New travel agency will let customers donate five per cent of their holiday price to charity

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Launching a business is a tricky process. It is not just a case of knowing your market, but also knowing the moment to unleash your plan on the public. When is the right time, and when is wrong? Many – even without a degree in economics – would say that setting up a travel project when a virus has shut down the planet probably comes under “wrong time”.

“Yes, some people have said to me, ‘what are you doing launching in the middle of a pandemic?’,” Melissa Tilling laughs. “I suppose it’s a good question – but, well, I think this is exactly the time that we should be launching. There might not be very much demand for travel right now, but we are going to be ready when the resurgence occurs. Not just to sell travel, but to help charities that have probably never needed help more.”

She has a point. Many travel firms are struggling to cope with the financial side-effects of Covid-19 – not least the threat of a vastly abridged summer season. But Tilling’s new baby is oddly on-brand in these turbulent days. Charitable Travel made its debut at the start of this month, guided by a simple concept – to take our natural instinct to travel, and use it to drive charitable donations. You might argue that – in an extended moment when we have been able to think not just about when we can travel again, but how we might do it better – the company’s arrival could not be better timed.

“I have always felt that there had to be a different way; a way, through social enterprise, that travel could be more of a force for good – beyond the messages about sustainability and responsibility, which are also obvious and necessary,” Tilling continues. “The basic principle of Charitable Travel is that it will enable – through donations at no extra cost – people to help great causes by doing what they love to do. Exercising their wanderlust”.

The idea is a straight-forward one. The company operates on a not-for-private-profit basis. When paying for their holiday, customers can choose to donate up to five per cent of the total amount to a charity of their choice (via a partnership with JustGiving) – without incurring any extra cost themselves. Instead, the figure is taken from the money that, under a standard business model, would be eaten up by travel-agency commission.

“Let’s say the customer books a £1,000 holiday to Croatia,” Tilling explains. “Five per cent of £1,000 is £50. The customer chooses a charity on our JustGiving site, the donation does directly to the charity, and we receive a message back saying that it has been made. We then reduce the balance of the customer’s account from £1,000 to £950. So the customer gets their holiday – but they have also helped a cause they care about.” 

With over three decades in the travel industry behind her – notably at USA and Canada specialist Funway Holidays – Tilling has the experience to steer her unusual ship, but concedes that the waters ahead may be choppy. “Clearly, we need to be an agile business, and we need to be careful with our overheads,” she says. “But the key difference is that we don’t have to pay shareholders. We’re replacing shareholder value with donor value”.

Customers will have a wide array of charities to pick from – as well as a global range of destinations via the company’s partnership with travel group World Choice. “That gives us access to a huge list of tour operators and cruise lines,” Tilling adds. “We don’t want to turn away a potential charity donor who wants to book with us because – whether they are planning to go to Benidorm or Papua New Guinea – we don’t offer the destination they want. We have to have that range of choice, because that helps to discharge the purpose”.

Although Charitable Travel seems a neat fit with the Covid era, the pandemic was not part of Tilling’s original thinking. The idea had been in development for almost a year, and might have launched with a bigger bang had coronavirus not spread its tentacles. Conversations with some charities stopped as lockdown was enforced and contacts were suddenly furloughed. “This year has been a challenge for the charity sector as well as the travel industry,” she says. “But we’ve started to pick up some of our discussions again.”

Tilling naturally hopes that her business will be successful – but does not want it to stay a niche corner of the market. “I’d love to see more travel companies follow our model,” she smiles. “I don’t want to be unique – I want this to be something which is copied.”