I am tall. Here it’s easy – mostly point to point.”
Easier it may have been, but when Travel Up started, it did not have access to any airline net rates and had to rely on its customer service ethos, something Shah says the firm retains.
“I was always very personal with my customers, taking care of all their needs. I used to buy birthday cards in Tesco for them.
“I had no back office – everything was run manually.”
Shah also had to overcome the language barrier. He admits his English was terrible in the early days. “My biggest problem was my language, so I had a script I read out, and I learned English by watching the BBC.
“People still trusted me. I was never shy. I knew language was how I had to communicate my message and understand what people wanted from me.”
Before long, Shah had opened a shop on Reading’s busy Oxford Road. But he saw early on the demise of Teletext’s analogue model, and that the way forward was to be an online travel agent and embrace Google.
By this time, Travel Up had joined the Travel Trust Association which came with Atol licensing and, crucially, a Streamline merchant payment machine.
He engaged the services of a technology expert and built a bespoke system called ‘e-traveller’ to run the OTA, which still forms the backbone of Travel Up today.
“That was one of the best decisions I made,” says Shah. “If we had gone through a third party, we would still be reliant on them today.
“The system’s one of the best in the market because it’s built with a travel agent mindset, not a software engineer’s mindset.
“I’m always focused on what my customers want to do.”
Shah has also been savvy in how he’s grown the company, taking advantage of opportunities as they have emerged.
In 2011, he acquired London based South American specialist Bravo Travel from the owner, who he was introduced to by an airline partner.
Diversifying from its grow-by-acquisition strategy, in January 2014 Travel Up launched the Magicholidays.com brand, which specialises in selling Orlando trips to first-timers.
Based in Blackpool, it took advantage of job losses at Travel City Direct, formerly an XL Leisure Group brand that was taken on by Virgin Holidays, picking up 15 former employees.
Later that year, Travel Up bought Bookable Holidays and moved into its headquarters in Aldermaston, Berkshire. The following month, it announced the acquisition of HolidayGenie.com.
Today, Travel Up is a family of brands with global reach. Employing more than 150 people, its specialist brands offer personal service on the phone, while its core business is conducted online.
It is looking to build on its packaged holiday offering in its main markets such as the US and the Caribbean by adding product in the Middle East and Far East.
The firm has a growing inhouse ground-product contracting team to help it maintain a competitive edge, and has just been made a BA preferred partner.
The complexity of running a group of brands is handled by what Shah describes as another shrewd move: investment in good call centre technology.
Travel Up operates call centres in the UK and Pakistan.
“We knew what we wanted,” says Shah. “When other people were spending only about £4,000, we spent £65,000. I have always been a fan of technology.
“It’s all about the execution. Everyone has plans, but it’s execution at the right time that makes the difference.”
Despite his obvious success in anticipating and adapting to industry trends, Shah admits he does not know what’s coming next to knock Google off its dominant perch.
Collecting and analysing data is vital, he says, but he’s also excited about what artificial intelligence, machine learning and virtual reality promises.
But ultimately, Shah believes offering superior customer service will win the day.
“I still think customer service is what makes your brand – that and investment at the right time.”
Shah adds: “I want to leave a legacy to generations to come that someone can come here without any money and end up running the second-biggest Asian-owned travel company.
“I have a purpose and that is I wanted to do something that facilitates people’s lives.
“I always wanted to do something on a bigger scale. I still think that the best is yet to come.
“Maybe one day, I will come up with an idea that will replace Google.”
That would be some legacy, and there are many people in travel who would wish him well in that ambition.