The faces of Canvas – Simon Allan

Congratulations are in order this week, as our MD Simon celebrates an amazing 25 years with Canvas Holidays.

Back in 1990, he took a summer job as a children’s courier – little did he know that 25 years later, he’d be running the ship as we celebrate 50 years of camping adventures. A little bird also told us Simon is celebrating his own 50th later this year…

Here Simon looks back at his time with Canvas and how the company has changed over the last 25 years.

25 years – that’s half of Canvas’ life! Why did you choose Canvas?


Simon celebrating 50 years of Canvas Holidays earlier this year

Like lots of our customers I enjoyed family camping holidays in the late 70’s and early 80’s and caught the camping bug! We had our own tent and camping equipment which we dragged around Europe. I soon became aware of Canvas Holidays as we often pitched our tent next to a Canvas tent and my mother was always jealous as their tents had more luxuries than we had! Like many who have come after me, I observed the Canvas Couriers on site and thought “That looks like a great job. I’d like a go at that”. It’s funny to think now that I did apply for summer positions with Canvas when I was at college and was rejected. In those days, the recruitment policy required you to have an Oxbridge education and a language degree, and I had neither.

I finally joined in 1990 after I had tried the real world in a “proper job” (as described by my mother circa Feb 1990) and I thought I would try a year out before settling down.

How was the company different then?

At that time Canvas Holidays was privately owned by the Cuthbert Family, who seeing the popularity of European camping had come up with the idea of packaged camping holidays – setting up Canvas in 1965. I worked with them for three summer seasons in various roles overseas.

It could be quite a challenge getting the campsites ready for our customers, as back then there was no such thing as free movement of goods within Europe. This often meant that vital items of camping equipment were not allowed into the country. I recall one time sitting in an office at Marseille docks, explaining to a particularly difficult French customs official why my Korean made plastic tent ground sheets – that he did not want to allow into the country – were so important, and of course also trying to explain why I had not chosen to buy French ground sheets.

What happened after your time as a courier?

Simon's application picture from 1990!

Simon’s application picture from 1990!

In 1992 the business relocated to Dunfermline and I was called back from France to join a new team focused on the growth of the company. This was a great time to be working for Canvas, as we took the basic idea of the European camping holiday and redefined it. The business became much more professional in its approach, recognising the importance of training and developing staff and of course coming up with lots of improvements for our customers.

I was involved in reviewing the campsites we offered and adding new destinations, and eventually headed up the Operations team. I oversaw the development of new tent designs, many new mobile home types and the introduction of lodges. This, plus the introduction of new telephone, reservations, stock control systems, and of course the introduction of a website and on line sales, allowed us to gain market share and become a key company in the UK travel industry.

I became Managing Director in 2010.

How do you think Canvas has changed over the years?

Simon spending time with custoemrs as part of a 'back to the floor' exercise.

Simon spending time with customers as part of a ‘back to the floor’ exercise.

In many ways the essence of a Canvas Holiday is still the same as it was when I first started – yes we are now a professionally run business, but the importance of understanding customers needs and our staff well-being is still at our heart. A few years ago I took some time to go ‘back to the floor’ to work as a campsite courier in Spain for a few days. I was interested to know how life was for a courier and to see if the job had changed. I found that although we now have a more defined set of systems in place to support our couriers, much of the role remains the same and providing excellent customer service is absolutely the key to our success.

So what’s next for Canvas?

This year saw an exciting development in Canvas’ 50 year history as we came under the ownership of the Vacalians Group, Europe’s largest provider of camping holidays. Integrating Canvas with the new group, without affecting our service is this years priority. I’m also looking to how we can grow the business in the future, by providing more exciting destinations and accommodation types in the coming years – not forgetting our roots of course.

canvas holidays, Fife Young Carers

Simon announcing Canvas Holidays sponsorship of the Limekilns Dip in 2015

I’m also extremely proud of all the work we’ve done for our associated charities [Fife Young Carers and The Family Holiday Association] over the last 5 or so years. The team at Canvas have really got behind the fundraising initiatives, and I hope that continues for the foreseeable future.

You’ve obviously visited a few Canvas sites over the years. Do you have a favourite and why?

I like all of our sites for various reasons – they are all chosen for their character and quality. They vary hugely in style from the large resorts on the Italian Adriatic, to the small family run site we have close to Calais. It’s hard to single out a favourite, as many of them hold special memories for me.

Any trips planned for 2015?

Loads. I am currently spending a lot of time commuting between Edinburgh and Paris as we work through the integration of Canvas into the Vacalians Group. However I hope to be out and about on some of our sites at some stage during the summer.

At Canvas we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary in 2015. Find out more, and tell us your own Canvas story here.

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