Special Report: USAirtours eyes growth as it celebrates its 40th anniversary

When Guy Novik set up USAirtours from his bedroom in his parents’ house, it was meant to just keep him busy for his gap year – but that ‘gap’ turned out to last a lot longer than he expected.

Aged 19, he’d already experienced the buzz of travel, working as an office junior in the school holidays with his father, who worked for Owners Abroad, which became First Choice.

“I was always entrepreneurial,” Novik recalls. “I used to nag teachers about running the school fete, and I set up a car-washing scheme.”

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Novik had never been to the US, but spotted the destination was becoming more affordable thanks to Freddie Laker’s Skytrain and Harry Goodman’s Intasun.

The business grew quickly and he opened a shop in Gants Hill, in east London, after a year. After two years, he bought out his partner, thanks to the Enterprise Allowance Scheme.

Novik started out by buying and reselling packages, then bought flights from consolidators and accommodation to create his own holidays.

“In the 1980s, 5% of customers used credit cards, half sent a cheque and the rest paid in cash,” he recalls.

“I turned the phones off at 5pm then took the Tube to the consolidators to collect tickets and hand over cash from my briefcase.”

To expand, he bought national phone numbers from BT and ran adverts in national newspapers. “It looked like we had offices across the UK, so I could access business outside my catchment area,” he says.

Gaining an Iata licence meant Novik could buy direct from airlines. His first deal was with John Martin, Pan Am’s leisure sales manager, who later became airline contracts manager at USAirtours.

We have to keep raising our game – we cannot rely on the fact that we have been around for 40 years 

Novik’s first acquisition was the agency Sinclair Travel, after the owners retired in 1984. By 1992, he was selling through other agents.

By 2000, USAirtours had moved to a large office in north London to accommodate its 150 staff.

Over the years, the company has ridden out crises such as the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, several airline collapses, hurricanes and snowstorm-closed airports.

But half the workforce had to be axed after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which saw flights to the US grounded and all forward bookings cancelled.

“I handled every redundancy – it was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do,” says Novik.

A personal guarantee to suppliers about repayments meant the business was able to recover.

While the internet prompted more companies to become direct-sell, USAirtours had become trade-only by 2007.

“The cost of advertising and phonecalls was rising – paying 10% commission to agents was better value for money,” says Novik.

He hails the support of agents for helping USAirtours survive the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw the US closed for two summers.

More than 75% of bookings were postponed, enabling the operator to survive – and agents’ commissions to be protected.

As a result of redundancies, the number of staff at USAirtours fell from 82 to 32. But the furlough scheme and Covid loans kept the business afloat, as it pivoted to sell other destinations.

Now, all the company’s employees work from home, meaning overheads are lower and Novik can recruit from across the UK.

And he finally completed his ‘gap year’, gaining a master’s in leadership from Henley Business School.

“This old dog learnt some new tricks to make us more efficient,” he says. “We have to keep raising our game. We cannot rely on the fact that we have been around for 40 years.”

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Switch to homeworking model enabled USAirtours to ‘raise our game’

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