Sensing the experience’s popularity would increase, the small independent took a risk launching a decade ago in the depths of the last recession. Now it is UK’s only full service holiday business dedicated to what for many is nature’s greatest spectacle, the aurora borealis, whose long season over a pristine wilderness actually lasts from September to early April. One of three brands part of The Artisan Travel Company, The Aurora Zone is its wintry winner helping push group turnover to £7million this year and on target for 10 percent growth in 2020.
Co-owners, following a recent buyout of investors, are founders Alistair (‘Ali’) McLean and wife Kate. The name they chose says it all, Ali explains.
“The aurora zone is the geographical oval band just north of the Arctic Circle where the lights appear most frequently whether you are in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Canada or Greenland.
“With that sole focus we are the aurora experts in a niche field. Our clients explore places unimpeded by artificial light and noise where they can see the illuminated skies in their full glory and soak up the eerie silence of the snow-covered landscapes.
“Our research is second to none. We dig deep, look for patterns on the sun’s surface, our contacts are some the world’s top geophysicists, guides and tourism partners where it counts on the ground. This is the way we have become more accurate in what’s an inexact science.”
Clients are mainly pre-children and empty-nesters, more confident than a few years ago about embarking on trip to the Arctic and intent on a once-in-a life-time experience.
Most are from the UK but a growing number now from the US and Australia.
“They want adventure but with a helping hand and prefer to travel with a trusted tour operator who has all the required trade bonds so they are fully protected,” says Ali who sees the customer-focussed supplier network he and the group’s team of 26 have nurtured across 30 destinations as a kind of ‘fair trade’ for travel.
“The weak state of sterling has undoubtedly increased our costs,” he says. “But our goal is not to squeeze every last cent out of suppliers. They are partner stakeholders and have grown with us, improving standards of living for their local communities.”
The drone attack last December that shut down Gatwick airport was a case in point. “It was peak season and a blow for us, but we made sure our customers and those we work with did not lose out,” he adds.
Remote locations are something the company knows well, but while they are just what many customers are looking for, businesses thrive on connections.
For Northumberland-based Aurora Zone being a member of trade network the Association of Independent Tour Operators (Aito) has proved vital.
“We can feel a little out of the loop sometimes in terms of meeting with fellow operators and attending events, as we don’t get to London so often,” Ali explains.
“But AITO membership keeps us fully updated on all travel matters and provides us with the chance to really interact with other tour operators and specialist travel agents.”
He realised his calling to be a travel business entrepreneur when he drew up his own career bucket list which then led to a tourism degree as a mature student.
A lasting consequence of that has been the close connections the group maintains with local universities and their talent pools.
Young bright things arrive, then find themselves staying and progressing such as general manager Joanna Livingstone. “Our staff retention rate is very high,” says Ali.
Aware however that despite all its attractions The Aurora Zone’s trade will always be seasonal, the group has now expanded with a third brand, Artisan Travel.
Catering for year-round experiences, such as whale watching, swimming with dolphins and cycling round a volcano in the lesser known Azores, it is winning new fans as well as repeat business from Zone enthusiasts.
Future eco-friendly train travel to north Finland, stays leaving a lighter carbon footprint in the super green Sunday Morning Resort where snowmobiles are electrically-powered and women only tours are next on Aurora’s agenda.
And when asked by the odd customer, as has happened in all seriousness, whether “reindeers can fly”, the team is primed to deliver a gentle reality check.
“We are in a happy place,” says Ali. “I hear a lot of laughter in our office.”