Spa Travel owner Paul Dayson gave up a career as a butcher to sell travel in his early 20s. His independent agency, in Boston Spa, near Wetherby, West Yorkshire, celebrates 41 years of trading this month.

Travel Gossip caught up with him.

Tell us how it all started

Spa Travel was opened by my parents and me on 4 August 1980. It was – and still is – the only travel agency in the village. At the time, Boston Spa was a little village. It’s totally different and is now more like a small market town. We knew when we opened the agency that the area was going to grow substantially.

Initially we sold traditional package holidays, such as Thomson, Yugotours and Intasun. We were a general travel agent for a good 20 years, then 15 years or so ago we started hitting the long-haul and tailor-made market. The area we are in has become very affluent in the last 15-20 years and our business has moved upmarket in line with the local changes.

What did you do before you got into travel?

I trained as a butcher before becoming a travel agent. They’re very different professions, but both are sales roles. I used to work on a meat counter and it’s all about knowing what you’re talking about and having sales skills.

Mind you, when you’re a butcher, nothing talks back to you.

I’m glad I made the move when I did because I’ve had a great lifestyle and been able to see the world.

Paul with a happy customer

Do you think travel agents are still as valued as they were back in 1980?

Over the years, we’ve had a lot of challenges. But tsunamis, ash clouds and now Covid all prove the value of a good travel agent. We are definitely seeing a lot more people wanting to book with an agent for security.

Since April, a good proportion of our bookings are from people who’ve come back to us from many years ago because they want the security, they want to speak to someone face-to-face and they say they just don’t want the worry.

I had a lady who came in recently and told me: ‘I have never been in a travel agency in my life’. By explaining what we do and that we will take care of all her requirements, as well as me having personal experience of the product, she decided to book her Hurtigruten cruise with us.

Who’s in the team?

There are three of us in the shop and one homeworker. All my staff have been with me for years, with the longest-serving joining over 35 years ago.  We pride ourselves on giving good service and being professional. If you give a good service, people will come back.

Do you still get involved in selling holidays?

Yes. I don’t shy from any of the jobs here. When the customer comes in, I am sat at the counter, with the others. I’m always here to discuss anything. We all want to make it and enjoyable experience. 

I love the job but it is sheer hard work that makes it successful. That and being adaptable and having a passion to survive. We always show the variety of holidays we can offer. At the moment, our window is full of various options, including the Spanish Grand Prix, the Anthony Joshua fight in London and others.

What have your learned in your 41 years in travel?

One thing I have learned is the amount of times a customer says they only want to spend £5,000 and they end up spending £9,000-£10,000. Recently I priced up three chalets for a group of skiers. They went with the middle price, but an hour later then came back and said they’d changed their mind and wanted to go for the most expensive option. Never presume the cheapest package is the one they’ll go for.

Paul receives an anniversary gift from an operator

Sum up the last 18 months

Covid has been soul-destroying. But you either accept that and get on with it and fight for your business or roll over and die. You have to cut your cloth accordingly. We had a turnover of £3.5m turnover pre-Covid.

For most of the time I have worked in the office on my own as the others in the business have been on furlough.

I think we’ll be into the middle of next year before we see travel really start to come back properly. It’s just a case of whether agents will be able to survive that long without special funding for the industry. Everyone’s on tenterhooks waiting for the next thing the Government says.

Do you have plans to celebrate?

Last year was our 40th birthday and I had planned to hold a big celebration in the village hall but, because of Covid, I had to shelve them. Next year we’ll have a big party to celebrate turning 42.

Paul is currently raising awareness of male breast cancer, after recently being treated for the disease.

He said: “I found a lump and had a mastectomy. Fortunately, they caught it early. Since then I’ve been telling men to check their breasts. I want men to understand that this is a serious situation. Finding it early could save later complications.”