Operator’s new managing director tells Robin Searle he plans to keep investing in its retail network

The new boss of Virgin Holidays has reiterated the company’s commitment to its high street presence as it prepares to open a number of stores, including its first flagship v-room in Wales.

However, Joe Thompson also confirmed there were no plans to move away from its direct-sell strategy and rekindle relations with third-party agents.

Thompson joined Virgin Holidays as managing director this summer, having worked for Virgin Atlantic for 14 years in a number of roles including sales, network and alliances and global airport operations, followed by six months of paternity leave.

He said: “Having the break between working in the two businesses was a great help in allowing me to assess the similarities and differences between them.

“There is a united culture with our people at the forefront, but there are clear operational differences, including the extension of the duty of care well beyond the doors of the airport.”

Thompson said the company’s retail network – including its v-rooms and in-store concessions – continued to be its largest distribution channel alongside its online and call centre operations.

He said more investment was being made, with a refurbishment programme taking place for its House of Fraser concessions, and its v-room network expanding to 12 with the opening of two new stores by the end of the year, including one in an as-yet undisclosed location in Wales.

“We are continuing to invest in the retail estate,” he said. “We have about 100 stores and it is the largest of our three sales channels, but we very much see it as one strand of an omnichannel distribution strategy as most of our customers will interact with at least two of our three channels.”

Strong performance

Despite well-publicised challenges in its key destinations including the Caribbean and the US, Thompson said the company was on track to match its 2016 performance with forward bookings and margin outpacing last year’s. He said: “With currency, Brexit and inflation-to-wage growth not in our favour, it’s clear the external environment isn’t what we wished for and there aren’t any silver bullets.

“But to be building market share in our bellwether destinations such as Florida, and to be performing better than we did last year, is testament to the demand for our differentiated experiences.”

He added: “We are seeing some shifts to shorter durations or perhaps trading down on accommodation, but it’s clear that demand for holidays remains resilient.”

Thompson hails crisis response

Virgin Holidays registered some of its strongest customer ratings of the year after dealing with incidents such as Hurricane Irma and the Las Vegas gun massacre.

The operator had 1,100 customers in Las Vegas at the time of last month’s shooting, which killed 58 people, though none were directly affected.

Managing director Joe Thompson said: “Hurricane Irma was an opportunity for me to see our teams in action and witness our elevated operational response.

“The awful events in Las Vegas also affected one of our key destinations, but our ability to offer support was reflected in our customer scores, which have been some of the strongest of the year.”

Thompson said the operator had taken a “short-term financial hit” after offering customers the chance to rebook or cancel their Las Vegas trips following the shooting, but he said there had not been a significant impact on bookings that could be directly attributed to the events.