Audley's growth attracted investors, says new chairman

tners Europe into tailor-made travel specialist Audley Travel proves that “private equity firms are still interested in growth stories in the travel industy”, according to the operator’s new chairman, Richard Prosser.

Equistone confirmed on Tuesday that it would buy a controlling stake in the tours and safari specialist, following months of speculation about the deal. Phoenix Equity Partners had been named as a leading contender but recently pulled out.

Speaking exclusively to Travel Weekly, Prosser, formerly specialist and emerging markets managing director at Tui Travel, said: “Audley Travel has always been a growth business.

Equistone’s investment is therefore a tribute to the quality of the management team at Audley, which has continued to grow the business through the recent economic turbulence.”

Prosser, who is also chairman of private equity-backed CarTrawler, added: “I have been a huge fan of Audley for a number of years and have tracked it as a competitor.

This is a really good news story for them and for the industry. Equistone were very impressed with the robustness of Audley’s model. Its customer base has proved very resilient – but you’re only resilient if you also have fantastic management.”

Prosser said he was “delighted” the two founders John Brewer and Craig Burkinshaw were retaining shares in the business and continuing to be board members.

He declined to reveal the price Equistone Partners Europe, which was known as Barclays Private Equity until late last year, paid for its majority stake. He said: “Equistone is really impressed with the quality of the business that John and Craig have built.”

Prosser declined to elaborate on exactly how the firm would achieve further growth, but Equistone said its funding would be used to support continued investment in Audley’s products, operations and team.

Audley, which is based in Oxfordshire, started life as Asian Journeys in 1996, specialising in tailor-made tours and safaris. Mostly selling direct to consumers, it employs 170 people and in 2010 generated revenue of £63 million.

Equistone has made a number of previous investments in the travel sector, including shopping tourism specialist Global Blue. It sold its stake in Karavel-Promovacances, a French online travel agency, for £200 million in May 2011.

It is the first time that Prosser has worked with Equistone. Phil Griesbach, director at Equistone Partners Europe, said: “Audley Travel stands out as a highly differentiated business with its uniquely bespoke product and high level of customer service.

“The business has a great team and a strong business model, which helps to explain the consistent growth.”

Craig Burkinshaw, co-founder of Audley Travel, said: “John and I have enjoyed building Audley Travel over the last 15 years into the UK’s leading tailor-made tour operator. We are poised to explore a range of opportunities and are committed to continue to deliver exceptional travel experiences to our customers.

We look forward to working with Equistone and Richard Prosser, both? of whom have an excellent track record in the travel sector.”

Bianca Dexter-Burnell, relationship director at Barclays Hospitality and Leisure, said: “We have a longstanding relationship with Audley, supporting its growth over the years. The importance of a strong business model and putting the customer experience first cannot be underestimated. Audley’s proven track record is a clear exampl