Interview – Denis Wormwell, chief executive of Shearings Holidays

article-1200599-05C267BC000005DC-298_468x441Think of coach holidays and the image that springs to mind is usually Kenneth Williams wrestling with a microphone and Hattie Jacques while leading a reluctant tour party off on a British holiday of rain and dingy hotels. It is an image that Denis Wormwell, chief executive of Shearings Holidays, is keen to move away from.

Shearings – formed two years ago from the merger of Yorkshire company Wallace Arnold and Lancashire-based Shearings – is now the UK’s biggest coach holiday operator, carrying nearly a million passengers a year in 284 vehicles.

While Wormwell, 47, is keen to hold on to the heritage of the two companies, he is eager to bring the coach holiday into the 21st Century. ‘We want to be modern and progressive,’ he says. ‘There is a popular misconception that our holidays mean a coach full of old people.

‘But our market is changing – the baby-boomer generation is right at the heart of who we are targeting, and that could mean anything from people who grew up with Woodstock to people who grew up with Live Aid.

‘Coaches nowadays are clean, modern, good enough for Premier League footballers – if they were called landcruisers the business would have a very different image.’

While Shearings specialises in holidays for the over-50s, Wormwell emphasises that this doesn’t make it fuddy-duddy. ‘It’s not like the golden years,’ he says.

‘It’s a lifestyle product attracting people whose children have left home and they are free to go travelling again.

‘The over-50s have got two thirds of the country’s wealth and take more holidays than any other group so we specialise in that market and it’s a great market to be in.’

Wine-tasting and cookery tours are a long way from Wormwell’s first business, Club 18-30, which he helped relaunch in 1991 before joining Thomas Cook as sales and operations director. He then spent five years as chief executive of National Express.

He admits some customers still yearn for cabaret-and-bingo holidays, but says a lot more want active breaks, such as walking weekends, railway journeys, river cruises, city breaks or cooking holidays, all of which Shearings offers as well as the latest concept – the credit crunch-inspired ‘nano-break’, which Wormwell describes as a ‘2009 invention where you just go away for Saturday night so it’s much cheaper’.

‘It’s the same with holidays. The traditional 14-day holiday is now more likely to be ten days, or people are taking five days off rather than seven. You feel as if you’ve had a long holiday, but you’re trading down while still treating yourself.’

No holiday company is immune from the recession, but Wormwell hopes that Shearings is well positioned to take advantage of the growing number of people holidaying in the UK, giving rise to that other buzzword, the ‘staycation’.

Boosted by the Met Office’s predictions of a roasting summer – which apart from the recent heatwave has yet to materialise fully – bookings at Shearings are already up ten per cent this year with a growing number of people moving from self-catering into full board, so they know exactly what their holiday will cost in advance.

And Shearings isn’t just about coach holidays, with 50 hotels throughout the UK (search for hotel breaks), including the flagship Windermere Hotel in the Lake District. Yet many of its guests will have no idea they are staying in a Shearings hotel.

Wormwell says: ‘We’re the ninth-biggest-hotel group in the UK, yet you’ve never heard of us.

‘The business model means that we can target people taking weekend breaks and have our coach parties staying with us midweek. So our utilisation on the hotels is currently about 78 per cent, which is well above industry average.’

Wormwell arrived in 2007 and one of his first acts was to organise a sale and leaseback on the hotels, which not only freed up cash, but enabled Shearings to concentrate on operating them instead of owning them.

Accounts just filed up to the end of 2008 show the company has transformed an £854,000 pre-tax loss into a £948,000 profit, which should delight its largest shareholder, venture capital group 3i.

‘We now cover every leisure destination in the UK – the seaside, Scotland-Lake District and countryside,’ Wormwell says proudly. ‘We’ve got some great hotels and some of the best views in the UK are from our bedrooms.’

While some of Shearings’ hotels could be classed in the budget sector, the company has just introduced Coast & Country, the brand for 13 of its upmarket hotels, which means that in some towns where it has two hotels it can market one for its coach holidays and one for independent travellers.

Wormwell, who has just been nominated to the board of the Government’s tourism body, Visit England, admits to never having been on a full Shearings coach break, though he has spent the first day on one, travelling to Llandudno.

And he recently took his wife and four children, aged between five and 15, to stay in the Windermere for the weekend.

His home is in the Ribble Valley in Lancashire and he spends many weekends watching Burnley football club. If Shearings can emulate the Clarets’ recent success in promotion to the Premier League, Wormwell, who used to play bass guitar in the Tiger Tails punk band in his youth, will be a happy man.

His current priorities are growing the customer base, continuing to pay down Shearings’ £20million debt pile, increasing turnover and profits and looking for growth opportunities. And, of course, keeping his fingers crossed about the weather.

‘We’re confident that there’s a lot of nostalgia towards British holidays at the moment and if the weather does us a favour, we should have a great time,’ he says.

SOURCE: Daily Mail

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