Business November, 28th 2009 by

Farewell to Budget Travel

budgettravellogoThroughout its 35 years in business, Budget Travel was the company all Irish learned to love.

Budget Travel turned quiet fishing villages in Spain into parts of Ireland each summer. They changed the way the Irish travel industry worked and brought foreign holidays within the reach of ordinary people.

Back in 1972 the Irish holiday market was elitist and overpriced and run by men in suits. Into this club arrived the woman who was to become the glamorous face of Irish travel.

Gillian Bowler arrived from the Isle of Wight, to open a branch office of Greek Island Holidays. Three years later she set up her own company, Budget Travel, in a one-roomed basement in Baggot Street. With her husband Harry Sydner they set about transforming the market.

Operating largely outside of the Irish Travel Agent’s Association network with its own retail shops, Budget Travel rapidly expanded to overtake JWT as the largest tour operator.

Their fortress was Greece and Irish people were introduced to places like Mykonos and Rhodes. But Spain was quickly to become the mainstay of the market, the Balearics and Costa Del Sol in summer, the Canaries in winter. Their market share rose to about 30pc after Budget purchased the ailing Blueskies and Sunbound as the Aer Lingus Holiday group disintegrated in 1990.

With her sunglasses over her head and an eye for the media-friendly event, like the annual queue outside Budget Travel’s Baggot Street office to get the bargain holiday, Gillian Bowler was the travel industry’s original media star.

In 1996 Budget went to war again when Thomson Holidays, established by Niall McDonnell, introduced a fervent round of discounting. Budget won the war, Thomson retreated and instead purchased the company from Bowler and Sydner.

The real winner was the punter. Cheap holidays were here to stay and the number of package holidays sold doubled, as did Budget’s business. Over the next five years holiday numbers doubled again. Budget peaked at nearly 400,000 holidays sold in 2001.

But the cracks were already showing. Many of its customers had discovered DIY holidays. The number of package holidays began to fall, even during the boom years.

This year Budget lost €6m and cut its capacity by nearly 30pc. Next year the country’s largest tour operator was due to put just 120,000 holidays on the marketplace. Competitors were also slashing their plane seats and hotel beds. The bucket and spade family holiday was under siege.

Ryanair and Aer LIngus had come to sup the sangria in their key destinations, Arrecife, Faro, Las Palmas, Malaga, Palma, Reus, Tenerife. A flood of cheap flights had diverted Budget’s key customers elsewhere. About 70,000 people bought holiday homes in Spain.

People still wanted their holiday in the sun, but they booked later and learned to play the low-cost airlines off against the charter operators to get the best price.

In November the news went through the industry that Budget was having difficulty having its licence removed. It remains to be seen how much the regulatory process contributed to its downfall. 

Simon Schönbeck

A serial entrepreneur and Founder of this very site.

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