Holiday co-op hopes for a helping hand from sector

Brian Smith has spent most of his professional life as a top executive in the motoring industry. Now he is the driving force behind a co-operative holiday organisation,...

As Chief Executive of HF Holidays, he has overseen the re-launch and re-branding of the provider which for many years was known as the Holiday Fellowship. 

On taking over, his top priority was to raise public awareness: “We have a fantastic product that unfortunately far too few have ever heard about, but the potential is pretty enormous. For the four years I have been in this job we have been improving the quality of our holiday experience and the way we are performing. A year ago we updated our website and bookings are significantly up. We are also forging a closer partnership with the National Trust, which owns two of our properties.”

HF Holidays began life 97 years ago at a time when outdoor holidays for the poor were seen as an antidote to the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. “We were set up by people who wanted to provide sociable holidays for young people to get them out of the factories and into the fresh air.” 

HF Holidays now owns 15 country houses in the UK and operates two others on behalf of the National Trust in Coniston in the Lake District and Devon. And the organisation has travelled a long way from its original remit. 

“Our holidays attract everyone from taxi drivers to professors and all ages, with an increasing number of families with children. We offer them the chance to enjoy exercise and sociability and be part of a real community. 

“We are also very popular with single people and 40 per cent of the accommodation is single rooms. It really doesn’t matter whether you are single or married because the minute you turn up you are treated as an individual.” 

The co-operative, which now has 30,000 members also prides itself on the affordability of its holidays which offer accommodation, meals and guided walks all-in. 

Most holidays are in the UK, but HF Holidays also operates worldwide — 80 per cent of its holidays focus on walking and cycling and two-thirds are in the UK. But there are also yoga, painting and ‘Mind and Body’ short breaks and holidays at dozens of destinations.

Brian joined HF Holidays after a career in the motor industry. An economics graduate of Aberdeen University, he worked for Fords and was MD of Continental Tyres for 15 years  He says: “Knowing first-hand how good HF holidays were and having spent most of my life in industry, I wanted to bring energy and commitment into an organisation which in three years will celebrate its 100th anniversary. I hope by then we will have created an even more dynamic and energetic organisation.” 

Last year, Brian says HF Holidays became part of Co-operatives UK: “We wanted to become better known and we wanted to be able to co-operate in discussions in the mainstream Co-op Movement. It’s going well, we are having discussions with the Co-op Bank and we want people to know we are very much open for business, though to be honest at the moment we are having to do most of the running, which is a bit disappointing. But we will continue to build contacts and I have also taken up the opportunity to join the board of Co-ops UK.”

Sadly, HF Holidays’ hope of a much closer relationship with Co-operative Travel are now on hold following the recent announcement of the venture with Thomas Cook 

“We will have to find out how that goes, but for now it is on the back burner as we don’t know where that will go.

“HF Holidays, like most other concerns in the holiday industry, has had a difficult number of years. Two years ago when Lehman Brothers collapsed our bookings fell off the cliff, but since then business is back to where it was. 

“We are stable and growing and our number one focus is to continue to improve and ensure we deliver to every single customer. Ninety-three per cent of those who take holidays with us say they would come again and they recommend us to their friends.” 

“Our partnership with the National Trust gives us access to 3.8 million members and we also have a working relationship with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers which has 270,000 members.”

HF Holidays has some 380 employees and 900 walking leaders who help plan holidays over the globe. Over 50,000 guests holiday with the society each year and its assets are valued at around £20 million.

Joining the co-op requires a minimum investment of £100 in shares raised. In the last few years Brian has also helped raise £1m in capital funding All shareholding members benefit not only from annual interest on their investment, but also from special ‘members only’ offers, an advance booking service, a Country House saving scheme and they may vote in board elections. Investment members with more than £1,000 shares are allocated a personal holiday advisor and receive extra discounts.

2010 also saw the accolade of winning the ‘Best Large Tour Operator 2010’ award at the Guardian and Observer Travel Awards — ahead of big-name companies such as Virgin, Kuoni and Thomas Cook. 

The holiday provider won the award for having the highest customer satisfaction rating of 97.4 per cent and also came a close second in the ‘Best Short Break Operator’ category with a rating of 97.7 per cent. 

Adds Brian: “Our consistent attention to quality, customer experience and our personal relationship with guests marks us out from our competitors, and this is reflected in the business performance and growth we have been experiencing. Already bookings for 2011 are 10 per cent up on 2010 and this award will help us continue this progress.”


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