Suzanne Horner, CEO of Gray Dawes Group, talks to BTN Europe about:
• The acquisition of Ventur
• Global expansion plans
• Imminent acquisition of Australian TMC
• Plans for leisure travel
• TMC staffing levels
The Gray Dawes Group announced the acquisition of fellow UK-based travel management company Ventur this week – its 11th agency takeover 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 should see its annual turnover rise to £ 250 million. “Transaction volumes aren’t back to 2019 levels but turnover is,” said Horner. “That’s driven by higher prices, with average ticket value up around 20 per cent.”
But, she added: “Size will not be so important to us – it’ll be more about the global picture.”
The TMC has resigned from its membership of Radius – the network of more than 130 independent agencies worldwide, and the largest network in Europe – and “the plan now is to build our own global platform,” said Horner.
Those plans are well advanced. The company has signed heads of terms with an agency in Australia that is “slightly bigger than Ventur, has a great reputation, and it will give us a great foothold there”.
Horner continued: “We’re also having strong conversations in North America and Asia. We’re hoping to be in the US by the end of the year and then very quickly bring in Asia.
“Our clients increasingly want global solutions, even the smaller ones. They’re taking us on the journey. We have a dozen clients who would work with us in the US right away. “
The TMC’s out-of-hours service is already resourced in Australia, “so with the addition of something in the US we’d have a follow-the-sun set up”.
“We’ve been very successful picking up businesses in the UK and integrating them. We know how to do that well. Now we’re going to do that overseas, ”said Horner. Gray Dawes’ preference is for wholly owned businesses overseas but it will consider share of ownership.
Gray Dawes is owned by the wealthy Inchcape family whose assets includes the Glenapp Estate in Scotland, property and a stocks and shares portfolio. “We used to be the smallest cog in the wheel when I started at Gray Dawes but now we’re the biggest,” said Horner.
We’ll never say no to another [UK] TMC acquisition … but what we can’t do is get side-tracked. The focus now is our global proposition “
She did not rule out further acquisitions in the UK, explaining that becoming a “top 10, top 12 TMC” and retaining its independence are the priorities. It was ranked 13th largest TMC in the UK in Europe’s Leading TMCs 2022.
“Sports, events and leisure is interesting. We’ll never say no to another TMC acquisition but if a leisure opportunity came up we’d definitely look at it, ”said Horner. “But what we can’t do is get side-tracked. The focus now is our global proposition. Our efforts are concentrated there. “
Leisure travel growth
With the acquisition of Ventur, Gray Dawes is also inheriting a high street travel agency in Harrogate. It is the only part of the company which will retain the Ventur name – the brand will be retired for corporate customers in the next four to six weeks.
“We’ll take the Gray Dawes leisure travel and put it in there,” said Horner. “It’s our ambition to grow the leisure business, probably through an independent consultant model. I don’t see us opening more high street agencies. “
Gray Dawes’ leisure business currently accounts for three to four per cent of the group’s revenue, a figure that, with the addition of Ventur, will be at most eight per cent. “It would be good to grow that to £ 25 million – 10 per cent of the overall business. The peaks and troughs of leisure travel will complement business travel nicely, ”explained Horner.
Sealing the Ventur deal
The acquisition, the value of which was not disclosed, was completed relatively swiftly. “We quite quickly got a deal together once we heard [they were interested in selling], and we were working on it for only a couple of months. It’s an asset purchase, ”said Horner. “The price was great for both parties. Both parties are happy with the deal – you don’t want anyone disgruntled. “
The family that owned Ventur has a significant property portfolio and wanted to find a new home for its travel business, said Horner, who drew parallels between the two TMCs. “Ventur is relatively small, as we used to be, and it was family-owned with a great reputation, great customer service and really loyal staff. A lot of similarities. “
Ventur staff have all been transitioned to the Atriis desktop and “are really loving that,” said Horner, as they move from a GDS-based environment. “They don’t need to search multiple sources of content anymore – that’s our responsibility, delivering the content – plus invoicing is automated, profiles are there …”
Customers, meanwhile, will see “better quality of content, more efficient processes and greater buying power. They’ll have a different experience but we’ll take it slowly with them “.
All permanent Ventur staff have been retained by Gray Dawes and all their benefits protected, said Horner. “Our number one priority is getting staff settled and making sure they’re happy. The last thing you want is people leaving after an acquisition. “
The need to retain employees is even more pertinent in the current landscape of staff shortages across the travel industry, and notably among travel management companies. Asked how Gray Dawes is faring in this regard, Horner said the company is “recruiting, but not in a frenzy”.
“We made redundancies right at the beginning [of the
pandemic] – about 17 per cent [of staff] by August 2020. But when everyone made more redundancies the following year we chose not to. The costs involved in making people redundant and then recruiting later on… realistically the best thing to do was to keep staff on furlough and take the salary hit. But then of course the extension of furlough was great for us in that situation – it removed six months of costs for us. “
The acquisition of Ventur, with its offices in Edinburgh and Leeds, gives Gray Dawes “the opportunity to recruit in Scotland” and reestablishes its presence in Yorkshire having closed its own office there at the start of the pandemic.
In the future, with a footprint in more destinations, the company intends to give staff the opportunity 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.