TTG senior reporter Tom Parry joined easyJet Holidays’ head of distribution, Brad Bennetts, for a virtual visit to some of the capital’s finest travel agencies and hear their stories of resilience and innovation during a year like no other.
Thumbs up from Abbotts Travel's Julian Abbott and Danny Sperling as they join Tom and Brad.
About them: Founded in 1957 by current owner Julian Abbott's grandfather, the agency has its fair share of experience in dealing with crisis - from the collapse of Laker Airways, via the Gulf War to the 2010 ash cloud. This latest chapter in its history has seen Abbotts repatriate 30 clients and work through around 1,000 impacted bookings.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: “My team means the world to me,” says Abbott, who organised yoga and wellness sessions for staff, while drinks and quizzes on the Houseparty app were also on the agenda for keeping up morale. The agency’s newsletter, Julian’s Diaries, offered customers honest and open monthly updates on the business and travel industry throughout lockdown. The team has been resourceful in supporting clients across a range of challenges – including helping a young tennis player fulfil a scholarship in the US, when entry from the UK was banned, by booking them via Turkey and organising accommodation to self-isolate between flights.
Highlight: Abbott's lockdown locks that he’s grown this past year. Rock on!
Hays Travel Rickmansworth manager Dianne Elkaied with Tom and Brad
About them: Having only opened its doors in November 2019 – when Hays took over the former Thomas Cook branch – manager Diane Elkaied and her staff have shown their resilience in spades this past year. As well as looking after their own clients, the Rickmansworth team also provided their services to Hays customers in nearby Watford after the town’s store closed.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Whether it was helping customers return home after a curtailed multi-centre Asia and Indian Ocean trip (and battling for six months for their refund) or assisting a client with autism in completing their passport forms, the team always go the extra mile – the branch phone diverts to Elkaied's mobile which is answered day or night. “It’s about putting our clients at the heart of what we do,” she says. No wonder 70% of customers have rebooked.
Highlight: Hearing how Elkaied has called cruise enthusiast customer Janet, who lives alone, almost daily since last March to keep in contact.
Brad and Tom meet Swords owners Mark and Stuart and associate agent Ian Weir
About them: From launching as homeworkers almost five years ago, Mark and Stuart Swords opened their Wimbledon store in 2019. Having to restructure amid the challenges of Covid has led to them creating a network of seven Swords “associate” agents across the UK.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Communication was king for Swords – from filming personal social media videos to keep clients updated to adopting WhatsApp Business for fast client interactions. This move paid dividends in helping the team bring a customer stranded in Cuba after her tour was cancelled home. The agency worked with a local doctor to offer home Covid testing, managed to secure £70,000 from a series of “around the world in lockdown” virtual events in November and develop a new carbon-offsetting scheme.
Highlights: Discussing how the team’s focus on mental health has made them “more connected than ever”.
Thames Travel's Claire and Christian Green catch up with Tom and Brad.
About them: Proudly serving their local community since 1982, Thames customers are in the dedicated hands of second generation Green family owners Christian and Claire. Despite having to lose colleague Lizzie in the autumn, the pair have remained positive, dug deep and “always done the right thing” for their clients.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: “You can win in a crisis,” believes Christian Green, with Thames clearly showing that in the way they’ve looked after customers. Whether that’s giving up his commission to ensure a family received a full refund for their around the world trip or calling in a few favours to get another family, whose son has additional needs, home from Tenerife (via a ferry journey to Gran Canaria) when their flight was cancelled. The Greens have juggled family life around their business and bravely opened up with customers around mental health in a well-received newsletter.
Highlights: Hearing how, despite the year’s difficulties, the agency still found time to give back, with Claire Green helping to wrap presents for the Latin Routes Christmas toy appeal.
It's all smiles with Tickets Travel's Diane, Lauren and David
About them: Tickets Travel will mark its 40th year on Bexley high street in 2021 giving something to celebrate after the challenges of the past 12 months. Owner Diane Coleman, daughter Lauren and colleague David are a tight-knit unit and have pulled together through “lots of ups and downs and plenty of tears”.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: From tracking down a phone-less client in Auckland to change his flight to avoid Singapore travel restrictions; to arranging Covid testing in Zanzibar for travellers stopping through Dubai, to sending a cuddly orangutan toy to honeymooners whose chance to see some in real life had to be postponed – the team have provided service to be proud of. David and Diane have also organised WhatsApp groups for their local streets to keep neighbours connected, while Lauren arranged prescription deliveries for a client. Diane also persuaded a local shopkeeper to save eggs for elderly Tickets customers when supermarket shelves were bare during lockdown.
Highlight: Stories from client Zoom quizzes – and the off-microphone antics!
EasyJet Holidays' Brad Bennetts answers five key questions about the operator's plans for 2021.