When Bianca Wassell and Tracy Felstead first joined forces to start The Travel Concept in 2006, they had an unusual nickname.
“We used to have an office at Tracy’s old house in Heathfield. We were known as the two girls in the garage,” says Wassell.
The pair had met while working at a BA Travel Shop – Wassell having come from an agency background and Felstead formerly cabin crew.
Shop closure and redundancy forced them to reconsider their options. When existing clients pledged their support, the pair – already firm friends – decided to go into business together. Initially, they worked from the same premises, but when Felstead moved to Eastbourne three years ago, they started working from their own homes.
“We’ve always had the same phone number and email. If a client calls, it’s the same line, and either one of us can pick up. If I’m on the phone, Tracy picks up, and vice versa,” Wassell explains.
“We meet every couple of weeks, but we speak all the time, so it’s just like being in the same office,” adds Felstead.
They sell the world, with Club Med winter ski their biggest source of revenue. Whether a booking is £2,000 or £20,000, they promise the same level of service. “Because we do so much for our clients, people assume we’re going to be more expensive [than the web], but quite often we’re not,” says Wassell. “It’s about added value – free breakfast here, parking there, or advising them not to book a certain hotel because it’s next to the airport.”
“People still think they can be an agent themselves,” she adds. “And they only realise they can’t when it goes wrong. During the ash cloud crisis [in 2010], we called a client stuck in San Francisco every day for 10 days to check they were OK.”
When they started the business, they signed up to Freedom, but have since transitioned to Advantage Managed Services.
“They do our payments and we have access to the Atol,” explains Wassell. “There aren’t enough hours in the day for all the-behind-the scenes admin, so Advantage has been fantastic for that.”
They have used Advantage’s door-drop service a couple of times, which they say would be too costly to do on their own. They print their own newsletters three times a year and post out to a database of 350 customers. They also use an email marketing service to distribute two monthly emails, one destination-led, another more deals-led.
They are members of Aito, which they regard as a networking club that gives them access to niche tour operators. “We can build relationships that really come into their own when things go wrong that are outside of our control,” says Wassell. With no shop front or passing trade, networking is vitally important. Wedding fairs, a ladies lunch club and evening Q&A events are all part of their strategy.
Three times a year they hire Seasons, a harbourside coffee shop in Eastbourne and invite specialist suppliers – the likes of Hurtigruten and If Only. Fortuitously, the owner has a PR and marketing company, so he helps out with invitations and posters. “It usually leads to quite good bookings because people won’t come unless they’re interested in the first place,” says Wassell.
They share the cost with suppliers, which they say works out cheaper than an advert in the local paper and provides more exposure.
“We’ve learnt that over the years,” says Felstead. “Now we concentrate our marketing efforts on existing clients and we look after them, rather than spending our money on unknowns in a local paper.”
About to celebrate 10 years in business this October, and enjoying their most successful year to date, with 12% growth, this is evidently a partnership that works.
Wassell jokes that their success is down to her youthfulness and Tracy’s experience, while Felstead says they “click”. “We have a similar work ethic, and that was attractive for me in the beginning,” she says.
They reject the idea of opening a high street store, but wouldn’t rule out taking on homeworking staff.
“It would mean Tracy and I could attend more events together, and ease the pressure when one of us is on holiday,” admits Wassell.
“But it has to be the right people for our brand.”
Whatever happens next, it’s clear these hardworking agents have graduated well beyond the garage.