Inside Premier Travel's new Google-inspired HQ in Cambourne
We visit these inventive new offices - and find out where people are going on holiday.
After terror in Tunisia, unrest in Egypt and the uncertainty of Brexit, you could be forgiven for thinking the travel industry would be in the doldrums. Not so, says Susan Papworth, group managing director of Premier Travel. It begins 2017 with a new Google-inspired HQ in Cambourne and a renewed sense of optimism. Editor PAUL BRACKLEY went to find out how holidays - and holiday companies - are changing.
‘A lot of us feel that although we’ve been here years we’ve got a new job,’ Susan Papworth says.
Given that she has worked for Premier Travel for no fewer than 38 years, this is some statement.
But, just as most of us like to recharge away from our day-to-day surroundings by booking a holiday, so Premier Travel has a new spring in its step after vacating its home of three decades in Cambridge to set up a striking, fun and inventive new headquarters in Cambourne.
Walking in, you are greeted by a palm tree and surfboards. The open plan office features little green pods for semi-private meetings, ‘oasis’ areas for staff to get refreshments and a series of themed rooms.
Staff can book out the Brooklyn room to watch Netflix or play on a PlayStation 4, or enjoy a break in a staff room kitted out with ski lift chairs, an upturned canoe for a table and a tiki bar complete with beer and wine – the fridges are locked most of the time, it is pointed out...
Meanwhile, a ‘Cow Shed’ area, kitted out with artificial turf-clad seating and a huge bovine picture, is another inventive social hub.
It’s a far cry from the offices Premier had at Westbrook, near the old Cambridge City stadium. So what prompted the change?
“At Westbrook initially we set up a 25-year lease because that’s what companies did then,” explains Susan. “As it came to an end, we had a look around and couldn’t find anything, so we took it for another five years, but during that time we noticed difficulties parking and attracting staff, with the biotech industry taking first pick. It was getting difficult recruiting and keeping staff.
“We looked around in a 10- to 15-mile radius and found this in Cambourne. It was quite a bold move for us, having been in Cambridge for 40-odd years, but I think, although it’s early days, we’ve proved that’s it been the right decision for us.
“Because we’d been in Westbrook for so many years, we knew what we didn’t want. We are very fortunate in travel – I’ve been to Google head office, lastminute.com and a few really innovative companies, and we’ve taken a few ideas from them.
“We need to make this a fun place, open-plan and centred around the staff. We thought this needs to take us through for the next two or three decades, so we need to get a bit cutting-edge – without going completely over the top.”
It’s the sort of space you might associate with a trendy start-up, but the move took place in Premier’s 80th anniversary year – a testament to the team’s powers of reinvention.
So how did staff take to the change of surroundings?
“Like any change, particularly when you have people who’ve been with you for a long time, this was a big deal for us so we were thinking we needed the wow factor.
“So we kept it all under wraps. There were only four of us who had any access to the new ideas we had, although we consulted with the staff fully about the move. They saw the empty shell and then we did an unveiling when we were about 95 per cent there. The impact has been phenomenal.”
Director Paul Waters adds: “The engagement with the staff has got a lot better. They take breaks, which is better for their health, and we see the departments mingling – someone from reservations will mingle with someone from finance. That never used to happen.
“We can hold evening events here and staff can stay back and have a PlayStation competition or watch a box set or Netflix. At Christmas they stayed back and watched Elf.”
Free fruit is laid on, and now and then the drinks fridges get unlocked.
“We’ve had Thirsty Thursdays and let everyone have a drink on us,” says Paul. “We’ve got an outdoor space with picnic tables as well. In the summer we can have a bit of a barbecue area.”
The site on Cambourne Business Park also gives staff easy access to some countryside. “We’ve got walking clubs and five bikes that staff can take out,” says Paul.
Nearly 100 of Premier’s 230 staff work at the HQ, with others based at 17 East of England branches visiting for training workshops or events. Premier also has 10 staff in a Jersey office and three franchised branches in the south, which it doesn’t own.
Since the start of its financial year in October, the retail arm has witnessed double-digit growth. The firm secured its place in Grant Thornton’s Top 100 Cambridgeshire businesses, based on turnover.
And Premier has become a partner and booking centre for Jet2, the holiday firm established in the north that last year announced a host of new European routes from Stansted Airport. “They’ve added new routes based on early sales, which have been really strong and positive,” notes Paul.
It’s evident that terror attacks in Europe and the collapse of the holiday market in Tunisia and Egypt haven’t stopped people going away.
Susan suggests: “There are such random things happening now that you can’t put it down to one area, so I think people’s mindset is ‘It’s not going to stop me living my life’.”
A glance at Premier’s top 10 destinations shows traditional European hotspots like Spain and Greece still selling well.
But what impact will Brexit have?
“It’s going to affect each and every one of us, but it’s really difficult to say how,” says Susan. “For travel companies, it’s about the freedom of movement.
“The volatility of the exchange rate since July has been fairly unprecedented with the euro and the dollar.”
Can we expect a rise in prices to visit EU destinations?
“We’re seeing that this year – some of the prices are 20-23 per cent more than they were last year in Europe, but people have accepted that it’s happened across the board.
“We’ve seen a rise in other destinations – like South Africa and Thailand, where people know they are going to have incredible value when they get there.
“We’re seeing Mexico being a hotspot and Cuba. Some people are really looking for where they can get the best value.”
It’s very difficult to escape the school holiday price hikes though.
“It’s a question of supply and demand unfortunately,” says Susan. “I’m not saying it’s right, but with any service market, if you know there is high demand the price is hard – that’s a fact of life. But booking early, where there are free child places and added value, is a must. Booking late with a family, you’d have to be incredibly lucky to find what you want at the right price.
“Also, look at destinations. We’re seeing a lot of demand for the Channel Islands this year. It’s a big destination for us. They don’t increase the prices there for the families – in fact, July and August is sometimes less attractive for them than May and June and September, because sometimes it’s an older market out of season.
“For families to book early there you don’t have the hikes. They’ve got beautiful beaches and you’re an hour away or a ferry crossing if you want to take the car with you. So there are some little gems.”
Where else is popular with the adventurous traveller?
“We’re doing a lot to Vietnam and Cambodia. Sri Lanka is doing really well for us because of the diversity – there’s a bit of touring, you’ve got the culture, the nice beaches.
“Some of the far-flung places we are seeing more demand for now. And different parts of them.
“So Thailand and Malaysia – people may have gone to Bangkok and Phuket, but one of our big sellers is Elephant Hills, which is in Khao Lak, around four hours away from Phuket. It’s two or three days immersed in an elephant camp – this is not riding them, but washing them and seeing in nature.
“People are going off the beaten track – it might be the same destination but not necessarily the place everyone has heard of.”
Not heard of, that is, until you’ve inevitably filled your Facebook pages with pictures designed to drive your friends green with envy.
For Premier Travel staff, pictures of their striking new offices might do the same...
Premier Travel retail branches’ top 10 destinations, sold regionally
1 Spain – The Balearic Islands, Canaries and mainland Spain are all popular due to their closeness, the number of flights there and because they’re deemed safe.
2 Greece – Corfu, Zante and Rhodes are always popular choice because of their stunning beaches and fantastic weather.
3 Cyprus – Due to its year-round sun and warm weather, plus a popular choice for honeymooners and people getting married abroad.
4 Caribbean – The islands of Jamaica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic because of their beautiful, tropical landscape.
5 Portugal – The Algarve and Madeira in particular, as these are great for a family-friendly beach holiday.
6 Florida – A popular destination for families who want to visit Orlando’s theme parks and take their young children to Disney.
7 Mexico – Steadily rising in popularity as it offers a mixture of tropical paradise with plenty of culture and history.
8 Italy – A popular choice with people who enjoy the arts and culture, and its cities are popular for short breaks.
9 Croatia – It’s not too far to travel and offers stunning stretches of coastline, plus it doesn’t use the Euro as currency.
10 Asia – Popular hot spots like Thailand and Malaysia offer great value for money and are popular with travellers wanting experienced-based holidays.
Premier Holidays’ (tour operation side of the business) top 10 destinations, sold nationally
1 Thailand – Offers great value for money; people can visit time again and always see something different. It’s also popular for wildlife and adventure, in particular Elephant Hills.
2 South Africa – The pound has remained strong against the Rand so it’s a great time to visit, and popular with wildlife lovers.
3 Malaysia – Borneo in particular is incredibly popular because of the renowned orangutan sanctuary; amazing fares with Malaysia Airlines have also driven sales.
4 Australia – Sspecial offers on airfares with Malaysia Airlines have proved popular, and many are visiting friends and family.
5 Indonesia – Popular for its beautiful scenery and the stunning beaches in Bali.
6 Singapore – The gateway to Asia is becoming popular for people en route to another Asian destination or Australia. It’s also family-friendly with Sentosa Island offering lots of attractions for children.
7 New Zealand – A great touring option and popular with people who love the great outdoors. It also draws in fans who want to see the real Middle Earth.
8 Vietnam – A relatively undiscovered region of Asia that’s being promoted as an up-and-coming destination, offering plenty of culture and history.
9 Sri Lanka – Also popular with people who want to tour a country, as well as those who love animals as there’s plenty of wildlife to see. Plus, it offers eight UNESCO World Heritage sites.
10 Mauritius – Popular with honeymooners as a beach holiday; many people also like to combine it with a visit to South Africa as it provides a perfect beach extension after a touring holiday.