Amie Keeley visits the team at Tickets Travel, an original Worldchoice member that has been in business for more than 30 years.
Having recently taken over a nearby business, undergone a shop refurb and hosted its own travel show, Tickets Travel is a shining example of a thriving independent high street agent.
The agency has been selling holidays in affluent Bexley Village, where southeast London meets Kent, since 1981.
Diane Coleman has been involved in the agency since 1985, first working part-time at its now-closed Belvedere branch, while studying for a business studies degree.
She remained good friends with the owner, and after an opportunity to open her own agency fell through, she went into partnership with him in 1995.
But after just a few months, he suddenly died of a heart attack.
“I didn’t know whether I wanted to stay,” she says. “The thought of being here without Norman [the owner] was really tough. I’d known him for 10 years and his death really affected me.”
While weighing up her options, Diane decided to take a year off from work and go back to college to get a teaching certificate, and employed a manager to run the shop.
She was tempted back to work a few days in the shop in between teaching stints, after being offered a VIP trip on the QE2 to New York.
“Juggling the two was difficult,” says Diane. “I didn’t feel I was giving the teaching the full attention it deserved. Six months in, I thought I can’t do this. So I went back to travel completely – and have never looked back.”
Something for everyone
Tickets Travel sells “a real mixture” of holidays, according to Diane’s two full-time staff, David Celino-Stock and Kirsty Kitching, who have between them worked at the agency for 26 years.
David, a recent winner of Travel Weekly’s Mystery Shopper, is the cruise specialist, while Kirsty loves all things tailor-made.
She has worked at the shop since 2001, and seen children who used to come in with their parents now visit the agency to book their own holidays.
The shop is one of several on Bexley Village’s pretty high street, which has the highest concentration of independent businesses in the UK.
Last month, the agency underwent a full refurbishment, including new flooring, desks, wall map and brochure racks.
The business is also expanding after it took over Clarkes Travel in nearby Erith, in January, after its owner retired.
Diane says: “I got a call from David [the previous owner], who I’ve known for years, in October. He said he wanted to retire and asked if I’d take over his forward business.
“I booked my first holiday there, so I was genuinely sad they were shutting down. I spent a lot of my teenage years in that area. It’s where I went to school, so it feels familiar.
“At first I thought some of his staff could come and work here, but then I wondered if I should take over the lease. My daughter Leanne wasn’t happy in her job and had always said she’d like to run her own business one day in the future. She’d never shown an interest in travel, but when I suggested me taking over Clarkes, she was really keen to come and work with me. I spoke to the leaseholder and it developed from there.”
Diane convinced two of the Clarkes staff to stay on and plans to split her time between the two stores while Leanne, 24, learns the ropes. Leanne starts this week as an assistant.
Earlier this month, the agency hosted its second travel show at Freemantle Hall in the High Street, complete with a steel band.
The event was hosted in partnership with about a dozen suppliers, and attracted almost 100 people.
“Operators were happy that they had quality enquiries on the day, and we took two bookings – one of whom was a new client,” says Diane.
The agency has also held client events in its shop and in partnership with Regent Seven Seas Cruises. It has another – an afternoon tea with AmaWaterways – coming up in April.
Up close and personal
I’ve been at Tickets Travel… For 17 years. I was working at an agency in the West End and it was moving, so I decided to move back to where I’m from and applied for the job here. We work well as a team.
I enjoy… The variety of what we sell – that’s the best bit about the job.
Bookings… Come in threes. We won’t sell something for months, then lots come. TV shows on destinations influence requests.
The thing that has changed most in 17 years… Is technology. We haven’t got a website, but set up a Facebook page last year.
I’ve been at Tickets Travel… For nine years but I’ve worked in travel for 27. I started on a YTS scheme at El Al and have worked at Hogg Robinson, Thomas Cook, Norwegian Cruise Line, Austravel and Kuoni.
I like selling… Cruise. I went on cruise holidays with my parents so from then on I got to love it. We sell a lot of Med cruises with P&O, Celebrity, royal and NCL.
The biggest challenge in my job… Is when operators overbook. It doesn’t happen often but you are the one who has to tell the customer and sort everything out.
Amie’s day at tickets travel
Tickets Travel is one of a growing number of single independent shops that have been selling holidays for decades but are always looking ahead and evolving.
The ability to embrace change and find new ways to promote your business in an industry in which the margins are low and you’re up against the internet is key to survival.
From running its own travel show in the town hall, to investing in a shop refurb and attending key trade events, Diane and her loyal staff Kirsty and David don’t rest on their laurels. They are open to trying new ways to generate business – and it appears to be paying off.
Tickets Travel’s recent acquisition of Clarkes Travel reflects Diane’s confidence in the future of the high street, which seems to be having a renaissance of late.
With her daughter Leanne coming on board to work in the new shop, let’s hope Tickets Travel will continue for generations to come.
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