Recently we had a chance to ask Charles about some of his travels (he has been all over the world) and what went into starting his successful travel company, Holidaysplease.
Q. What is your background and when did you first become interested in International travel?
Despite being brought up in a small village in the UK I managed to experience international travel from an early age. I used to get driven down to the south of France with my family every year. One of my earliest memories overseas was playing on the beach in Antibes in France and hearing a series of “crunching” sounds from behind me. I turned around and noticed some French guy was trying to fit his car into a parking space that was far too small. He had driven into the spot and was using his car as a battering ram to push the car in front. When he had pushed it as far as he could he then started to reverse and started to hit the car behind …. which happened to be our car! I asked Dad was he going to stop the person and Dad replied in a matter of fact way, “No it’s ok, that’s how they park on the continent.”
And, I suppose that may have been my first spark of interest for international travel …. I realised that within a few hours you could be in a far away world that was completely lawless. Cool!
Q. What inspired you to start this company?
My route into travel is probably the strangest you could imagine. It has a lot to do with women’s pantyhose and a Christmas card….
In the late nineties I was a corporate lawyer doing deals in the “dot com” sector and naively thought I could run an internet company. I decided to form a company called Tights Please (don’t ask!). My mother was our one women publicity machine (as mother’s tend to be) and at Christmas she put a tightsplease flyer in every Christmas card she sent out. What a way to capture the spirit of Christmas…. a warm greetings card followed up by a blatant plug for your son’s company!
It just so happened that a family friend who ran a couple of local travel agencies, saw the flyer and asked if I could help him get his business online. I said to him that I owned the domain name www.holidaysplease.co.uk and would be happy to “give a joint venture a go” if he wanted.
So before I knew it I was involved in travel and women’s underwear …. two of my favourite interests! Perfect!
Q. You founded the company Holidaysplease in 2002 on around £3,000 and since then have turned it into a £10m sales company with around 50 staff. I read somewhere that most businesses fail within their first 5 years – what are some of the steps that you followed to turn this into a successful venture?
I think the biggest factor was picking the right market at the right time. In 2002 a lot of the internet travel companies were fighting over the cheap, short haul market. Instead we decided to cater for people who wanted to go further afield and who at the time were not being catered for online. In our first month I remember spending about £200 on a pay per click advertising campaign and with just one person answering the phone on a part time basis, they booked £20,000 worth of holidays in that month. It was then that I thought we might have hit on an area of the market that could be interesting!
Since then one of the things that has helped us is our focus on customer service. I know it sounds cheesy but trying to provide the best possible service to customers still seems to count for something, even these days of cost cutting and austerity. Most people think it’s always about going the extra mile but I think it can be a lot more simple than this. It can often be as simple as treating a customer as a normal person. You don’t need to follow a script, you don’t need to use language you wouldn’t ordinarily use. Just talk to them as if you know them, be really friendly and tell it to them straight. If a place is a dump then tell them straight off and offer them something else! I think people these days can smell bull a mile away.
Q. As head of a travel company I hope you are able to fulfill your travel passions – you mentioned you have some stories involving guards and machine guns. can you elaborate on this!?
I am lucky enough to get offered free trips all the time. However very rarely do I accept them. I simply feel too guilty about the staff left back at base doing all the hard work while I jet around the world! So my guilt complex generally makes me dish out the trips to other members of staff instead.
I have been on a few memorable trips though, especially in the early days. One trip to Africa stands out in particular. It was when I was young and not so travel savvy. I didn’t realise that virtually all of the businesses and hotels in downtown Johannesburg had moved out because the place had become a “no go” zone. Naively I thought I had grabbed a bargain at one of the remaining hotels, surprise surprise. My smugness was soon erased when I arrived at the hotel and saw the guards in the lobby were each carrying two machine guns. I thought to myself what circumstances must you end up in for one machine gun not to be enough!
When I found out that the Holiday Inn had just closed down because the muggings had literally got to the gates of the lobby I thought it was time to leave. I stayed for one night and then grabbed a flight up to Victoria Falls to do something which looked a lot safer …. bungee jumping off the falls.
Q. What defines a “good” trip for you?
I think it’s sticking to my Dad’s old adage of “doing as many things you can’t do at home”. This was his steadfast rule on family holidays where we were not allowed to do anything we could do at home. I am not sure whether it was because of his sense of adventure or because it was simply his excuse to not buy us ice creams!
Q. What can’t you live without when boarding a plane?
In the old days I would have just stepped on with my ticket and passport and been happy provided we weren’t down the back where people could smoke (yes I am that old I can remember when people smoked on planes!).
These days though I am very spoilt and I think my google tablet with my music and movies on has to be my “must have”. I recently used it on a trip from Atlanta with my dad. When I stepped on the plane I said that I had my new tablet ready for action. A little confused Dad replied saying that he had his ready …… as soon as he found some water!
Q. Is there any place that you’ve visited that you’ve found disappointing – and why?
Controversially I often find Paris a little disappointing. I don’t know whether I am going to get flamed for this and I don’t know if anyone else has noticed …… but to me it smells.
They don’t seem to have air tight manhole covers and I find that you can walk out of the most amazing museum, tourist attraction or restaurant and get confronted with a whiff of something not so nice. Paris is billed as the city of romance but I can’t work my magic with a faint whiff of stale socks all the time!
Also, the other thing I don’t like about Paris is the traffic. Specifically, in the UK we have these black and white crossings (called zebra crossings) which if you step on them drivers are by law forced to stop. However in Paris they have the same crossing but they don’t seem to work! I have lost count of the number of UK tourists I have seem almost been mowed down by a Citroen 2CV. I am convinced it’s a plot by French people to eliminate the Brits.
Q. Airports can be the bane of any traveller…or not. Any favourite airports and why are they favourites?
Airports are a nightmare. Normally when I am forced to get undressed something fun happens afterwards but not at airports. You are herded around together with other passengers who look like they are walking towards the gallows rather than their most exciting week of the year.
There is however one airport that stands out as the best….. Male in the Maldives.
Here you swoop in over tiny sandy atolls and then land on an airstrip that literally has water lapping on three sides. It’s so close to the water that when you step out of the arrival gate if you are looking up at the signs then you will end up neck high in the Indian Ocean! The really cool thing is that when you come outside you then see all the seaplanes moored alongside ready to fly you off to your island. Amazing!
Q. What has been one of your most inspiring personal travels to date and why?
The Africa trip I mentioned previously was pretty inspiring. In the space of two weeks I had jumped off the Victoria falls, been on the receiving end of a charging elephant, eaten crocodile and spent nights on an island off the coast of Mozambique that was shortly after blown off the map.
But from a purely personal point of view I have to say my honeymoon in the Maldives was the most special (my wife may read this and so I have no choice!). We flew into Male and were greeted by our seaplane pilot who was so cool he flew the plane without any shoes or socks. During my time there I had virtually every shark encounter you can imagine as I scuba dived with whale sharks, snorkelled with reef sharks and fed baby sharks.
We also stayed in the most amazing villa that was on stilts over the water. It even had a glass floor so you could look down into the sea. It may sound a little creepy but when my wife was getting changed I could swim underneath the villa and scare the life out of her by appearing underneath the floor!
The Indian Ocean inspired me so much we have just bought the domain names www.maldivesholidays.co.uk and www.mauritiusholidays.co.uk and so let’s hope my personal inspiration isn’t misguided!
Q. Since you currently call Birmingham, UK home – what are some of your favourite places to visit in the city.
Your UK readers will know that traditionally Birmingham has been seen as an industrial city in the heart of England. So I can’t really sit here and pretend that I enjoy skipping in its fields and smelling the sweet scent of a meadow of flowers!
However it has recently been transformed into a much more modern and vibrant city. The one place I enjoy is where I live, in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. It dates back over 250 years and has a nice blend of new and old. It also has a few claims to fame in particular in the sporting arena. The FA cup (the oldest football trophy in the world) was made there together with the Lonsdale boxing belts, premiership football medals and PFA and FIFA world footballer of the awards. Even the inventor of tennis is buried in the Jewellery Quarter graveyard. There are a few other claims to fame including the fact that film (ie celluloid) was invented there and so were the whistles on the titanic. What I like about it at the moment is that it has a great mixture of very old traditional companies and buildings on the one hand dotted in amongst young modern bars and restaurants on the other. My apartment was only built a few years ago but not more than 50 yards down the road is a railing that they have left split in two from a world war two bomb!
Charles Duncombe is an ex-lawyer who jumped ship to found luxury holiday company, www.holidaysplease.co.uk in 2002. The journey wasn’t particularly straight forward as he initially dabbled in ladies’ undergarments at Tights Please!
Holidaysplease was born out of a chance encounter with a friend who ran a local travel agency and since that day it has gone on to become of the UK’s most successful boutique luxury holiday companies. Sales have surpassed £10m a year and the company has recently picked up a number of awards including the UK’s best online travel agency. Out of over 200 UK travel companies rated by Trust Pilot, Holidaysplease has been ranked no.1 for customer service.
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