Futureproof: A top-flight team of father and sons
Tony Collins’s Topflight + his kids’ Directski.com = Topflight Travel Group
“The lean approach constantly challenges how we do things”: Anthony Collins, Tony Collins and Neal Collins
Tony Collins founded his first travel agency in Dublin’s Dorset Street in 1984, with his family living above the shop.
He began selling ski holidays later that decade and acquired the Topflight brand in 1990. With his son Neal in the sales department, Collins cemented Topflight’s position as Ireland’s market leader for ski and Italian holidays.
Based on a traditional “tour operator” model, with chartered aircraft, assigned hotel stays, airport transfers and local resort staff, they provided holidays that were generally sold by the brochure, via telephone or through high street travel agents.
Collins’s other son, Anthony, ran his own boutique branding and web design company. Then, in March 2000 he founded online ski holiday group Directski. com, with ambitions to expand into the UK ski holiday market.
Anthony “borrowed” his brother to help the fledgling company set up a sales department, but Neal stayed on to head up Directski.com’s sales and marketing function until the two Collins family businesses came together in 2013.
“Directski.com borrowed heavily from Topflight’s business model,” says Anthony Collins, “but replaced the holiday brochure and travel agent network with an online ski booking website, the first travel company in the world to do so.”
That enabled access to the UK ski market (huge by comparison to Ireland), where travel agents were generally owned by Directski.com’s tour operator competitors.
School ski market
By the mid-noughties, Topflight was adding new destinations and holiday types to the Italian and ski markets. In 2000, it cofounded Topflight for Schools, expanding the business into the schools ski market.
Directski.com, fuelled by venture capital investment in 2004 and support from Enterprise Ireland, achieved rapid growth in Ireland, the UK and, eventually, the German ski market. But its massive reinvestment in marketing and technology meant that sustainable profits remained elusive.
“Ski holiday sales across the Irish travel industry saw an immediate drop on the back of the global crisis in 2009,” says Anthony Collins. “Some estimates suggest the Irish ski market dropped from 70,000 skiers to around 20,000 – a 70 per cent reduction in market size.”
It also resulted in the withdrawal of some UK competitors from the Irish market.
Irish travel agents also suffered, with many of the smaller agencies closing down. Both Topflight and Directski.com reacted by trimming back underperforming routes while maintaining investment in high-margin business areas.
For Directski.com, this meant pulling back from the German market to focus on the UK and Ireland. For Topflight, it meant focusing on its core ski and Italian business.
Topflight for Schools continued to grow through the recession, as many families skipped their annual family holiday in favour of sending the kids on a school ski trip.
In 2010, the company acquired Brighton-based Ski Beat, the UK’s largest independent ski chalet company.
“As sharp as the drop in business was at the start of the recession, there has been a surge in demand over the last year,” Collins says. Continued instability in north Africa and Turkey is creating demand for the “safe haven” destinations, such as those featured by Topflight and Directski.com.
Topflight is now ranked in the top 3 ski companies in Britain and Ireland, behind Crystal Holidays and Inghams.
With Enterprise Ireland’s support, Anthony Collins and the Directski.com team benefited from world-class strategy and leadership training (via Stanford University) and undertook a major programme of work in the area of lean business principles.
Improved bottom line
Bringing the two businesses together allowed for the team to apply these skills and knowledge to all Topflight business, making sure they made the most of the available resources. Small changes in approach as a result of the shake-up have delivered an improvement in excess of €300,000 to the group’s bottom line.
The current team in Topflight Travel Group includes original Topflight and Directski.com employees, plus a number of new hires. With the exception of one senior hire, the management team in Topflight Travel Group consists wholly of people who originally joined the company in fairly junior roles but have grown through the ranks.
“The lean approach constantly challenges how we do things,” says Tony Collins. “We are cautious in our approach as the economy improves. We have a clear three- to five-year profit and growth plan.
“That said, we feel we’ve weathered the storm better than most of our competitors. So we are keeping an open mind to exploiting opportunities which may arise.”