Trailfinders legend Sir Mike Gooley lets rip at Ministers over travel shambles

Principled: Sir Mike Gooley also criticises holiday firms that held on to travellers’ money after cancelled trips

This was the year Sir Mike Gooley was supposed to be winding down towards retirement. But after five decades in charge of Trailfinders, the 84-year-old has been as busy as ever. Gooley’s current daily routine starts at the ungodly hour of 4am, when he rises to plot the next step in securing the future of the travel business he founded in 1970. 

Not only has the Covid pandemic left most holiday businesses fighting for survival, but the Government’s incessant flip-flopping on international travel rules has added a thick layer of complexity to Gooley’s already tremendous workload. 

As if to underline the point as we talk at Trailfinders’ headquarters in Kensington, West London, Gooley’s wife pops in to lament the inordinate amount of time he spends working at their kitchen table each morning. 

And in what has become his trademark style in 51 years of business, Gooley himself pulls no punches when asked whether Ministers could have spared him a few of those early starts. 

‘The Government’s approach to travel doesn’t seem logical and consistent,’ he says. 

‘Travel seems to be getting on the wrong end of the decisions. It seems to have been unfairly penalised when airports and airlines have made significant efforts,’ he adds, in their bid to make travel Covid-secure. 

‘When you go to a country which has no greater or a lower infection rate than the UK, like Malta, and have to go through all these quarantine and PCR tests and so on, what’s the difference between getting on a train in Manchester and coming to London? 

‘We have become a risk-averse society. We’re very docile. I think even if you went back 20 years people would have been up in arms, saying, ‘Look, if I want to risk getting bloody Covid, I will’.’ 

Gooley accepts there’s an argument that if you bring back a variant of Covid, you put other people at risk, but says of Government policy: ‘At times, it doesn’t make any sense.’

The newly ennobled octogenarian is a powerful voice in his industry. An ex-Army man, he founded the package trips firm as regular international travel started to become more accessible to middle-class families in the early 1970s. He has since grown the company into a nationwide high street brand, serving many millions of customers. 

Lately, Gooley has been busily keeping a ‘Covid obituary list’ of travel firms that have bitten the dust. To prevent further casualties, he has three key demands for the Government as the travel industry looks to salvage foreign breaks this summer. 

First, he wants the requirement for testing to be scrapped for the fully vaccinated when they return from a green list country (which currently includes the likes of Australia, Iceland and Gibraltar), saving time and money for travellers.

Second, he wants VAT on PCR tests to be ditched. He explains: ‘This is a new source of income. We’re not asking the Chancellor to give it up as it never existed before – and it’s discouraging travel.’ 

Third, he believes that lengthy queues at immigration to the UK are putting passengers off travelling. Officials at English airports were last week told to stop checking Covid forms for arrivals from green or amber list countries, but Gooley argues more needs to be invested in extra Border Force agents to cut waiting times.

He says: ‘For someone to stand for six hours trying to get refreshments or have a pee is not exactly good for your health, is it? I couldn’t do it. I can’t actually stand for more than five or ten minutes.’ 

Gooley’s office sits in a sprawling collection of buildings dotted around Kensington High Street. Chief executive Toby Kelly, a 22- year company veteran, takes me on a tour through a labyrinth of largely empty desks, with many employees still working from home. 

Despite the desolate scene, there’s plenty of signs of the lifeblood of the company: huge landscapes from every continent dominate the walls. There’s even a laundry room, a hangover from when Trailfinders was run by backpackers. 

After leaving the Army, Gooley, inspired by his own globe-trotting exploits, set up shop catering for the scores of Australian backpackers in Earl’s Court. 

‘It was eight weeks before we did our first booking. And she cancelled two days later,’ he recalls. 

A painting of him in a tilting Land Rover in Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – bogged down on a notorious section of road stands above the boardroom table, a fond memory from an epic roadtrip from London to Nairobi in the 1970s. 

He proudly shows me a black and white shot of him as captain of the SAS rugby squad in the early 1960s. He admits he struggles to identify with some of his long-retired Army peers, with work still dominating his time. These days time away from the office is spent eating out or watching sport. 

The past year has been tough, but Gooley describes Trailfinders’ finances as ‘bombproof’. The pandemic has cost the business at least £50million, but left a healthy £275million of cash on the books. 

Recently filed accounts show that turnover crashed from £849million to £107million in the year to late February 2021, with a profit of £42million becoming a £44million loss. Nearly 20 per cent of his 1,000- strong workforce remain on furlough and more than 400,000 trips have had to be rescheduled. The company has refunded £246million to clients. 

Gooley says he learnt to take a prudent approach to business from the experience of his mother, who ran a successful maternity home during the Second World War, only to lose her fortune following a stroke, and competition from the NHS. Gooley says: ‘That made a huge impression on me, to keep reserves. And I’ve squirrelled away the whole time.’

His caution is writ large at Trailfinders, where there’s no sign of gung-ho expansion. New additions to its 41 branches nationwide are made cautiously, and senior hires are from its own workforce only. 

Bookings are at about 200 a day, down from 1,000 pre-Covid. Spain, Greece and countries on the green list are currently popular, with Canada the post-pandemic pick of the bunch. Customers now book further ahead, typically nine rather than six months before their trip. 

Although Covid has devastated Trailfinders in the short-term, Gooley believes there may be a silver lining: customers struggling with the administrative headaches of rearranging plans with airlines, hotels and transport companies may now be more likely to seek the certainty of a travel agent. Trailfinders, which trades solely through advisers in its stores and call centre, has had to fight the rise of holidaymakers opting for direct online booking over the past two decades. 

Gooley says: ‘The vast majority of our bookings are not straightforward, and some are very complex – five different airlines, seven destinations, for example.’ 

He says it ‘hurts’ to see rivals, such as Expedia, winning simpler business which takes less customer care. But he says organising complex trips provides a unique place in the market for Trailfinders. 

Gooley says the pandemic has proven exactly why he has long campaigned for all travel companies to emulate Trailfinders by keeping customers’ money in a separate account from the moment they book to the end of their trip. 

He says of travel firms: ‘For them to use your money for any other reason than to discharge what you thought you’d bought is embezzlement as far as I’m concerned.’ 

As customers have battled for refunds, Gooley has been demanding that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps step in. 

The Civil Aviation Authority is consulting on reforms to the Air Travel Organiser’s Licence (Atol) financial protection scheme,. 

However, Gooley says his peers are dragging their feet: ‘Because it’s like asking the fox how they’d like the hen coup secured.’