Sam Ballard chats to Andy Freeth and Gordon McCreadie from the trade-only luxury operator that has doubled its number of guests in one year
How do you define luxury? It is actually an incredibly personal thing. Whether it is by a hotel’s décor, the number of staff employed to wait on you hand and foot, or the lack of people you are sharing a destination with – everyone has different barometers. But one word that crops up time and time again is exclusivity.
That’s one of the reasons why bespoke holiday specialist If Only has been making such a name for itself. A relatively new player on the scene, the company was founded 17 years ago by Brendan Maguire as an Indian Ocean specialist. What started as a one man band has gone on to become a large operator with more than 100 staff. Over the last few years the company has taken its expansion further with a move into Australasia in 2016, followed by the US and Caribbean. There have been some high-profile hires – including that of Andy Freeth as managing director and Gordon McCreadie as sales and marketing director – a move into a new central Glasgow office and, perhaps most interestingly, a doubling of the company’s guests carried under its Atol licence from 8,200 to 15,387 per year. There is one thing that has remained static, however: If Only’s commitment to being a trade-only operator.
“This is an ambitious business. This is a growing business,” Freeth says. “The trade trust us. They appreciate that If Only is a destination expert. Our staff only take calls on certain places so they really know what they are talking about. That’s how we’re able to offer what we do: bespoke luxury holidays.”
When it comes to building up that expertise, If Only has a strategy that is two-fold. One is in its curated array of product, which is one of the reasons why it focused on the Indian Ocean and Arabia for so long before expanding into Australasia three years ago. That careful approach has, in turn, helped cultivate a team of people who know the destination inside out.
“We are experts in what we do,” Freeth says. “Traditionally that’s meant being an Indian Ocean luxury tour operator but we’ve launched more and more product recently – including the USA and the Caribbean. We’ll also be putting together a cruise programme and launching it this spring.”
The cruise sector is an interesting space for If Only to enter. Having dipped a toe in with players such as ultra-luxury line Silversea over the past couple of years, the firm is now preparing to dedicate more resource to an area that is booming. But how will it be able to stand out in what is becoming an increasingly crowded field?
“We have learned from our customers there is a need in the market for a high-end experience when it comes to cruising. If Only will offer a handpicked collection of cruises with a difference. Expect the touch of luxury If Only are known for, as we’ll be adding in five-star land stays as well as unique experiences with every package,” Freeth explains. “With the changes in package holiday regulations last year there is a real appetite among the trade – especially those who do not hold Atols – for a luxury tour operator like If Only to create something unique with
It’s a good point, and by packaging holidays up on behalf of agents, Freeth’s team are saving agents a lot of headaches, especially for those customers who are wealthy enough to want a totally bespoke holiday.
Freeth says If Only will continue to commit to the trade, evidenced by its growing sales team. The company not only has six business development managers in its on-the-road team, overseen by a sales director and a business development director, but it has also doubled the number of passengers it is licensed to carry per year. However, when it comes to getting agents to experience the product, If Only really do push the boat out, perhaps unsurprising considering that the trade are, according to Freeth, the company’s “lifeblood”.
“We are putting a huge amount of resources into fam trips,” explains Gordon McCreadie, If Only’s sales and marketing director. “We hosted 80 agents last year and we are already planning on hosting 120 this year. They are incredible opportunities for agents – they’re not like normal fam trips where you’re seeing 30 hotels in a day – with ours you really get to experience the product.”
It just so happens that in If Only’s case, that product is luxury holidays in some of the most exclusive destinations in the world. These trips are a reward for agents – learning through experiencing the service, rather than sitting through hours of seminars. Judging by the attention the company is receiving, it seems to be working.