Published: 06:00, 01 March 2021
After the turmoil of the Second World War, a young couple from the East End of London decided they needed a new start.
Keen to swap the heavily bombed capital with more relaxed pastures of coastal living, the pair bought a 12-bedroom hotel in Folkestone in 1948.
The Rhodesia Hotel on Clifton Crescent is a grand looking, three-storey building dating back to Victorian times.
Sited on a corner plot a mere pebble's throw from The Leas and with views across the Channel, it was a popular summertime destination.
Back in that era, the war-worn British public were clamouring for a holiday. And they headed to the Kent coast, to popular resorts such as Folkestone and Margate which, in turn, helped fuel thriving tourist-reliant economies.
But by 1949 its new owners, Sidney and Margery De Haan, were getting worried. By the time the warmth of autumn evaporated so did its customers. The question they faced was could they afford to keep the place open with such diminishing returns?
As they pondered the predicament, Margery made a simple observation which triggered the spark which would forever change the travel industry.
What's more, she can have little thought that it would also, more than 50 years later, play a pivotal role in the cultural rejuvenation of the very town in which she first made it. Not to mention lead to the creation of a household brand name.
What she saw and realised was that after the tourists left, the main people strolling through the town, and along The Leas were the retired.
"They were the only folk who had the time, and a little spare cash, for such a holiday," Sidney De Haan would later recollect.
But some money was a far more palatable alternative for the cash-strapped owners of the Rhodesia Hotel so they set about planning how to turn it to their advantage.
Sidney De Haan was certainly not a man afraid of hard work and had a determination to survive and succeed.
Born in Mile End in 1919, he was one of 11 children. His father was foreman of a shoe factory.
He left school at the age of 14 with ambition to become a chef. He worked amid the Edwardian splendour of the Waldorf Hilton in London's West End for a while.
But fate would intervene.
In 1939 he was called up for active service as the government summoned all men aged 20 and 21 to serve the war effort as hostilities with Germany were declared.
He signed up to the medical corps and was quickly sent into France.
But at Dunkirk he was captured by enemy forces.
He would swap the luxury of the Waldorf for the squalor of a prisoner of war camp. He would remain at the stalag in Poland for three years.
By 1943 he caught a break and was selected to escort sick prisoners back to Britain. It was while at a hospital back in England he met Margery Crick who, at the time, was working as a nurse.
They married in 1945 and over the space of the next seven years would have three children; sons David, Roger and Peter.
So, determined to ensure his hotel did not go to the wall, he hatched upon a plan.
He and Margery worked out how far senior citizens would be prepared to travel for a holiday by the seaside outside of the traditional holiday season.
They decided 250-miles would be the maximum and identified Bradford in Yorkshire as the perfect place to target for a trial.
He visited the city and carried out research - asking senior citizens what they thought of such an idea - and how much they were willing to pay.
The result was his placing an advert in the city offering a week-long stay at his hotel in Folkestone, full-board and travel, for the somewhat bargain price of £6.50 (which in today's terms equates to the still a bargain £230).
He was deluged with bookings and the Rhodesia was packed.
In fact, it proved so successful, other hotels in the town were quick to team up and Folkestone started to feel the benefit. And more towns would join in.
"It was all very exciting," Sidney De Haan would reflect as his modest hotel business became a travel organisation by 1951, "within two years we were packing every hotel in Folkestone, Margate and Eastbourne."
The Old People's Holiday Bureau - as it was then known - was born.
By the end of the 1950s, such was its clout, it was able to charter special trains to transport the increasing number of silver-haired holiday makers.
There was no major cost inflation either as the popularity grew. De Haan was determined to ensure the holidays remained affordable for his target age group and he ensured his profit margin was slim. But slim on big numbers equates to significant returns.
Just a shame about that name then. Especially as those taking up the holidays didn't actually like being referred to as 'old people', perhaps not surprisingly.
They started using the phrase 'senior citizens' but unable to trademark it, others started using the name and the De Haans had a dilemma.
"Frankly," said De Haan, "it became a headache.
"Then one day in the office I said this was becoming such a...saga. And there and then we had it."
Saga Holidays became the firm's name in 1968. It would become synonymous with off-season travel for the over-60s.
And the days of simply shipping people in from Yorkshire was quickly overtaken by a bigger ambition.
As the appetite for foreign holidays ballooned in the 1960s and '70s, it set its sights overseas. After all, foreign destinations wanted out-of-season visitors to buoy the economy as much as those on the Kent coast.
In the 1960s it added trips to the Algarve in Portugal - building the first holiday village there - while it continued to grow its booming British holiday business.
Then it expanded, in the '70s to offer jaunts to the likes of Spain, Romania and Yugoslavia.
It opened offices in Folkestone to handle the growing demand and started to employ hundreds of local people. It quickly became one of the county's top employers - and fastest growing businesses.
When De Haan decided to take the company public in 1982 with flotation on the London Stock Exchange its shares became the most heavily over-subscribed of the year.
To underline its power in 1982 it snapped up the remains of what had once been one of the most exciting and fast-growing air travel companies.
Canterbury-born Freddie Laker had become a pioneer of transatlantic travel courtesy of his Laker Airways company - offering discounted flights around the world. Most notably, perhaps, the Skytrain, offering a book-on-the-day, first-come-first-serve service between London and New York at a fraction of the cost of its rivals.
But rapid expansion in the 1970s and '80s would be cited by many as its undoing and in 1982 it went into liquidation with debts of £250million (the equivalent of an eye-watering £890m in today's money).
De Haan was there to pick up the pieces, buying up Laker Air Travel for £500,000. It protected those who had holidays booked and jobs.
"We had to do it quickly," De Haan said of the sale. "We didn't know all the facts and figures but at the time it provided us with the outlets we needed."
But the purchase hit Saga's bottom line hard that year as it absorbed the losses of its newly acquired travel business.
Speaking in 1985, De Haan commented: "It was all very good experience and we learned a lot."
Saga's growth during the 1980s continued. In 1984 it launched Saga Magazine, a title aimed at the firm’s target demographic. Within a decade it was Britain's best-selling title, shifting 1.25million copies a month - over-taking even the once-mighty Reader's Digest.
Whatever it touched it seemed, turned to gold, while it was now offering trips to the likes of Hong Kong and Bangkok.
'We didn't know all the facts and figures but at the time it provided us with the outlets we needed..'
In 1984 Sidney De Haan, then 65, decided the time was right for him to join the ranks of his customers and retire.
After years living in Folkestone, he moved with Margery to a modest cottage in Somerset - paying just the occasional trip back to the town in which his empire had grown. In 1985 he received an OBE for his services to tourism.
He handed over the company to two of his sons - Roger and Peter - both of whom were in their late 30s at the time.
Was he tempted to take one of his own holidays after hanging up his work suit?
"My face is so well known to our clients through the brochures," he admitted shortly after stepping down, "everyone wants to speak to you, telling you how good - or how disappointing - the holidays are. It's flattering, but it takes the shine off a holiday."
In 1994, just shy of their 50th wedding anniversary, Margery De Haan passed away.
Sidney moved back to Folkestone to be close to his sons.
He died in 2002 - ten days after his 83rd birthday.
Paul Bach, founding editor of Saga Magazine, said at the time: "He was an inspirational man.
"He was good and decent all his life and people who worked with him had enormous affection for him. He founded a huge empire, but there was never any grandeur about him. He always remained true and loyal to his East End roots. He was an innovative thinker and a brilliant man."
His death came at a pivotal moment for the De Haan family.
During the 1990s Saga's expansion had continued, with the launch of everything from radio stations to insurance to cruise ships as well as looking to expand its audience base by dropping its over-60s target audience to over-50s.
In 1999 Roger De Haan had bought shares from his brother Peter and took a controlling interest in the firm, acquiring the final 25% of shares in the July of 2002.
It was a shrewd move.
In 2004, Roger De Haan oversaw the sale of Saga in a takeover backed by private equity firm Charterhouse for a cool £1.4billion. It was a deal which made De Haan one of the country's richest men.
It also brought to an end the family's control of the firm.
The media shy De Haan hasn't kept a low profile however. He has invested millions of pounds into Folkestone, helping fuel its rejuvenation over the last 20 years as well as being the mastermind of the redevelopment of the port and beachside housing. He maintains his family's long-held belief in re-investing back into the communities which provided him with the staff to run such a successful business.
Saga has undergone numerous changes since. Just five years after the takeover, it was brought together and merged with the AA under the umbrella of Acromas Holdings.
In 2014 it floated once again on the stock market at 185p a share.
But over recent years, that dramatic growth has slowed considerably.
As it looks to stay relevant in a far more competitive marketplace, in September 2019 it saw its share price tumble to an all-time low of just 65p before starting a steady recovery.
But 2020 was, for much of the travel industry, a year to forget. Cruise holidays were the first to go as the pandemic started to spread around the world. Appalling timing for Saga which had just invested heavily in two new ships.
Facing a financial blackhole as a consequence, who was spotted offering them a port in the storm? Enter the now Sir Roger De Haan (he'd been knighted in 2014). He invested £100m into the company and returned as its non-executive chairman.
Quite where it will set sail to next given the continuing uncertainty over international travel remains to be seen. It has been forced to shed hundreds of jobs while a large call centre in Thanet has been put on the market and an office it owns in Folkestone is also up for sale as it looks to adjust to the ever-shifting landscape.
But Sir Roger – and the Saga board - would be wise to heed the words of his father as he helps plot its return to glory.
Speaking in 1985, Sidney De Haan spoke of the need to respect, as a priority, its audience. He said: "Senior citizens weigh-up and decide very carefully indeed what you offer. There is no pulling the wool over their eyes.
"They have seen it all before. If you make a mistake, tell them right away. Do not con them, under any circumstances. And if things go wrong, they will appreciate your frankness."
It was a mantra which certainly didn’t do him any harm.