Company co-founder Alastair Donnelly expects explosion in bookings to continue
The recent explosion in bookings to Japan has come as no surprise to Alastair Donnelly, as his company predicts its busiest-ever cherry blossom peak season in 2023.
“This is what we always thought would happen,” says Donnelly, co-founder of Inside Travel Group, parent of InsideJapan Tours and InsideAsia Tours.
“Just because the country shut, it doesn’t mean it lost interest. It has a unique hold over people’s imagination and we have three years’ pent-up demand.”
All travel restrictions to Japan were lifted on October 11, but from June InsideJapan was able to operate escorted tours under a limited reopening to tourists. It carried more than 1,300 clients to Japan this autumn.
The company, which receives around 40% of its sales from the trade, now anticipates it will send more customers than ever before to Japan during cherry blossom season in March and April 2023.
But Donnelly concedes the dramatic rise in business has not been without its challenges. “We were ready but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy to deliver trips for 1,300 clients when you have not operated for two-and-a-half years. It’s been challenging,” he says.
During the pandemic, the company focused on retaining bookings and maintaining customer service levels but, like many businesses, was forced to cut headcount.
Its worldwide workforce of nearly 200 reduced to 96 at its lowest point. That number is now 132 staff globally, including 63 in the UK, with rehiring a major focus this year. Since March, the business has filled 44 vacancies, from operations to sales, and re‑employed 11 former staff.
“It’s been incredible to start to see the excitement come back,” says Donnelly.
Cost of living
With the boom in interest for Japan, and increasing demand for long-haul travel, the company has yet to feel any impact of the cost‑of-living crisis.
“My anticipation is that even with the crisis, there is a huge demand for travel to Japan specifically,” he says.
He remains optimistic for 2023. In 2019, the business carried just over 14,000 passengers globally to Japan; next year, it forecasts the number will be more than 10,000, with its US and Australia offices predicted to perform more strongly than the UK.
“We are very confident we will exceed 2019 numbers in 2024,” he says. And in the spring period next year, sales could even exceed the same period in 2019. He adds: “Great businesses will do well when times are difficult as they have done in Covid and the next period is when great businesses will shine.”
During Covid, the operator added South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Borneo to its line-up and it aims to continue plans laid in 2019 to expand its offering across Asia.
“I can’t tell you what’s next but we will be growing our portfolio over the next couple of years with new destinations,” says Donnelly.
The company already plans to expand in South Korea at the end of this year, which Donnelly believes will be “the next boom destination in Asia”.
The company has outlined plans to gain B Corp status in early 2023 following significant investment in June from private investment group Blandford Capital LLP.
Donnelly says: “Blandford has been incredibly supportive. They are excited to be part of our vision over the next three to five years.”