As the son of two self-employed playwrights, our Co-founder and Co-CEO Harry Hastings has always had the self-belief and creative vision required to persevere. However, as we approach our 20th anniversary, Harry discusses four lessons he would have taught his younger self sooner in the final story of our Founder Series.
At the tender age of 18, I didn’t know a lot about the world – and certainly didn’t know much about running a business. But that’s the age I was when I first caught the travel bug and realised I wanted to build a career around making travel the best it can be for as many people as possible. Almost 20 years on, I’ve learned some valuable lessons – here are four that I would’ve told my 18 year old self.
Good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgement
It was 2012, the year of the London Olympics and Oceans Holidays was on a gold medal winning streak doing £30m of bookings a year. We’d brought in a business partner – someone with experience who we entrusted with our financial affairs and who we believed wanted to join us in growing the company. But all was not as it seemed. One day, it came to light that some supplier payments had been missed and our business partner hadn’t turned up to work nor answered his phone. A handful of us worked through the night to unpick what had happened and realised this was the tip of the iceberg. All in our twenties, us four founders realised we were staring down the barrel of a £1.8m black hole, with our business partner nowhere to be seen. Despite advice from a trusted advisor to walk away, we owed it to our 85 employees to persevere. With fire in our belly and sheer determination to survive, we worked round the clock for a week to write a five year business plan which satisfied those we needed the support of and ultimately led to our survival. Learning this valuable lesson the hard way made us tough and instilled in us all an unwavering commitment to being rigorous in the detail, laser focused on our numbers and ferocious in our governance.
As founders we work for the company and the people in it, not the other way round
To some, it might seem counter-intuitive to say that as founders we work for our staff and not that they work for us. But it’s a philosophy that has stood us in good stead and has led to us weathering the storms that have rocked the travel industry over almost 20 years. During the pandemic, when others closed their customer service lines and put staff on furlough, our staff got on the phones and reassured customers that we’d safeguard their holidays and ride out the storm together. In 2021 right in the midst of the turmoil, our staff’s commitment to helping Ocean Holidays customers navigate the chaos helped us almost double the size of our business from £40m to £77m between January to December of that year. And what’s more, we managed to do that and retain 85% of our staff. Today, we face new challenges: rising energy prices, a cost of living crisis and a looming recession. Our number one priority remains making sure our staff are comfortable. It’s them first, and selling holidays second. Which is why we’re investing in our staff now more than ever before. We’ve introduced a profit share scheme, pay rises and we have opted to be a real Living Wage provider, which we’ve back paid to January 2021. As we near the 20th anniversary of Ocean Holidays, I couldn’t be prouder that we’re on course to being rated a world class employer by the Best Companies engagement survey – although I do sometimes wonder if I’d have hired 18 year old Harry Hastings.
A band of brothers will build a brilliant business
The Ox brothers and the Hastings brothers come from very different backgrounds. Their Dad was a Romford market trader. Our parents were both playwrights. Yet we all shared a passion for travel and all had the self-belief instilled in us by our self-employed parents that we could one day run our own business. Daniel Ox ran the tuck shop at school – that was his early, sticky-fingered education on supply and demand. South of the Thames in Brixton, I was a keen ice hockey player. The game teaches you resilience, teamwork and as the greatest player of all time Wayne Gretzky famously said ‘you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take’ – a philosophy that has always resonated with me. The Hastings and Ox brothers have long since hung up the skates and closed the tuck shop – and we’ve all found our cornerstones within the business. I look after our people and business planning along with our profit and loss with our Finance Director. George is responsible for our flights and relationships with our airline partners, Dan looks after the innovation and technology part of the business, and David – one of the UK’s top travel managers for high-net-worth’s and SME’s – is responsible for our personalised travel management business, Winged Boots.
Doing the right thing is best for business and the world we live in
The pandemic was a strange time, and the entire travel sector was nervous. In the midst of the turmoil, our colleagues’ commitment to helping our customers navigate the chaos helped us to become the UK’s fastest growing travel company according to ATOL reports. I have learnt that doing the right thing, looking after your employees, your community and the world around you, as well as being truly inclusive is good for business. As an 18-year-old founder in my early years, I would have passed off such altruism as a distraction from growing the business – believing these were qualities only highly funded big brands could afford to indulge. As it turns out, thinking beyond short-term revenue goals and focusing instead on doing the right thing for the wider world we live in pays off.