Founders Series – Robin Worsnop, Chief Executive and founder of Rabbie’s

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SBNN Founders series is sponsored by SureVoIP – A SaaS provider of business grade VoIP and business phone services

Robin Worsnop left university in 1990 with a degree in history and a desire not be another graduate on the dole.
So how did this graduate end up being Chief Executive of Rabbie’s, one of Scotland’s most successful tourist-related businesses with a turnover of £16m?
It took 10 years for Rabbie’s to reach £1 million turnover, a further 5 years to double that to £2 million and the last 10 years we have accelerated to £16 million.
We caught up with Robin to ask more about Rabbie’s, his journey and the future of Scottish tourism.
What does Rabbie’s do within the tourism sector?
Rabbie’s provides small group touring experiences across the UK and Ireland. We’re an internationally recognised tour company, who deliver memorable experiences for small groups of inquisitive travellers, by creating authentic connections between people and places. We offer a range of 1 day and multi-day tours from Edinburgh, London, Glasgow, Dublin and Inverness.
What is your background?
I left University with a degree in History and no real experience of business except starting my own.
What was the aha moment that led to the company founding?
Desperation, a life on the dole and a desire to change all that. The idea and inspiration came from my experiences of travelling around places in the middle east where if you wanted to visit certain sites you would find a group of travelers and hire a dolmus (minibus) and driver to take you there.
Where did you get assistance when you started?
I was part of the Enterprise Allowance scheme which gave me an extra tenner a week on social security to give me the time to build a business plan, pass an examination in transport management and get a licence to operate buses. Professional funders didn’t think much of my idea and I got turned down for funding, but in the end I raised a commercial loan for £6000 at 7% interest over 3 years from my brother. My girlfriend (now wife) supported me a lot too, kept me going, kept me fed and watered whilst I went on the road constantly.
Give us a brief history of the growth of the company.
Founded in February 1993 the business has grown organically year on year from a 1 bus operation to over 80 across the UK and a further 10 in Ireland. We currently employ about 200 people and carry over 150,000 happy customers on tour every year.

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Have you taken any external funding? If so from who and when?
Apart from my brother’s loan all our growth funding has come from profits and bank finance and loan finance. So that’s a few different banks and finance companies over the years.
So what does it look like now with regard to staff and turnover?
200 members of the Rabbie’s team and growing all the time. Turnover will reach c£16m this financial year.
What’s the difference between when you started and now in your marketplace?
I’m pleased to say that there was a dearth of offering in our marketplace when we started, but now it is a thriving and entrepreneurial market place with lots of operators and competition who are largely all growing and thriving, which suggests there is a healthy customer demand for our tours and style of touring.
What is your target market –  Who is going on tour with Rabbie’s?
Most of our customers are international visitors to the UK and Ireland, but we are growing in popularity with the locals too as they discover this great way to visit their own country. The age range is extensive from 5 to 95 and we appeal to anyone young at heart.
What are your goals for your business?
As we hone our skills in the UK and Ireland market we aim to develop experiences in geographies across the world where our customers want to take holidays. 2019 we will see operations open in Manchester and Aberdeen and by 2020, Brexit permitting, we aim to start operations across other European cities. Our vision is to make the world a better place through travel.

What are your biggest current challenges?
I would say our biggest challenge as a business is the seasonality of demand and the lack of sufficient supply of accommodation in the remote places our customers want to travel to in the summer months.
What has been the biggest challenge so far?
The biggest and most rewarding challenge is leading the people who are a part of team Rabbie’s that make all this happen and provide exceptional experiences to every one of our diverse customers.
What do you know now that you wished you had known earlier?
The hindsight question I always find impossible to answer, because all the bits you learn along the way are part of the growing process and without them you learn nothing.
What’s the secret to good leadership?
It would be very presumptuous to suggest I know any secrets about this. My own view is that humility and empathy for people are very important characteristics of the best leaders in Rabbie’s.  
Where do you see the company in five years?
There are no plans laid out in stone, and things can change rapidly in our marketplace. The in-house technology we are currently building will enable us to develop experiences in geographical locations beyond the UK and Ireland’s shores. Europe seems a logical next step, but we are open to other locations across the world our customers want us to take them to.  
How can the Scottish startup/entrepreneur landscape be improved to help more businesses start up and grow?
Things have improved enormously since I started my business. Some may say finance for start-ups is too easy today before anything has been proved. The environment is trickier for mid-sized companies to grow and scale up as many of the tax incentives are aimed at start-ups and quick sale of businesses, rather than longer term growth plans.

The figures show that the Scottish tourism sector is growing, how is it changing now to accommodate larger numbers of incoming tourist and what does the sector need to do to future proof itself?

The UK and Ireland are currently seeing good demand for leisure tourism overall but this is still quite seasonal in nature. The industry needs to focus on providing high quality experiences all year round to even out the peaks and troughs of demand. There is a lot of unused capacity in the industry as a result of this seasonality of demand and this impacts on full time quality and sustainable jobs across the industry.
This trend growth in tourism is worldwide and competitiveness is the key to our future success and relies on using more of this under-utilised capacity to help sustain itself if and when this demand may see any dips in the future. Focusing on exceptional customer experiences is the key to our future success and will help us achieve long term quality, investment and balanced growth in the sector.

Robin Worsnop is Chief Executive of Rabbie’s, one of Scotland’s most successful tourist-related businesses.
This interview is part of the Founders Series for SBNN sponsored by SureVoIP – A SaaS provider of business grade VoIP and business phone services
If you would like to take part in the Founder Series please email
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