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Staff stories: CEO Niel Alobaidi on the pandemic and return to travel

We caught up with Niel to discuss the business’s COVID journey and how customers have shaped future tours.

Newmarket Holidays CEO Niel Alobaidi on a family ski trip to the Alps.
Newmarket Holidays CEO Niel Alobaidi on a family ski trip to the Alps.

It takes a unique kind of optimism to steer a travel company through a global pandemic. The UK travel industry is still reeling from the effects of Covid, having faced £60 million a day losses, record drops in employment, and a 73% decline in domestic visits. For Newmarket Holidays CEO Niel Alobaidi, this period has been “incredibly challenging”, but his commitment to sharing life-changing travel experiences with people has made it “more than worthwhile.”

Before being appointed CEO of Newmarket Holidays in September 2019, Alobaidi was managing director of Emirates Holidays across Europe, with the UK & Ireland contributing the largest part of his portfolio. He also held senior roles at Tui and First Choice Holidays. With a quintessentially American road trip through the Deep South, island hopping in the sunny Mediterranean, and two years backpacking through the Far East, Australia, and New Zealand right after university, it’s fair to say that Alobaidi lives to travel. In fact, he credits a recent family holiday as helping him to unwind for the first time in a long time.

In this Q&A, Alobaidi addressed the challenges of the pandemic as well as the journey of adaptability, creative thinking, and patience which has allowed Newmarket Holidays to operate more than 75 tours since May 2021. He also reflects on loyal customers, who have not only boosted Trustpilot scores with their positive feedback - a rare feat during a pandemic - but have contributed to our introduction of a policy on adults needing to be fully vaccinated to travel. 

As of late August 2021, nearly 2,000 Newmarket Holidays customers have departed on tours so far this summer, so that’s incredible news. What was the process of planning these first tours back?

It’s been very challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. When sending people away on our holidays there’s an awful lot we need to consider but, when you strip it all back, there are two main areas of responsibility which we have to be completely confident about before anything can go ahead.

The first is ensuring that we will exceed our customers’ expectations when it comes to their overall holiday experience, as this not only dictates how much they enjoy their holiday, but also whether they will trust us again in the future. The second is more technical but more important: the holiday must pass all our stringent health and safety standards, both for our customers and staff.

The pandemic has created unique challenges in both these areas, with everything constantly changing around us at home and abroad. This has made our planning process unbelievably difficult, and there have been several occasions when we have thought we’ve had everything fully covered off, and a tour ready to go, only to have had to start all over again when the rug has been pulled from beneath us for one reason or another.

Fortunately, we have an amazing team, who thrive on solving problems and never seem to be phased by new challenges. Without them, it simply would not have been possible.

Well, you got there in the end! Here's to teamwork. Can you describe how it felt when that first trip was a success?

The sheer joy felt across our business when we got our first trip finally away was incredible. To then read the amazing feedback from the customers we have managed to get away, and see our Trustpilot scores increasing during the pandemic, has made it all much more than worthwhile.

Getting people away on holidays is what most of us in the industry do it all for. I’m yet to meet anyone working in travel that does not have an incredible passion for visiting new places and people, and sharing these experiences with others is why we do what we do. 

What was the most exciting aspect of the return to travel? Have the past few years re-defined your outlook on travel?

There are still ongoing challenges with the pandemic, and, understandably, there is a little uncertainty about travel for some people, however, we can see things becoming more stable, and our hopes for 2022 are really positive.

The feedback we’ve received from both the customers that have travelled with us and our staff that have joined them has been unbelievably positive. One thing that has been stated time and again within this feedback is that, after more than 18 months of restrictions and lockdowns, they had almost forgotten about the joy of travelling and seeing new places. 

 Although there’s a big demand out there to get away again, it’s not until you travel again that you genuinely realise how important it is. I was personally lucky enough to get away with my family this summer, and it was day two that I let out a deep breath, looked around me and the realisation that I was fully relaxed for the first time in months finally sank in. I remember saying to myself: “This is what it’s all about.”

 To this point, I think the experiences of the last couple of years will give us all a new understanding of the importance of travel.

It sounds like some customers are still cautious about travelling this year. How is Newmarket Holidays ensuring customer health and safety on tours? 

An incredible amount of work has been spent, and continues to be spent, ensuring the safety of our customers and staff. We’ve had to sit down and try to work through every possible route that the pandemic can take, and how we would respond in the scenario. We’re now working with new partners in many areas to ensure we’re 100% happy with their COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

We’ve had to learn the rules in many different places, and are constantly monitoring them for changes. It was also due to health and safety considerations that we surveyed our customers to get their input on preferences around vaccines and, entirely on their feedback, made the difficult decision to make it mandatory for all adult customers to have been fully vaccinated before they can travel on a tour this year. We appreciate that this is not ideal for everyone, however, it does add another important layer of safety to our tours which the vast majority of our customers clearly wanted. 

On top of all this, we’ve had all our normal health and safety checks to do as well. The pandemic has also made this much more difficult, as some traditional partners have been much harder to contact, or even closed, which has meant having to set up whole new suppliers.

All in all, it’s been incredibly challenging, but we’ve been delighted to see so many of our customers not just willing to get away, but desperate to go on one of our tours. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.

You’ve travelled widely. Are there any destinations that hold a special place in your heart?

This is probably the hardest question you can ask anyone who has spent more than 20 years working in the travel industry, as there are so many choices, and each offers something different. I look for very different things when travelling to different places, and have learned that you can have an equally amazing time literally anywhere, so long as you search out what is unique and special about that place.

That said, I do still often look back at individual moments when I’ve been away, where I can only describe everything as “perfect”. One of these was in Kerala in southern India, where we went nearly 15 years ago, yet I can still clearly picture the golden light, smell the tropical breeze with a hint of spice and the feeling of sitting in a beach bar with the sand beneath my feet, watching the sun go down over the ocean with two children playing with a frisbee under the palms. It somehow felt so alive, and yet so tranquil, both at the same time.

A Kerala sunset he will never forget.
A Kerala sunset he will never forget.

Another amazing moment was in the Alps, a couple of years ago. I’m a huge skiing fan, so the first time our whole family was able to get a lift to the top of the mountain, and ski down together through magnificent surroundings, in the late afternoon sunshine, will stick with me forever. I have two girls, and they were only six and eight years old at that time, so there was certainly an element of fatherly pride there, but the feeling of doing something I’ve loved for so many years, with all my immediate family by my side for the very first time, was truly magical.

I’ve been so lucky to enjoy so many incredible experiences in travel, whether that be backpacking through the Far East, Australia and New Zealand for nearly two years, driving across the Deep South of the USA with a close friend, getting a sleeper train from Bangkok to Singapore, island hopping in Greece and Croatia, travelling around Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil on our honeymoon, and so, so many more. Just being able to look back through it all is such a reminder of how fortunate I’ve been.

These sound like beautiful experiences. Hopefully, you’ve had the opportunity to take a holiday this year. 

Yes, we managed to get away to the Algarve for two weeks in August, which is where my parents are living at the moment, so it was great to spend some time with them as well. As a family, we’ve always lived for our travelling (my wife also works in the industry) so to finally get away after so long was fantastic. 

Niel paddleboarding along the sunny shores of the Algarve.
Niel paddleboarding along the sunny shores of the Algarve.

Even though we’ve all been at home so much more this last year, finally being able to properly switch off on holiday was also a stark reminder of how much of our day-to-day life is on the go, with so little real quality time as a family. It all just reiterated how important holidays are for us, and why we love travelling so much.

There’s been a lot of media coverage about how confusing and costly COVID testing is with travel. How did you find that? 

We were surprised at how easy it was, given the scale of the negative information we had heard. Testing certainly adds unavoidable additional costs to travel, which is never great, however with some shopping around we found that the cost was a fraction of what we had feared.

Given my wife and I have both worked in travel for many years, it seems remarkable that neither of us was aware that our children did not need any testing to travel, as they are both under 11 years old. For whatever reason, this does not seem to have been communicated very well. For the two of us, we found a lateral flow testing company offering a video test, so immediate results and a certificate within a few hours, for under £30 each. 

On our return, we went with a different company for our PCR test for £43 each, which required us to drop the test off a few miles away, but as there was no urgency in getting these results this was not a problem (Portugal was an amber country, and we are both double vaccinated, so we were not required to self-isolate while we waited for the results). The experience was seamless, and we even received the PCR results in less than 48 hours. 

The biggest challenge was the research required to understand what was required and find the best value options, given the breadth of choice we have in England. Once this was done, everything else was easy. Fortunately, this process is now much easier for our customers, as Newmarket Holidays has just partnered with two COVID testing companies which have offered special discounts to our customers, essentially matching the prices and service that we received.

So, where are you off to next?

We’ve discussed for a long time how much we’d love to go to Costa Rica, so hopefully, 2022 will be the year we can tick that off.

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