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15 Feb 2018

BY Jennifer Morris

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Taking Funway even further in the future

Melissa Tilling’s first 10 months at Funway Holidays have been eventful to say the least. She speaks to Jennifer Morris about what’s next for the operator.

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“My main external focus has been on how we can build even better partnerships with our customers and suppliers. I don’t want to demean the past – we’ve got great partnerships. But there’s always scope for improvement.”

I started my role as managing director of Funway Holidays on April 1 – I learnt pretty quickly that it wasn’t an April fool though,” laughs Melissa Tilling.


She’s speaking to me just over 10 months into her role at the helm of the US, Mexico and Caribbean tailor-made specialist. But Tilling is by no means a newbie – she marked her 10th year at Funway on January 4, having worked her way up through the ranks, the past six years as product and commercial director.


At the same time, Tilling’s longevity at the company does not mean she sticks with the status quo. Sizable changes have been made, partly in line with the new boss’s clear vision for where she wants to take the brand, but also in response to challenges that have presented themselves along the way – many of which, Tilling convinces me, have actually turned out to be opportunities.

 

Partnerships drive

Just 10 days after Tilling’s first day as managing director, Funway’s 10-year-old sales and marketing partnership with Sandals changed. The licence agreement had expired, and just weeks earlier Sandals had announced the launch of its own in-house tour operation.


But this change was a positive for Funway overall, Tilling insists. And having seen its best trading day in its history last month, the Funway Holidays brand does not appear to have been hurt from a sales perspective. On Saturday January 27 total revenue was up 110% year-on-year, with passengers up 115%, and Funway is targeting at least 10-15% growth for the next year – more if the US continues to perform well.


“My main external focus has been on how we can build even better partnerships with our customers and suppliers,” Tilling says. “I don’t want to demean the past – we’ve got great partnerships. But there’s always scope for improvement.


“That Sandals relationship ran in the way that it did for 10 years and through close collaboration with the Sandals team we really grew that joint business.


“Of course [the end of the agreement] changed our Caribbean focus, but in doing that it opened many doors... the door [with Sandals] wasn’t shut, it just changed – we very much still sell Sandals.”


Tilling cites a £35,000 Sandals booking through an agent this month: “We’ve had 10 years of really learning about and developing great customer service through agents for the Sandals product, so people still come to us to book Sandals.” Funway is particularly capitalising on selling the resort company’s twin centres with the US or other Caribbean islands and hotels.

“On balance [the relationship change with Sandals] was a positive for us as a business,” Tilling concludes earnestly. “Sandals has a fantastic Caribbean hotel product and continues to be a really important hotel partner of ours.”


Tilling was quick to secure a new key resort partner though, and two months into her new role announced a three-year sales and marketing tie-up with AMResorts under Funway’s new strategy for the Caribbean and Mexico. “We don’t want to be investing money jointly with any hotelier dipping in and out without consistency,” Tilling explains.


“This agreement has given us an opportunity to build some momentum, focus on them [AMResorts] as a hotelier. Instead of being completely embedded with one hotelier like we were in the past, we are able to plan a better strategy around working with multiple partners and still achieve growth for all of them. And that seems to be what’s happening.”


Funway is actually looking to double its revenue and turnover with AMResorts in the partnership’s second year “without losing focus on our other partners”.


And on the theme of partnerships, Funway has also been reinstated as a Thomas Cook retail preferred partner. “We’ll be working closer than we were in the past,” Tilling reveals. “They recognise that we have complementary product and specialisms.”

Team building

Team building

From an internal perspective, while Tilling believes it is important to recruit from within where possible, she has also brought in new blood.


In the second half of last year, former Thomas Cook head of trade partnerships Audrey Brooks-Wiggins was brought in as head of sales, Amy Shine as a product manager, Sam Robinson as marketing manager and Amanda George as a new key account manager.


“We’re pretty much there with the senior team, but we’re always on the look out for talent,” Tilling says. “There’s a robust team to move us into the future.


“The new appointments have brought two benefits – a fresh perspective from all the team members who joined from outside the company, and by recruiting Amy and Sam we added in a layer of capability and knowledge to support the directors of those teams. The team can now embrace more of the opportunities that we’ve secured.”


If Funway’s current sales figures are anything to go by, the opportunities will keep on coming. Asked what she thinks has gone so well this peaks, Tilling smiles. “If I could fully understand the formula for these great sales figures, I would bottle it and sell it.

“We’re a destination specialist, we’re not about to turn into a worldwide operator with no particular focus. We try to focus on what we do and do it even better than we have done for the last 25 years.”
Melissa Tilling

“It’s an accumulation of getting the right team selling the right products through the right agents. It comes to a critical mass and then it works.


“America has completely bounced back for us. It had a challenging year last year, the first couple of weeks in January were a bit slow – not vastly down, just not up – yet come the third week in January all of a sudden America has really picked up, and added to that we’ve got that Mexico Caribbean strategy that is growing exponentially. So once those things collide, it lends itself to record trading days like we had.”


Pressed for an explanation for the US’s strength, Tilling tells me she believes there is a pent up demand: “My sense from talking to customers and partners in the industry is that the bigger issue is not the cost of the holiday, it’s the discretionary spend once you travel to the States. “If you go to America you want to know that you can do it well… there was a wait and see game.”


She adds: “I’ve been in the industry for 30 years and the pattern is, there is no pattern for peaks. For us it was around January 17-18, the lookers became bookers.” And despite the hurricanes in September seeing bookings for Mexico and the Caribbean drop year-on-year by about 10-15% for eight weeks – which Funway was “respectful of” – Tilling says sales since then have “more than made up” for that period.

Clear focus

I ask whether Funway plans to diversify its product to a greater number of locations, but Tilling insists it’s not necessary: “It’s really about working our partnerships better, because through that I think we can be successful without the need to, for example, go out to the Middle East or the Indian Ocean, or the Far East.


“We’re a destination specialist, we’re not about to turn into a worldwide operator with no particular focus. We try to focus on what we do and do it even better than we have done for the last 25 years.”


And it’s clear that Tilling believes agents play a vital role in helping Funway excel at “what it does” – a raft of “25”-themed incentives and discounts are available and being planned for agents this year to mark the special birthday, along with a celebration for the operator’s top 25 agents in London, in March.

“Sandals has a fantastic Caribbean hotel product and continues to be a really important hotel partner of ours”
Melissa Tilling

“We are 25 years old and I’ve been with the business for 10 years, but we’re not complacent,” muses Tilling. “We’ve had some degree of minor restructure, we’ve had changes of accountability. We’ve been examining all of our processes – none of which were broken, but they can always be improved. So as managing director I’ve been collaborating and leading a big review, working with the new talent and the directors, really positioning ourselves with that robust team to take us into the future.”


It’s clear Tilling’s resolve, commitment and vision will set the operator in good stead as it enters its next 25 years.

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