The word “exsus” derives from a term that means “to breathe life into or to awaken”, and it’s one that feels apt on a number of levels for tailor-made specialist operator Exsus Travel, which took the industry by surprise this summer by relaunching to the trade.
While Exsus’s brand name sits well with its reputation for adventure, managing director Habib Rehman has also breathed new life into the brand since he joined in 2010.
Eight years is a long time in business, but Rehman – who has a finance background – says he needed that time to lead the company to a position where it could really begin to fly.
I’m sitting with Rehman and Exsus’s new head of trade sales, Neil Sealy, in the operator’s London headquarters overlooking a bustling Baker Street.
It caused quite a stir when TTG broke the news in June that Sealy would be joining Exsus after six years at If Only, where he had most recently held the title of head of sales. Because not only was Sealy’s departure from If Only a surprise, it also signalled Exsus’s ambitions to sell through agents again after many years, somewhat bucking a trend in recent times for operators to shift their focus to selling directly.
Judging by the response Sealy says he has seen out on the road, agents have been quick to embrace Exsus – a brand many recall selling in the past.
“We pulled away from the trade when I joined because we were not handling things well… I wanted to focus on improving the business and improving processes – that’s what I had been brought in by Giles Rooney, our chairman, to do. But we always knew we would go back,” says Rehman, adding that, in fact, agents’ feedback has been that Exsus was always well-regarded.
“As far back as 2015 the trade was in our minds – we knew it was going to be a big part of our growth story.
“We have an attitude for caring, a high level of expertise and making sure that we can deliver. It really mattered to us that when we approached the trade we could be really confident in delivering on all those aspects.”
Rehman adds with a smile: “We are really pleased with what’s happened so far – even Neil wasn’t expecting it.”
I am curious as to whether agents were wary of Exsus following its previous withdrawal, but Sealy insists that’s not been his experience since joining in June: “When my appointment was announced, some agents contacted us on their own…
“It [Exsus] was very well-received right from the start and I was seeing enquiries and then bookings coming in… in one case I was still standing in the shop and an agent made a call right in front of me.
“There is room in the market for a specialist tailor-made luxury operator like ours,” he insists.
“We have a wide range of product and destinations, and these guys have tried this stuff – they’re creative and think outside the box – the resulting itinerary will usually be a little unusual.”
Thanks to this positive launch with agents, Sealy has given himself the target of trade business representing 20% of Exsus’s overall revenue at the end of his first year, although Rehman believes it could be even greater than this.
“It’s basically business we weren’t getting before,” Sealy explains matter-of-factly.
It is this considered approach that has seemingly resulted in Exsus’s steady expansion since Rooney founded the business in 1998, with the operator now selling holidays to more than 80 countries in seven continents.
However, rather than focusing on new destinations, Rehman reveals 2019 will be “the year of the trade”.
“We take real pride in being one of the few independent operators around – we feel we’re big enough to show we matter for our clients, but small enough to take care of all of them and provide a really high level of service and expertise.
“2016 was probably a watershed moment for us,” he continues. “We realised that in order to grow we had to re-engineer the business.
“We had to look at what we were failing at, what we were good at, what we could improve.”
Exsus brought in a new web-based system, which automatically sends out questionnaires to clients for feedback and is now linked to Feefo for “independent verification”. The Exsus app was also developed, and the sales team overhauled.
“In some cases, we were waiting six months to hire someone,” Rehman reveals, adding: “In 2016 we probably dropped about 30% of revenue because we were going after new business.
“Giles supported us through that because he knew what we were doing was right.”
“We feel we’ve achieved quite a lot of what we wanted to do, and in 2017 our business bounced back. And in 2018 we’re seeing the growth we were hoping for.”
The overhaul has included the appointment of Sealy, and most recently of new global sales manager Mark Renshaw, who has held roles at PR agency Perowne International as well as Abercrombie & Kent.
The operator’s documentation has also been revamped so that it’s dual-branded with the agent.
“Every page of the itinerary has the agent’s contact details on, not Exsus’s,” explains Rehman.
“Agents love it because it saves them time and they feel confident they can pass quotes straight on to the client. “We recognise that those clients belong to those agents – they’ve worked really hard and invested a lot of time and money.”
He adds: “We won’t do anything that risks agents losing their relationship with their client.”
Other plans for the trade include a new brochure for the turn of the year and fam trips for 2019.
Exsus also attained an Abta licence last month and offers 13% commission as well as price parity.
I ask whether all this activity will lead to a bigger trade sales team for Sealy. “I’d love to expand the trade team,” he reveals. “That’s something we’ll look at a year down the line in other parts of the country as well, so I don’t have to travel around as much.”
To celebrate its launch with the trade, Exsus will host about 20 agents plus some suppliers for a special dinner and introduction on Thursday (October 18). “We’re luxury but we’re not mega-expensive luxury. We sell a whole range, and I think we’ve got products for everyone,” Sealy adds.
Asked what the future holds for Exsus beyond its “year of the trade”, Rehman tells me growth is the aim and does not rule out seeking investment in the future.
“We feel we’ve got everything in place in terms of processes, systems and the culture to really grow the company quickly, but carefully.
“It matters to us that we don’t move too far away from our core values, but within that the sky’s the limit,” he says with a smile.