He’s in the ‘best business in the world’ fighting for region’s tourism
Martin Freeman meets the man with the task of creating fantastic memories, tourism lobbyist and holiday business owner Alistair Handyside MBE
IF you didn’t know what Alistair Handyside does, you’d examine his personality for clues and be a little confused in this game of What’s My Line?
There’s the welcoming, avuncular side that makes him ideal company, the type of character who can get on with anybody. A hospitality industry professional, perhaps?
Then there’s the blunt, no-nonsense side, of somebody who can analyse a business problem and point you towards a profit. Ah, he’s the boss of a multi-million-pound turnover company, then?
And there’s the side that combines both of the above, that could talk a Labrador into a retriever and have you convinced there’s no finer dog in the world.
Right three times over – all are on his CV. He built up a company from scratch into a £100 million enterprise and went on to be the commercial director of the even bigger fish that bought the business out.
And then he chucked in a life in the fast lane – almost literally; home in Northamptonshire was a stone’s throw from Silverstone racing circuit – for one down a long and bumpy track where he and his wife Lorna run an award-winning self-catering holiday home business in Devon.
The unpaid day and night (weekends too) job is as chair of South West Tourism Alliance, the lobbying body for the sector. He is also a director of the national Tourism Alliance and is a past chairman of the South West Coast Path.
His tireless work for the sector was rewarded with an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours this year.
The Devon move was a return home to the West Country. He grew up in Bath and his first job was in Bristol. “I sold fish fingers for Ross Foods. I became…” says Mr Handyside, 61, pausing for effect, then, adding with a big grin, “senior sales trainer – just training people to sell fish fingers.”
Later he realised that software bought in the United States could be sold at a tidy profit in the UK, and a tiny mail-order company was built into a £100 million operation that was swallowed up by a US multi-billion-pound concern, Ingram Micro.
Five years with the latter took his total in corporate IT to a total of 20 and a sense of the need to move on.
Feeling unsettled as they were spending a lot of time in Devon visiting relatives, they decided to make the move full-time and hit on the idea of a holiday business.
“Everybody who lives near Silverstone lets their house out when the racing is on. We knew from that we didn’t mind having strangers in our bedrooms, so we looked for an old farm to buy.”
They found Higher Wiscombe, near Beer: no longer a working farm, with a house that badly needed renovating and rundown barns. After a patient 18 months waiting for consent, they threw themselves into the job.
The first of many awards followed: the South West’s best self-catering accommodation in 2006 and a VisitEngland gold the next year. “The effect of putting that on our website was transformational.”
Transformational for Mr Handyside, too. The likes of South West Tourism had been so supportive that he was determined to give something back. When the publicly-funded body went the way of the South
My job is creating great memories for people – what
a fantastic job description – and having conversations with some of the most interesting people you could meet
West Regional Development Agency – scrapped by the Coalition government in 2012 – he stayed on to ensure a managed wind-down of the company.
In its place came the tourism alliance, a lobbying body with no budget for promotion or staff. “That means I am listened to properly in government in London: I’m not just another paid lobbyist.”
Hot topics include fighting for a fair playing field against the online agencies, such as Airbnb, to ensure that anybody offering accommoda- tion through them is “safe and legal”.
“I have nothing against Airbnb. I use Airbnb,” he says.
“The problem is that anybody with a smartphone can go on and list their home.
“They are not inspected. Their gas equipment does not have to be checked. Their insurance will be invalid if they haven’t told the company, and they will be breaking the terms of their mortgage if they haven’t told their provider.”
Securing the backing of an all-party parliamentary group for that move
Alistair Handyside in lobbying mode