TTG senior reporter Tom Parry and Travelsphere’s head of sales Sarah Weetman virtually ventured up north to see some of the region’s best travel agencies and hear their stories of determination and dedication during the difficulties of the past year
Store manager Johann Little (and her dog Louie) catch up with Tom and Sarah
About them: Located within Gateshead’s shopping Mecca, the agency first welcomed customers in 2016. Manager Johann Little has been running the show for nearly all that time. The branch is open until 9pm and has a Facebook following of close to 15,000.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: The past year “has always been about service”, says Little. Whether that’s paying for a customer’s airport parking when their trip was unexpectedly extended or being patient and understanding with a frustrated client unable to see his new grandchild in Australia due to border closures (and fighting for hours on a Sunday to get his refund back). They’ve even won new clients who didn’t originally book with them by offering friendly advice when other agencies were closed. Furloughed staff members have worked on NHS Covid phone lines and the team has also helped Metro Radio’s Cash for Kids appeal – selflessly forgoing their own team Secret Santa.
Highlight: An adorable appearance over Zoom by Little's dog, Louie.
Hays Wallsend's manager Danielle Coulter and assistant manager Sarah Hale meet Tom and Sarah
About them: Opened in 2004, manager Danielle Coulter was the agency’s first apprentice. In November 2019, the branch merged with a former Thomas Cook store to form a new “dream team” and enjoyed its best ever start to a year in 2020.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Being such a new team, keeping staff connected and supported has been a top priority for Coulter, who has arranged doorstep treat deliveries to cheer everyone up, with ice creams on the beach virtual nights out also on the agenda. For team members struggling with home life during lockdown she used welfare skills to organise video calls and one-to-one walks. Customers also received the same level of support – just ask Wallsend carpenter John who said the team were “worth their weight in gold” for helping him get back to the UK before Singapore closed its borders. “We are a family and we’re there for customers as much as they are here for us,” says Coulter.
Highlight: The seemingly endless energy brought by "dynamic duo" Coulter and assistant manager, Sarah Hale.
Tom and Sarah meet Kyle Travel Barnard Castle's Carol and Vicki
About them: In a year during which Barnard Castle was propelled into the national spotlight, the sterling efforts of manager Carol Hunter and her team, Vicki, Olivia and Kim, have proved more than worthy of their own headlines. The agency is set to celebrate its 40th anniversary next year.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Virtual escape rooms and socially distanced picnics have helped spirits remain high amid tough times – while also juggling 12-hour workdays and sleepless nights and a promise to never log off before coming back to a customer. “We were a strong team before but now we’re rock solid,” says Hunter. The team helped recover a deposit for a local school's charity trip to Kenya and Hunter delighted in telling client Dorothy her refund was available after calling her every fortnight for a year waiting for it.
Highlights: Seeing Hunter featuring in the local newspaper – the article (all about the agency’s Top 50 shortlisting) helped bag three new clients.
Kyle Travel Yarm branch manager Ian Bates proudly shows off the agency's Top 50 branding
About them: Serving the North Yorkshire town since 1985, this “old fashioned-style” agency, as manager Ian Bates describes, boasts an impressive 118 years of experience across its four staff – which has proved invaluable amid the past year.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: “We do our very best regardless,” says Bates. Quite the understatement after an outstanding effort saw the team pull together to run things when Bates fell ill with coronavirus in April. Though that didn’t stop him looking after clients – keeping in touch from hospital with elderly cruise customers as they were repatriated to the UK. Helping customers get home from a cancelled Borneo tour was also a standout piece of service and the agency also found time to fundraise for a local hospice.
Highlights: Hearing how Ian drove an hour to help a client collect items for a charity shop donation – who said being an agent was just about selling holidays?
Check out those shirts! Westoe's Graeme and Joan Brett turn Tyneside tropical when meeting Tom and Sarah
About them: A South Shields institution, working at Westoe Travel is a true family affair. Founded by Graeme and Joan Brett in 1989, who work alongside son Martin and daughter Gillian, while Alice and Sarah are also very much a part of the clan.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: From team bake offs to time spent bird watching, Westoe made sure to remain positive despite the tough times. One such method has been “sharing out the good news” taking it in turns for the team to let customers know their refunds have been returned. A coach travel specialist – the business has more than admirably contended with the failures of Shearings and National Holidays – equating to hundreds of bookings – handling all claims paperwork and even taken out a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan to get customers their money back straight away. From Australia, to Nigeria, to local football fans, clients have been looked after as if they were family.
Highlight: The Bretts turning Tyneside tropical with some funky shirts!
Travelsphere's Sarah Weetman answers five key questions about the operator's plans for 2021.