Who said the high street is dead? TTG caught up with some successful travel agencies that have recently expanded.
While it’s true that the high street faces challenges, many travel agencies are thriving – and even expanding.
Mark Johnson, director at Polka Dot Travel, which has 18 shops and plans to open another six in the north-west of England, believes the current climate makes it easier to open a new store.
“Because of the difficulties faced by many shops on high streets, there are lots of units available and some good deals on leases,” he says.
Tivoli Travel’s director Jo Richards also believes in seizing opportunities to expand, having opened her second store in Lindley in Yorkshire last year.
“I started looking at other areas because my first shop in Mirfield had done so well. I was on my way back from a wedding exhibition, driving through Lindley and saw the ‘to let’ sign on a converted shop. I put in a bid which
was successful and we opened last February.”
Business has been booming since, with both shops performing well. “We doubled our turnover at the Mirfield shop between November 2018 and November 2019,” says Richards.
Perfect Getaways is another example of a high street agency growing quickly. “We opened our first shop in May 2017 and now have five shops,” says managing director Nicola Palmer.
“Our first two shops were in the villages of Little Sutton and Neston [in Cheshire]. We followed this with our third shop in Birkenhead in May 2018, which was our first town centre shop. Then in January 2019 we opened two more shops in St Helens and Liverpool city centre.”
Palmer credits the rapid expansion to making smart location choices.
“At first we chose village locations where there was no competition. This enabled Perfect Getaways to learn and get its concept right before expanding into larger, more expensive and competitive areas,” she says.
Scoping out the local area is important, says Johnson. “We look at towns with a decent population and check if there is an established independent travel agency already operating there. A lot of it comes down to local knowledge, so we do a lot of visiting and checking the demographic of an area.”
Being mindful of the small details is also vital. “You have to research things like whether there’s good parking nearby and what the other businesses are around you. Try to speak to them to see how many customers they get, and check things that could disrupt your business such as ongoing roadworks,” says Richards.
If you’re a small independent agent on the high street, Johnson says it’s vital to build awareness of your business in new locations.
“Brand awareness takes time, so having local staff is key. We have attracted agents from other companies, which helps as we can get their name out on social media and in the press and people they’ve worked with before recognise them,” he says.
“We also use our social media accounts and competitions to build anticipation before we open a unit and then send out mailers and flyers to pump out our name.”
Opening in an area where you are unknown can be daunting, says Richards, so networking and taking part in community projects is invaluable.
“Building awareness of Tivoli in Huddersfield [where the Lindley store is based] was a challenge as people didn’t know me. Attending events and working with local organisations gets your name out and builds trust in the community. I also work with local charities such as the Forget Me Not Children’s Hospice in Huddersfield.”
Fundamentally, it all comes down to staffing when making a success of any new branch. “You can have the best-looking shop but you need to have the right staff in there to make it work,” says Johnson. “We set up a good manager in a new branch and leave it to them to run things as they see best. Our staff retention is high because we offer great incentive schemes and various benefits.”
Opening new shops in quick succession can provide challenges with finding good staff quickly, but Palmer says having good policies in place attracts efficient and happy colleagues.
“We have constantly reviewed and increased our staff packages to attract the right staff and keep them motivated,” explains Palmer.
“In addition, we have brought in processes across the board as we have grown to 26 staff in five locations very quickly.”
Getting expansion right can prove very profitable and worth the financial risk, even for brands with just a few retail stores under their belt.
“Over the last six months we have had a 200% increase in turnover and a 600% increase in profit compared with the same period last year,” says Palmer.
The high street certainly isn’t dead for agencies like Polka Dot, with the business continuing to chase further growth. “We will continue to open more shops in the north-west because we truly believe in the high street,” says Johnson.
Perfect Getaways, Polka Dot Travel and Tivoli Travel offer advice to other agencies that are looking to expand.
Perfect Getaways: “Have a fully accounted and costed business plan. We are lucky that our accountants are also shareholders in our business.”
Polka Dot Travel: “Humans are curious – if your windows look good people will come in.
"Your staff making a good first impression really counts as word-of-mouth gets round. It’s also important to have a good commercial lease deal and relationship with a consortium."
Tivoli Travel: “It doesn’t have to cost a fortune to get your name out there.
"Get involved in local things, such as joining local Facebook groups to see what’s going on. I attend ladies’ lunches and charity balls – we often sponsor them and donate prizes.”