An interview with AsktheTraveller

For this blog we decided to ask one of the co-founders of Askthetraveller, ian Alden about his time in travel, some insider tips and what makes him love travel so much. We caught up with him whilst he and his wife we spending a couple of days in Guernsey.

So Ian, tell us a little about your background in the travel industry.

I’ve always enjoyed travelling and it’s always been in my blood. In 1991 I packed my rucksack and headed off to Southeast Asia with the ‘Yellow Bible’, Southeast Asia on a shoestring. Back then our communication with home was by postcard. No mobile phones or tablets.

After returning to the UK, and still full of wanderlust, I applied to join a cruise line and headed to Miami. The department I worked for were always off whilst in port, which meant I was always free to explore the Caribbean Islands. Wonderful for me, but today it’s all changed of course and crew see little of their destinations.

This time it was back to the UK for a longer stint and I joined what was, and probably still is the largest independent tour operator in the UK. I worked there for 10 years before taking the opportunity to join a startup travel company in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. I worked here for 3 years before setting up my own company and working for another 8 years in Dubai.

All change again, and back to the UK to join forces with an old colleague of mine from the Independent Tour Operator days. We set up AsktheTraveller.com to connect travellers directly with local experts in their destination while maintaining full service and the all important ATOL protection.

What do you sell at AsktheTraveller?

We’ve been in the industry a long time and can book you anything, however we have decided to focus on key areas which give our clients access to adventure, luxury, a real in depth experience of local culture, cuisine and history whilst creating bespoke tailor-made itineraries which will suit our clients whether they be solo travellers, a honeymoon couple, a family, a group of friends or indeed a multi generational family group who may be celebrating a special occasion. We are proud of the repeat business we get from our clients.

Our key areas are the Americas (North, Central & South), Southern & Eastern Africa, Asia, India, Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean. However we’ve made recent bookings to Europe, Australia and I’m currently speaking to a client about a Norwegian Cruise.

This sounds great, but can’t we book all of this on the internet?

Of course you can! The internet is important and affects industries far beyond the travel industry, you only have to look at the UK high street to see how deep some of these effects are.

You can feel a BUT coming……..

Let me start with a recent booking I made for a couple celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary (and a birthday) whilst visiting the US for the first time. The itinerary was relatively complicated so firstly I made sure all the hotels, the car hire, the transfers, the flights and the extras were all held and reserved.

I changed their dates so they could get direct flights out of Manchester.

I made sure all their daily driving times were reasonable and would allow plenty of stops for sightseeing.

I contacted the hotel manager at the hotel where they would be celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary and asked if they could have a ‘space-available’ upgrade at check in. I spoke to the concierge at the hotel and we put together 5 restaurants, which while speaking to them, discovered they are very into their steak restaurants. I sent the menus through and we’ve picked a great place to book for their celebration dinner. Again, this restaurant are well aware the couple are celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary.

I regularly check prices to keep an eye on ‘specials’ coming onto the market. An online booking engine will never check prices 2 weeks later and pass on any savings.

The point is there are too many occasions to mention where personal contact, getting to know your client and working to create the perfect itinerary simply can’t be done online.

Just ask our clients who were flying on Air France to Seattle. By the time they even noticed Air France were facing industrial action, we had re-booked them at no extra cost on direct Delta/Virgin flights. Holiday resumed - no fuss.

On several occasions, I’ve been called by someone who didn’t use our services, but wants us to help out when something has gone wrong. Unfortunately, I cannot access their bookings and have no authority to make any changes.

We are always here to assist our clients with any unforeseen changes. plus our local experts are right there on the ground to help and assist as well.

Of course there is always a place for the internet, but we offer a bespoke, personalised service together with our local expert knowledge and assistance. We ask all the relevant questions to make your journey perfect, plus of course we’re fully bonded should anything go wrong. You’re not on your own.

What are your favourite destinations and what is popular with AsktheTraveller?

Personally, the Seychelles are very special to me. It’s a gorgeous destination which had a lot to do with my decision to get married there. Australia, New Zealand, New York City and much of Europe is also very high on my ‘’must visit again’’ list.

For us, Sri Lanka remains very popular along with Vietnam, Cambodia and the up and coming destinations of Chile and Colombia. Ecuador & The Galapagos are bucket list destinations which remain popular along with Peru. In fact, Central and South America are generating lots of interest, particularly with the outdoor types, adventurers and clients who may have previously looked at the US. Our typical client is looking for culture, gastronomy, adventure, history and dramatic scenery. So South America is perfect for this.

South Africa also provides these options, plus the addition of a safari.

Some of my favourite bookings are when the client gives a budget and says ‘surprise me,

you know what I like and don’t like, put something together that will keep my family entertained’

Once in a lifetime trips, such as expedition cruising to the Arctic and Antarctic are always fulfilling as we know our clients will have the trip of a lifetime.

How do you operate with so many online competitors?

Competition is always healthy as it keeps us on our toes, but what we often cannot compete with is the colossal advertising budgets of the online wholesalers. They are everywhere you look, TV, radio, national newspapers, online marketing and so forth, but often they are not as competitive as people think. During my time in Dubai, I was regularly beating some of the biggest names on price in Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Clients had wrongly assumed they were getting the lowest price and simply didn’t shop around or use the service of a good travel company.

Our supplier relationships are also important, when you use an online wholesaler you see a room and book it. We will use multiple channels to quote a client, but we are also looking at the ‘extras’ that we may have access to such as, space available room upgrades at check in, free late check out or early check in, plus suitable rooms. I have often received feedback where a client has booked a room online only to arrive and find their view is a brick wall with an air conditioning unit humming away.

Also, we don’t try and be something to everyone. Let’s take New York City as an example. There are literally hundreds of hotels in the city. We will choose the hotels we want to work with from boutique to 5 star based on personal experience, client feedback and knowing the management who we will see several times a year at trade shows and sales visits. When something goes wrong, we’re not calling a call-centre on another continent where the decision maker has left for the day. We’re calling the hotel Manager or our Sales Manager who looks after our account. Personal service wins everytime.

This goes to a whole new level when working with our preferred suppliers in each country. It’s the local expertise which makes each trip perfect. It may be feedback on change of management at a hotel, new properties, building work, a brilliant new restaurant recently opened. The main attraction being closed for 4 days due to maintenance or a local festival. You just cannot beat local expertise. They also understand our clients and what makes a perfect trip.

It sounds like you're perfect? You're not are you?

No, far from it. Sometimes things can go wrong - We have been in the industry for over 20 years so we are well aware that hiccups can occur. Our job is to make sure these do not happen, but if and when they do, rest assured we try and move heaven and earth to put things right. We understand that holidays are important to all of us, which is why we and our local partners aim to try and make them exceed customers expectations.

So describe AsktheTraveller to us and what makes it different?

In short, AsktheTraveller is a hybrid tour operator/ marketplace.

We put our clients in touch with local experts who we work with to tailor your perfect trip. However, unlike many travel marketplaces, we offer a full service including flights, visas, plus the personal service you may find from a concierge company.

Cutting out the middleman will result in lower costs for superior itineraries. You may want a restaurant booking for a celebration, tickets for shows, sports or events, with local transportation. In some locations our partners can get you access to tourist attractions out of hours, for private viewings, a guide with keys to places only those in the know will see. This comes at a price of course, but if this is what you are looking for we can arrange it.

Our tours will cater to mid range and high end travellers. You advise the budget and we work with that to create a holiday you will always remember. What we don’t sell are package holidays out of a brochure. We don’t compete in this space. We do put together packages, but they are completely tailor-made and crafted to your exact requirements.

We are very proud of our repeat clients and word of mouth referral.

What is your smallest and largest booking?

In terms of cost, the smallest booking would be something like a hotel only in Edinburgh for 2 nights and the largest would be either an expedition cruise or clients using a private jet for their 2 or 3 week journey.

In terms of planning, the smallest would be a European city break and the largest would be a multi stop itinerary with multiple components all put together to create the detailed itinerary. This could include hotels, tours, self drive, flights, trains and a cruise all in the same itinerary.

It all comes down to budget. It’s one of the first questions we ask to make sure we’re quoting to match your expectations. For example a safari could cost £1,700pp or £10,000pp+, a cruise could be £899pp or £20,000pp. Every client is different. Some will fly economy class to the Seychelles or Bora Bora, but then stay in a suite at the Four Seasons, where others may fly business class to the States, then pick up a Kia Sportage and take a road trip.

Name 3 bucket list destinations for you?

  1. Easter Island (Where the co-owner has been to, very jealous....)

  2. Kamchatka Peninsula (on a Silversea expedition cruise)

  3. Torres del Paine National Park

You’ll notice Chile is high up on my current list.

Name destinations you loved or you felt did not live up to expectations

There’s so many to mention, I love Ireland, I left Berlin on my first visit to Germany thinking Wow! Then there’s the iconic destinations, seeing New York for the first time, Uluru (Ayers Rock), Sydney Harbour, The Rockies, Terracotta Warriors, The Pyramids and so on. You don’t have to travel far either, we’re here in Guernsey at the moment and this is also a great place to visit.

Nowhere really disappoints, however I do give a wide berth to destinations 100% catering to the alcohol led, package holiday, where customers have little interest in seeing local culture.

Finally how has the travel industry changed since you joined?

In many ways. Pricing is very dynamic now. In the mid-nineties, we had annual contracts with the airlines with the odd special thrown in from time to time. Today you can check an airfare on 3 different days and get 3 different prices. I like the fact that, generally speaking, the travel industry can hold and take deposits on package airfares. Airlines and online travel agencies will want full payment at the time of reservation, with a few exceptions.

Online travel agencies and accommodation wholesalers are everywhere now. As I’ve said before, competition is a good thing, but I do see customer perception thinking these booking channels are the cheapest. They are not. Tied in with this are the companies providing customer feedback on destinations, hotels, suppliers etc. This is not always transparent, and I still prefer working with selected partners where we know the product and can offer a hotel confidently. My confidence in looking after our clients is far higher when dealing with suppliers and partners directly.

As a tour operator, when we sell ground product along with international flights, our customers are fully covered and protected under our ATOL protection. When clients take individual elements on their holiday and book themselves, they are not covered. I don’t like travel companies, many of whom have gone bust, who set themselves up outside the UK to avoid all our consumer protection. Sadly, it can affect those who are fully compliant.

It’s still generally the case, that the earlier you book, the better deal you will get. Yes, specials come out now and again, but we don’t see them coming. Experience though helps. If you want to book a flight to New York in March for a November break and I’m seeing £700 fares, I would reserve the hotel and maybe hold off on the flight unless your dates are fixed. I don’t like the new system of applying charges for all the extras. I like to see a price to Budapest and know that’s my flight, my checked in bag, a snack and seats when online check in opens. These additional charges are great for the airlines bottom line, but frustrate the hell out of me!

The legacy carriers have watched the low cost carriers apply all these extra charges and have decided they’re missing out on this revenue. Also, when someone asks for a weekend in Rome in 2 weeks time, they wonder why they’re charging £400 on a so called low cost carrier, when a national carrier may have a £190 fare. It’s all down to availability of course, and could be the other way around, but people see £29 one way fares (who buys one way fares?) and expect to get that next month to Ibiza.

We jump through hoops, and quite rightly so, for consumer protection and we’re all on a level playing field these days. In my opinion, you should never book a package holiday through a company without an ATOL. I often hear ‘’but my credit card has protection’’ try calling VISA from Cambodia when your guide hasn’t turned up, the contact number is ringing unanswered and the hotel you’re staying at has no reservation for you. Protection is a necessity, both through bonding and travel insurance.

The thing that hasn’t changed is that people still love to travel.

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