My idyllic rural childhood
Families must be very important customers of your business, which lets holiday cottages across the Westcountry. What's your own family background?
My father's family were the founders of the papermaking company Bowaters (now Rexam PLC), and he grew up between their farm on Exmoor and their house in Surrey. My father chose journalism rather than the family firm and after a first job at the Aberdeen Press and Journal he moved to The Sunday Times. My mother was a London girl and had a career as a PA. Like many families since, they wanted to raise their children in the countryside and made an early break from the city to Devon in the 1960s. But years later, when they started Helpful Holidays, their combination of experience created a unique approach and a winning formula in business.
The Westcountry is clearly a beautiful area which is why so many people holiday here. Do you have a favourite spot?
It's got to be the Teign Valley between Dunsford and Chagford but that's perhaps because I know it so well. With my brother, Lucien, and two sisters, Jackie and Alexis, I grew up in a very beautiful place near Castle Drogo. The woods and fields of the Teign Gorge and the river were my playground. I made camps in the woods, whittled sticks into spears, brought trout back from early morning fishing trips, spied deer at sunrise, badgers and foxes at dusk. I watched dippers scrabble along the riverbed and spent hours listening to river sounds and watching the shapes flowing water makes. Although I've toured the Westcountry for years with my job, I still frequently find new, beautiful, natural and manmade places. That's not really surprising. I think the Westcountry landscape is world class pretty much everywhere.
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Many in the holiday industry in our region try to play down the impact of the weather and believe we can be a region for all seasons. After the washout of 2012, do you agree?
Firstly, it should be remembered that we've been gifted one of the world's outstanding landscapes and when the sun shines at any time of year, the Westcountry is beyond compare. Created by farmers, it comes to us for free – oh lucky us. But yes, weather happens. We have to work imaginatively to give visitors things to do which are as weatherproof as possible. That means ensuring there are interesting, enjoyable and good things for visitors to do when it's wet and providing warm and comfortable places to stay no matter what the weather does.
Think of what the ski resorts have done. They're not exactly blessed with great weather in the winter… unless you're a skier! But they have successfully developed activities which suit their climate. Could we do that better? Could surfing, for instance, become the new skiing? How about mountain biking?
I know that you believe the holiday industry is best left to run itself and that taxpayers' money is best spent on infrastructure. Can you expand on that view?
There's so much important investment needed in physical infrastructure. Marketing and promotion of individual businesses is best left to the businesses themselves, but we need public investment in those things only the public sector can do. Most important is modern road transport links. But a regional commitment to public services aimed at providing tourists with as good an experience as possible is also very important
The following would seem to me to be basic prerequisites: regularly cleaned public beaches, clean and plentiful public loos, plenty of reasonable value car parking, lots of public bins, and a clean and inviting public environment. The advantage of investment in those things is that the investment frequently benefits local people more than visitors. Win-win?
There's no reason taxpayers should subsidise the marketing of any tourism business. Unlike food production, tourism is not strategically important. I'm sympathetic to the idea of a local tax on the tourist industry. I think it might help raise money for much-needed infrastructure improvements with little impact on business profitability.
Such systems are operated in many areas of Europe. The money raised can only be used on infrastructure projects and contributing businesses determine both the level of the tax each year and what it's used for. If projects benefit their businesses, business people support the tax. If not, they don't. It should also be remembered that in much of Europe the VAT rate on the tourist industry is much lower. Lowering the VAT rate UK tourism businesses pay while introducing a locally controlled tourism tax could create a ring-fenced, locally controlled fund.
Customer service is key in tourism. Are you sometimes appalled by the way you are treated out and about in the region?
In general I think we're very good. Having confidence because you've been well trained and you believe in what you're dong is the key. Confident people tend to deliver better service and resolve difficulties more quickly. If I there's one piece of advice I'd give it would be that smiling generally makes things better. We should all try to smile more.
If you go on holiday outside of the Westcountry, where do you go. Where did you holiday this summer, for example?
This year we had a week in Jackson in Wyoming. We walked the beautiful mountains, visited Yellowstone National Park and had a close encounter with a bear! It's a very beautiful area.
What are you ambitions for your business?
Secure, year-round, well paid jobs are very valuable in the Westcountry. For me, creating employment is the most rewarding part of my job and I hope we can continue to create more of it in Chagford and beyond over the next few years.