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Travel industry news

20 Sep 2018

BY April Hutchinson


Active Travel Group keen to explore agent potential

Following the coming together of Ski Solutions with Wilderness Scotland, and growing sister brand Wilderness Ireland, the newly formed company has said it expects combined sales of £28 million this year.


Wilderness Scotland secured £3 million for a management buyout from investor Mobeus, which had also previously invested £6 million in Ski Solutions in 2017 to back a secondary buyout led by Craig Burton, that company’s chief executive.


Burton had previously acquired BSpoke in 2014 and Cycling for Softies in 2015 and said the coming together of all the brands as Active Travel Group meant that by 2020, it would have built a “geographically and seasonally balanced” activities and adventure businesses.


“There’s a natural hedge to the group now, giving us a year-round, inbound/outbound business,” said Burton. “Diversification from the base of Ski Solutions was always my ambition and we’re well on the way now. For all of us, it makes total sense to build out a more rounded portfolio.”


Burton added he would be keen to acquire further like-minded businesses: “Mobeus has been very supportive of our build-out and resource is available to continue to grow.”


The recent move brings together a team of 75 people and a client base of around 20,000 with obvious synergies among the ski and adventure holidays companies.

“We have a shared customer – those aged between 40 and 60 who like to be active on holiday but with a high level of comfort,” Burton said. “They have the time and money for travel that allows them to get closer to nature and culture, but with the back-up of companies like ours. There’s high demand for the kind of travel we’re offering.”


Stevie Christie, head of adventure and director at Wilderness Scotland and Wilderness Ireland, added: “There’s no doubt that active travel is booming globally and for many people, the thought of a hike or bike ride or kayak trip is a very appealing way to disconnect from the busy world we live in. That’s what we’ve always been about as a business. We’ve seen lots of growth in this niche and we see lots of potential too.”


Burton hinted that his original collection of brands might also look to work closer with the trade.


“One of the first items on our joint agenda will be to discuss the options when it comes to distribution,” Burton said. “We’ve seen how Wilderness works closely with agents, especially those in the US and their relationships with the trade really appealed to us. We have a genuine ambition to see what else can done for all the brands in this area.”


Wilderness Scotland’s Christie added: “We’re very happy to work with travel agents and our range of small group trips on fixed dates are available to book on a commissionable basis.


“We also work with private travel designers to create custom itineraries which we offer to them at net rates. We absolutely see more potential to work with the trade too, especially as adventure travel is becoming more mainstream.


“With our expertise of the UK and Ireland, we are well-placed to work with the trade to offer their guests a meaningful and rewarding holiday, featuring lots of experiences they would never manage to arrange if they travelled independently.”


Christie added that for now, he company’s focus was on developing existing “untapped potential here”, rather than looking for new countries for Wilderness to branch out into.


He added the recent cash injection would “allow us to invest in our team and in our trips and stay ahead of the curve”.


All the brands will continue to operate from existing bases in Battersea, Aviemore and Sligo, with the Wilderness team of 35 led by co-founder and managing director, Paul Easto. He will join the Active Travel Group board, chaired by ex TUI and Scott Dunn veteran John Wimbleton, who joined Ski Solutions last August.


Burton said there would be no merging of teams or streamlining, with the brands instead “learning from each other”.


“The travel landscape is littered with stories of brands that fell by the wayside in mergers and acquisitions, but that’s not the case here,” said Burton. “These brands are all run by brilliant teams and that’s how it will remain. We want to grow these businesses, not take cost out.”


For Ski Solutions, Burton said the company had a “tail wind for the first time in a while”, driving “robust numbers”.


“We’re up by 15% year on year in terms of passengers booked and the selling price is also up,” he said. “For now, ski seems in rude health.”


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