John Dixon remortgaged his home to set up Prestige Holidays in 1989. As the fiercely independent operator celebrates its 25th anniversary, he tells Pippa Jacks about 50 fun-filled years in the travel industry, and where the business is heading next
It has been three weeks since Prestige Holidays’ anniversary party at the Langham Hotel, but John Dixon is still on a high when I meet him, as he fondly recalls the many industry friends who attended.
Guests included a London travel agency with a particularly special place in his heart - Dolphin International Travel, which gave Prestige its very first booking, 25 years ago.
“I did the confirmation, then drove to deliver the tickets to Don Freeman on the same day - and we’re still in touch now,” says Prestige’s founder, chairman and managing director, John Dixon.
Dixon’s 50-year career in travel began in 1962, when, after leaving school in Shropshire with three A-levels and “no clue what to do”, he took a job in a local travel agency.
”When the phone rang, we’d push each other out of the way to answer it - we had such a keenness to take the booking”
Three years later, he moved to London, where he first worked for French Travel Service, then managed a Kensington agency, before joining Cadogan Holidays - part of the Bland Group, which also owned GB (Gibraltar) Airways.
“It was good fun at first, but when it became about putting bums on GB Airways seats, it became rather dull,” says the sprightly 71-year-old.
He and three other Cadogan colleagues remortgaged their homes to set up independently, buying a three-store retail chain called Atkins Travel to generate income, and starting work on Prestige Holidays. “People said we were crazy. We had one phone between us, and two desks. And we didn’t even have a ruler,” he says.
Prestige was launched in 1989 with programmes to Madeira, Malta and the Canaries - the destinations the four knew best. In 1990 came Bermuda, and in 2008 the Isles of Scilly and Italian lakes. Then, in 2009, Dixon was encouraged to meet with Canada expert Denise Hunn.
Under Hunn’s direction, Canada has grown from nothing to a projected £4 million-worth of business in 2014, and is growing by 19% annually while a target of £5 million has been set for this year. Growth will be spurred by a recent merger with respected specialist Canada4U (see p58 for more).
With an average value of £3,500pp, Canada bookings are Prestige’s most complex and lucrative, but the operator returned to simpler destinations subsequently: Croatia in 2011, Sicily and Montenegro in 2012 and Slovenia new for this year.
”If an agent’s trusted a £20,000 booking to us, then we should be grateful”
Establishing Canada in the way it did, with Hunn’s expertise, has become a blueprint for Prestige’s other launches. “I defy anybody to come up with the level of experience and knowledge that we have for Canada and Croatia now,” Dixon adds.
It’s an approach that is certainly paying off, with the company’s turnover at £24 million by year-end in October 2013, up by around £3 million on the previous year. With average spend on European packages now increasing again, Dixon is confident about the year ahead with a turnover of up to £26 million expected.
Working closely with independent agents has also been pivotal to Prestige’s success, and trade sales make up around 85% of its business. “Of course, we’ve talked about doing more direct, but this model works very well for us,” Dixon says.
He talks passionately about the importance of “old-fashioned honour” in working with agents. “If an agent’s trusted a £20,000 booking to us, then we should be grateful,” he insists.
Bath Travel, Hays Travel and Travel Counsellors are key partners, with Bath generating around £1 million of business in 2013. The operator has also had a long-standing partnership with The Co-operative Travel so, since the Thomas Cook takeover, Prestige has started taking bookings from Cook agents.
Having worked in or with bricks-and-mortar agencies all his life, Dixon’s seen plenty of change in high street retailing. He bemoans the “computer says no’” culture of certain agents, remembering a very different attitude when he was starting out: “When the phone rang, we would push each other out of the way to answer it - we had such a keenness to take the booking.”
The wider industry has evolved considerably too, with increased transparency being perhaps the biggest change. “If a hotel is a two-star by the railway line, they tell the customer that nowadays,” Dixon adds.
The biggest challenge he sees is the “absurd emphasis on price”, with the trade discounting instead of focusing on value for money. “It doesn’t do the hotels any good, it doesn’t do the operators and agents any good - it’s a blind alley,” he says.
Prestige is to relaunch its website next month, making online bookings more streamlined. Not an attempt to grow direct business, Dixon insists, but to enable straightforward online bookings after hours, and for agents to use in pricing-up.
With the focus on the new website, and moving to new, larger premises in Ringwood, Hampshire this year, he expects it will be 2015 at the earliest before Prestige considers a new destination.
The next few years will see Dixon try to step back more from the business, though he has found this difficult in the past.
David Skillicorn was brought in as general manager in 2011 and Dixon says: “When I turned 65, I intended to start taking six to eight weeks a year off, but it’s ended up being more like four.”
As to Prestige’s future in 25 years, Dixon says: “I imagine the company will be focusing more on other parts of the world than Europe - special interest tours, exclusive experiences.”
Prestige’s travel club arm, The Travellers Club, has been growing steadily, offering specialist cultural tours to countries including Burma, Iran and India. He’d like to open up these products to travel agents in the future too.
It’s only at the end of the interview Dixon says with a grin: “I was a bit nervous about doing this interview, but it’s been rather fun.”
Much like his 50 years in the travel industry and - I imagine - just like those left to come.