“When we first started out, everyone thought we were an absolute vortex of disaster,” says Francis. “Responsible Travel launched as the dotcom bubble burst. It was ethical, so no one thought we’d make any money. And it was in the travel sector, which was in a massive downturn because of all the fears over terrorism.”
The company signed four lone tour operators to its books that year, and Francis could barely pay the bills for the first three years. But now the site sees revenues of £20m, offers over 2,700 trips and has 350,000 unique visitors per month.
So what happened?
“We were about four years ahead of the market,” says Francis. “Tell someone you’re setting up a green travel company today and they’ll say ‘great idea’. We just had to wait for people to catch up.”
Pure luck, then? “Stubbornness more than anything,” admits Francis. “And the ability to sell an idea.
“A big break came when two people offered to come and work for me. I couldn’t afford to pay them, but they bought into my idea and worked anyway. Once we started making money, I translated the amount of time spent into shares in the company and made them stakeholders.”
Those two founding members are still with the company. In fact, only one out of 17 members of staff has left the company since its incorporation.
Then there was the small matter of having Anita Roddick as a mentor. Francis worked as director of marketing with Roddick at The Body Shop. She even provided the seed funding to get the company off the ground.
“She just got it,” says Francis. “She believed that you can have a profitable business and be green at the same time.”
Roddick only invested a few thousand pounds, but to a penniless entrepreneur working out of a bedsit, plagued by sleepless nights, it was a lifeline.
“The travel industry was way behind other sectors in terms of having a green dimension,” says Francis. “This was madness considering the industry was dependent on pristine environments and good relationships with local people. She understood my vision.”
And her faith is now being borne out. Responsible Travel is growing at 40 per cent year-on-year and profits have just hit £100,000.
Related article: The late, great Anita Roddick
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