Shaper: Alastair Sawday

Show aired on 14th May 2016

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was Mongo Santamaria with Watermelon Man, originally created you will know of course by the man himself, Herbie Hancock. Good morning, it’s me, Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM’s Jazz Shapers. Thank you so much for joining me. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul along with their equivalents in the world of business. I will be talking to someone who is shaping the world of business right now. I am very pleased to say my Business Shaper is Alastair Sawday; he is the founder and chairman of Sawday’s, they are the travel guide people. They have been doing it for over twenty years, way before the web happened and you are going to be hearing lots from Alastair about travel, about the environment and about passion for what he believes in. Fantastic stuff I know is going to happen right here. In addition to hearing from Alastair, you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya, some words of advice for your business and then there is the music and we have got some brilliant music today from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul including Bobby Womack, Chet Baker and this, some new music, from the pianist Laurence Hobgood.

Laurence Hobgood, a fantastic name and a fantastic pianist, originally pianist with Kurt Elling. That was Give Me The Simple Life. This is Jazz Shapers as I said earlier and Alastair Sawday is my Business Shaper today. For those of you that travel, the indispensable guide that is the Sawday business would have been your friend and for those of you that don’t know this business, it is a business that basically talks about wonderful places that you can discover off the beaten track a little bit, places with real charm, with character and places you won’t find if you just look on the obvious place either on line or off line. He has been bringing together the best of UK, France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy and doing a fantastic job of it as well. Alastair thank you for joining me.

Alastair Sawday
It’s good to be here.

Elliot Moss
Now tell me, where did this idea to start your own business happen? Surely you didn’t wake up… you don’t strike me as a man possessed with a desire to build an empire and yet that is exactly what you’ve done.

Alastair Sawday
I am certainly not, it happened by accident. I once went to a festival and was introduced as a man with a genius for market research and spotting an opportunity which is not true at all. It was completely random, I was running a small travel company. We were taking people off the beaten track all over Europe and had spent many years working in the environmental movement and find myself appalled by mass tourism, by the sort of garbage that people were expected to enjoy all over Europe so when we eventually became a… we became a publishing company sort of by accident really. I created a job for a friend which was a book – let’s do a book together – and then I thought we would just forget about it and carry on doing off the beaten track tours in Europe and low and behold the book just took off and we pressed the right button somehow and it wasn’t a plan, it was a sort of accident but it built on years and years of experience I suppose.

Elliot Moss
And actually the business, I said twenty years and it is much longer than that actually, it is more like thirty plus isn’t it?

Alastair Sawday
Well it’s about yeah thirty plus.

Elliot Moss
That’s how you define when it really sort of started officially.

Alastair Sawday
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
When in your head was it a business versus something you enjoyed doing?

Alastair Sawday
In a way it has never been a business because I’ve enjoyed doing it too much. There is no separation between the business side of my life and life itself. It really has been one seamless process but that sounds a bit glib. It only becomes a business when people call me a businessman. It wakes me up.

Elliot Moss
And when you don’t have to do anything else to earn a living because this is…

Alastair Sawday
Well luckily it worked. Back in those, back in the twenty year ago time, it was before the Internet and if you got a book right then it had staying power and once people started trusting us they carried on buying our books and it was just delightful and I was doing all the things I loved about travel, I was meeting great people, finding wonderful places, putting them in a book and saying to the reader ‘we love it, we think you are going to love it to – here’s the truth about it – it may be a bit grim in one way but the people are so fabulous and the place is so fabulous that you should go anyway and take the risk’ and people loved that and then eventually it did so well it did become a business. It’s tougher now, it’s a lot tougher now.

Elliot Moss
That sensibility though for it being interested in people and place versus you know, the homogenised view of travel, where did that come from? Was it something in your childhood? Were you well-travelled?

Alastair Sawday
I was pretty well travelled. I mean back in the 50s I was taken to France by my family for the first time and we went to, well back in the 50s there was no mass tourism and there were no Kentucky Fried Chickens, McDonalds and Holiday Inn and Novotel, none of that stuff existed so everything was, everything had character because people were involved at every stage. So wherever you went, even if the old hatchet faced landlady in a French B&B was largely to be avoided, that in itself was an experience and now travel seems to be about removing the risk in every possible way from food, from beds, from rooms, from places, from everything so I think in a way we are about re-introducing just a little bit of risk but the payoff is fantastic.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from Alastair Sawday my Business Shaper, he is the founder and chairman of Sawday’s and they are the people that make travel well a bit more risky and a bit more fun. Time for some music, this is Sarah Weller Band with Sugar.

The Sarah Weller Band with Sugar Hill. Alastair Sawday has been talking to me about the wonderful world of travel and risking it up a bit – you don’t often hear that do you but a little bit of risk is a good thing especially when you want to bump into new things and I guess that’s what travel is all about. Now it has been going for over thirty years Alastair, just some wonderful stats because it is interesting how the written word becomes a mass written thing, you can sell a million books and I believe you did that back in 2007, that was a landmark then but now we are talking about a website that receives over three million visits a year, probably up to three and a half or four, you’ve got a hundred and sixty five thousand subscribers to your monthly newsletter. I mean all sorts of phenomenal things have happened and yet at the heart of it it sounds like you are still on a mission. Is that fair?

Alastair Sawday
It is fair, we are. We doing exactly what we always did with the printed guides and once we start losing track at what it is that drives us I think we have had it. I mean there is a lot of bog standard advice out there and we set out to be different and if we are dealing with human beings at the other end, hotel owners and B&B owners and farm owners etcetera all over Europe, they bring their own personality to our business if you like. So you have got five thousand owners of properties all over Europe, each one is different and we don’t tell them what to do, so they might ask us for advice and ‘shall I do this’ and we say ‘honestly do exactly as you like, you can strip off naked and swing from the chandeliers at dinner if you like’; some people will love it but they bring their personality to our business so I think we are sort of guaranteed to be richly full of personality.

Elliot Moss
It sounds like you are curating rather than ordering? You know, I think when I was travelling a lot in my teens and early twenties it was the Rough Guide, it was The Lonely Planet, there wasn’t that connection that you are describing, they were just reporting on places they had been to and saying well you could do this, you could do that. These relationships you have as you said with around five thousand owner members and I think you’ve got just under fifty staff and a hundred inspectors or so. It sounds like they are given the freedom to do what they do?

Alastair Sawday
Utterly. Utterly yeah.

Elliot Moss
So how does that work when it isn’t going so well because we talk about having fun and stripping out the kind of the predictability as it were. Are there times when you have to say ‘actually that didn’t work’.

Alastair Sawday
Oh gosh yes, yeah it doesn’t happen very often because we go through quite a long process to bring them in and we have got really to like them to have them in at all so it takes quite a lot to drop somebody but once we’ve had a few complaints, we will then start working out what is going wrong and the worst case we will send an anonymous inspector. We had a very funny time once, a woman was being accused of being completely eccentric so we sent an inspector along who was locked in her bedroom by the woman’s husband who prowled around outside and she had to use the waste paper basket as a loo in the evening – it was a tin one – and we eventually dropped it because her husband had gone off the rails and these things do happen. Couples get divorced, people die. We very rarely drop people because they themselves are going down the tube but it does happen, we keep a very tight eye on it. We don’t mind people being eccentric, in fact we love it. We do have a lot of extraordinarily eccentric and wonderful people but yes we have to drop people if they give guests a bad time.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper, Alastair Sawday. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom for your burgeoning business from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers and every Saturday morning I am very lucky because I get the chance to meet someone who is shaping the world of business and they can come from all sorts of different places, whether that’s technology or whether that’s retail or in today’s case with Alastair Sawday, my Business Shaper, it is the world of travel. And Alastair we have been talking about what happens when you have to manage difficult people and eccentricity is good but kind of going over the edge is not so good. Over the years, I am just looking at the way your business has grown and you didn’t mean it to be a business as you said, has it ever got really tough because it strikes me that you, because of your approach and because it is a passion rather than a business, I imagine it doesn’t stress you out? Or am I just being naive?

Alastair Sawday
It never has stressed me out because it has always been good fun and I spent twenty years with an assistant, a friend called Annie who was my right hand and we were incredibly close friends and I think she took a lot of the strain. I think it is much tougher now, my son Toby is running the business and it is much harder now. The toughness now is because of the huge amount of money invested in other travel sites by, for example, Airbnb, Booking.com etcetera and these are a hundred million dollar investments which can drive enormous sophistication in on the Internet. Very hard for us to compete but people I think are beginning to understand that these are big centralised businesses and they simply can’t do what we do, I think we are still unique – I hope we are – in providing incredibly rewarding contact with real people. You mentioned earlier on Rough Guides and Lonely Planet, they were inspirations to us and are absolutely wonderful.

Elliot Moss
And I loved them. I remember going to Indonesia in 1990 and we would not have known where to go without it.

Alastair Sawday
Absolutely fabulous. But the difference is we don’t provide travel advice on how and which cafes to go to, restaurants, sights to see and that sort of thing. We depend entirely on the relationship you strike up with the people you are staying with. So they will give you their favourite, their favourite grotto to explore, museum to see, restaurant to eat in, walk to do and we think you get much better and more topical and up-to-date advice from people on the ground. I do it myself when I travel. I go and stay with Sawday people and then they guide and shape my days and it works beautifully. It’s these relationships which are at the very core of what we do.

Elliot Moss
Now what is interesting about relationship, you talk about people. You have a very strong relationship with the belief that the planet needs looking after and the belief that the environment is important and I believe you have stood as a…

Alastair Sawday
Green Party Parliamentary Candidate.

Elliot Moss
…Green Party Parliamentary Candidate which is fantastic. You’ve done trips with the VSO, big trips, you’ve led trips and all sorts of things. How have you married up that passion and that belief and the head telling you that it is important that those matters are important and this wonderful business that you have got?

Alastair Sawday
It’s a bit of an Achilles heel. I mean you could embarrass me if you like by talking about carbon emissions from flying and that sort of thing. People will travel and I can’t affect that. What I can affect is what they do when they do travel. So we have always tried to encourage people to go by train, to go by bicycle. I mean it is hard of course and we have probably not been very successful but we keep doing it. Probably the most, there are two ways we do it, one is by selecting owners who themselves are trying to change the world or trying to do their own little thing so we have an enormous range of organic producers, people who have gone energy independent, people off-grid, people who will only use local food, grow their own food, who are passionate about their community. So we think we are supporting the rural communities wherever we are so… and that is vitally important. We have an elderly French farmer saying they have only been able to stay on their farm thanks to the people we brought to them so it is an educational process as well and the other thing we do, is we campaign. I mean I am endlessly campaigning about the environment. We are doing it all the time and we weave it into our books and into our website and our newsletters so we are banging on about the environment all the time and the latest thing we have done is we have just raised thirty five thousand pounds via our readers and our owners for the Calais refugees to build shelters because we are about shelter ultimately.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my great Business Shaper today, Alastair Sawday. Time for some more music, this is Bobby Womack with Harry Hippy.

The relaxing sound of Bobby Womack, a slightly different gear for him there with Harry Hippy. That’s a nice name isn’t it as well. Alastair, this coming together of the relationship with the planet, relationship with people, I think I didn’t embarrass you as I didn’t mean to, indeed I am just intrigued because I think that it’s very hard to hang on to those passionate beliefs and be pragmatic at the same time and it sounds like you have done the two and you have indeed, you are campaigning as you said. As you look at other businesses that aren’t necessarily quite as focused on their values, I mean do you have a position on that? Do you kind of look around and get angry? You don’t look an angry man either but do you have a view? Do you wish everyone had a moral compass?

Alastair Sawday
I do, we are pretty interested in ethical business and we have quite strong standards ourselves. We turn people down if they’ve, we’ve just recently turned down a candidate to work with us who had worked for years in the tobacco industry. I was in Spain recently and refused to go and see a hotel which had been funded by the profits from an on-line gambling website. We’ve turned down sponsorship from countless companies so we are quite focussed on doing things ethically. If it cost us our business well so be it, life is too short to do bad business. So we are constantly on the case. We like to find, we like to work with people, with partners, we share our values so we work with for example, Riverford Organic Farms, small companies, Dorset Cereals, there is a long list of big companies we would never work with and small companies we will work with. We are very keen on employee participation of the business. My long-term plan is to sell most of the company to the employees because we think that’s the right way to run business. I can’t stand the way most business people run their businesses and I cannot stand the way they see their businesses as cash cows. They want to build them up, flog them off for as much as they can and then walk off. That’s not the way you build community and you build a decent society.

Elliot Moss
Now talking of decent society, all this stuff starts at home and Toby your son is running the business so I imagine he has been inculcated over the years with the same set of values. Is that true?

Alastair Sawday
Utterly.

Elliot Moss
He’s his own man as well but he’s come from the Sawday view of the world which you just very articulately…

Alastair Sawday
Entirely and he’s as interested in these things as I am and he will bring his own perspective which is actually I think much sharper and more dynamic than mine. He’s got a very clear understanding of the modern world in a way which I haven’t and he’s utterly rooted in the same value system that I am. He’s, he recently turned down people for work because they had the wrong background and I love to see that.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my final chat with Alastair Sawday, my Business Shaper today plus we will be playing a track from Chet Baker. That’s after the latest traffic and travel.

Always great to hear the greats, that was Chet Baker with Do It The Hard Way. Alastair Sawday has been my Business Shaper and he is just for a few more minutes. We mentioned Toby your son and you said he’s got the dynamic sharper view of it and he’s got his own ideas and obviously it’s lovely to hear a father talking about his son like that. You work together though Alastair. What’s the reality? Is there, are there punchy moments because I know my relationship with my father is my relationship with my father and it’s a pretty normal thing.

Alastair Sawday
It has its difficulties and it’s bound to. I think underneath it all we’ve got a very powerful bond which takes us through. The difficulty being that he’s having to run an existing company with fifty people and a huge amount of competition which I didn’t have to do. So he has to keep the ship going up against it in a way I never was. Whereas I am still bursting to do new things, bring in new ideas, develop the brand, partly because it’s fun and he simply hasn’t quite got the time to do that but we are getting there. We have had some very difficult moments, it was very tough for him when he started. He, I thought he was waiving but actually he was drowning and I possibly didn’t pay enough attention but he is enormously talented and got terrific charisma and a very devoted staff and a talented staff so he’s going to pull through. He’s got a great Board as well so I am very much out of it now. I think I am a bit of a nuisance but I’ve still got ideas and I think eventually my ideas will be able to filter into the company.

Elliot Moss
Now those ideas obviously come from a place which says ‘this is my baby and I started it up and I am going to let Toby take the reins because I trust him’. You talked about competition and Airbnb and other businesses which are heavily invested in very sophisticated ways. The method of producing, of creating brand, of delivering ideas through communications has change significantly. How do you marry the ideas you’ve got and then the methodologies that you have to use? Are you quite a modern… do you embrace all this stuff?

Alastair Sawday
We embrace it. I mean Toby embraces it definitely and they are right up there doing the right stuff, doing the right sort of research, bringing in the right people and focussed very much on the Web etcetera. The difference I think what is going to keep us going and enable us to survive in the long-term is that people trust us. We have complete brand loyalty. People know that we tell the truth, they know that we are decent and they know that our recommendations are honest and filled with integrity and that’s going to keep us alive for a long time. It’s a powerful thing, a trustable brand and so we have to be very modern and at the same time very old fashioned in our commitment to integrity.

Elliot Moss
The future therefore of the business – obviously you feel it is safe – you still don’t call it a business in the traditional way. How long are you going to personally stay involved or do you think it is just one of those things you will always be involved in because you can’t stop thinking about it?

Alastair Sawday
I think the latter. I can’t stop thinking about it but I hope to be a good thing rather than a nuisance. But I think it is going to do really well and I think the more focus it has on the things that matter outside the business, such as the environment, the future of the planet, the wellbeing of the staff and the happiness of the people who work with us, the better we will do. So I think our ability to draw in values and mingle them with the business I think is going to give us enormous strength.

Elliot Moss
I think that is a really good way of putting it actually because that was my next thought was around the environment, you know, again new methodologies for campaigning and yet I think you are right through the business vehicle you’ve got a great chance of actually landing it because there is another part to the story.

Alastair Sawday
I think so and for me the biggest issue of our time is without any doubt at all, the survival of the planet, climate change. These things, I am entirely passionate and ragingly angry about and I think as time goes by people are going to understand that companies that acknowledge this, pay attention to it and try to be positively contributory are the ones they will support so I think we are ticking the boxes and we will continue to do so.

Elliot Moss
Listen thank you so much for being my Business Shaper today. It has gone super-fast which is a good thing and I have really enjoyed listening to what you have to say. Just before I let you go though its music time Alastair. What’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Alastair Sawday
Well I’m recommending somebody called John Law who is a terrific pianist I have just encountered. He is coming to do a gig in our office in June which is going to be fun. He is classically trained, he is very unusual, has a very interesting take on music. I’ve got a track to be played that I think is going to surprise people. He has got enormous energy and is highly original. I was going to ask you to play something by my own son, my second son who raps under the name Disraeli but it wouldn’t have been entirely appropriate. So we go to John Law and Zero G.

Elliot Moss
Fantastic here it is.

That was Zero G from John Law, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Alastair Sawday. A passionate man, someone who has really strong beliefs about the environment, about how travel should be and he has stuck to his guns. He has built a business on the back of that. Someone who has involved his family in that business, very much less of a business and much more of a pursuit, something that he just absolutely has to do and someone who has continued to believe that you can balance the profit motive with the community motive and it is a fantastic lesson for all businesses. Do join me again same time, same place, that’s 9.00am here on Jazz FM for another edition of Jazz Shapers. Meantime though stay with us right now because coming up next, it’s Nigel Williams.

Founded in 1994, Sawday’s is celebrating its 20th birthday this year.

In the early nineties, Alastair Sawday’s Tours led travel groups to the hidden delights of France, to B&Bs, farmers and small privately-owned hotels. In 1994, Alastair brought together his favourite discoveries into his first book, French Bed & Breakfast. It was a bestseller. Startled by his success, he did the same for Britain, and then for Spain, Italy and other European countries, and an award-winning publishing house was born. Over the past 20 years Sawday’s has grown organically and entered the digital era, but its gentle campaign against mass tourism and chain hotels continues. What began as one man’s campaign against the grimmer aspects of mass tourism now has 47 staff, over 100 inspectors and 5,000 owner-members, all sharing that vision.

Alastair has had an eclectic career taking him to many parts of the world: he read Law, headed up a VSO programme in Papua New Guinea, taught as a VSO in St Lucia, ran a disaster relief team for Oxfam in Turkey, taught French in the UK, ran as a Green Party candidate and was founder-Chairman of Avon Friends of the Earth.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“In a way, it has never been a business because I’ve enjoyed doing it too much.”

“…once we start losing track of what it is that drives us I think we have had it.”

“We don’t mind people being eccentric, in fact we love it.”

“I go and stay with Sawday people and they guide and shape my days, and it works beautifully. It’s these relationships which are at the very core of what we do.”

“We’ve turned down sponsorship from countless companies so we are quite focused on doing things ethically. If it costs us our business, well…so be it. Life is too short to do bad business.”

“My long-term plan is to sell most of the company to the employees because we think that’s the right way to run business.”

“I am still bursting to do new things, bring in new ideas, develop the brand.”

“What is going to keep us going and enable us to survive in the long-term is that people trust us. We have complete brand loyalty.”

“…for me, the biggest issue of our time is without any doubt at all: the survival of our planet, climate change. These things, I am entirely passionate and ragingly angry about.”