Gray Dawes CEO on TMC’s global expansion plans

Suzanne Horner, CEO of Gray Dawes Group, talks to BTN Europe about:
• The acquisition of Ventur
• Global expansion plans
• Imminent acquisition of the Australian TMC
• Leisure travel plans
• TMC staffing levels

The Gray Dawes Group this week announced the acquisition of another UK-based travel management company, Ventur – its 11e takeover of the agency to date – but the company is now turning its attention to global expansion.

Speaking to BTN Europe, Gray Dawes CEO Suzanne Horner said the deal is expected to see its annual revenue rise to £250m. “Transaction volumes are not back to 2019 levels, but revenue is,” Horner said. “This is due to higher prices, with the average ticket value up around 20%.”

But, she added, “Size won’t be that important to us – it will be more about overall image.”

The TMC has resigned its membership in Radius – the network of more than 130 independent agencies worldwide and Europe’s largest network – and “the plan now is to build our own global platform,” said Horner.

These plans are well advanced. The company has signed contracts with an agency in Australia which is “a little bigger than Ventur, has a great reputation and will allow us to establish a foothold there”.

Horner continued, “We also have strong conversations in North America and Asia. We hope to be in the United States by the end of the year, and then very soon in Asia.

“Our customers increasingly want global solutions, even the smallest ones. They make us travel. We have a dozen clients who would work with us immediately in the United States. »

TMC’s after-hours service is already resourced in Australia, “so with the addition of something in the US we would have a sun tracking setup.”

“We have been very successful in selecting companies in the UK and integrating them. We know how to do this well. Now we’re going to do it overseas,” Horner said. Gray Dawes’ preference is for companies that are 100% offshore owned, but will take ownership sharing into account.

Gray Dawes is owned by the wealthy Inchcape family whose assets include the Glenapp Estate in Scotland, a property and a stock and stock portfolio. “We were the smallest cog when I started at Gray Dawes, but now we’re the biggest,” Horner said.

We’ll never say no to another [UK] Acquisition of TMC…but what you can’t do is go astray. The focus is now on our overall proposition”

She does not rule out new acquisitions in the UK, explaining that becoming a “top 10, top 12 TMC” and maintaining its independence are the priorities. It was ranked as the 13th largest TMC in the UK in the major TMCs of Europe 2022.

“Sports, events and leisure are interesting. We will never say no to another TMC acquisition, but if a hobby opportunity arises, we would definitely consider it,” said Horner. “But what we can’t do is get distracted. The focus is now on our overall proposition. Our efforts are concentrated there.

Growth in leisure travel
With the acquisition of Ventur, Gray Dawes also inherits a travel agency in Harrogate. It is the only part of the business that will retain the Ventur name – the brand will be retired for corporate customers within the next four to six weeks.

“We’re going to take the Gray Dawes’ pleasure trips and put them in there,” Horner said. “Our ambition is to develop the leisure activity, probably through an independent consultant model. I don’t see us opening more street agencies.

Gray Dawes’ leisure business currently accounts for 3-4% of group turnover, a figure which, with the addition of Ventur, will rise to no more than 8%. “It would be nice to increase that to £25m, or 10% of the overall business. The ups and downs of leisure travel will complement business travel well,” explained Horner.

Sealing the deal Ventur
The acquisition, the value of which has not been disclosed, was completed relatively quickly. “We came to an agreement fairly quickly once we heard [they were interested in selling], and we had only been working on it for a few months. It’s an asset purchase,” Horner said. “The price was great for both parties. Both parties are happy with the deal – you don’t want anyone to be upset.

The family that owned Ventur has a large real estate portfolio and wanted to find a new home for their travel business, said Horner, who drew parallels between the two TMCs. “Ventur is relatively small, like we used to be, and it was a family business with a great reputation, great customer service and really loyal staff. Lots of similarities.

Ventur staff have all moved to the Atriis desktop and are “really loving it,” Horner said, as they leave a GDS-based environment. “They no longer need to search multiple sources of content – it’s our responsibility, to provide the content – plus the billing is automated, the profiles are there…”

Customers, meanwhile, will see “better content quality, more efficient processes, and greater buying power. They will have a different experience but we will take it easy with them.”

Staffing situations
All of Ventur’s permanent staff have been retained by Gray Dawes and all of their benefits protected, Horner said. “Our number one priority is getting the staff settled and making sure they are happy. The last thing you want is for people to leave after an acquisition.

The need to retain employees is even more relevant in the current landscape of staff shortages in the travel industry, and especially among travel management agencies. Asked about Gray Dawes’ situation in this regard, Horner said the company was “hiring, but not in a frenzy.”

“We laid off from the start [of the
pandemic] – about 17 percent [of staff] by August 2020. But when everyone else did more layoffs the following year, we chose not to. The costs of firing people and then recruiting them later…realistically the best thing to do was to keep staff furloughed and take the pay hit. But of course the furlough extension has been great for us in this situation – it took six months of costs off us.

The acquisition of Ventur, with its offices in Edinburgh and Leeds, gives Gray Dawes “the opportunity to recruit from Scotland” and re-establishes its presence in Yorkshire after closing its own office there at the start of the pandemic.

In the future, with a footprint in more destinations, the company intends to give its staff the option to go and work in another of its locations for a year. “The pandemic has taught us a lot, and quality of life is one of the most important lessons,” said Horner.

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