Adventure travel agency True Traveller was set up in 2010 by three travellers who first met each other when they all worked for a very well-known travel company in Earls Court, London, in the late 1980s. Time went on, and the demand for the travel insurance far exceeded the demand for the holidays, so in 2012 the insurance side was split from the original website to sit on its own dedicated website. The insurance side grew and grew, so the decision was made to close the holiday side of True Traveller in 2014.
Was it a wrench deciding to close the travel agent side of the business, given that was what you initially wanted to do?
Yes, to be honest. Chris O’Hara, my business partner, and I had each been in the travel industry for 25 years or so, and it just became slightly problematic with the relevant licensing authorities on the travel side of things. We were selling five times as much in travel insurance policies as we were selling tours, so it made sense for us to focus on the most profitable part of the business and shut down the travel side.
How did you find entering the world of direct-sale travel insurance? Was it an easy transition to make?
We’d always sold insurance, albeit in those days via a broker, so we knew the lie of the land. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, travel agents could sell travel insurance without any regulation. Some plainly weren’t being entirely straight with their customers, so the whole thing became a regulated activity under the auspices of the Financial Services Authority. So, back in 2014, we were an appointed representative of Campbell Irvine, who were incredibly helpful to us in our early days, and to some extents, still are. Anthony Kaye of Campbell Irvine is also Chair of the Association of Travel Insurance Intermediaries, so we still catch up for a gossip a few times a year.
The UK travel insurance marketplace is a crowded one, so how do you ensure you are able to stand out from the crowd?
It’s a question we’re always asked! Many years ago, we were asked by the then underwriter at ACE Insurance, our insurer back then, how we explained our growth. In the travel business, the cost to attract clients is enormous, and there are so many factors outside of the control of a tour operator that can ruin that relationship. As a result, generally in the travel industry, the customer is first, second and third and is treated as such all the time. We just carried on with that mantra, and it’s served us well. The customer is everything, and if they’re treated fairly, they’ll always come back, and tell others, so growth continues.
The problem with ‘adventure’ sports is that the term covers such a wide variety of activities. Standard travel insurance might cover you for water skiing, but the devil lies in the detail of the policy wording. How do you decide which sports you cover, and are there any that are too risky, even for you?
We do have an enormous number of different sports and activities which we’re able to cover, and, for the most part, I’ve done them all to one extent or another. You do have to trust in people’s common sense as well, and should they do something irresponsible that causes an accident to them or someone else, then of course the claim could be denied. But, in the majority of cases, our large claims are just people being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and just plain bad luck. But sure, there are activities I wouldn’t dream of raising with an underwriter … off the top of my head, freediving and free solo climbing.
How have you updated your policies in line with Covid risks and restrictions?
In the early days, no one knew what we were dealing with. When Boris Johnson came on the TV on 23 March 2020 and said: “You must stay at home,” it put a shiver down the spine of the country. The travel industry came to a standstill straight away, and we were incredibly busy with cancellation and curtailment enquiries. We still had many customers overseas, and our insurer agreed that they would continue to be covered. But, for a while, any new policies issued didn’t cover Covid claims as no one knew what we were dealing with. By July, we were able to resume Covid cover for new policies. At that time, we were clients of Millstream Underwriting, who are MGAs for Allianz Partners, and throughout that time, both companies were incredibly helpful and supportive.
Now our policies cover cancellation for Covid, and medical and curtailment costs. There are effective vaccines now as we all know, and we do insist that our customers are fully vaccinated. If someone, for reasons unrelated to medical conditions, doesn’t want a jab, we’ll still cover them for accidents and sudden illness, but not Covid.
You recently announced a new collaboration with AXA Partners, what made you choose them as a partner?
I’m not entirely sure a travel insurance intermediary chooses their insurer, it’s more a case that they choose you! We were approached early in 2021 by AXA Partners, as, before Brexit, we sold throughout Europe, and our second-largest market was the Czech Republic. Someone essentially complained to AXA in Prague that True Traveller wasn’t selling to them anymore, and I received an email from Tomas Mrnka, the Sales Director for AXA Partners CEE, to see if I’d like a chat. So over Teams meetings for many months, we came up with a contract. In fairness, from that first email, I think for both Tomas and I, the chances of a long-term deal between us were tiny, but like a snowball going downhill, the speed built up and the partnership became inevitable. We never actually met in person until after the deal was signed!
So, now True Traveller has an office in Prague, and is back to offering travel insurance to the European marketplace.
Are you embracing the new wave of technology on offer to travel insurers, whether in terms of automated claims or parametric add ons to policies?
Due to our client mix, most of our claims are medical; both illness and accidents, so automated claims just don’t come into that scenario. You still need an assistance operator handling cases, and people looking at documents to see if they’re genuine. AXA granted us delegated claims authority, so our Prague subsidiary is now handling the after-the-fact claims, which is something we’ve always been keen to do. That will go online; it’s being written right now, so that will help our customers so we can address and settle their claims as fast as we possibly can. There are some ideas out there, for example checking delayed flights and automatically providing an airport lounge pass to a customer, but the effort to put that in place on our scheme just isn’t worth it for the very small return.
Do you still have a passion for travelling yourself? Is there anywhere left that you have yet to explore?
I’ve been very lucky that I have managed to visit some places very few people get to, but there’s still the ‘list’. I’ve been to a lot of Asia, for instance, but never Vietnam. I’ve been to a lot of the Middle East, but never Iran. So, there’s two which are firmly up there, but I’m also very comfortable on a beach with a book!