Encouraging more people to reconsider flying as the only way to holiday and instead consider ‘slow travel’ is the new mission for Byway, a company that aims to connect the dots on previously complex rail, boat and bike trip planning.
As more people reconsider their travel options as a result of the pandemic and awareness around sustainability and climate change continues to grow, it’s predicted that concepts like slow travel and flight-free holidays could become more appealing.
Well placed to move the trend forward, Byway was founded by Cat Jones, who left her job last year to fulfil a dream of launching a travel business that could fill a gap when it came to seamless trip planning for interesting and off-the-beaten-path itineraries.
Byway aims to accelerate the transition to sustainable leisure travel and draw tourists away from hubs suffering over-tourism to other places in between, while also boosting local economies.
With rail travel accounting for just 14g of CO2 per passenger mile, compared to 285g for air, Byway highlights how you could get the train from London to Edinburgh and back five times and the carbon footprint would still be lower than if you flew there once.
Jones, who has personally never owned a car, said she believed there were plenty of other people who felt like her out there, and even more who would travel this way if it were made easier to research and book it.
“I always enjoyed travelling by train and cycling around places, so that’s always been a default of mine, and now my family’s, travel,” she said.
“The standard holiday paradigm has tended to be flights, and parachuting in and out of a place, but it doesn’t have to be like that,” she explained.
“Slow travel allows you to stop off when you want, and literally take it slow. It’s not a mainstream way to act, and that’s bothered me for a while. If more people knew about the joy of this way of travelling, they would love it too, but I could see how hard it was to organise, with so much co-ordination and various unlinked booking sites required. Few people would have the time needed to organise these kinds of trips.”
Her goal is to build a booking platform that can take the pain out of organising train travel across Europe, connecting lots of different providers, previously a difficult task, involving multiple sites and providers.
Jones said she had been mulling the idea for a while, but with the pandemic and lockdowns taking over normal life, she decided she should focus on it full time; as well as taking care of two children under four.
“As the pandemic unfolded, we all started to see the positive side of no flying, how nature was coming back to life, and also people had no choice but to connect with what was on their doorstep and support local businesses as part of a wider growth in social consciousness, which are all elements that are a part of slow travel,” said Jones, who also has a masters in sustainable tourism.
She spent 10 years with Unruly, a start-up focused on emotive online video advertising where she was one of the first 10 employees in a business that scaled up to 450 people before being sold to Newscorp for £114 million.
Following the sale of the business, she joined Brent Hoberman’s Founders Factory, an investment studio for start-ups where she focused on the travel and media sectors; with that experience under her belt, she was able to drive forward a start-up of her own.
She said she felt Abta membership was key in providing a message of consumer trust and financial protection, and also sees opportunities for working with agents.
“It does make sense and I’m excited to explore new partnerships with agents, if they feel they have clients who would be interested in this way of travelling,” she said.
“We’re protective of the brand and our values and want to make sure we work with agents who feel the same way about travel as we do, and if they have clients who would respond well to this, we would love to work with them,” added Jones. “We are very unique and hands-on, so it would be an open dialogue on doing what’s right for the client. We’re a personal brand, as I know many agents are, and we like to be in touch with the customer directly along the way, but the agent will of course also be a part of that.”
Nine destinations feature now, including Cornwall and the Scilly Isles; Scotland’s Highlands and Islands; Yorkshire Moors and Coast; Jurassic Coast; French Alsace; Corsica; and some classic routes in Europe.
Jones said Northern Ireland and North Wales were coming soon, adding that places will only ever feature that the team know very well, with expansion into France, Germany and Switzerland also coming soon. And she has bigger plans too. “Ultimately we’d love this to be a global brand. We’ve even had US customers get in touch already, and we’d love to be selling into multiple continents.”
There is also a chance to help people plan much longer breaks, another positive from the pandemic.
“We’re seeing some customers planning four-month trips. With the shift in work patterns and the potential of remote working, there is a whole pool of people now who can be on the move and enjoy more flexibility in life, so we might be able to expand in that area.”
She highlights how her own team is truly international and flexible: “We have people all over the place, from Switzerland to Australia, but we’re all on the same mission and our values are clear. There is a new way of travelling, thinking and working emerging, and we are all seeing that and building into it.”
She has introduced a membership initiative as well for the “community of people very committed to slow travel”. Benefits include online events such as Slow Travel Nights In, with relevant and inspirational speakers such as Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, creators of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide, who have also been helping Jones to work forward with ideas and routes for the business.
Membership also includes access to unique trips organised specifically for members, “something our team handpicks, something that might be very difficult to do on your own”, said Jones.
Her forward way of thinking is a key reason she managed to obtain a £100,000 government grant from Innovate UK’s Sustainable Innovation Fund, which invests in clean growth projects to develop new technologies, secure and create new jobs, drive productivity and tackle climate change.
“In these difficult times we have seen the best of British business innovation. The pandemic is not just a health emergency but one that impacts society and the economy,” said Dr Ian Campbell, executive chair of Innovate UK.
“Byway, along with every initiative we have supported through this fund, is an important step forward in driving sustainable economic development.”
“We identified a way of doing something that was very hard to do before, but ultimately is transformational and sustainable, and that’s why we won the grant,” Jones said.
“We will facilitate an entire travel eco-system, which is multi-modal and can be off the beaten track to give benefit where it’s most needed. It’s so hard to travel in a connected way when you’re not flying, and there’s a risk in terms of liability, but we bring it all into one place, dynamically packaging flight-free travel. We have that start-up mentality, so we will move quickly.”
She felt it was also important to be a B-Corp business, so application for that is pending. “It will help people understand the deeper mission when they see we have that.”
When it comes to customers, she said “mission aligned” people who would usually limit their flights and make conscious consumer choices were the obvious targets, as well as adventurous travellers, and lovers of the great outdoors who like to get a lot out of travelling and appreciate local knowledge. She also sees an opportunity to help romantics and honeymooners “planning epic, no-fly trips”.
A key focus for Byway will also be solo travellers, those who appreciate the reassurance and the serious amount of detail Jones and the team put into trip planning, with their Whatsapp always open whenever the clients need them.
“Another perfect client for this would be animal owners – a lot more people got pets during the pandemic it seems, and we’re also seeing growth as more pet owners come to us wanting to plan a trip this way so they can take their animals with them too,” she said.