On principle: Sir Mike Gooley also criticizes holiday companies for holding travelers’ money after canceled trips
This was the year that Sir Mike Gooley would wind down towards retirement. But after five decades in charge of Trailfinders, the 84-year-old is as busy as ever. Gooley’s current daily routine begins at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m., when he gets up to take the next step in securing the future of the travel company he founded in 1970.
Not only has the Covid pandemic left most holiday businesses fighting for survival, but the government’s incessant bickering over international travel regulations has added a thick layer of complexity to Gooley’s already massive workload.
As if to underscore the point while we’re talking at Trailfinders headquarters in Kensington, West London, Gooley’s wife comes in to complain about the inordinate amount of time he spends each morning at their kitchen table.
And in what has become his signature style in 51 years of doing business, Gooley himself doesn’t bat an eyelid when asked if ministers could have spared him some of those early starts.
“The government’s approach to travel doesn’t seem logical and consistent,” he says.
“Travel seems to be going in the wrong direction with the decisions. It appears to have been unfairly penalized when airports and airlines have made significant efforts,” he added in their effort to make travel Covid-safe.
“If you go to a country where there is no higher or lower infection rate than the UK, like Malta, and have to go through all these quarantine and PCR tests and so on, what’s the difference between getting on a train in Manchester and arriving? to London?
‘We have become a risk-averse society. We are very docile. I think even if you went back 20 years, people would have gotten up and saying, ‘Look, if I want to risk getting the fucking Covid, I will’.
Gooley accepts there’s an argument that bringing back a strain of Covid puts other people at risk, but says of government policy, “Sometimes it doesn’t make sense.”
The newly bred octogenarian is a powerful voice in his industry. An ex-armyman, he founded the package travel company when regular international travel became more accessible to middle-class families in the early 1970s. Since then, he has built the company into a national brand serving many millions of customers.
Gooley has been busy lately keeping a ‘Covid obituary list’ of travel agents who have bitten the dust. To avoid further casualties, he has three main demands for the government as the travel industry wants to save foreign vacations this summer.
First, he wants the requirement to test fully vaccinated individuals removed when they return from a Green List country (which currently includes Australia, Iceland and Gibraltar), saving time and money for travellers.
Second, he wants VAT on PCR tests to be abolished. He explains: ‘This is a new source of income. We are not asking the Chancellor to give it up as it has never existed before – and it discourages travel.”
Third, he believes that long queues at immigration to the UK discourage passengers from traveling. Officials at UK airports were told last week to stop checking Covid forms for arrivals from green- or orange-listed countries, but Gooley argues more needs to be invested in additional Border Force agents to cut wait times. shorten.
He says, ‘Having to stand for six hours to get refreshments or to pee isn’t exactly good for your health, is it? I could not do it. I really can’t stand for more than five or ten minutes.’
Gooley’s office is in a sprawling collection of buildings scattered across Kensington High Street. Chief executive Toby Kelly, a 22-year veteran of the company, takes me on a tour of a labyrinth of largely empty desks, where many employees still work from home.
Despite the desolate scene, there are plenty of signs of the company’s lifeblood: vast landscapes from every continent dominate the walls. There’s even a laundry room, a hangover from the days when Trailfinders was run by backpackers.
After leaving the military, Gooley, inspired by his own world travels, set up shop for the dozens of Australian backpackers in Earl’s Court.
‘It took us eight weeks to make our first booking. And she canceled two days later,” he recalls.
A painting of him in a tipping Land Rover in Zaire—now the Democratic Republic of the Congo—silenced on an infamous stretch of road above the conference table, a fond reminder of an epic road trip from London to Nairobi in the 1970s.
He proudly shows me a black and white photo of him captaining the SAS rugby team in the early 1960s. He admits he struggles to identify with some of his long-retired military colleagues, with work still dominating his time. Today, time outside the office is spent eating out or watching sports.
The past year has been tough, but Gooley describes Trailfinders’ finances as “bombproof.” The pandemic has cost the company at least £50 million, but has left a healthy £275 million in cash on the books.
Recently filed accounts show that in the year to the end of February 2021, turnover fell from £849 million to £107 million, with a £42 million profit turning into a £44 million loss. Nearly 20 percent of its 1,000-strong workforce is still on furlough and more than 400,000 trips have had to be rescheduled. The company has paid back £246 million to customers.
Gooley says the experience of his mother, who ran a successful maternity hospital during World War II, taught him to take a cautious approach to business, only to lose her fortune after a stroke and competition from the NHS. Gooley says: ‘That made a huge impression on me, to hold reserves. And I hugged the whole time.’
His caution is high at Trailfinders, where there’s no sign of gung-ho expansion. New additions to the 41 sites across the country are being made cautiously and senior employees are only from own staff.
Bookings are about 200 per day, down from 1,000 pre-Covid. Spain, Greece and countries on the green list are currently popular, with Canada the post-pandemic pick of the bunch. Customers now book further ahead, usually nine months instead of six months before their trip.
While Covid has devastated Trailfinders in the short term, Gooley believes there may be a silver lining: Customers struggling with the administrative headache of rearranging plans with airlines, hotels and transportation companies are now more likely to seek the security of a travel agent. Trailfinders, which trades exclusively through advisors in its stores and call center, has struggled over the past two decades against the rise of vacationers opting for instant online booking.
Gooley says: ‘The vast majority of our bookings are not easy, and some are very complex – five different airlines, seven destinations for example.’
He says it “hurts” to see rivals, like Expedia, win more easily businesses that require less customer service. But organizing complex trips, he says, offers a unique place in the trailfinder market.
Gooley says the pandemic has proven exactly why he has long campaigned for all travel companies to match Trailfinders by holding customers’ money in a segregated account from the time they book to the end of their trip.
He says about travel agencies: ‘The fact that they use your money for a reason other than to discharge what you thought you bought is embezzlement as far as I am concerned.’
As customers have competed for refunds, Gooley demands that transportation secretary Grant Shapps intervene.
The Civil Aviation Authority is discussing reforms to the Air Travel Organizer’s License (Atoll) financial protection scheme.
However, Gooley says his peers are lingering: “Because it’s like asking the fox how they plan to secure the bachelorette coup.”
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