TTG contributing editor Abigail Healy and Gold Medal’s head of commercial relations Clare Weatherall met five of the UK & Ireland’s best homeworking agencies and heard about epic repatriations, battles for refunds and the benefits of sunflower seeds
About them: Amanda and Karen set up the agency 13 years ago and now have a network of 102 homeworkers nationwide as well as a shop and office in the town of Ramsbottom near Manchester.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: In January and February 2020 homeworker sales were up 45% year-on-year and when lockdown hit they had 150 customers overseas. Once a customer had waited two months for a refund they would be on the senior team’s list to chase. The company only lost three homeworkers last year – including two retirees – and recruited 21. They also grew the senior team to five. Weekly Zoom meetings and a drop-in hour every day kept contact lines open while quiz nights and carol singing evenings kept morale up.
Highlight: Packets of sunflower seeds were sent to clients with all customers that sent in a photo of the flowers earning a £50 holiday voucher. It was so successful the team is now sending nigella seeds with a thank you note for every booking made.
About them: With a head office hosting 50 staff in Bournemouth and 500 active homeworkers Not Just Travel has grown rapidly since owners Paul Harrison and Steve Witt set it up in in 2010. They were 30% up year-on-year in January 2020.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Facebook Live was used daily to stay in touch while lots of training helped to maintain structure and external experts such as life coaches, NLP coaches and mind and body trainers helped to focus on wellbeing and upskilling. Investment in internal system Vision meant rebookings and refunds could be managed more smoothly and member of staff, Paula, relieved homeworkers of the stress of any escalated complaints. An impressive five-star Trustpilot rating didn’t waver throughout the pandemic and the number of customers responding to reviews emails increased.
Highlight: Training has continued to be a big focus with regular virtual conferences to help homeworkers continue to build their businesses and maintain their sense of solidarity.
About them: Launched in May 2018 as part of Travel Village Group, the agency, headed up by Paula Nuttall, now has 64 homeworkers with plans for an additional 27 to join by the summer. Not a single one left during the crisis.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Support hours were extended to 9pm seven days a week and, if homeworkers encountered particularly tricky customers, Paula dealt with them herself. Head office contacted every customer in resort when the pandemic hit with 28 passengers stuck overseas on complex long-haul bookings. Homeworkers have received lots of thank you chocolates and wine, and even a meat pack. Marketing hasn’t been neglected either with all homeworkers now set up to use Mailchimp as well as expert training on Instagram, a new quote system and bookable websites being developed for those with large volumes of business.
Highlight: Alongside all their hard work for customers, the team supports a local children’s hospice and has been working with the local football club to give free meals to children who need them.
About them: The homeworking division of Midcounties Co-operative Travel, headed up by Sheena Whittle, has been in operation since 2012 and now has 164 personal travel agents (PTAs).
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: When the crisis hit their top seller had 790 forward bookings alone. Furlough wasn’t used initially and has been kept to a minimum to maintain plenty of hands on deck. A virtual bar on Fridays, Wednesday Walks and the Rainbow Room – a closed positive Facebook group, plus a virtual gym all helped keep morale up. Soft marketing such as the “Tom the Traveller” character with travel-related activities for children homeschooling and WIGIG (When it’s gone, it’s gone) offers, complete with shiny wigs for all PTAs, helped them stay front of mind for the right reasons at the right times. In April at the height of lockdown they did almost £1 million in sales via social media alone.
Highlight: Hearing how PTA Sarah rallied support from colleagues to raise £600 for a tour guide she met in Bali. It helped him return to his village after having to move with his family to the city to try to make a living when his tourism work dried up.
Travel Counsellors' Jim Eastwood, Lisa Hillyard and Laura Pomfret with Gold Medal's Clare Weatherall
About them: This franchise-model agency based in Manchester was set up 27 years ago by David Speakman and now has 1,350 agents in its network.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: A five-point strategy covering finance, wellbeing, engagement, training and community, was rapidly deployed, as was a welfare fund to financially support staff in need, past or present. Clients were kept updated with vlogs from the senior team plus marketing messages focusing on reassurance. Customers were often refunded well in advance of the supplier returning the funds and a five-star Trustpilot rating proves clients have clearly been happy with the service . Around 10,000 new customers created an account on the MyTC app, and the company welcomed 9,000 new customers to the brand in November and December. Their legendary conference went virtual while four training festivals helped keep agents fingers on the pulse.
Highlight: The team has also been raising money for charity via a lockdown fitness challenge and one head office employee has been teaching people to sew to make scrubs for local NHS staff.
Gold Medal's Clare Weatherall answers five key questions about the operator's plans for 2021.