Obituary: Harry Goodman, travel entrepreneur who made foreign holidays affordable to millions

Harry Goodman, entrepreneur. Born: 12 November 1938, London. Died: 12 March 2018, Tenerife, aged 79

Harry Goodman
Harry Goodman

Harry Goodman’s life was truly a rags-to-riches story. Considered the godfather of the low-cost package holiday, through his creation of iconic brands Intasun, Club 18-30 and budget carrier-forerunner Air Europe, he opened the barriers to foreign travel for millions of Britons while changing the face of package holidays over a 40-year love affair with the industry.

Intasun, later ILG, not only opened up Europe but the US too, and grew to be the UK’s second major tour operator behind Thomson Holidays; over a 17-year period the two dominant operators battled for supremacy. However, Goodman’s playboy lifestyle, with a Rolls Royce convertible, private yacht and jet, and his appetite for risk, came crashing down around him when ILG (International Leisure Group) collapsed in 1991, with debts of £500m.

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Known for his excesses, wild parties and penchant for drugs, Goodman received a conviction for possession of cocaine and found himself in rehab. He later declared, “The travel industry is my drug of choice – it didn’t used to be! – but it’s been my one lasting love affair and I am absolutely passionate about it.”

Goodman will be remembered for his generosity towards his staff, while inspiring and influencing many of today’s travel entrepreneurs and industry leaders.

He said there was always risk in business, declaring, “If you play to win, don’t be surprised if you lose. I came from the slums to meeting royalty and I’m grateful, not bitter.”

Born in 1938 into poverty in London’s East End, Harry Goodman was the son of Latvian Jewish immigrants Rebecca Aaronovitch and a father he did not know who died in a car accident before his birth. His mother wed Charles Goodman and the couple had two more boys. However, with the death of his mother from bowel cancer, Charles abandoned his family and, aged 12, Harry went to live with an aunt and uncle while his two half-brothers went to an orphanage.

Goodman left school at 15 and started work as a claims clerk, which he hated, but he was offered work by his next-door neighbour, who ran a travel agency in Hatton Garden. It was a revelation, “…exciting and glamorous… a kid from east London who had never been abroad… I was going to airports and visiting Spain, the weather was great, you could drink all day and the sun shone.”

After National Service, Goodman left travel and briefly established an employment agency in Bond Street, which made money quickly but was “like a cattle market”. He sold it two years later and “bought three travel agencies from a dentist in south London”.

In 1962, Goodman set up his first tour company, Sunair, when package holidays were in their infancy. Initially selling cheap holidays door-to-door, he likened the business to “the beginning of the gold rush”, with little regulation but plenty of customers keen to discover the newly developed beach resorts of Spain and Italy. Unable to keep up with competition from Clarksons, the first of the big cheap package holiday companies, the business eventually ran into financial trouble and was sold to Thomson Holidays in 1972.

A year later, Goodman set up Intasun and, with the demise of Court Line and Clarksons in 1974, it picked up over 65,000 of their customers; he had a team of people ready to contract Clarksons’ hotel rooms for as little as £1 per person perday, including breakfast and dinner. They sold out.

In 1979, only Thomson and Cosmos had their own in-house airlines, and as Goodman explained, Intasun was “like a Jack Russell snapping at a big dog’s heels”. New acquisitions continued, including Cambrian, which ran flights out of Cardiff, and Airways, which flew out of Newcastle, and Goodman brought in new personnel with the expertise to manage them.

The same year he launched Air Europe, a forerunner to the modern low-cost airlines, which became the first pan-European airline, with bases in all major UK airports as well as Madrid, Palma, Italy, Germany and Scandinavia.

Before long he announced unprecedented bargain holidays to Florida, using planes chartered from Laker Airways. With the sheer volume of calls for the first season’s £139-a-week holidays to Miami Beach, which sold out immediately, Intasun’s telephone exchange in Bromley, Kent, crashed. In 1982, he stepped in to benefit when the Laker Empire collapsed with debts of £250m.

Goodman later said the proudest moment of his working life was “sitting on my first aircraft flying back from Seattle and hearing the captain talking to air traffic control and saying: ‘Air Europe One, permission to land?’”

Intasun, valued at £44 million, was floated on the Stock Exchange in 1981, and four years later, with further acquisitions, was renamed ILG. It continued to enjoy phenomenal growth, snapping up Global, Lancaster and Club 18-30 with its “beach party” packages for singles. By the late 1980s it was taking more than two million people on holiday each year and paying 12.5 per cent commission to staff compared to Thomson’s 10 per cent.

ILG also bought a clutch of London hotels, which Goodman refurbished and sold on at a healthy profit. In 1987, tired of the City’s mistrust of him, he took back ownership via a management buyout.

By 1988 Air Europe was Britain’s second-largest scheduled carrier, following the demise of British Caledonian, flying to destinations such as Paris, Rome – where VIPs on the first flight were greeted by Pope John Paul II – and Munich, competing with British Airways before the deregulation of air travel in the EU in 1993 created a free for all.

The Gulf War of 1990-91 proved to be ILG’s undoing. Goodman had doubled Air Europe’s fleet, buying 30 new Boeing aircraft, and boasted that “we’ll always have more passengers than aircraft seats”. However, with Saddam Hussein’s threats of downing western planes, the airline was hit hard. A few days after the war ended, ILG collapsed, owing £500m, though industry safeguards meant no holiday customer lost any money. But 4,000 staff lost their jobs and Goodman was broke.

Already suffering from ill-health prior to the collapse, Goodman took time out to recuperate. After what he called his “wilderness years”, he reinvented himself and re-emerged in 1997, founding TV Travel Shop, the world’s first 24/7 TV channel selling holidays direct to the public. It was met with scorn from others but it succeeded and he sold it to broadcaster USA Networks in 2002 for £70m, pocketing £4.2m himself. In 2005, seeking the grey pound, Goodman’s last venture was as chief executive of 1st4cruising and its holding company, Totally Travel, but this went into liquidation in 2012.

He became chief barker of the Variety Club of Great Britain, raising over £20m for charitable causes, which brought him into contact with royalty. Goodman said his greatest achievement was opening a residential home for deaf and blind children in Walthamstow, London, in memory of his mother. “That was meaningful,” he said. “The rest? For Christ’s sake, it’s only business.” In 2002, he was inducted to the British Travel & Hospitality Hall of Fame.

Goodman married three times, his last marriage being to Yvonne in 1986.

He died from a heart attack while on holiday in Tenerife with family. He is survived by Yvonne; Debra and Jonathan from his first marriage, to Helen Ross; and his daughter Naomi, from his second marriage, to Joy Rosendale.