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Topdeck’s Founder and current MD reflect on 50 years and the evolution of youth coach travel

As origin stories go, this one is legendary. Two Aussie vets in London organised a coach trip with mates in 1973, inviting like-minded travellers to embark on the "trip of a lifetime" – an epic overland adventure from London to Morocco on a double-decker.

As origin stories go, this one is legendary. Two Aussie vets in London organised a coach trip with mates in 1973, inviting like-minded travellers to embark on the “trip of a lifetime” – an epic overland adventure from London to Morocco on a double-decker.

That bus touring company became Topdeck – the scrappy startup that formed the DNA and culture of the now-global Flight Centre Travel Group.

Swapping converted double-deckers with bunks on board for modern coaches and hotels, Topdeck has stayed true to the same values and pioneering spirit conceived 50 years ago by Graham “Skroo” Turner, Geoff “Spy” Lomas and Bill James.

Topdeckers such as former Director/Driver Mick Carroll and CEO James Nathan have also steered the coach company along the way, creating it into the leading 18-39 group travel brand of today.

The DNA of Topdeck

Topdeck collage
Topdeck’s OG double-deckers including ‘Argas’, the first-ever coach in 1973.

Reflecting on the first-ever Topdeck trip from London to Morocco – an overland tour via France, Spain and Portugal with 17 aboard that was recently recreated in reverse for the anniversary – Flight Centre Travel Group CEO Skroo Turner recounts a few standout moments that shaped the brand’s beginnings.

These include a nail-biting ferry crossing from Spain to Morocco, a slippery sheer drop in the High Atlas Mountains and a jail bailout for a pot-carrying passenger.

“Bill James found out that the ferry going from Algeciras to Ceuta officially wouldn’t take the height of the double-decker,” he recalls of his ultimate decision to floor the vehicle up the ferry ramp to perch on the rear deck for the entire journey across the Straits of Gibraltar.

“Another memorable moment was being on the pass over the High Atlas with the bus sliding inexorably towards the edge of an icy road because we had no chains.

“Marty – a guy who forgot he was on the first trip – got thrown in jail. I have no idea how we got him out…”

“He was the drug expert,” Bill James chimes in. “Marty got picked up for buying hash, and Skroo had to go to the jail and pay a fine in US dollars to get him out, and that was just normal practice between drug dealers and police to get US dollars in cash.”

Topdeck then…

Topdeck 50th Skroo
Skroo addresses the crowd at Topdeck’s 50th birthday party in London.

These anecdotes underscore the free-wheeling attitude and the determination and resilience that built Topdeck’s legacy and cemented its relevance in a changing travel landscape where other youth travel brands were left behind.

The business of travel is always a journey of highs and lows and even Skroo attributes Topdeck’s longevity to “a fair bit of luck”.

On the brink of bankruptcy in 2003, the brand was rescued by a consortium initiated by APT’s Geoff McGeary that also included Skroo, Bill James and James Nathan.

“If Geoff hadn’t taken the initiative, Topdeck could have easily gone the same way as other youth travel brands,” Skroo says.

“Being part of an organisation like Flight Centre Travel Group helped us get through the tough times. For operations like this, you need a big parent.”

And now…

Topdeck 50th Skroo Jude Ed Bill
Party like its 1973: Skroo Turner, Jude Turner, Ed Pettitt and Bill James.

Topdeck’s current custodian is Managing Director of Global Touring Ed Pettitt who is charged with keeping group travel relevant for the ever-changing youth traveller.

Instead of being everything to everyone, today’s Topdeck focuses on key traveller personas with three distinct product offerings: Get Social, Delve Deep and Play & Pause.

Pettitt says there’s also the freedom to “lean into the chaos” with dynamic trips that take the pulse of its customers’ interests and current travel trends.

The brand’s current ‘Feel Real‘ messaging invites Gen Z travellers seeking life-changing experiences to be their authentic selves on a rite-of-passage trip.

Topdeck Europe
Europe taken at a different pace with Play & Pause tours.

“It’s really about the social experience: building friendships, connecting people and opening up the world – they can be themselves on a trip,” Pettitt says.

Topdeck also just launched City Insiders – a collab program with local content creators that embraces the social era to inspire travellers to not only visit a destination but experience it.

“Our focus is going really deep in places like Paris, Rome, Athens and Barcelona and connecting Topdeckers to things that without us you wouldn’t know about,” Pettitt explains.

“We partner with local content creators – people who our audience resonates with – to show the best places to eat, drink and dance.

“We want the experience in those places to be life-changing and memorable forever.”

Back to the future

Topdeck 50th Ed Skroo Bill Mick
Then and now: Managing Director Ed Pettitt with Skroo Turner, Mick Carroll and Bill James.

Pettitt says he’s excited about what’s next for Topdeck after achieving such a major milestone.

“Travelling when you’re young with a group of adventurous people is a formative part of people’s lives – that was true in 1973 and it’s still true today,” Pettitt says.

“When you hear about people’s Topdeck experiences, very similar themes come through. You make lifelong friends, you find yourself, you form a love of travelling and you feed your curiosity.

“For Topdeck today, it’s really a continuation of the same theme throughout the 50 years.”

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