Richard Bowden-Doyle took the top job at Neilson Active Holidays just as it was leaving Thomas Cook. He tells TTG how the firm is learning to stand on its own two feet
Richard Bowden-Doyle is very relaxed for such a busy man. The industry stalwart is about to clock up his 25th year in the business in a career that has seen him work with multiples, luxury operators and the original OTA, lastminute.com.
In November last year he was appointed chairman of Neilson Active Holidays as the firm underwent a buy in management buy-out from Thomas Cook with the backing of Risk Capital Partners.
Although the ink may have long since dried on the deal, it is only in the past two weeks that the company has been able to divest itself fully of the vertically integrated operator, which owned it for decades.
In the process, the board had to set up various facilities - ranging from organising hedging to obtaining a new Atol licence - that other operators would take for granted but for Neilson had been part and parcel of being in the Cook family.
Bowden-Doyle says: “This was a business turning over £75 million to £80 million but it didn’t have a bank account. The back end of the business was completely integrated with Thomas Cook.”
He admits the complexity of the job, which was completed this month as the operator finally took control of its email system, proved a positive for the new management team in negotiating the deal.
“The business was turning over £75 million to £80 million but it didn’t have a bank account. It was completely integrated with Cook”
He says: “A lot of other people were put off [a potential deal] as it was too complicated and there would be a lot of stuff to do.”
Bowden-Doyle is also quick to point out that while Neilson may finally be standing on its own two feet, its shared history means that the two companies are still close, as Thomas Cook agents account for a quarter of its winter programme sales.
“My relationship with Thomas Cook is different,” he says. “They are still being hugely supportive as far as I can see, I’m still their biggest ski operator.
“It is a bit like we were part of the family but now we’re not quite - like going from being a brother to a cousin.”
With the operator poised to launch its winter 2014-15 ski programme next week, this is what is most occupying Bowden-Doyle’s mind, particularly once he takes into account the numbers.
He says while the operator handles about 40,000 passengers at nine beach clubs on its summer programme and 45,000 in up to 220 properties in the winter, the summer programme makes two and a half times more money than the one in winter.
He believes part of the problem is the nature of traditional ski holidays, which have changed little over the years.
Bowden-Doyle says: “In most ski holidays, the tour operator is [merely] a means of getting there and facilitating lift passes and ski school.
“Effectively, you’re selling the same thing as everyone else and all you end up doing is competing on price. The problem with competing on the basis of price is we’re a long way from being the biggest. Crystal Ski Holidays is playing a different game.”
Instead, he has turned to the Hotel Aalborg in Les Deux Alpes - which handles between 6% and 7% of the operator’s winter customers and yet delivers 25% of the profit - for the solution.
“What we’re trying to create in the summer is a situation where everyone gets a sense of achievement”
“Aalborg most replicates the summer experience as it is entirely staffed with our own people,” Bowden-Doyle says. “That creates the same feel that you get in the beach clubs - it is quite informal, very relaxed and a good place to be.
“What we’re trying to do here is deliver a winter ski programme akin to our summer programme.”
To this end, the operator is increasingly looking to compete through offering product differentiation via the properties customers choose.
Three hotels and 15 chalets are now exclusive to the operator and run by its own staff to encourage the Neilson vibe, and Bowden-Doyle is hopeful that a fourth hotel is on the cusp of signing up in time for the forthcoming season.
He is also hoping one other aspect from the summer programme will help to drive winter sales. Bowden-Doyle says: “What really makes us stand out from other competitors is that what we’re trying to create in the summer is a situation where everyone gets a sense of achievement.”
He believes customers can get this from learning to water-ski or simply having the time to finish a book and will now look to ensure that this philosophy is fully flipped over to the winter programme.
Neilson’s staff will be on hand to offer ski clinics and coaching, while having ski hire shops in the operator’s properties means customers can be encouraged to go outside their comfort zone - for instance, persuading a skier to try snowboarding for a morning, with a minimum of hassle over equipment.
Bowden-Doyle believes this will mean that the winter offering will come closer to the summer beach clubs, which have also had to evolve to meet both customer demand and the laws of physics.
He says: “There is a limit to how many people can get in the water in a given size of beach.”
This means there are only so many sailing dinghies that can be made available and only so many opportunities customers can have to try windsurfing. He also admits not everyone on a Neilson holiday will want to spend their trip doing watersports.
This has led to making other activities such as tennis available, while in recent years the explosion of cycling’s popularity in the UK has meant the operator is offering programmes from mountain biking to road touring, in-resort.
“The resort’s the backdrop and what goes on there is in the foreground. That is a trend that works for us”
Not only are more activities being made available, but the operator is also opening a 10th beach club in Greece next year with a season capacity of 5,000, boosting the operator’s summer numbers by about 10%.
He is confident that the new resort will prove as popular as the rest of the summer programme, which is not only benefiting from the hard work of all the staff but also an emerging trend in the UK holiday market.
Bowden-Doyle says: “For me, the biggest single shift I’ve seen in this market and the mainstream mass market holiday business over the past 20 years is a broad change - from people talking much less about where they go on holiday and much more about what they do in resort.
“The resort’s the backdrop and what goes on there is in the foreground, and that is a trend that works for us. It is less about people going to that location and more about what they do when they get there.
“There is a dawning realisation that the best way to switch off is to do something - and that’s what’s really driving this business.”