It’s no exaggeration that Travelpack’s Vishal Patel has reached cult status on the Travel Gossip Facebook page. Tom Parry lifts the lid on the man behind the profile picture.
Having people stop you for a chat in a supermarket is an occurrence usually reserved for A-listers.
But not in Travelpack boss Vishal Patel’s case.
Travel agent approaches in the grocery aisle are testament to Patel’s “social” style of doing business.
Even those who have never sold the long-haul tailor-made specialist may be familiar with Patel, who has become somewhat of a household name on the 16,000 member-strong Travel Gossip Facebook page.
Always quick to respond to agents stumped by tricky enquiries, Patel’s industry profile, and that of Travelpack – owned by his chairman father, Ashok, since the 80s – has increasingly risen, although he remains modest.
Based in Wembley, Travelpack specialises in tours, holidays and flights to destinations including India, the Indian Ocean, the US, the Far East, the Middle East, Africa, Canada and the Caribbean.
“We get some crazy requests from Travel Gossip,” he laughs from across his desk. “But it makes you feel great when you can help people out, so I’m always looking out and using whatever spare time I’ve got,” he adds. No mean feat given he has a toddler and a six-month-old at home.
“I was with [Travel Gossip co-founder] Bruce Martin last week and he thanked me for being a part of the site. I said: ‘I should be thanking you!’ It’s been such a great platform for us to show what a wide range of product we have.”
Patel’s steadfast helpfulness has led loyal agents to regularly chip in to online threads recommending his services: “Vishal can help you”; “You should ask Vishal”.
Even while I’m sat with him, an enquiry pops up on Travel Gossip. Without a word, he whips out his smartphone and, with lightning dexterity, finds the request, analyses its elements and concludes: “Yeah, we can do that.”
One of the “craziest”, he recalls, was from an agent battling a 155-day European fly-drive.
“It took my colleague at least a week just to quote,” he remembers. “I’m lucky my team are so knowledgeable and dedicated to allow me to offer stuff like that with confidence.
“From that, we picked up a great agent and have built up real trust. We’ve had lots of little similar stories.”
I ask what it is, other than typically super-quick response time, that makes agents so loyal to the brand.
Patel believes it is down to a combination of policies and agent-friendly culture, such as the company’s pledge made three years ago to honour any misquoted bookings, that have led to 95% of its holidays now being sold through the trade.
Patel says Travelpack, which carried 130,000 passengers in 2018, saw about 1,000 agents book at least one of its products last year and sees “massive scope for growth”.
As well as plans to boost Travelpack’s overseas fam trips from six in 2018 to about 10 this year, Patel will also host agents closer to home with hospitality tickets for the next three years at Tottenham Hotspur’s newly renovated White Hart Lane stadium.
“I’ve a list of agents we want to say thank you to and I can’t always get up and down the country, so I thought I’d thank [them] in a different way,” says Patel, himself a Manchester United fan (his father is the Spurs supporter).
With the operator evolving from Ashok Patel’s love of Canada to Travelpack operating its own DMC in India and now with overseas offices in Delhi, Goa and Toronto, Patel – who holds a masters in pharmaceutical science (“I’m basically a chemist”) – is still thinking of new ways to innovate the business.
A main focus for 2019 is cruise, with a dedicated department launching this year.
“Cruise is something we’ve sold, but have never really had that much of an emphasis on. The plan now is to build up the contracts we have with lines and relationships, improve systems our end and start promoting it to agents,” he reveals.
Given Patel’s popularity, Travelpack seems likely to sail effortlessly through peaks and beyond.