David Segel has a deceptively simple formula for success. He has steered his company, West End Travel, to a commanding position in the industry, signalled most recently by being awarded – for the second year running – El Al’s agent of the year accolade.
The business has just celebrated its 45th anniversary, a notable achievement, especially for an independent firm in a notoriously
Segel himself is a sought-after commentator for print and radio about the mechanics of moving people around the country and around the world. And he has done it all, he tells me, by following three simple rules.
One is paying attention to detail. Two, focusing on niche markets. And three: “Getting to know everyone that matters.”
To call Segel’s undertaking a ‘travel agent’ is like calling Theresa May an MP. The preferred description is ‘independent business travel management company’, although leisure travel, especially but not exclusively to Israel, is part of it too.
Among clients, Segel lists TV production companies, national sports organisations, the Irish Football Association and “most of the major Jewish UK communal organisations”.
He has worked with the office of every Chief Rabbi since Israel Brodie. “The Jewish community is very important to me,” Segel, an active member of Ner Yisrael Synagogue in Hendon, explains.
This straight-talking, but ever-polite son
of German parents who left for England in 1939, was thinking of becoming a barrister when he first contemplated a career.
He attended Avigdor Jewish primary and grammar schools, but the closure of the latter and loss of its sixth form dashed his hopes of university, leaving him, he says, “at a bit of a loose end”.
He lived next door to a travel agency in north London at the time and began to notice the numbers of people going in and out. “It was busy all day,” he recalls. “You couldn’t travel without a travel agent and I saw a tremendous amount of movement there. I liked geography and was decent at languages, so I went into travel.”
With his first company, Fryer Travel, Segel set about building the client list. The company dealt with groups travelling to the then Soviet Union and Segel, an avid Arsenal fan, noticed the Northern Ireland team had just drawn the USSR.
He contacted the Irish Football Association (IFA) about travel arrangements and has been working with it ever since. It followed him when he set up West End Travel in 1972.
He has described the company as “the IFA London branch office” and in 1994 the association conferred on him its Life Membership, making Segel the only non-Northern Ireland resident to hold the honour.
The coup set Segel on the path his instincts had suggested. “You don’t want to be an ordinary travel agent – there are thousands of them,” he says. “You go for the niche market.”
The IFA business led him to the BBC and, for 25 years, West End Travel went from handling arrangements for the Commonwealth Games through to the World Cup and later BBC Sport itself and all it entails in terms of transporting people to and from airports, getting them on and off planes and arranging places to stay.
Eventually the BBC work ended, but Segel went on to deal with BT Sport. Of the initial work with the BBC, he says: “We were just a small independent company. I was very proud.”
Now, West End Travel is one of only six companies handling sport at such an enhanced level. Segel reckons sport accounts for a third of his business, the corporate world another third and Israel the rest. It is a busy life, but he’s used to it.
“People think travel is glamorous, but it’s a rough old business, hard work, low margins,” he says. He still remembers West End Travel’s first day. “I was a bag of nerves. I left Fryer on a Friday and started on Monday in Sabena House in Piccadilly. They felt sorry for me, so they gave me an old cupboard, which I still have, and a desk. I had to buy a chair.”
The company is now based just round the corner from Finchley Road Tube station in north London, having moved by way of Regent Street, Oxford Street and Maddox Street in the intervening years.
Throughout, Segel says, he has had the support of his wife Gillian, and later of his son Jeremy, who runs West End Travel’s branch in Edgware and to whom Segel gives much of the credit for the El Al accolade.
The couple have two other children, Joanna, who lives in Borehamwood, and Sharon, who lives in Israel.
As for the impact of the internet, Segel sees little problem for his operations. “It’s super if you’re booking yourself a flight, but it’s not designed for groups,” he says. “Imagine how difficult it would be for 35 people with loads of luggage. There is still a role for travel agents.
“Things may not be my fault, but they become my problem if airlines lose baggage or cancel flights or there are delays – that’s what we are there to resolve.”
Details: Westendtravel.co.uk or call 020 7644 1500