Adversity as a catalyst for change

Luxury tour operator Scott Dunn built on its strong reputation and expanded into the US and Asia between December 2014 and February 2023 with the support of Inflexion – whose ongoing investment and expertise during the pandemic underpinned the company’s path back to growth.

Much has changed at Scott Dunn since Inflexion invested in 2014. Enjoying a growing market since its 1986 founding, the Inflexion investment enabled the luxury tour operator to open its first non-UK sales office with the acquisition of Aardvark Safaris in 2016. The company on the West Coast of the US helped Scott Dunn to expand its service offering, and Inflexion’s in-country expert in Asia helped set up a Singapore office prior to its purchase of Country Holidays there in 2018.

With these acquisitions under its belt and an enlarged geographic footprint allowing for 24/7 customer service, attention was recast towards future growth opportunities. A review in mid-2018 revealed lots of further growth potential in the company, but changes in strategy and people were needed to achieve this.

The right leadership was crucial for driving this strategy forward. Existing COO Sonia Davies was promoted to CEO in November 2018 and Simon McMurtrie was appointed Chair from Inflexion’s network. An experienced performance marketer was hired as CMO and a CTO was appointed to upgrade Scott Dunn’s systems and to ensure that Marketing, Sales and Tech all worked much more closely together to provide better service to guests.

“We needed to modify the strategy and Inflexion really grasped the nettle and made changes. Their Digital Director Alex Mathers worked in partnership with me to analyse and refresh the strategic plan for the business, including closing non-core components, handling multiple brands, and a rethink on customer lifetime value. He was a tremendous support and truly an extension of our team,” Sonia recalls of that period.

The Scott Dunn team really turned the dials in 2019 as an enhanced leadership and Inflexion placed a fresh emphasis on growth, with a clear distinction being drawn between the marketing to and management of new and existing guests, with the crucial lifetime value lens layered on top. The year saw a strong focus on winning new guests effectively; much better performance of existing guests, including through the launch of a successful outbound relationship management service; growth of the premium Scott Dunn Private business with high-touch bespoking for Scott Dunn’s highest spending and most demanding guests; and a refresh of the Scott Dunn brand, resulting in a website relaunch.

The momentum continued into 2020, until the pandemic and lockdowns from March 2020 threw an almighty spanner in the works, with the global travel businesses more adversely affected than any other sector.

Flying high

Though flights may have been grounded, Scott Dunn was not.

Sonia, Simon and the team supported by Inflexion’s Cath Richards doubled down on transforming Scott Dunn. “In the thick of the pandemic when no one was able to travel and we literally couldn’t do any business at all, it required tough, bright minds to collaborate to plot the route out of the situation and back to growth,” Simon explains.

And they did it, through a careful mix of improved processes, accelerated system changes, laser-focused marketing spend, dramatically reduced cost base, a wholesale review of cash management and, critically, a rethink of pricing and margin. A new CFO in 2020 proved pivotal, as did Inflexion’s ongoing support and modest capital injection to show conviction in the firm’s ongoing prospects.

Ultimately Scott Dunn’s swift action meant it adapted quickly, traded resiliently and used the time to strengthen its business model, making it well placed to capture the return of the travel market.

“Scott Dunn’s guests want to travel and if certain locations were going to be off-limits because of pandemic restrictions, then they looked to Scott Dunn to find them an alternative destination,” Simon recalls. His value-add as an expert in consumer businesses sharpened the economics around acquiring new customers, with their high LTV (lifetime value) rendering basic PPC (pay per click) an ineffective method.

Scott Dunn’s Travel Consultants focused on providing individual service to its guests, and their depth of understanding resulted in strong bookings, with only a trickle of refunds and a highly motivated Scott Dunn team determined to enable guests to enjoy “holidays of a lifetime” after the trauma of lockdown.

Indeed the ambition and perseverance of the leadership team combined with the unwavering support of Inflexion throughout the pandemic meant that in 2021 and 2022, Scott Dunn’s guests travelled more, further, and for longer trips than ever before. The second half of 2022 saw Scott Dunn plan a larger US business, with a new emphasis on guests based on the East Coast and Texas (rather than the original US business’s California bias).

“At its best, the private equity model, especially in the mid-market, enables the management to be supported with clear and relevant advice around a defined set of objectives which move the revenue, profit and profitability of a business. For Scott Dunn, 2022 was a record year and 2023 is shaping up with significant top-line and bottom-line growth taking the business to even greater heights,” points out Simon.

Inflexion and Scott Dunn’s leadership team sought a strong global travel business to support the next phase of Scott Dunn’s journey in the coming years. In February 2023, Scott Dunn was sold to Flight Centre Travel Group, an Australian listed travel agency which views Scott Dunn as their flagship luxury travel brand as part of a wider expansion in the premium and luxury segment of the market.

ESG as a recruitment tool


Scott Dunn used the pause in usual busyness that the pandemic initially brought as a time to reflect and reset strategic priorities, with ESG a big part of it.


The financial toll the lockdown months brought meant early ESG efforts were bootstrapped, such as blind screening the recruitment process to improve diversity by removing biases. Once people join the Scott Dunn team, policies around diversity, inclusion and belonging are clear, including the needs of carers (whether for children or parents) and more. Carbon sequestering – buying trees to offset impact at 4x the standard rate – was another focus, as was looking after the communities where Scott Dunn’s guests travel to.


“We had to think outside of the box to improve our diversity and get to grips with inclusion and belonging. It’s important because our business is about our guests and they come in all shapes and sizes. Our restructure meant we were able to bring in fresh ways of thinking, and it really helped when we came to recruit as the travel market returned,” Sonia says.