Agencies across Northern Ireland told TTG Luxury editor April Hutchinson their tales of flying high before the crisis, and how they’ve coped since during the pandemic
About them: Blazing a trail for the brand in Northern Ireland, the shop opened in 2018 in this popular shopping mall, and has seven staff, led by manager Kelly Hutchinson.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: When the scale of the work involved unfolded, staff were pooled nationally to cope with tasks, such as refunds, rebooks and customer service outreach. Hutchinson and assistant manager Kieran Odonnell say despite the circumstance, they appreciated the chance to speak with customers all over the UK, and to connect with colleagues across the business too. To keep in touch with their own team mates, there were bingo nights and virtual Friday night drinks as well as a buzzing Whatsapp group, and Hutchinson ensured she did a weekly one-to-one with everyone. Keeping up on Facebook has been Odonnell’s domain. He also managed to fit in a few trips in 2020, which helped give customers confidence. The team got around 60 local customers to tune in for Barrhead’s big virtual cruise event in November, securing several bookings.
Highlight: Hearing how assistant manager Julieanne Kennedy made “twiddle muffs”, knitted bands designed to help ease anxious dementia patients.
About them: This agency has been a part of the Bangor community for 48 years, and became the only Kuoni partner store in Ireland a couple of years ago. The long-standing team have been with the company from 12 to 35 years, under Raymond Parker, his son Scott as managing director, and office manager and director Chandra Rowan.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Staff were kept on while the agency dealt with so many amendments, managing to maintain 85% of all bookings. Once files were up-to-date, staff were gradually furloughed with a core crew of five (including Raymond Parker) keeping the business running for now. They kept the January travel spirits up with an online competition to win a host of prizes, from a Carrier hamper, to seven nights in Tenerife. They also made sure clients could access Covid-19 tests with Randox at a negotiated rate of £99.
Highlight: Hearing how Raymond Parker dropped brochures round to some clients, and often popped around to Rowan’s house to leave thoughtful treats on the doorstep for her as she navigated the crisis.
About them: Hazel Simpson opened this shop in 2013 and she and her team of three had been thriving up until the crisis.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Simpson ploughed through the administrative headache almost on her own for months, basing herself in the shop as her home broadband wasn’t up to the task. One member of the team gained alternative employment elsewhere, but other staff have been retained, keeping in touch via Facebook Messenger, and socially distanced coffee and cake catch-ups at the shop. Assistant manager Gillian McVeigh continued to post offers on Facebook and Holiday Ninja, a deals-based travel website for Northern Ireland. Whether clients were stuck in Bali, Melbourne or Madeira, the team worked tirelessly to get people home and fought for refunds, as well as ensuring clients knew they could access reduced-rate Covid-19 tests with provincial laboratory Randox. They have also found new young customers coming to them now looking for the security of booking with an agent.
Highlight: Hearing how the team could still have a laugh despite it all, with McVeigh’s “sanitising ninja roll” when she tripped up one day while cleaning the shop caught on the security camera.
About them: Oasis took the plunge to create Northern Ireland’s first specialist cruise store here in 2019. There is also an Oasis Portfolio and a team of seven, including three of the company’s five top sellers.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: The crisis has clearly been especially devastating for cruise, and one of the team had to be made redundant, but they fought on under Lynn Guest, with the team also turning their hand to land-based travel bookings. The shop has the highest future sales across the company and the highest conversion rate of holidays changed, versus cancelled. Keeping morale up were staff quizzes and cookery demonstrations, while MD Sandra Corkin made sure all staff got Christmas presents, and has been a regular fixture in videos on Facebook. Guest also fronted Facebook videos, including 21 Days of Lockdown in January, presenting offers and exclusive deals, and they pivoted their usual physical event to the Virtual Cruise Show in September, attracting 12 cruise companies, 400 guests and 20 bookings.
Highlight: Guest says her shop floor was “covered in boxes” when generous clients donated three van loads of essentials as part of the Belfast Homeless Christmas Shoebox Appeal.
Oasis Travel's Briege McElroy and Scott McCabe with TTG's April Hutchinson
About them: Lisburn is where it all started for Oasis Travel in 1984, and this shop has 10 staff, including two under the exclusive Portfolio brand, while Briege McElroy looks after seven staff.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: There was a seamless transition of calls from the office, and laptops were distributed to all staff, with training in Zoom and Microsoft Teams provided by projects manager Scott McCabe. Staff tuned in for weekly company-wide meetings, while McElroy also ensured her close team chatted via Whatsapp too. A Christmas prosecco hamper was among the treats given when clients purchased Oasis Travel gift vouchers, which proved an effective way to keep some revenue coming in. Oasis negotiated with Randox to make sure clients could get a reduced rate of £95 on Covid-19 tests required for travel, put the required measures in place in the shop, and purchased Oasis-branded facemasks. Some of their big missions included trying to handle the uncertainty and eventual postponement of a £70,000 booking for 114 flautists who had been due to travel to Canada, and booking a dream family trip to the Maldives for a terminally ill client.
Highlight: Hearing how McElroy brought her little goat to a virtual pet coffee morning for the whole company.