The operator’s head of retail has risen from the shop floor to manage its growing high street network. She spoke to Ben Ireland about putting customers first

Our customers don’t think in different channels, so why should we?”

Virgin Holidays head of retail Rachel Wilton knows this all too well, having risen to the role from the shop floor via a stint in Virgin’s contact centre.

“We know our customers go online to browse, then go into the store or call one of our experts,” she notes. “It’s about putting the customer at the heart of what we do.”

Wilton started her travel career as a sales consultant at First Choice’s Basingstoke branch in 2004 and was promoted to assistant and then manager in the space of five years. She joined Virgin Holidays to manage its Debenhams concession in Basingstoke in 2009.

The agency entered a growth period and Wilton was tasked with supporting new branches including standalone v-rooms and Debenhams, House of Fraser and Sainsbury’s concessions.

Virgin’s retail network peaked at 144 locations in 2014. “It was an incredible expansion,” she recalls of the period, after which she was promoted to regional manager.

The company now has 21 v-rooms and 36 Next concessions.

Regional challenges

Visiting lots of sites helped Wilton understand that “there are completely different trading challenges in different geographical areas”. This was anything from access to long‑haul flights out of Heathrow and complicated family bookings to levels of disposable income.

She notes that Virgin Atlantic’s planned growth at Manchester this year could give customers and agencies in the north more choice.

Wilton was also heavily involved in recruiting agents, who are chosen based on personality and trained in-house. They get a five-week induction and, once in store, can become specialists in destinations and attractions such as Universal and Disney.

Wilton says getting agents out to these destinations is “absolutely key”. She says: “Customers will know a lot [from research], but that first-hand knowledge and experience is what customers come in store for.”

Two years at head office in Crawley from 2013 to 2015 taught Wilton how customers interact with agents on the phone.

Since returning to retail, Wilton has encouraged departments to get their heads together to form joined‑up processes.

“It’s very different,” she notes. “I’m passionate about omni-channel – understanding how customers interact between the channels.”

Virgin’s agents are told “they might not be your customer the whole way” so they must log quotes and notes to help colleagues who may be the customer’s next touchpoint.

Customer experience

Wilton’s other passion is bringing theatre to retail. Recent v-room openings in Leeds and Liverpool feature bars, VR rollercoasters, a ‘lifestyle library’ and replica Upper Class seats for customers to try.

“We’ve created a very relaxed atmosphere,” she says. “It’s about the customer experience and continuing to raise the bar to get customers returning to the stores. I truly believe the journey starts when they walk in.

“It works. In Bluewater recently, we had a couple who got a babysitter and came in to make an event of it when their balance was due. They came in, had a drink and a chat, and bought some additional park tickets. For me, that service is absolutely key.”

Virgin Holidays’ biggest sellers are the US, particularly Florida, and the Caribbean, especially Barbados – but Wilton said the key thing is providing what’s best for the customer.

And the same goes for cruise – she said there was no pressure for agents to sell Virgin Voyages’ first ship Scarlet Lady if it’s not right for the customer.

The theory is clear: put the customer first. And that stands true however they want to interact with the agency.