TTG contributing editor Abigail Healy and Sandals’ director of sales Leah Marshall met the five finalists in the Top Weddings & Honeymoons Agency category and heard about love in the time of Coronavirus
About them: A high-end agency based in the village of Welwyn in Hertfordshire, the Off Broadway team, headed up by founder Tricia Conroy-Smith, has a total of 180 years experience in travel.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Conroy-Smith’s fear of snow disruption turned out to be a bonus with staff already set up to work from home easily. Customers were notified about their trip as soon as a government announcement was made and partner Paul Rice ended up providing an unofficial counselling service with one client sending him a Fortnum & Mason tea hamper as thanks. Pre-pandemic they created The Platinum Wedding Collective, a sort of local directory, with other local wedding suppliers, and plan to roll it out widely once restrictions are lifted. Client events with suppliers have been hosted on Zoom while e-shot surveys have helped shape marketing too.
Highlight: The popular appointment lounge was treated to a facelift. Ripping out the reception desk and adding a mustard Chesterfield sofa and jewel-coloured chairs has created a more relaxed ambience that appeals to a younger demographic.
About them: Having been in business for 15 years, 85% of this Litchfield-based agency’s sales are weddings and the remainder are honeymoons. Prior to the pandemic they were focusing more intently on growing long-haul and selling Asian wedding packages.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Thanks to their flexible working environment it was straightforward for staff to set up working from home when the pandemic hit and they worked through existing bookings in departure date order with staff kept up-to-date on restrictions via their internal hub. Text messaging became a really successful tool with a quick response from clients and while enquiries were unsurprisingly down on 2019 the team’s conversion rate increased. Positivity prevailed its marketing with a photo of the first wedding that took place last year receiving a particularly big response on Facebook.
Highlight: The team became adept at rearranging last minute weddings to entirely different countries when travel corridors closed in the summer. One due to take place in September was rearranged in Cyprus in 10 days despite different documentation and Covid-19 test hurdles.
About them: Starting out as a homeworker in 2016, Britt-Marie Monks operates the weddings and honeymoons branch of her business under The Honeymoon Fixer title while her network of five (soon to be six) homeworkers work under The Holiday Fixer, which welcomes back many of their happily wedded couples among other clients.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: With 2020 set to be the best year of trading to date there were lots of bookings immediately affected by the crisis. The team pulled together, offering to help each other out with Whatsapp and Facebook groups plus regular Zoom calls helping keep spirits up. Blogs and Facebook Live events helped to answer common queries and customers are treated to thoughtful little extras when they book with the agency.
Highlight: Monks is the only travel agent accepted into the National Association of Wedding Professionals – an accolade she is able to promote along with her Abta and Atol to give couples even more confidence when booking.
About them: Owner Nick Harding McKay closed his Balham office in December 2019 and set all the staff up to work remotely so they were well set up when the pandemic hit. Harding McKay has recently relocated to Manchester while the remaining team members Beverley and Kelly are still based in London.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Harding McKay gave the team a 25% pay rise in January but they insisted on returning it to support the business. They were fortunate to only have one honeymoon booking cancel but have had to move some honeymoons very last minute. Social media and e-shot marketing continued throughout the year and they have sent bottles of wine to clients with brochure links to do virtual consultations. Pivoting to sell UK honeymoon destinations such as the Isles of Scilly, Jersey and a twin centre to Shetland and Orkney has proved successful too.
Highlight: Hearing how a few clients decided to go ahead with their honeymoon despite their wedding being postponed and have gone on to book a second one.
Guru Travel Group's Paul Salisbury with TTG's Abigail Healy and Sandals' Leah Marshall
About them: Paul Salisbury launched the business in July 2016 after switching careers from the food and beverage industry. It’s now a family affair with his wife, mother-in-law and sister-in-law all members of staff.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: All staff except Salisbury were furloughed and he set about trying to amend as many bookings as possible. He moved 91 honeymoons and 11 weddings and would sometimes be found on the phone to brides who were mid-breakdown at 1am while their husbands-to-be were snoozing. Proactively approaching hotels he secured original rates so he could go back to the operator and rebook the package for his clients at the same price. Marketing to family and friends of existing clients on Facebook along with a referral scheme as well as referrals from other Facebook groups has proved a successful strategy.
Highlight: Helping a client return home from Barbados when their repatriation flight details were received two hours after the flight departed. Salibury got her on the final flight out and refunded for two nights missed in resort.
Sandals' Leah Marshall answers five key questions about the operator's plans for 2021.