TTG deputy news editor James Chapple hit the virtual highway and headed to Scotland to find out how some of the country’s best travel agencies are rising to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, providing incredible customer service – and keeping each other going.
Friendly waves from Barrhead Aberdeen's Craig Barton and Lisa Kemp
About them: Friends, not colleagues – that’s how manager Lisa Kemp characterises her team at Barrhead Aberdeen. The store, near Aberdeen station, underwent a tech-heavy makeover in May 2019, complete with smart TVs and tablets. Barrhead Aberdeen experienced a uniquely tough summer; a month after the team were reunited, Aberdeen was placed back in Covid lockdown. The horrific Stonehaven rail crash then shut the Aberdeen line until November, limiting footfall. “It really hit the city,” says Kemp.
How have they navigated the Covid crisis?: The team were distraught when they had to close the shop in March, with Kemp taking on the initial refund and rebook burden, prioritising those who were due to travel imminently. The agency offered partial refunds where possible, which Kemp says “pacified” a lot of customers. “Honesty became the best policy with clients," says consultant Craig Barton. A positive start with easyJet holidays has helped get turn-of-year sales in.
Highlights: The team whipped round local cafes and restaurants to collect food packages for frontline nursing home staff during the early stages of the pandemic. Weekly quiz nights on Fridays have endured into 2021 too.
Barrhead Falkirk's Greig Avinou (right): '2022 will be off the Richter scale!'
About them: Director Greig Avinou has grown Barrhead Falkirk over more than a decade around a team he says have become family; losing six "really good" staff in October "still hurts" he says. The agency excels across luxury, cruise and long-haul, and got off to an "absolutely amazing" start in 2020. "We've built up this business on delivering service," insists Avinou. "Trying to ensure seven-star service in extreme circumstances has been key."
How have they navigated the Covid crisis?: Avinou and branch manager Kieran McVeigh handled the initial Covid onslaught, working 12-hour days seven days a week to process rebooks and refunds while assisting clients in-resort. "It tested us to the limit," he says. The agency dealt with 1,500+ affected bookings in total. It reopened in July under strict Covid protocols to maximise summer trading. The agency even took its annual cruise show virtual in November, and Avinou is now looking to leverage its 50,000-strong Facebook followers with a new and innovative campaign.
Highlights: Avinou's absolute confidence in his team's ability to ensure the business gets back to 2019 travel levels early next year. "2022 will be off the Richter scale," he says.
KM Travel's Julian Stark and Julie Loftus
About them: Managing director Julian Stark has been with KMT for the majority of its 42-year history; he's steered the business through significant change, including shedding its corporate travel focus. A timely refurb of the agency's Giffnock branch in October 2019 allowed KMT to close its Glasgow city centre office and combine the two teams. Subsequent cost-savings combined with a strong start to 2020 – 30% up on budget – saw spirits soar.
How have they navigated the Covid crisis?: Every client with a live booking was contacted immediately either by email or phone, the central message being "we are there for you". The agency was fully staffed in April to manage the initial rush, and thereafter team members buddied up as they rolled on and off furlough to ensure clients always had a point of contact. Managing the team's personal anxieties and mental health were key priorities for Stark, while the transition to homeworking was done in 48 hours.
Highlights: Stark's five-point "Sermon from Giffnock Mount", highlights of which include: "thou shalt not price match to the detriment of earnings", and "thou shalt continue to be 100% honest with colleagues and customers".
Donna Bicker (bottom, centre) and her team were in high spirits
About them: Scotland's 2019 Top 50 champions, also one of last year's runners up, keep doing all the right things right. The vastly experienced team of five, led by manager Donna Bicker, were trading nearly 20% up year-on-year when Covid hit. Bicker advocates training and professional development, so the team have been using spare time to build on their 150+ years’ experience. Late-2021 cruise business is doing well, with the team focusing on cruise and long-haul for 2022.
How have they navigated the Covid crisis?: The team adjusted their hours and work practices to suit clients as they adapted to homeworking. Bicker has been updating the team every morning following Stewart's daily managers' meeting. Stewart, meanwhile, invested in ensuring shops could reopen safely in July. The team even managed to get together for a socially-distanced Chinese after months apart. Their mantra has been "open for business, here to help". Video appointments are proving popular with clients.
Highlights: The positivity and reassurance that flows down from Bicker and on to her team, and the huge mutual respect and togetherness the team share – through thick and thin.
Owner Shona Thorne (bottom, left) wanted her team to feel in control
About them: Shona Thorne and her team continue to impress in the toughest of times, putting their clients and community at the heart of everything they do. The shop has been lit up with positive messages at times of lockdown, while Thorne's All About The Magic community project provided charity boxes for children at Halloween and Christmas. They've shopped for clients, and even arranged delivery of a Christmas Day meal for one set of customers facing particular respite challenges.
How have they navigated the Covid crisis?: By taking a customer-centric approach to the 1,600 rebooks and refunds they had to sort last year; 12-hour shifts, seven-day working and prioritising client contact via their preferred service or platform helped the team rise to the challenge. For Thorne, communication is key to keeping everyone together. "We wanted everyone to be able to control their work life when some areas of their daily life may have felt out of control," she says.
Highlights: How everyone stepped up to take on new roles and responsibilities, learning new skills in the process – with digital lead Craig Hume embracing a daunting, but critical, new admin brief. The virtual party nights sounded like a hoot too.