The Big Interview: Flavours Holidays founder Lorne Blyth

The travel industry is having to reinvent itself, says Flavours Holidays founder Lorne Blyth.

The company was born out of the travel boss' love of Italy, its food and cooking. Picture: Calum Blyth.
The company was born out of the travel boss' love of Italy, its food and cooking. Picture: Calum Blyth.

Lorne Blyth is the founder of Edinburgh-based specialist tour operator Flavours Holidays, whose mainly Italy-focused trips incorporate activities such as cooking, painting, and language-learning. She started the firm after graduating with a languages degree and working as a tour guide.

The firm started out offering just week-long holidays in Lazio, Italy. However, it soon expanded across the country and into Spain, with support from the likes of Business Gateway Edinburgh. In February, it announced plans to target the lucrative US market as part of a growth push set to include an Edinburgh recruitment drive after a bumper two-year spell that had seen headcount double to 12.

Fast-forward to May, when lockdown was in full swing, the business revealed that it was offering online courses and activity holidays in Scotland, such as a pilates, photography and cooking retreat, in a 17th-century former customs house in Elie and an Edinburgh Festive Fling break in stately Georgian manor Drylaw House.

“Despite being in one of the industries hardest-hit, I knew we would survive in the way we’ve done before if we all rallied round,” she said at the time.

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Give us a little bit of background on your business.

I founded Flavours Holidays in 1998. The company was born out of my love of Italy, its food and cooking, and wanting to offer an authentic experience for travellers who were keen to get to the heart of a place. Initially, we offered just week-long holidays in Lazio, but that soon changed.

Today, our specialist holidays have expanded their reach to Tuscany, Sicily, Puglia, Amalfi, Bologna and Venice, and we also go to Andalusia in Spain. We offer specialist cooking, painting, pilates, photography, and language-learning holidays with experienced local tutors.

As well as working with local experts, I knew I wanted to hand-pick the best locations and accommodation, and I still personally choose each new villa and area we take Flavours guests to. I believe passionately in responsible tourism and have always strived to positively impact the local economy in the regions in which we operate over the past 22 years.

I’m proud to have established a loyal customer base and our guests love to return to Flavours, with more than 40 per cent booking more than once. Many have been on several holidays with us, trying a new location and activity each time. They tell us that they love the small, like-minded groups, the delicious food, and the relaxed nature of our holidays.

They also relish discovering new places with the inside knowledge of our Flavours host to hand. Everything is included (yes, even wine and Prosecco!). I also made a commitment right from the beginning that solo travellers wouldn’t have to pay any extra – so we never charge single supplements.

I have a dedicated team in Edinburgh and at all our locations. We all genuinely want guests to have a wonderful holiday, learning, relaxing, eating and meeting other like-minded travellers from across the world – such as the US and Australia.

The travel industry has been devastated by Covid, how have you adapted? How have you had to change your business model and headcount?

My aim from the start was to ensure we came through this with all my team still together and the business intact. My strategy was to focus on my customers, my team, and our suppliers – my mantra became communicate, communicate, communicate!

We set up focus groups with customers to understand their concerns, virtual meetings with all our suppliers, from villa-owners to bus drivers, and implemented a [lean workflow-management method] Kanban way of working with the team, who were having to adjust to working remotely. This ensured greater team focus and meant we could quickly identify any problems as they occurred.

I raised a few eyebrows by not furloughing any of my team during this time, instead choosing to adapt the business and continue to keep our name out there. Back in March, the situation for travel was changing daily, often hour by hour, and I quickly realised the situation with travel was out of our control.

As such, we had to adapt and pivot the business by introducing online classes so that we were still able to give our customers the Flavours experience from their own homes as well as offering a way to reconnect with like-minded people.

Something Flavours Holidays has always done is to bring people together and many of our guests have become friends over the years, so in this strange time whereby many people have been cut off from friends and family, our online classes have been a nice way of connecting people.

We offered live cooking lessons with our chefs from their kitchens all over Italy, our painting teachers began working with groups over Zoom, and our pilates, photography and language teachers also began offering their classes online. We have even launched Flamenco dancing lessons!

I was amazed at how well-received the online classes were, with more than 100 sign-ups in the first week of going live. It was great to see people coming together, albeit virtually, and it has also been a good way of keeping our wonderful tutors engaged.

One thing that became very clear from our focus groups was the demand for staycations. I set out to put together a programme of Scottish holidays to capture this demand. Being Scottish, it was a great joy to add this to our offering, and I’m delighted that from this September we are launching painting holidays in the Highlands, wellness weekends in Edinburgh, and a taster week of painting, pilates and photography in Elie.

We’ve got some beautiful properties lined up and demand has been strong. Last month we also introduced a wine club, and have plans for a food box service to accompany our online cooking classes to begin this autumn.

How long do you think it will take the international travel market to recover and what are likely to be the emerging hotspots?

From our own surveys, we know that people are still thinking, planning and hoping to travel at some point; however, in the short term there’s still concern over flying and quarantine restrictions. We have guests booked and ready to travel with us this autumn, and we will be operating approximately 20 per cent of our normal programmes, but for the majority, their plans are on hold until next year.

Our 2021 bookings are strong, and as Italy is always a favourite travel destination, we are confident of operating our full programme from March. Outside Europe I think it may take longer for markets to recover and guests’ appetite for long-haul destinations to return.

We have done our best to reassure our guests who are wanting to travel internationally and help them navigate the return to travel, including offering guidance on insurance and what to expect from the journey. We’ve tried to offer further piece of mind through our Flavour Flexible Promise, which allows guests to rebook within a 24-month period if they are unable to travel or feel uncomfortable in doing so yet.

Are you able to provide any financial/revenue projections for the current/coming year?

At the start of 2020 we were on target to deliver 30 per cent growth and reach £3 million turnover. Forecasts have been revisited and we expect our turnover to be down by 70 per cent. It might be 2022 before we return to our targeted levels of growth.

What will be the main legacy from this crisis?

For me personally, I will appreciate travel and the freedom to travel much more. Over the years I realise I have become somewhat complacent, jumping on flights as you would buses.

As I boarded my first flight since Covid to Italy at Edinburgh Airport in early July, I was surprised at just how excited I was – as well as emotional – at gaining my freedom back.

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