TTG journalist Rob Gill and Club Med’s senior key account manager Matt Stuart met the five finalists in the Top Online Agency category and heard about magazine launches, impressive Trustpilot scores and being adaptable in the face of adversity
About them: After starting life as a Mexico and Caribbean specialist in 2003, the OTA currently operates the Caribbean Warehouse, Tropical Warehouse and Xclusivity online brands. Blue Bay has ambitious growth targets under the leadership of new boss Alistair Rowland and is backed by Lloyds Bank’s private equity arm LDC.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Blue Bay initially furloughed around a quarter of its 100 employees with remaining staff dealing with around 5,000 clients whose holidays were affected by the first lockdown. Furloughed employees were gradually brought back during the second half of 2020 as bookings picked up. Sales staff have been kept motivated by trying to achieve the weekly “keep the lights on” target for the business.
Highlight: Being able to retain all staff members through “focused, informed decisions” and having the “adaptability and resilience” to see them through the pandemic and be ready for the eventual upturn in bookings.
About them: The pandemic did not stop Charitable Travel’s launch as a social enterprise in April 2020. The online agency has the primary purpose of fundraising for charities through selling holidays, with clients able to donate to any registered charity available on the JustGiving platform.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: The crisis has held back growth, particularly in marketing and partnership development. Staff have been given the choice of working from home or the company’s co-working space; while their mental health has been supported by Weekday Wellness sessions. Bookings have inevitably been slow, but this has not stopped the launch of Charitable Travel’s own magazine and YouTube channel with a radio channel to come.
Highlight: Charitable Travel founder Melissa Tilling has been determined to continue promoting its social enterprise message – she added Covid “was not going to stop us growing”.
About them: Set up by Paul Salisbury in 2016, this family firm specialises in selling holidays on social media, primarily through paid promotions on Facebook. Guru Travel focuses on all-inclusive resorts, such as Sandals, Club Med and Mark Warner in key destinations including the Caribbean and Indian Ocean.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Salisbury was the only one of the four-strong team not to be furloughed during the pandemic, so he used his close relationships with suppliers to help Guru’s clients who had problems getting home. Offering this high level of service has helped the company to retain 91% of bookings with only a few refunds to organise. The company has utilised a range of special offers to encourage rebooking and has worked tirelessly to ensure hotel rates have been honoured for clients.
Highlight: Helping clients stranded in Barbados by directly contacting the general manager of their hotel and then working to ensure they were able to get on a repatriation flight back to the UK.
About them: Birmingham-based agency Holidaysplease uses its website to generate online bookings and enquiries for its team of more than 100 homeworkers to pick up and then work on directly with the client. It specialises mainly in long-haul breaks, although short-haul sales have increased.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Holidaysplease chose to maintain staffing levels during the early stages of the pandemic with no redundancies or furloughing, and HQ staff were quickly switched to homeworking. The agency also resumed marketing quickly in April 2020 and business recovered in the following months – reaching 94% of the previous year’s level in July – mainly through new customers. The agency also went “above and beyond” by legally pursuing refunds for customers from a late-paying supplier.
Highlight: The agency’s decision to retain staff meant it did not receive a single negative review on Trustpilot in 2020 with 98% of reviews being five stars.
Travel Club Elite's Lucy Nash
About them: This business has been operating for 40 years – originally starting as a high street agency in the Birmingham suburbs before going entirely online 10 years ago as Travel Club Elite with all bookings stimulated from its website and specialising in family activity beach hotels, plus touring and adventure.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: With most of the 10-strong team being furloughed at the start of the pandemic, it fell to sales manager Zoe Franklin to lead the efforts to manage refunds and rebookings for around 700 clients. Offering a high level of service has clearly paid off with a Trustpilot rating of 4.9 for the agency despite the unprecedented difficulties presented by the pandemic.
Highlight: The agency worked through the night to get one of its staff members back to the UK from her honeymoon in the Cook Islands where she was stranded for eight weeks.
Club Med's Matt Stuart answers five key questions about the operator's plans for 2021.