From humble beginnings to a multi-award-winning tour operator based in the heart of Scotland’s capital city – it’s been a busy couple of decades for Absolute Escapes.
As we celebrate our 20th anniversary, we put some questions to our Co-Founders – Andy Gabe and Sheila Tulloch – including how the company began and where’s next on their bucket list.
Read on for a behind-the-scenes insight into how Absolute Escapes evolved, and the challenges and triumphs of Andy and Sheila’s journey.
We met on a company graduate programme in the hospitality industry when we were in our early twenties. We then took a career break when we hit 30 to do a spot of travelling and ended up being away for 2 years.
While we were travelling we spent a year in New Zealand and walked some of their iconic long-distance trails. Our first hut-to-hut walk was the Abel Tasman Coast Track and we immediately got the bug and completed another 6 more. That set us thinking about how we could start a business when we returned home involving the long-distance walking routes that we have in the UK.
On our way home from our travels, we spent some time in California and then in the Rockies where we spent the last of our savings hiring a car and heading out on a couple of fabulous road trips.
We thought we could combine these styles of holidays with many of the walking trails in the UK and provide packages for clients that we would enjoy.
How to work together in a 2-bed apartment in Edinburgh! We were also new to the travel industry, so we had to be fast learners and rely on our hospitality experience to focus on customer service and delivering the best experiences possible.
It took us 6 months to get our first booking, so we had to keep the faith and hope that those clients from the early years would keep returning and tell their friends.
In the early years we used to organise meetings and incentive trips for corporate clients and we (somehow) managed to land NATO as a client. We arranged all of the transport logistics and tours for 750 conference delegates in Edinburgh, which resulted in us working with Rabbie’s Tours for the first time. We continue to work with them today.
Any of the walking trails that we completed in the first 5 years. We’ve always prided ourselves on having first-hand knowledge of the itineraries that we offer, and this is especially important with our walking holidays as the logistics can be quite tricky.
In the early years, we headed out on the trails and completed them ourselves, so the West Highland Way, Great Glen Way, Speyside Way, Rob Roy Way and Kintyre Way are all close to our hearts. These days we spread this around the team and we always try and ensure that someone in our team has experience in all of the locations that we offer in both our walking and self-drive holidays.
The Isle of Tiree – one of the first islands we visited when we returned home from our travels. When we got off the ferry for our 4-night stay, we drove around the island in 30 minutes and thought we should shorten our trip.
Fast forward another 4 hours after spending an afternoon on Balevullin Beach and we could have moved there!
The Torridon in the spectacular North West Highlands. Set amongst two of our favourite things: sea and mountains.
If you’re interested in the history of Absolute Escapes, don’t miss our blog post: A Walk Through Time – A Brief History of Absolute Escapes. It has a fantastic timeline with key milestones of our journey.
We’re so proud of the team that we’ve had at Absolute Escapes, both past and present. We’re fortunate to work with some amazing people and we’re just so grateful that they’ve been on this journey with us.
While we’re all from different backgrounds, we all have a passion for the travel industry and a love of the outdoors. And we all like dogs.
Probably two main ones stand out for us:
The obvious one here is Covid. That was quite a challenge. This goes back to my previous answer, as the only reason we were able to come through it was the loyalty of our clients and the dedication of our team.
It highlighted to us that despite living in such a digital age, what really mattered was the people in our business – both the clients who kept their deposits with us and the team we had who supported each other and us throughout some dark times.
We’ve been so fortunate to have many returning clients for which we’re eternally grateful.
Perhaps our most loyal client is David from California who has booked numerous walking trails, self-drive holidays and guided tours with us. He’s an absolute delight to work with and has booked holidays from the far north of Shetland to the west coast of Ireland. He’s heading to Wales for the very first time in April 2024 and we’re looking forward to hearing all about his Welsh adventure on his return.
It has to be New Zealand for too many reasons to mention. The NZ tourist board used to have the perfect strapline for their country: The once-in-a-lifetime holiday that you need to do every 3 years!
Questions from social media followers:
We both love visiting Scottish islands and we used to book a holiday cottage for a week every year on a different island. We’ve been fortunate to visit so many of these wonderful places over the years, but we’re still missing visits to Barra and Shetland from our list.
We’re heading to the Small Isles in April, so we’ll have to add these two to our list for 2025.
South West Coast Path: great coastal walking, beautiful towns and villages, amazing restaurants. And if you complete it all, it’s the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest four times!
I’m sure you could tackle all of the trails that we offer and I just hope we’re still considering a long-distance trail when we’re 76.
The person I think of when considering a walking trail in your mid-70s is the legendary Alfred Wainwright. He devised the Coast to Coast walk from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, which has become one of Britain’s most popular long-distance walks. He was still walking the fells of the Lake District well into his 80s, so I’m sure he’d have been delighted to know that you were still fit and active.
I think we have to go back to the first trail that we walked when we returned to Scotland from our travels – the West Highland Way. It was while walking the final day of the trail between Kinlochleven and Fort William that we realised the idea could become a reality.
While it remains our most popular trail with our clients, it still draws us back for numerous day walks and we’re looking forward to taking on the trail again next year with our 12-year-old son and 2 border terriers!
As we celebrate this incredible milestone, we’re also looking ahead to the next 20 years.
With a wonderful client base, exceptional suppliers and a talented team behind us, we look forward to seeing where our motto of Keep Discovering takes us.
We continue to expand our range of holidays to provide the best new long-distance walks and the most exciting road trip destinations. As this happens, you can be sure that our first-hand knowledge and exceptional customer service will remain at the centre of what we do.
Don’t just take our word for it, take a look at our high number of excellent customer reviews.
Whether you’ve been a part of our company in some way since 2004 or have only just joined the world of Absolute Escapes, we’re so grateful that you’ve been part of our story. We hope that you’ll join us on our journey over the next two decades.
Andy Gabe & Sheila Tulloch
Directors and Co-Founders of Absolute Escapes