Based in a chic and welcoming office in Stratford-upon-Avon, travel consultancy Holiday Inspirations devise tailor-made holidays using their incredible knowledge and expertise built up over many years. Here Neil Basnett tells Gill Sutherland about the business and shares some tips on dream destinations.
Spending time in Holiday Inspirations’ new Guild Street office is an absolute treat. The travel consultancy is run by partners Neil Basnett and Philip Mannion, who between them have nearly 80 years’ experience of putting holidays together. The couple have been together 32 years, having met while working at Thomas Cook in the 1980s.
The business’s new base – at number 10 – is testament to their undoubted good taste in all things. It’s artfully decorated, comfortable and with a groaning drinks trolley ready to quench thirsts and warm the cockles of visitors.
Both Neil and Philip talk with such knowledge and enthusiasm about amazing-sounding destinations, my only regret during my visit is that they aren’t planning my next holiday!
Neil is a great raconteur, and regales photographer Mark and myself with stories of his many years in the travel business over coffee. Meanwhile Philip is also super friendly and funny, and offers his own sage observations from the sidelines – but it’s Neil that mainly answers our questions.
Tell us how you got started in the business.
Like a lot of people I first started at Thomas Cook, and worked at Berkeley Street in London, the head office before the company moved to Peterborough. In those days people joined Thomas Cook because the training was so good. I had three months sitting with a consultant watching how it was done, then a two-month intensive training course, followed by an interview with the regional manager, lastly a six-month probation period – so it was nearly a year before I was considered a fully qualified travel consultant and ready to work with clients.
You must have met a lot of interesting people.
One of the places I worked was the House of Commons. I loved that, it was one of the best placements I ever had. Officially, in the Palace of Westminster, it was known as the Transport Office – and staffed by Thomas Cook. We booked for all the MPs and all the lords. There were some very awkward customers! The worst I had was Sir John Nott, the defence secretary during the Falklands; another fiery character was Gwyneth Dunwoody. In the main people were lovely – Harold Wilson and Betty Boothroyd were both adorable.
In those days Concorde was flying to Washington and New York, and the tickets were £8,000 each in 1979. The biggest booking I ever made was to fly the Northern Ireland secretary and 40 staff to New York. It was such a fascinating place to work. On the rare occasion we were quiet I would go up to the chamber and watch them scream and shout at each other! But when they came in to see you in the office they were all best buddies “see you in the Stranger’s Bar” that sort of thing. It was the best club in London.
I was there for three years. I was there when poor old Airey Neave was blown up in the underground car park, and when Margaret Thatcher was first elected.
What came next?
I became assistant manager at the branch in Kensington, then Bayswater – my first manager’s job. I’d been working in London 13 years and realised I was wasting three hours a day commuting. So we moved down to Newbury in Berkshire to open a new Thomas Cook branch there. That was a real success and I was approached to manage a new branch on Corporation Street, Birmingham. My last branch was Norwich, it was huge with 32 staff. By then I was getting restless, and sadly Thomas Cook had changed from travel agent to holiday shop. It became about selling holidays, getting customers in and out the door as quickly as possible.
A job came up at Tana Travel in Stratford, which specialised in tailor-made holidays to Africa, and I took that.
My father had worked for the Bank of England and in my teens he got a posting out to Kenya so I carried on at school here and at the end of term I was on the ‘lollipop special’, as the flight was known as it was full of expat kids – a whole load of rampant teenagers, heading off to Nairobi. During my father’s three years there I developed a love for Africa. So when the Tana job came up I jumped at that and came here, that was in 1989. I was there 23 years and when it closed in 2012 it broke my heart.
And that’s when Holiday Inspirations emerged?
Yes, I maintained the client database, and so took that with me. I’ve been booking some clients’ holidays for 25 years – and as far as they are concerned they are not dealing with Tana or Holiday Destinations, but Neil or Phil.
I was also running the Elite Travel Group, a consortium of independent travel agents, as chief executive. Last year I decided to resign from Elite because I realised what I actually love doing is meeting clients and designing holidays. So we decided to create our base at Guild Street, previously we’d seen clients at their homes or meet at a wine bar or coffee shop. Now they book an appointment, and we only see one set of clients at a time, where they are not hurried and we can carefully go through what their requirements are.
Tell us about the service you offer.
We are a travel consultancy – our market is not ‘what have you got cheap this weekend’ because to be honest with the internet you don’t need an agent for that.
It’s bespoke tailor-made holidays that we are known for. If I do a holiday to India, for example, I work with local ground handlers so if people have got any problems, no matter what time of day, they can phone a local company. Once booked via me, I want to guarantee that someone will meet them off the train, say, escort them to the hotel, and ensure the hotel are expecting them – even if it’s 3am in the morning. And yes you could possibly do all that on the internet but you’ve got no security and it’s also the financial side – everything we do has 100 per cent protection. We’re covered by all the appropriate travel bodies: ABTA, IATA and CAA/ATOL.
And what kind of clients come and see you?
There is a perception that it’s the younger market that are the ones that book everything on the internet, whereas actually I find it’s the so-called silver or grey market that book a lot online – because they have the time to do it.
We’ve had younger clients wanting to book a villa, and they’ve looked at so many they get in a muddle, and they’ll just want us to sort that out for them. In a way it’s the cash rich, time poor clients that we suit.
Is the internet your enemy?!
A lot of my older clients like me to put together an itinerary for them – whether it’s Australia, New Zealand or South Africa or wherever. They will check out all the hotels I’ve chosen online themselves. Wretched Tripadvisor has a lot to answer for, one bad review can put people off! But we work with the internet and will make changes.
We’re aware people can just check prices on the internet so we do have to make sure our prices are competitive. But I say to clients don’t look at what you’re paying but what you’re getting – you may see a seemingly better price for a hotel room but have you got the full sea view or are you overlooking a car park?
Your expert knowledge must make all the difference….
Yes, we booked a holiday for a young couple yesterday – she wanted to treat him for a birthday trip. So I put together an itinerary for a trip to Porto, which included a tour and trip to the wine estates, then a lovely river trip up the Douro River, and staying at a wonderful vineyard. The lady said oh it’s so much better than I had found – so it’s things like that, where our knowledge kicks in.
There’s no way as a travel agent you can know everywhere in the world, but you need to know which operators to turn to – for a lot of destinations I do work with my own ground handlers.
Where have you travelled to recently that’s impressed you?
In September I went to Kazakhstan which I had never been to before. I didn’t know it was the ninth biggest country in the world, and it’s got the world’s second deepest river canyon after the Grand Canyon; it’s also got national parks, wildlife and all these ancient historical monuments. I made lots of new contacts so now I can say to clients would you consider going to Central Asia, which I wouldn’t have been able to confidently suggest before.
You must have travelled to some amazing places, are there any on your bucket list that you’ve not been to?
There’s still a few gaps! My number one on the bucket list for many years was Machu Picchu in Peru, and I was lucky enough to go on an agents’ trip five years ago – and that was absolutely stunning. On the way back from Cusco we went on Belmond’s Hiram Bingham train, which is like the Orient Express, and that was lovely.
Next on the bucket list is Angkor Wat, the temple in Cambodia.
Where are your favourite places in the world?
I love India – I’ve been there six or seven times for my two weeks of detox. I love Kerala right down on the southern tip. A lot of people go to Goa but the beaches can get crowded, but Kerala has empty beaches populated by the odd fisherman – it’s a best kept secret.
Philip knows a lot about the Caribbean and the Middle East, more than I do – he loves Dubai, I’m not so keen – so Phillip would deal with those destinations.
Where’s the best beach you’ve ever seen?
Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. I was lucky enough to go there ten years ago. You take a little plane from the largest island Rarotonga and fly over the pacific ocean for an hour, then you realise the plane is coming down – and you think hang on there’s no land, what has the pilot seen that we haven’t?! Then suddenly through the clouds you see this coral atoll with these islands inside it – and absolutely beautiful turquoise water. I’ve never seen anything like it, that to me was paradise on Earth. Mauritius has got beautiful beaches, and so does the Caribbean, dare I say it, the beaches in Benidorm are also stunning – but that is the best beach destination I have ever been to. Usually people go there as a stopover to New Zealand.
Where else would you recommend?
One place that people don’t tend to think of is Costa Rica. It’s a fairly small country in Central America and one of the safest countries in the world – they’ve never had an army, and they’re very proud of that. It allows for so many different types of holiday. On the Caribbean side you get all the turtles that come in, and there are crocodiles, sloths and the biggest, most amazing butterflies. There’s everything from beautiful beaches to volcanoes.
I designed a holiday recently to Costa Rica for a couple who had run out of ideas of where to go. When they came back they said: “Neil, we’ve just returned from paradise, and we would have never thought of it.”
That must be great when you get that feedback.
We’re selling dreams. You need to get it right, and so we get to know our clients, and ask them the right questions. Sometimes if it’s a tailor-made itinerary we will get it right first time and they will book – other times we will make tweaks to make sure it’s perfect for them.
We get virtually 100 per cent happy feedback. I still get a buzz out of finding a perfect holiday – it’s an interesting job and I love it.
Find out more at www.holidayinspirations.org.uk or call 01789 293737