22 June 2018 by David Ward
It's been an incredible journey for Wexas since its inception in 1970. Here, founder and chairman Dr Ian Wilson shares some of the history and achievements of the company, as well as some of his many experiences in travel.
What inspired you to start a travel company in 1970?
In 1969, on leaving Oxford with a doctorate in political philosophy, I joined the advertising agency J Walter Thompson.But what I really wanted was to be my own boss, to have the freedom to travel and surf. I had no great ambition to build a travel empire. I was just looking for freedom and a way to avoid climbing the corporate ladder.
Had you always had an interest in travel?
I'd moved to New Zealand with my family at the age of nine but had always looked forward to coming back to Europe. New Zealand felt more and more insular as I got older and I associated travel with escaping a small island. By the time I was 13 I was collecting travel brochures from around the world.
How did you first get the business off the ground?
By day I'd be at work at J Walter Thompson. Then I'd spend half the night in the basement of a building where I was renting a room, just working on Wexas. To begin with I was working about 95 hours a week. My girlfriend at the time acted as a secretary. We sent posters advertising discount flights to student unions and nurses' hostels all around the country. Enough were obviously put up as we had 1,200 members by the end of the first year and 3,000 by the end of year two.
What have been some of your favourite places?
I love New Zealand. I've friends there from my school days and it's a great place to visit, especially with kids. I once worked out I'd been to more than 120 countries, but the places I go back to are Morocco, France, Portugal and Ireland. I've also been to Mauritius and the Maldives several times. I often visit islands, like Sri Lanka, the Azores, the Canaries and Cape Verde. For a couple of years, we had a second Wexas office in New York, so I was back and forth to America all the time. But it's generally the surf that draws me to a country.
Is there anywhere you haven't been but always still dream of visiting?
I'm still thinking about Mozambique, the northern part of Senegal (I've been to the southern part), Brava, the only Cape Verde island I'm yet to visit, and Saba in the Dutch Caribbean.
How else has travel changed in the last four decades?
So much has changed. Security has been ramped up. In-flight movies appear in the back of your seat. From an industry point of view, the advent of the internet and of companies like Expedia have forced conventional travel agents to change the way they work.
And, of course, there are fashions in travel like in everything else. In the 1970s, the Seychelles were favoured above the Maldives. Now it's the reverse. Twenty years ago, Bali and Kenya were just starting to take off but few people were thinking about Thailand and Malaysia, let alone Laos or Vietnam. Many favourites of the old hippie trail are now off limits, like Kashmir, Algeria, Iran and Afghanistan. So much is tied up with modern geo-politics.
The real cost of travel has probably halved in the last 40 years. At the beginning, with its focus on cheap flights, Wexas helped pioneer the shift. But over the years we've adapted too, launching a corporate service in 1987, expanding what we offer to cover all travel needs, from cruises to tailor-made journeys, and focussing our attention on providing great service and genuine expertise.
Which of the company's achievements are you personally most proud of?
In 1982 we invented annual travel insurance (as opposed to single-trip insurance) and for three years were the only people in the market to offer it.
Then of course there's Traveller, Britain's longest-running travel magazine, first called Expedition. I've got every issue except for the second: Vol. 1 No. 2. If anyone has a copy I'd love to hear from them.
I'm also proud of the causes we've supported. From the outset, we diverted a portion of our profits to funding university expeditions. After supporting around 200 directly, we began to give an annual grant to the Royal Geographical Society to act on our behalf. This continued right up until 2007 when we established The Wexas Travel Foundation, now a registered charity helping to support schools in Africa and preserve the South American rainforest.