No UK region is off the table for Barrhead Travel after the Scottish independent accelerated its ambitious expansion plans following the failure of Thomas Cook.
Ninan Chacko, chief executive of Barrhead’s US parent Travel Leaders Group, told TTG Barrhead would target a “big chunk” of the extant travel demand across the UK left by Cook’s failure by more than doubling the agency’s retail footprint.
Chacko confirmed Barrhead was party to discussions over the future of Cook’s retail network before all 555 Cook stores were sold to Hays Travel, and said the decision – even if it came as something of a blow to Barrhead – was a “powerful expression of optimism, faith and confidence in the UK travel market and the high street”.
He stressed, though, that there had been an expansion plan in place for Barrhead following Travel Leaders’ acquisition of the business last February.
“We were delighted someone stepped up to the plate and was able to preserve a lot of those jobs,” said Chacko. “For us, what’s always been in mind is a prudent approach towards expansion. That’s more in keeping with the bandwidth we have, the resources we can allocate, and where we see the opportunities.
“This has probably been a much more ideal approach with respect to how we take advantage of Thomas Cook exiting the market and leaving in place travel demand that is yet to be fulfilled. I think the Cook opportunity has really allowed us to accelerate and become more ambitious.
“I’m not sure we had a defined goal in mind with respect to expansion pre-Cook, but it certainly wouldn’t have been to the scale of 100 stores.”
Barrhead president Jacqueline Dobson said the business had, to date, taken on and trained more than 100 former Cook staff, who will be deployed across both its existing store network and in new stores.
She said the expansion would be UK wide, with the business exploring opportunities across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Barrhead recently announced its first seven proposed new store locations, with a further three to follow shortly.
Dobson also confirmed it remained Barrhead’s ambition to open 10 new stores by the end of the year, with the next 10 “following quickly in the New Year”.
The new stores, she said, would replicate Barrhead’s existing model, while Chacko added some aspects would be refined, stressing there would be a focus on regionality and ensuring each new store was equipped to take best advantage of its nearest airport.
“UK hubs have opened up, so we have a more airlines at our local airports,” said Dobson.
“Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and Newcastle all have flights servicing Dubai, the Far East, and the US. The world is more open; long-haul travel has become a lot more affordable. This trend will continue with the development of new aircraft. People want to go further afield, they want new experiences.”
Chacko added long-haul travel would be a key focus for Barrhead, along with a renewed push to develop river and ocean cruise sales. He added the business’s strengths on foreign exchange and dynamic packaging would continue.
One project Chacko revealed Barrhead was "weeks away" from rolling out was agent profiling, a concerted effort by Travel Leaders to shape favourable "organic" search engine results and return detailed lists of the agency’s travel advisors based on key search terms such as a prospective client’s location, their desired destination and other keywords like "expert" or "specialist".
"We know there are people out there searching for travel advisors for the human contact, their advice, their personal service, and their ability to pull together the complex elements that make up a holiday.
"We’re generating thousands of queries to our agents in the US, of which – self-reported – they are closing roughly a quarter. So it’s a huge driver of incremental business. We’re optimistic in terms of what it will do for Barrhead.
"We know how to win these searches. So when prospective clients land on our list of Travel Leaders Group agents with a particular specialism, they can click to chat or email them – we allow them to connect directly.
"It’s a really nice way of being able to take travel demand and route it to one of our agents."