After 15 years at Holidaysplease, director Charles Duncombe took a two-month break to travel the world with his wife and three-year-old daughter. Abigail Healy asks whether he was fanatical about the sabbatical
What made you decide to take a sabbatical?
I have always wanted to spend a couple of months travelling the Southern Hemisphere and as my daughter starts school next year I didn’t want to set the record for the UK’s biggest out-of-school fine. So it was now or never.
How did you go about planning it?
We wanted a good mix of activity and relaxation so we chose Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands and Chile. Then for the final two weeks my Dad flew out to Santiago and we went to Antarctica on the MS Fram with Hurtigruten. The homeworkers at Holidaysplease advised me on where to go and what to see. It really was invaluable advice and helped us make the most of the trip.
How did you prepare to make sure you felt confident the business would be well looked after in your absence?
It was a really useful exercise. I passed my work on to others in the company, which was a great way to force me to delegate and also to allow other people in the business to step up to the next level and show what they were capable of.
Having done it what would you say is the optimal time to be away for?
That was one of the questions I was curious about myself when I went away. I have to say it took three weeks for me to completely switch off. I think it took so long because I had been so involved in the business for such a long time and because in this modern age it’s hard to completely escape. I do envy our parents who in their day had to wrap everything up before they went away and wouldn’t hear a thing from the office until they returned. At the other end of the trip, by week seven, I was raring to get back. So my holiday sweet spot is three to six weeks. Unfortunately for future trips it means I’d have to blow my annual holiday entitlement in one go.
What concerns did you have about taking one?
I wasn’t too concerned about the business before I left because it’s become pretty successful with some great people behind it. If the worst came to the worst, I would be at the end of an email or a phone call. I was more concerned about having the chance to relax and recharge my batteries. If I didn’t manage to switch off while I was away then it would have been a complete waste of time.
What did you learn from taking the sabbatical?
The first thing I learned was that I am not needed in the business anywhere near as much as I thought I was. I was away for most of January and during that time we had a record month, beating the previous one by around 50%. I learned that there are many people in the business who are more than capable of stepping up to the challenge and that the business is better served with people in my position working on longer-term strategy rather than day-to-day activities. The old adage of working “on the business rather than in the business” certainly holds true. As for product knowledge, I will be doing a webinar to the sales staff about my Hurtigruten trip to Antarctica as it was so unique and not many travel agents have been there.
How was going back to work afterwards?
Fantastic. I was so energised and burst back into the office with a massive smile, impressive tan and lots of ideas. All to the bewilderment of the other staff I think.
What benefits did you notice?
As well as those mentioned above, I think it helped me appreciate what a fantastic business we are in – selling such a fun and exciting product. I think sometimes as an industry we can become a bit blase about how great travel can be. It helped me to redouble my efforts – thinking about our customers and focusing on the amazing experiences that can be had on holiday. As opposed to thinking about a holiday as just putting together flight, hotel and transfer as if it’s a piece of Ikea furniture.
What are your tips for other business owners considering a sabbatical?
Do it! You will be pleasantly surprised as to how superfluous you are if you have hired the right people.
Could a sabbatical be beneficial for other long-standing staff in your business?
Yes, although it can go one of two ways. My father took one about 30 years ago and it worked very well. However, the next member of his firm to do it, came back, booked another holiday within a few days of returning from his sabbatical and then resigned a few months after that. He had decided that travel was far more enjoyable than work.