Intasun Holidays for Beginners
The battle to spend money on beer – 1985-89
It is one thing to apply for a job with a competitor; it is quite another to be head-hunted. That being the case, I was surprised at the professionalism of both Horizon Holidays and Intasun Holidays regarding how they conducted themselves over my move. They did not immediately kick me out of the building from the Horizon side, although it would have been lovely to have had some garden leave. For some reason, they waited about six weeks, and I was then escorted from the building by two pillars of the company. These two lovely guys (let us call them Paul & Rob) permitted me to traverse each floor to say goodbye before finally exiting. It would have been easy if I had intended to take any confidential information. At the Intasun end, it was made clear from the start that they wanted my skills and NOT any secret knowledge.
Espionage within the travel industry was an issue, and I am sure it still is. While I was at Intasun, we put individual tracers on confidential documents to identify who was leaking them. The reports were ending up with one of our competitors, Thomson, the market leader in North London. Although I know who was identified, I was not told how they were dealt with; there were no bodies in the Thames. We also had a direct offer from a management trainee at the same company to sell us information; Intasun declined.
From an operational point of view, the big three seemed to get on very well; the massive sensitivities came over sales reports, prices, and contracts. There were similarities between Intasun and Horizon, but there were also enormous differences, most caused by location.
Horizon’s base in the country’s second city, a metropolis that was not exactly booming in the first half of the Eighties, contrasted sharply with Intasun’s HQ in south-east London. In general, most of the people I worked with in Bromley were Generation X, whereas most at Horizon were latter-day baby boomers. The difference was even starker than that; because of the property values down south, many of Intasun’s staff still lived with their parents.
Living with your parents is a double-edged sword, as most know. The disadvantage is that you have to abide to a lesser or greater extent by the rules of the house, which may be pretty strict. On the upside, your costs are lower, and your disposable income is considerably higher. Fundamentally, this meant that most Intasun Bromley office staff partied even harder than their competitors in the Midlands. This situation becomes even further confused if you considered Intasun staff based in Bradford.
One of the great bi-annual fixtures at Intasun was the North versus South cricket match. The event generally pitched a team of Yorkshiremen against the motley crew that we turned out from the Bromley office. As well as allowing us to mix on the cricket pitch, it also meant an evening of serious socialising down t’pub. We had some good times.
One big laugh the Yorkshire lads had each time they came south concerned the standard of our homes. Because the cost of living was so much lower in Bradford, although many of them lived in houses similar to ours, they had them nicely done up with extensions, double glazing and central heating. In contrast, down south, this was not so affordable. They thought it was hilarious that many of us should live in such low-quality accommodation. In summary, comparing South London, Birmingham, and Bradford, I reckon the guys up north were the winners.
I had been brought up in an office in Birmingham where people were, by and large, extremely polite to each other. I noticed the difference immediately at Intasun, but when I had to attend my first meeting with the directors, it really hit home.
“Fucking hell, Nigel, are you going to sit down or what?” were the first words I heard in the meeting, followed by,
“Who the fuck is he?” which was directed at me.
I have actually toned down the language somewhat, as there were words used that I would rather not have appearing on this page.
I was shocked, but it turned out to be the norm. I had never sworn much in my life, but three and a half years at Intasun changed me. I now have to work hard to avoid using swear words, but sometimes they flow like diarrhoea. I have never managed to eliminate this problem, and I wonder if the people I worked with at Intasun have the same problem. It was definitely a top-down problem rather than a bottom-up one; many Generation Xers were being perverted by boomers like me!
Intasun operated on codes utterly different to any I have ever known. If we played hard at Horizon, it was generally with a great deal of respect. The Bromley boys and girls played harder and were considerably more cut-throat in their attitudes. The sales staff were heavily incentivised, which had not been the case in Birmingham, and they adopted a dog-eat-dog approach to their work along with some extremely dodgy selling techniques. As a generalisation, the Intasun selling staff were less trained, less inclined to accept rules, and less informed about what they were selling; it could have been any old product. On the other hand, the operational staff would be on a par.
Behind my back, one of the directors accused me of drinking too much. It was perhaps a fair point, although it never affected my work. I learned of this through a friend and determined I would tackle him on the issue. There was a certain irony to our meeting, which was accidental, in that I was standing at the bar of the Tiger’s Head, drinking orange juice and lemonade, and he came in and ordered a pint. He was a bit of a tough rugby nut, so I was not entirely sure how my approach would be taken. He listened carefully to what I said and immediately apologised in fulsome terms. It was what came next that was a surprise. He said, “OK, I get it. So, let’s go outside into the car park, and you can have the first hit for free.” I declined, mainly because I knew however hard I hit him, he would hit me a lot harder!
It was 1987, not the Dark Ages; Intasun was a Public Limited Company; at no point should their directors be brawling in a public house car park. However, other examples of behaviour went over the edge as regards appropriateness. One of my staff was celebrating his birthday, and his colleagues chose to buy him a blow-up sex doll. In itself, this might be considered normal behaviour for a bunch of teenagers, but to present him with it in the directors’ suite, surrounded by the secretaries, was probably not ideal.
My staff bought me a roly-poly gram for my thirtieth birthday. I have no idea where they came up with this idea, although I had little choice but to go along. The girl involved was 23-stone (322 pounds or around 145kgs), and they had tried, but failed, to get a lass of 30-stone. Due to the sheer size of the expectant audience and the lady herself, they could not spring this in the directors’ suite and instead used the planning department. There were probably thirty to forty staff in attendance. When the ordeal was over, I sat with the undressed girl and assisted her in reversing the process. She was a lovely lady, and I felt so sad she had got herself into that business.
It is rare to see much snow in Kent, but there is a massive snowstorm roughly once every ten years. These odd occurrences generally cause traffic chaos because Southerners are so unused to them. Everyone remembers the Great Storm of October 1987 when Sevenoaks became One-oak and the Downs, and Weald were devastated. Few remember that nine months before, we had been hit by four days of snow, starting on January 11th, and temperatures in parts of Kent dropped to -20⁰ Celsius. The accompanying artwork is from Kent Online, and the first image is a snapshot of their page from January 15th. It clearly states, “Police warn: stay at home”. It was so bad that everything stopped for a few days.
At the time, I lived in a room very close to my workplace, a distance of less than 500 metres. Unlike the vast majority of the workforce, I could get into work, although it was a struggle with snow up to my waist. I would guess that fewer than fifteen others had done so. We divided up the tasks as best we could, but basically, that seemed to involve sitting on the lid of a kettle, answering calls from people we could not possibly help. It did not help that although some phones worked, there was not always electricity.
My patch was the directors’ suite which shared a floor with the planning department. I remember only one other staff member on the entire floor until there was a loud roar.
“Where the fuck is everybody?” The group Managing Director had arrived.
You would have thought he could have started with a “thank you”. No. After pacing back and forth for a couple of hours, he left, and at that point, there was a mild expression of gratitude to those of us who had managed to get in. But it was just that, an expression of gratitude, not heartfelt thanks. We learned later that he had been flown in by helicopter, although I would have thought that would have been a somewhat hazardous trip. What was he expecting? That all his staff could afford a chopper to get to work?
It is rare that I even mention co-workers’ religions, but in this case, it is intrinsic to the story. At this point, everyone will think I will remark on some Jewish aspect of the company, but that is not the case. A couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses worked in the office and could not have been less alike. The one was sweet as pie and was very secretly prepared to celebrate her birthday. The other was nice enough but seemed to have a habit of getting himself into a bit of bother. The reason they are both involved is that the male is the focus of the tale, whereas the female provided me with the information.
It seems the lad had got himself involved with a girl, who was a JW. Being interested, he determined to take on the religion himself, as it would give him much better access to his intended. It seems this did not go down so well with members of the girl’s family, who began to harass my co-worker on a regular basis. Over a few weeks, there were ups and downs, but things came to a head when the lad got into his car and drove away, only to have all four wheels fall off. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but obviously, the police became involved, and the matter took on a little more importance.
One of the results of this dispute was that the girl’s family were ejected from the Jehovah’s Witnesses; I believe they call it “shunning”. I’ve not always had a lot of time for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, mainly because of their door-to-door activities, but their actions, in this case, raised their standing in my eyes.
Working with these very young kids could prove difficult. Another lad who worked in my department was getting himself into a very heavy dance scene, drinking a lot, turning up late to work, sometimes straight from the clubs, and generally performing at the lowest of standards. It was necessary to make an example, so I sacked him. The sacking was wholly justifiable, and I do not believe the individual himself thought it was wrong; certainly, his colleagues did not. Several months later, we were short-handed, and another co-worker asked me if I would consider re-hiring the lad I had sacked, who was his brother. It must be said that I was very, very doubtful but acquiesced after being promised a completely new approach. I was delighted I took him back on. Not only did he turn out to be an excellent worker, but I also asked him to join me when I moved to my next company, which he did. The guy went on to have a fantastic career in the travel industry and remains one of my close friends.
As the Eighties slid by, we were more and more focused on exploiting the boom in personal computing. Most large companies seemed saddled with large mainframe computers, on which progress was terminally slow (get it?). In contrast, the planning departments were forging ahead, making regular and exciting breakthroughs; these also occurred at Intasun.
The department I was running handled all the discounting and yields within the Intasun group. It was a complex operation with ever-shifting prices to maximise loads on aircraft and leased properties and thus maximise our returns. I had been playing with database packages, worked intensively on spreadsheets, and was moving into the issues of communicating computer to computer. The bottleneck in our department was taking our prices and getting them onto the company mainframe computer, which handled the distributive selling aspects to the travel agents. Although these price changes occurred daily, the bottleneck could often delay getting them on sale by two days.
Our colleagues in the Computer Department insisted they could not communicate from the mainframe to a personal computer or vice-versa. The only way forward was to do it ourselves, which we did, and we presented the computer guys with output from the PCs that could be sucked onto the mainframe. After a few tests, our information was reluctantly accepted. I love it when the little guys outsmart the big guys!
It is strange how little things can cause you to stumble when looking at the bigger picture. One regular communication requirement was between two offices only two-hundred metres apart in Bromley. We hauled in a computer consultancy company instead of using our own guys, thinking we might get more sense from them. We were all ready to install little dishes to beam data between the two buildings when I thought about the pigeons, of which there were many in Bromley. I thought the birds might interrupt the beam and cause data to be corrupted. Whether I was right or wrong, and I was almost certainly wrong, it caused us to delay. After a few days of thought, I realised the information only had to go one way, a few minutes delay was of no consequence, and we may as well carry the data between the offices on a floppy disk! Problem solved! Never dismiss the most basic of conclusions.
The PC-to-mainframe communication was a significant breakthrough and meant that I could press a button on my desktop, and the prices for all our late sales, available in all travel agents, could be changed in one fell swoop and nearly instantaneously. Wow! That’s power!
When we took the system live, there was a hushed expectancy around the office. All the directors, sales offices, and Bromley’s main selling floor wanted to know how well it would work. It was amazing.
To explain to you just what a breakthrough it was, I have to point out a negative, which came from the direction of our Newcastle office. In our haste, we had forgotten to consult with the Newcastle Area Manager and accidentally discounted prices that coincided with the Newcastle industrial fortnight. As she pointed out, sales reacted so fast that we must have lost tens of thousands of pounds, if not more, and it was all my fault. She took most pleasure in loudly announcing that last bit! However, such was the delight at the system’s success; her complaint and the company losses were swept under the carpet. I felt like Muhammad Ali!
For the first year at Intasun, two of my colleagues and I protested vigorously that we did not have company cars, even though everyone else at our level did. We also protested that we had no car parking places. After six months, we were given slots to park our cars, although as this coincided with my selling my vehicle, the space remained vacant. My department, being a bunch of sarcastic bastards, clubbed together and bought me a kid’s plastic steering wheel so that I could leave it in the car park.
As regards us having company cars, the reason was complex. Our boss was severely visually impaired and therefore couldn’t drive. The
argument then went that if our boss could not have a car, we should not. Finally, we kicked up enough fuss and had the force of logic so firmly on our sides they gave in.
They may have resisted less, but they still fought us. Our vehicle of choice was the Ford Escort XR3i; we all determined this was ideal for our needs. In an act of passive aggression, they refused and insisted we drive the Ford Orion 1.6i Ghia, which was fundamentally the same car but with a boot stuck on the back; it was also ugly as sin itself. I mean – just look at
these two cars, and you will conclude we were stitched up like kippers from Iceland.
Sadly, to that point, I had honed my automotive repair skills on my vehicles, but it was something that I stopped doing and failed ever to take it up again. Today I open a car’s bonnet and look at the engine in a state of mild confusion or outright panic.
We had a Christmas party at Madame Tussauds. I remember it well because I sat at the feet of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, who
at the time was the leader of the second most powerful country on earth, the Soviet Union. This is when it hits you what the differences are between Boomers and Generation X; I spent most of my time telling my younger colleagues who the surrounding waxworks were while they explained to me the long-term importance of skateboarding and hip-hop.
Three people moved from Horizon to Intasun in a window of less than a year. It is interesting to compare the effects on each of us. A lad I had worked closely with at Horizon and moved shortly before me hardly changed; he remained product orientated and somewhat insular. A director and hotel contractor, who moved shortly after I did, became much more blokey and closer to his colleagues, having seemed aloof before he moved. And me, well, I reckon I changed the most. It seemed that the six years at Horizon were a training process. The three and a half years at Intasun had honed my decision-making and management skills. If before I had wanted to be popular, as the Eighties drew to a close, my wish was to be effective.
Something else rankled, though. A visit to Turkey in 1988 made it hit home; the place was idyllic, unspoiled, and we were about to change that. What were we doing to these places overseas? I think that the photograph of Benidorm in 1955 says it all; there is no need for more of my words.
When writing about my time at Horizon, I described myself as a dirty boots and backpack guy. I wanted to go back to this; ideally, I wanted everyone else to do so as well. It was the start of my rejection of the conceived wisdom of having a career, house, and family in England. It was only an unstated and formative idea, but it was to fundamentally change my life a decade later.
Desperate to return to my roots, I took a tent out to Florida with me. To my pleasure, being recently separated, this excited a lot of interest from the local females. Being married to an American now, it is sometimes hard to remember the arousal a nasal Brummie accent can have on women in the States. “Y’all from Eng-a-lan? Y’all from over yonder? I bin fixin’ to go there since grandma’s hog died.” They were swooning wherever I went; it was a fantastic confidence booster.
However, the dinky little tent was not quite so much of a turn-on. After blowing a bit of dope with a couple of Swiss girls in their motorhome, I staggered back to my bivouac and promptly fell fast asleep. A couple of hours later, I was woken by something slithering under my tent, right under my belly. Now, there were a few thoughts as to what it might be. High on the list was one of the girls, although it was not quite the right shape. My weed-addled mind came up with a bear - too small, a snake - too big, and finally - an alligator, which scared the bejesus out of me, and I found myself ripping through the tent door and throwing myself into my car. It was a while before I dared to raise my line of sight and peer through the glass. Just as I did so, a giant aardvark rose on its back legs and peered directly through the window at me. Our snouts almost touched; it was as lucky as I would get that night. I screamed.
It turned out that a family of aardvarks and a family of racoons had descended on my campsite with the intent of ripping it apart. All else was well with the world except, perhaps, for the photograph above. Only the Welsh have ever come up with an idea like this; it is hard to believe the Americans also did.
Being an effective employee is impossible if you are on your back and in pain. I have only been in an ambulance once, although it could have been twice if the ambulance service had got their way. In Bromley, we worked opposite a hospital with emergency facilities, and their doors faced our building. Through these doors, my young assistant sprinted to get attention for his boss, me, as I had collapsed in the office. I believe he had to argue with them for some time, as they wanted to send an ambulance, and he knew it was only twenty metres and a short ride in a lift. In the end, they followed him with a stretcher.
I collapsed talking to the Marketing Director, although I do not recall our conversation. Quite suddenly, there was a massive tightening in my chest, my knees crumpled, and I hit the floor. I smoked, drank, was not particularly fit, and worked ridiculous hours under pressure; it was obvious it was a heart attack. I just about recall them strapping me to the stretcher and our descending almost vertically in the lift. My mind cleared as they conducted test after test, and it seemed everything was reading as it should. When I walked back into the office, under my own steam, I felt perfectly well, except for the enormous embarrassment of having nothing wrong with me.
It seemed that way for almost a year. Then, one night, I was watching a film called War of the Roses, which co-stars Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. In the movie, Douglas’s character suffers a heart attack, almost identical to my experience in the office. Except it turned out it was not a heart attack, it was his hiatus hernia forming, the stomach bursting through the diaphragm. I visited the doctor the day after watching the film, gave him my self-diagnosis, and was sent for a barium meal X-ray, where they make you eat something like lead and then turn you upside down. The verdict – I had a well-developed hiatus hernia which had possibly formed that day one year previously. You can learn from almost any medium, although satirical black comedies are a big one.
The day I left Intasun, my boss gave a rousing speech and announced I must have made at least a million pounds for the company. I thought this was a little disrespectful as I knew my department had been much grander wealth creators than that. However, I just smiled, bigger things were awaiting me, and the world was about to become much smaller. It was somewhat ironic that when I left Intasun, I held the position of Product Manager for the largest of their products: Summer Sun, whereas when I left Horizon, I had only been offered the position of Assistant Product Manager for their Villas and Apartment programme; it made me laugh.
Sadly, within less than a year, my ex-boss died of a heart attack outside Bromley South station in his early thirties. This account is dedicated to that man – David Hart.
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