From more than 900 hopeful contenders, Thorne Travel in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire has been named the best in the UK and Ireland. Here’s what makes this agency so special.
When you enter this bright, buzzing high street store, to be greeted warmly by two rows of beaming consultants, it is hard to imagine Thorne Travel’s tough beginnings.
Launched in 2009 at the height of the recession, the agency had to battle through an airline failure and the Ash Cloud crisis within its first year of business – but owner Shona Thorne’s determination, and the support of the local community, saw it through.
Today, the agency employs a team of 10, and while most of the consultants are relatively young, they have an above-average knowledge of the destinations they sell. All consultants have been on at least two overseas trips in the last 12 months – some as many as six or seven.
Staff are rewarded and motivated not by bonuses, but by extra days’ annual leave and travel points, which facilitates their extensive travel.
Product knowledge is also expanded during regular training sessions, where supplier partners visit the store and first train the team before taking to Facebook Live to take questions from Thorne Travel’s customer-base.
Shona is a firm believer in customer service skills being more important than travel experience – as evidenced by a recent recruit who came from working as a make-up artist for Bobbi Brown.
For this agency, the cornerstone of great service is making every customer feel special, with hot drinks, beer or bubbly offered to every client in-store, and little touches including branded luggage labels (flip flop-shaped for beach holidays, and suitcase-shaped for city breaks).
Tickets for holidays with Thorne Travel, or for theatre trips and pampering days with sister-brand Thorne Experiences, can be presented in gift boxes filled with other little treats.
Recent examples of when the team has gone the extra mile for its customers include Shona spending Christmas Eve frantically getting hold of Australia visas for a client already out in Hong Kong. When another client’s luggage was lost by the airline en route to California, Thorne Travel charmed a local clothing shop to donate a California t-shirt to the gentleman in the meantime.
The strong focus on customer service is underlined by Shona's decision to employ a 'customer journey manager', who has been on a mindfulness course, instead of a store manager.
"We wanted to find out, what does the customer see from the moment they look in our shop window." Shona explains. "Does it reflect who we are?"
Thorne Travel stays close to its clients by holding regular events, including an annual "Oscars" dinner where 100 of its top clients each receive a mini-trophy in recognition of their loyalty.
Further quarterly events, ranging from a night at the local bowling club to a Latino-themed dance night, are used to get customer feedback.
Sponsoring the Scotland Air Show in conjunction with Jet2holidays for the first time last year gained an additional 5,000 subscribers for the agency's database.
Thorne Travel's side-business in organising UK weddings proves another valuable source of new business. "We probably organise a dozen weddings each year," says Shona. "It's a fantastic way of getting the brand name out there."
Unusually for a high street retailer of this size, Thorne Travel has not one but three digital marketing specialists on the team, who are all studying at degree level, funded by the agency.
The investment is paying off, with enquiries through Facebook now accounting for 68% of Thorne's business, opening it up to national and international customers.
The agency also pays for a film crew to record unique video content for social media. The film crew last year explored the Caribbean, Iceland, Ibiza, Budapest and Prague on Thorne Travel's behalf, posting videos live from the destination and answering customers' questions.
Speaking of video content: if Shona or the Thorne Travel brand feels familiar, it might be that you recall its 2014 company video - in which the team stride through the centre of Kilwinning making holiday 'dreams' come true - that became an internet sensation overnight.
Gaining more than a million YouTube hits in a few days, the video even saw Shona be invited on GMTV, and be invited to appear on Celebrity Big Brother. "I've had 34 offers from TV companies of 'can we come and follow you around', but it wouldn't be right for the privacy of our customers to have film crews here in the store," says Shona modestly.
Thorne Travel's audience might be increasingly international, but that doesn’t mean the agency has taken its eye off the local community.
The team raises money for Cash For Kids, a local charity that supports underprivileged children in this very low-income area of Scotland.
This entails going into schools with Christmas presents and Easter eggs, and raising money from customers via social media.
The agency also pays for local youngsters to put on fairy, princess and pirate parties at schools and nurseries – especially in the school holidays when some children might not otherwise eat a decent meal that day.
On day-trips to see Santa Claus, organised by Thorne Experiences, as many as 100 of 500 child places might be given away free to vulnerable children, who mix in with the paying guests.
With a winning combination of product knowledge, digital savvy, adoration by local customers, and exceptional service, it's no wonder Thorne Travel is doing so well as a business. Repeat booking levels stand at 87%, and revenue and profit are both up considerably year-on-year.
All of which makes Thorne Travel incredibly deserving of its title as the UK & Ireland's No.1 Travel Agency for 2018.