With a philosophy of simplicity and creating memorable experiences, Riviera is prospering, as MD David Clemson tells Sam Ballard.
When it comes to running a tour operator, it’s important to get the basics right. Product, service and logistics are all key, as is identity. Once those are all in place, it’s quite simple, really. Or at least that’s how David Clemson, the managing director of Riviera Travel makes it sound.
“Fundamentally it’s down to creating experiences that people will enjoy,” explains Clemson, who joined Riviera Travel in 2008. “It doesn’t matter if it’s on land or on water, whether it’s ocean or river. That’s irrelevant. It’s all about getting the best possible travel experience for the customer.
“If someone is visiting a part of the world, how can we ensure that they are seeing the right things? If you’re visiting India for the first time, you will want to see the Taj Mahal – but it will be the local life that will give you a talking point when you see your friends at home. It’s those memories, that you’re not necessarily expecting, that people talk about the most. That’s what we consider when we’re designing a product.”
Riviera Travel, which was founded in 1984, operated for years through reader offer collaborations in newspapers, giving consumers the opportunity to visit far-flung destinations that were seemingly approved by their newspaper of choice – be it The Guardian or The Telegraph. The company launched its first river ship in 2013 and capitalised on what has been one of the fastest-growing trends in the industry. It now also repackages ocean cruises with land tours and charters smaller ocean ships in some regions outside of Europe. Its land offering has substantially grown, too. You can now take a Riviera holiday on any of the world’s continents.
That growth is built on the experience of its staff. Clemson proudly tells me that the company has never used a DMC to put its tours together and that its youngest product manager has at least 12 years of experience. Some of his team have been in the industry for 20 years. “We aim to deliver what we know our customers will like,” he adds. “Our success has come because we deliver great products.”
It’s that philosophy of simplicity that has helped the company grow and develop customer loyalty – an achievement that is even more impressive when you consider the fact that Riviera holidays were often also badged by a national newspaper.
In 2012 Riviera began selling through the trade after a competitor bought up their space in the printed press. Faced with the decision of what to do next, they decided that they had no interest in going direct yet – so looked at shifting their distribution to travel agents. The effect was immediate. “We work with any independent travel agent that wants to work with us,” Clemson explains. “That has done phenomenally well and the trade now accounts for 25 per cent of our overall business. It really captured the imagination of agents.”
While trade business grew rapidly (Clemson: “we always knew there was an undercurrent of business there”), the company still had a lot to do to convince agents to send their customers away with what was a relatively unknown brand to them. The Riviera boss admits that there was some initial nervousness from agents during the period between booking and customers experiencing the product for the first time.
“Once we got to the point where people were seeing and appreciating the quality of what we offer it started to mushroom. We now have a really good relationship with the trade and long may it continue – agents are very good at driving new customers for us.”
The success of Riviera’s business model is simple, according to Clemson: “We’re not greedy with our pricing.”
Fundamentally that means that the company is rooted in the “concept of driving value to the consumer”. Riviera says it finds the highest-quality product that it can and offers it for the best-possible price: the company’s river ships, for example, are created by the same builders as Tauck – however, the price point is about a third of the luxury operator. Unsurprisingly, it’s a way of doing business that has attracted its fair share of admirers.
In 2014, Phoenix Equity Partners acquired a majority stake in the company – bought from Michael Wright, the company’s founder. Last year, the company was bought by Silverfleet Capital in a deal thought to be worth around £200 million. With a turnover of £165.2 million recorded in its latest set of accounts, Riviera has gone from strength to strength. When it comes to headwinds, however, there is one thing on Clemson’s radar: “Our first, second and third biggest challenges are all about consumer confidence,” he says. “Frankly, that’s all about the political situation in this country right now.”
For Riviera, as with many other travel companies, the impact of Brexit has meant a proportion of customers are holding off booking this year’s holidays. “You can see it very clearly when it comes to European destinations,” he adds. “But, it’s not affecting long-haul for us at all. Despite that, we’re having a great year – I just know that we would be doing better if it wasn’t for all this turmoil.”
As Riviera continues to ride the wave of its equity investment, the question arises of what the company’s future will look like. For Clemson, as with the way he runs his business, the answer is simple. “We’re going to continue to drive an expansion of our product range. That’s in terms of new destinations and categories – although I can’t say too much about that, but we’ve got big plans to grow out our business in that way.
“We see us continuing to focus entirely on delivering great travel experiences to customers. We don’t plan to go beyond that.” Why fix what isn’t broken?