Regional Scale-Up Report – Thames Valley: Profits rise at Travel Up thanks to tech investment


Ali Shah arrived in the UK from Pakistan in 2002. It was a new country, he had no money and couldn’t speak English.

Now he’s built a travel business which last year turned over £328 million.

He’d come to the UK to marry the daughter of a family friend. He earned money working as a night security guard but he got bored. This was not surprising – he’d studied physics, chemistry and mathematics at university in Lahore.

In Pakistan, he’d worked in the travel industry, so after saving up money from his security job he bought a computer and despite not understanding English, set himself up in business selling flights on the now defunct Teletext.

“My English was still poor, so I wrote a script with questions to ask customers.” These included: “What’s your budget? Where do you want to go?”

His tack was successful. He took over a high street shop in Reading and recruited talented people – some still work for him today. But the business was up against bigger, established companies such as First Choice and Lunn Polly.

What they didn’t have was the end-to-end booking facility he had designed. The backbone of his company TravelUp is Ali’s bespoke booking engine, e-traveller. Last year this helped him deliver more than half a million customer sales.

TravelUp owns the technology and invests around £1 million every year to keep it ahead of the market.

“We continue to invest in technology,” said Ali. “That involves artificial intelligence and individualisation of the customer journey to achieve higher customer satisfaction.”

The company, which is still based in Reading, has also grown through acquisition. Between 2015 and 2016 Ali bought three companies, absorbing them into the business.

He’s also planning to expand overseas, particularly into the USA and Australia, and begin cross-selling to TravelUp’s vast customer base.

It’s time for celebration and growth at luxury watch makers

Christopher Ward, the Maidenhead-based watchmaker, has customers in more than 100 countries. The company creates high-quality timepieces that combine British style and innovation with Swiss watchmaking skills. The brand specialises in mechanical and quartz watches designed in the UK and manufactured in the home of horology, Biel, Switzerland.

The brand is a leading innovator in the British watch industry and this year marks the fifth anniversary of the creation of its own in-house Swiss-made movement, Calibre SH21. Christopher Ward’s currentwatch collection includes dress, dive, aviation and motorsport watches, as well as a collaborative collection with Malvernbased car maker Morgan.

With a head office in Maidenhead and a workshop in Biel, the business now employs 45 people, processing 22,000 orders per year and generating sales of more than £10 million.

This summer, the company secured £6.35 million investment from BGF (Business Growth Fund), to provide the capital and resource to expand its market presence and product lines.

The company was founded in 2005 by Mike France, Chris Ward and Peter Ellis. James Austin, an investor at BGF who joined the board of Christopher Ward, said: “Ward is a fantastic example of great British entrepreneurialism, becoming a truly credible player in the luxury watch market over the last decade.

“With a simple mission and a focus on producing quality products at fair prices, it has developed a strong track record and reputation among its loyal and growing customer base.”

Mike France, CEO and co-founder of Christopher Ward, added: “We’ve made great progress in 14 years, establishing really solid foundations.”

Will scale-ups be the saviour of the UK economy?

The eaglet stands precariously on the edge of the cliff – its first flight. It will fall initially but then soar, it just needs to take the first step.

Some think the UK economy is also on a precipice, but Stuart Weekes, Corporate Tax Partner in the Thames Valley at national audit, tax, advisory and risk firm, Crowe UK, says that many businesses across the country have the potential for growth, they just need to take the first step.

He said: “Necessity delivers innovation; innovation leads to growth. High growth companies such as scale-ups have already taken that first step.

“They have taken risks, they have invested in innovation and people, and are leading the charge. With this mindset, scale-ups could be the catalyst for the growth of the UK economy.”

Huel has more than a sporting chance for global growth

Across the world, the nutrition market is expanding out of its athlete-focused heartland and bursting into the mainstream – and the UK is one of its largest and most established markets.

With the global nutrition market expected to reach more than $24 billion by 2025, there are major opportunities for the ambitious.

Huel is a fast-growing nutrition brand making nutritionally complete, convenient food which aims to have minimum impact on animals and the environment.

The company was established in 2015 by registered nutritionist James Collier and Julian Hearn, now the company’s Chief Marketing Officer. Since 2017 the CEO has been industry veteran James McMaster. Last year the Hertfordshire company’s turnover was £40 million. It employs 100 staff in the UK and the USA.

James explains Huel’s phenomenal growth. “Our business model is predominantly direct to consumer. We have built a hugely successful business where we talk directly to our customers and have a strong community of “Hueligans”. We’re active on social media, direct contact through email, phone and live chat.

“We’ve spent a lot of time on the website to ensure all the information about our ingredients, manufacturing processes and nutritional value is there,” James added. And you can tell, the website is packed full of information.

Huel uses its global website to track where customers are coming from. Its development team is also creating new products and flavours which will appeal to certain markets.

But such fast growth from a young company will always pose risks.

James agrees: “For younger businesses such as Huel, launching a new product, launching into a new country or taking investment have elements of risk because it’s the first time we’ve done it. Especially leading a fast-paced company where we need to hustle and make decisions fast, it’s important to be able to handle that pressure and make decisions with confidence.”

Huel has recently expanded into physical retail. In partnership with retail giant Sainsbury’s, Huel ready-to-drink products are now in more than 500 of its stores.

James explained: “Part of Huel’s mission is to provide nutritionally convenient food, so it’s only natural that we explore retail opportunities for impulse buying that we can’t achieve from our website.”

The company is also championing its sustainability credentials. “Huel is plantbased food, which is one of the most important choices we can all make to significantly reduce our environmental impact on the world.”

In July, Huel achieved 50 million meals consumed in more than 80 countries.