TTG’s features editor Abra Dunsby hit the virtual road in February, visiting the cream of the crop of the East of England’s travel agencies and hearing inspiring tales of dedication to customers, innovation and resilience
About them: Based in the market town of Woodbridge, Deben Travel, named the UK & Ireland’s No 1 Agency in the TTG Top 50 Awards 2020, celebrated its best ever January and February last year, before Covid hit. Owner Lee Hunt also has a sister agency, Cruise First.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: A tireless commitment to customers saw Hunt answering calls at all hours of the day and night, using a government loan to pay clients’ refunds and even taking some tour operators to court on behalf of customers. Hunt was also one of the first agency owners to stop selling summer 2020 breaks due to changing travel advice. “We didn’t feel it was responsible to take customers’ money in the knowledge that we couldn’t guarantee the trip would go ahead,” he explains. Such care for the customer has led to a flurry of glowing customer testimonials, and a steady trickle of new business.
Highlight: Hearing how the team set up a Youtube channel (with tech help from manager Abi’s 12-year-old nephew), featuring videos of the team talking about past travels.
About them: The team members of this Norwich-based agency, led by owner Sophie Baker and manager Vicky Samwell, are very close-knit, socialising outside of working hours and ensuring staff mental health is a priority, and this caring outlook extends to customers too.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: When the crisis first took hold, Oyster Travel’s customers were kept up to date with calls, and the team compiled a list of answers to Frequently Asked Questions that was emailed out to their database and posted on social media. Another local agency even asked to use it to communicate with their clients. Baker also reimbursed some clients who had been waiting on refunds out of her own pocket, and came back from maternity six weeks after having a baby to help answer calls. Investment in Facebook advertising is helping the agency reap rewards, with each post normally resulting in at least one booking.
Highlight: Hearing how Baker regularly delivered treats to working staff members’ doorsteps to keep up morale, while those on part-time furlough were treated to goody bags when they came back to work.
About them: After setting up the business from her kitchen table in 2010, Ponders Travel owner Clare Dudley decided to open a high street shop in 2019 in the village of Over in Cambridge, specialising in cruise and large bookings for special interest groups such a dance troupes and gardeners.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Clare and her manager Millie spent hours on the phone to customers, reassuring them, cancelling bookings and issuing refunds at the start of the crisis, and receiving many thank-you gifts from clients for their excellent service. Facebook Lives featuring Clare and Millie kept clients up to date, while a new website, launching in February, will include videos and blogs from staff members. A new loyalty-style Ambassador Programme was also launched, offering clients perks and virtual event invites in return for recommendations.
Highlight: Being shown photos of the shop interior, which is decorated with vintage maps, old suitcases and features a galleon ship given to Clare by her great uncle.
About them: Cruise bookings are the bread and butter of this Bedford agency, accounting for around 70% of business. Owner Rachel Wright set up the store in 2015, and works alongside an experienced team that includes her daughter Amy, who specialises in marketing.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Rachel and Amy proactively got in touch with clients to warn them about potential holiday cancellations and outline their options, which resulted in zero complaints from customers, less than 30% asking for a refund and some clients sending thank you gifts for stellar service. Newsletters featuring travel updates, blogs and fun videos helped inspire and delight customers, while the agency’s first-ever virtual cruise festival received plenty of positive feedback and resulted in bookings.
Highlight: Hearing how the team asked customers to help raise funds for Families First over Christmas, with 40 families being sent gifts.
Suitcase Travel's Penny Silford and TTG's Abra Dunsby
About them: This family-run agency, located in a Dunstable shopping centre and run by Mike Silford, his wife Lyn and daughter Penny, prides itself on having customers they count as friends, and say kindness is their USP. The agency specialises in tailor-made and touring holidays, as well as honeymoons and four-and five-star beach breaks.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: The trio received lots of kind messages and gifts from understanding customers, who were impressed by their regular contact and updates by phone and email.
After returning from furlough in July, Penny relaunched the agency’s website and worked with Net Effects to send out inspirational, armchair travel-style newsletters, which also extolled the benefits of booking with an agent. The team also arranged virtual coffee mornings with customers, resulting in new bookings.
Highlight: Hearing how the team brought some festive cheer to clients by creating a Christmas video thanking customers, posted on Facebook and Instagram.