When lockdown hit the UK in early 2020, Cat Jones seized the opportunity to finally build the business she had been dreaming of since childhood.
“My family holidays were always centred on buses and bikes,” says Cat, CEO and founder of Byway. “Travelling on your own terms gives you a freedom you just can’t explore with package holidays and all-inclusives.”
This was further realised during her time at university. “I was based up in Durham, UK and my boyfriend (now husband) was down in Oxford. I spent my weekends on trains between the two and sailing for the university team.
“Train travel gave me the opportunity to get to know towns and villages along the way. We would often just get off for an hour or so, wander around then carry on to our final destination.”
What is ‘slow travel’?
Slow travel is all about taking the time to get to know areas, cities and towns in a way that you might miss out on by travelling in a more mainstream way.
For example, rather than getting on a plane and staying in your holiday resort for a week of all-inclusive, you would use local transport networks and guides to uncover hidden gems, really getting under the skin of the place.
Launched last year, Byway offers personalised holidays that take travellers away from the crowds by train, bus and boat. It’s the world’s first platform for flight-free holidays and aims to mainstream the emerging trend of slow travel by making it easy to visit lesser known locations without needing a car.
“It’s not that we’re trying to convince people to never get on a flight again,” Cat explains. “But we want people to want to try it out and love it.
“It’s about the joyful experience of travelling through, rather than flying over, connecting with the region and supporting local businesses on the way.”
Who is ‘slow travel’ for?
In theory, slow travel is for everyone. But as Cat explains, “our main market right now is couples and solo travellers. I think people with young families struggle to get their head around how they’re supposed to do this style of holiday without a car.
“To them, I would say the alternative is packing everything into a flight-friendly suitcase and tackling the queues at the airport. We want to help families realise slow travel lets them go further and deeper, which can be such a beneficial learning opportunity for children especially.”
Has there been a spike in interest since COVID?
Cat thinks so. “People are looking to avoid crowded tourist locations. Plus, if anything good has come from COVID it’s this mentality to take things a bit slower.”
There’s been a lot of conversation, too, around sustainable lifestyle over the past 18 months. When the media was reporting on fish returning to the Venice canals and a drop in carbon emissions due to the halting of planes and cars, it gave people the opportunity to think about how we can continue this trend on the other side of the pandemic.
“I think there’s also been a huge emphasis on the importance of supporting small and local businesses,” Cat adds. “We’ve seen too many go under in the wake of COVID - now, people are ready to give back.”
Connecting with local businesses and local people
Currently Byway is operating in the UK, France and Italy. “Because we’re still a relatively small company, we needed to choose locations that our existing team knew well.
“That’s what makes Byway a unique holiday experience,” says Cat. “We’re connected to local people and local businesses in the areas we operate. We have a dedicated WhatsApp group which all of our customers and employees are in, so if someone has a question or needs a recommendation we’re ready to advise.
“The questions we get here range from ‘where’s the best coffee?’ to ‘it’s raining, what can I do instead of hiking up this mountain?’. It has a real knowledge-sharing, community feel.”
What’s next for Byway?
The company has just partnered with Go North Wales to launch an outdoor adventure holiday in the Welsh mountains. Rivalling countries like New Zealand and South America for outdoor activities, Byway has mechanised the holiday package to provide easy transit without a car.
“We have an accessible jump-on, jump-off bus network that gives travellers access to some of the most remote parts of North Wales,” says Jim Jones, CEO of Go North Wales. “Dispersing the income from tourism to more rural areas will really help local economies.”
We asked Cat whether there are plans to expand the business further into Europe.
“Oh, definitely. Right now we’re looking at Germany and Switzerland especially. Hopefully we’ll have made that a reality by the end of this year.”