Building a business when times are tough

BA (Hons) Tourism Management alumnus Steve Hull talks about how he built his a ski holiday business, the challenges posed by the global pandemic and how they are looking to overcome them.


Back in the autumn of 2008 as the world was going through the last big recession, I was just starting my journey of creating a business, naturally in the travel industry as I’d graduated five years earlier with a BA (Hons) in Tourism Management from Leeds Met (now Leeds Beckett).  I’m told that starting a business in a recession is both the best and the worst time to do it, but for me the timing worked well.

The business enjoyed year-on-year growth, expanding from one specialist ski holidays brand to three, all catering for different niches within the ski holidays sector.  However, just as we were enjoying our best ever year everything ground to a halt with the arrival of Covid-19.  With hundreds of customers away on holiday, as well as staff living overseas in ski resorts, there was a huge effort involved to help customers and staff return home, and then the administration involved to manage all the refunds of bookings now unable to travel.

Keeping Costs Down

As soon as the scale of the pandemic was realised, it was necessary to go through all our costs to make sure we could cut out anything unnecessary, and reduce costs where possible by speaking to providers to re-negotiate terms.  Unfortunately, it has also meant that the size of our team has also reduced, so flexibility has been vital in order to redistribute workloads.

After the initial shock of things, it was time to look to the future, and really think about how to build a business again when times are tough.  It has meant going back to thinking as a start-up, and really focussing on where we can make savings.  Trying to think outside the box to find creative solutions, and also to make sure we’re ready to capitalise on the inevitable bounce back once things start to return to normal, whenever that may be.

As a start-up you’re building everything from scratch so your costs scale up as your business does.  Therefore in that sense a recession is a great time to start, because even if growth is slow to begin with then you can take your time and grow slowly.  As things improve, a small business with a start-up mentality should be nimble enough to expand with the new demand, however, for an established business it presents a whole host of challenges in how to scale downwards.

Whilst we’ve had to make cuts, it has also focussed our minds on how we can diversify and grow the business, being prepared for the inevitable rebound as people are able to travel again.  With this in mind we identified that we should create a new travel brand catering for other types of holidays, such as long-haul, city breaks, and beach holidays.  This will allow us to fully utilise our customer database, and also to even out some of the peaks and troughs throughout the year, as all our existing brands are focussed on winter holidays.

The next six months are going to be the most challenging of the pandemic, making sure we continue to look after our customers and manage our costs, whilst also getting prepared for growth.  Whilst it’s a daunting prospect, it’s also an exciting time as opportunities will present themselves once travel opens up again.  So with a start-up mentality of being flexible and able to quickly implement ideas, we’re confident that once this is over we’ll be in a strong position to build for the future.

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