The Big Interview: Jacqueline Dobson, president of Barrhead Travel

Jacqueline Dobson is the president of Barrhead Travel, which was founded in 1975 by Bill Munro, and started out as a “traditional ‘bucket and spade’ travel agent”.

It has grown from one high-street shop to more than 80 locations across the UK, is now “a multi-faceted travel group offering bespoke holidays to all corners of the globe”, and was in 2018 taken over by major US player Travel Leaders Group.

Ms Dobson started with the Glasgow-headquartered business more than 20 years ago, and earlier this year scooped the Contribution to Travel prize in the Travel Trade Gazette Top 50 Awards – with the accolade seen as a UK “travel Oscar”. She said at the time that it was a great honour, adding: “The whole travel sector has been dramatically impacted by Covid-19. Thanks to a lot of commitment and innovation, we have weathered the storm.”

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You’ve described the last year, not surprisingly, as the “most challenging” of your career. Can you explain how you and Barrhead approached this, for example you lobbied the government to support the travel industry, and the firm enabled staff to work for the NHS...

The travel boss says that in her career she has never turned down an opportunity to learn or progress. Picture: John Devlin.The travel boss says that in her career she has never turned down an opportunity to learn or progress. Picture: John Devlin.
The travel boss says that in her career she has never turned down an opportunity to learn or progress. Picture: John Devlin.

All I had ever seen as a business leader was growth. When the pandemic hit, we had just started the biggest expansion in our history with plans for 100 new stores, and then suddenly, like many other businesses, we were in survival mode.

My priority was our employees and customers. We had to move our teams to homeworking overnight, trying to get tech sorted for everyone, while at the same time grappling with a mountain of 40,000 cancellations.

It was a testing time for all of us, but my attitude was “right, let’s get this job done”. I did a lot of Taekwondo when I was young, and I think that’s made me very determined and disciplined.

I’ve spent the last year lobbying to ensure that the Scottish travel industry has had a voice at government level and to ensure our sector’s specific needs have been understood. This is something we’ve not specifically had to look at as a business but I’m proud of our team at Barrhead Travel – I believe we have made a valuable impact and have led the way for crucial financial support for the industry this year.

She says the last year or so has been 'testing', but her attitude was 'right, let’s get this job done'. Picture: John Devlin.She says the last year or so has been 'testing', but her attitude was 'right, let’s get this job done'. Picture: John Devlin.
She says the last year or so has been 'testing', but her attitude was 'right, let’s get this job done'. Picture: John Devlin.

You’ve also called for a “four nations” approach to foreign travel – why do you feel this is so essential?

It would be bad news for travellers for Scotland to have a different red, amber and green system from England. You could have the scenario of holidaymakers in Scotland travelling down south to Manchester or even London to fly out to destinations.

That would spell disaster for the long-term future of Scottish airports, with carriers pulling out to relocate to airports south of the Border. And, of course, it would add significantly to the costs of travelling abroad for Scottish holidaymakers.

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Thankfully, the First Minister seems to be more aligned to the four nations approach although we still have concerns about the costs of testing that the Scottish Government is imposing on international arrivals.

While green destinations are limited, it is a positive move that will support the gradual recovery of the travel industry. We hope to see more green destinations become available to help the summer market gain momentum.

Overall, what’s your opinion of the way the travel industry has been treated by the Scottish and UK governments? In April last year you said the grants they offered didn’t “align”...

For the travel industry as whole, the biggest challenge was ensuring that both the UK and Scotland governments understood how vital the sector was to jobs and the economy. The travel industry is very unique so it was also challenging to ensure our specific needs were communicated at government level.

Yes, there were times when we felt our voice was not being heard, but we appreciate there were many competing demands from UK business on government for support.

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We proactively explored other business options to help preserve as many jobs as possible and reached out to the Scottish Government to offer our services and resources to continue the fight against coronavirus.

The end result was a partnership with NHS Scotland to provide highly skilled personnel for national contact tracing efforts. We are proud that we played a part in supporting our NHS while keeping skilled colleagues in work until we were able to begin to reopen stores. We were also delighted that we could play a small part in supporting the NHS and the country in the fight against coronavirus.

You’ve highlighted how the majority of Barrhead Travel’s workforce is female – and the firm is helping to smash the glass ceiling. Can you explain more about this?

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Gender balance is not a tick-the-box exercise, but good business sense. More than 70 per cent of our workforce is female, seven out of nine of our directors are women, many of whom started as trainees and have progressed as the business has expanded – myself included.

The hardest part in the career journey is getting off the “sticky floor” – that first stage of a career and then the navigating through the “frozen middle”. There must be opportunities to advance no matter what stage you are at. We believe that being a mum or having a family is a career asset, not a hindrance.

And there also had to be a clear career pathway to the top. We aim to ensure 75 per cent of senior positions are filled from within through promotions and personal development plans.

To what extent has the pandemic changed consumers’ appetite for travel – and how much/what kind of business do you expect to do in the next 12 months?

The appetite for travel still exists, there’s no doubt about that. Since the vaccine rollout, we have seen a massive release of pent-up demand for holidays abroad, with bookings for later this year and into 2022.

One thing to remember is that we are not just talking about holidays. Many families have not seen relatives living abroad for over a year now.

Our customers want to feel safe about travelling again, both from a health and financial point of view. We have rolled out our Stress-Free Guarantee, which pledges full refunds and more flexible booking options. Travel insurance will be more important than ever and we’ve also been able to negotiate dedicated insurance policies customers can purchase to protect their holiday booking for Covid-19 scenarios – for example, catching it before or during their holiday.

We are asking governments for a more detailed roadmap to recovery for reopening international travel to support consumer confidence. This includes setting out plans for practical and affordable airport testing to work towards removing the need for quarantine. Testing affordability will be crucial for the leisure market to begin to bounce back.

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Your career at Barrhead started more than two decades ago – how did you get into the business and how did you progress to your current role?

When in doubt, just say yes. From starting as a trainee in 1993 to being appointed President of Barrhead Travel in 2018, I don’t think I ever turned down an opportunity to learn or progress, no matter how daunting. Working in every area, including commercial negotiations, business acquisition, marketing communications and luxury travel gave me the experience I needed to navigate the company through the challenges of the last year.

I joined Barrhead Travel in 2000 as a senior luxury sales consultant. Shortly after, I established a standalone VIP division and led a new sales department as the business continued to grow.

A management buyout in 2007 led to my appointment as managing director. Perfect timing as we steered a team through a series of branch expansions and business acquisitions, while simultaneously navigating through a recession.

You have also said that after providing holidays for 46 years, the firm is looking forward to doing the same for the next 46. How do you aim to achieve this?

We have climbed a mountain over the last year and no doubt there will be other challenges ahead as we move out of the pandemic. What worked well for us in the last 46 years will work again for the next 46 years and that is a focus on great customer service.

Technology will play a part in this. I believe we saw three years’ worth of digital evolution over the last year, with remote working and new systems.

However, people do value that personal touch. They want to speak to experts, who have been there, seen it and brought back the holiday T-shirt. Emerging technology will only ever complement what is our best asset in the business – our people.

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