Family ethos continues to underpin growth of award-winning independent travel company

An award-winning travel company is targeting significant growth over the next few years – but the family ethos will still underpin everything it does.

Solmar Villa Holidays is looking to increase turnover by 25 per cent next year as it aims to establish itself as the first choice for those looking for villa holidays.

The strategy involves beefing up the senior team, with four new directors already on board and another to come.

Chief executive Julie Blake said: “Our plan is to be that go-to brand, to be a household recognised name so when people think of villa holidays, whether they be in the trade, in the public or press, Solmar is that brand that they think of, and in a positive way.

“We looked at the organisational structure and put the directors in place so we have leadership in each department. Until then, it was just me and I was becoming the bottleneck within the business.

“It has been really exciting to have the directors come in, with the experience they have, and it feels like the pressure is off my shoulders because we have like-minded people in place.
Next step is to review the business below that level and put structures in place to make sure the business is future-proofed.”

Julie believes that in-resort reps, personal service and a focus on quality and customer experience help Solmar to stand out from a crowded field, and she intends to continue and develop that ethos.

She said: “We’re making sure we don’t allow quality to drop in pursuit of growth. While we will be getting on for £40 million [turnover] next year, we are still very family-friendly, both as an employer and as a company to speak to, and I think our clients like that. They like the personal touch, and we understand each client and what they are after.

“We are a family-run business, we’re not answering to shareholders, it’s not investment driven – this is about a family wanting to earn a living and be proud of what we do.

“We are pushing forward with what you would call an old-fashioned opinion really, which is looking after the customer.”

Growth plans include moving into long-haul destinations, offering full package holidays including flights, transfers and add-ons, and a 24-hour UK based helpline for customers to supplement the in-resort representative service.

The aim is to increase the number of villas on the books from 1,500 to about 2,500 and to increase staffing both in the UK and in resorts.

Julie said Solmar was also working closely with villa owners to help them maintain and improve their properties, which in turn would improve the holiday experience for customers.

She said: “It’s about trying to help the suppliers improve what they’re doing. Things like hot tubs, EV charging points, solar panels, which we’re doing already. We can part-fund their solar panels on the rooves – they pay, say, €2,000, we pay €2,000, and it means the villa is more sustainable, it means their costs are lower and we have committed to them so they want to continue working with Solmar.

“We are working with suppliers as much as customers to make them see Solmar as a positive company that wants to look after them and their property. What we’re actually doing is making sure that when the clients go there, they have a great time, and aren’t worrying about damaging the environment by putting the air conditioning on.”

Plumbed in water filters so holidaymakers don’t need to buy bottled water and an affordable purchasing scheme so villa owners can buy quality Solmar-branded mattresses to assure visitors of a comfortable sleep are among many innovations and add-ons Julie is keen to introduce to make sure both holidaymakers and suppliers see Solmar as a go-to brand.

She added: “We have to put customer experience and supplier experience to the front, so they have a good experience and want to come back.

“Post-covid, the big difference between what we’re doing and what our competitors seem to be doing, is they all seem to have pulled away from the traditional tour operator business model. Some are no longer doing in-person health and safety checks, they’re not having staff on the ground because it’s expensive.

“That’s all great, and it cuts costs and puts profit on the bottom line, but what’s the experience for the customer, what’s the retention?”
While the cost of living crisis is pushing up costs and squeezing profit margins, Julie is confident that UK holidaymakers will still head abroad in numbers in 2023.

She said: “Market research suggests that while cost of living is an issue, people might change what they do and how they budget, but there’s no way they’re giving up their holidays.

“If we hadn’t had the pandemic I think we would have been a little bit worried about how many people were going to stay in the UK, but UK holidays are so much more expensive than they used to be. Even when you’re there, you’re not guaranteed the weather and food is much more expensive here as well.

“We’ve been through two recessions in my time here and through both of them Solmar has grown quite substantially. We don’t say “Oh no, there’s a recession, we’d better make redundancies and reduce numbers”. What we do instead is look at the opportunities.

“Holidays are the one thing people will not give up, because they work hard and are very stressed, and the only thing they have to look forward to sometimes is that week or two-week holiday.”

Solmar was created by Julie’s parents John and Maria in the 1980s after they bought their own villa and started to rent it out. The company is based in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, and now has 1,500 villas on its books across Europe and the Mediterranean.

With a new logo and rebrand also complete, Julie said the focus was now on investing for growth. A £600,000 bespoke reservation system and website is up and running and staff are in the process of moving to bigger offices which will double the company’s operating space.

For more information about Solmar Villas, visit www.solmarvillas.com/