IN mid-1996, Lunn Poly closed its loss-making call- centre operation afteran unsuccessful two-yearexperiment.
Three years later, the multiple is trying again, only this time on a much larger scale, as exclusively revealed in Travel Weekly (November 25).
When the curtain came down on the Coventry call centre, there were fewer than 100 staff. The new Glasgow operation, which opens on August 24, will create over 1,000 jobs over the next five years.
Lunn Poly claims it has learned from its mistakes and is convinced the latest bid will not suffer a similar fate.
Managing director Nigel David, who was heading Thomson's Portland Direct business when the call centre failed, said it needed greater support and a higher profile to be effective.
Industry observers, however, believe Lunn Poly should have persevered with the direct business and said the decision to axe it was short sighted.
"It was a half-hearted effort," said one source. "Lunn Poly didn't give it sufficient back-up and did not appear to have a clear strategy. If it had the operator would be ahead of the game by now instead of playing catch-up."
Since the failure at Coventry, Thomas Cook and Going Places have developed call-centre operations while Travel Choice, a high-street brand for only a few months, is developing an office in Kilmarnock, having identified direct-retail business as crucial for long-term growth.
David is aware of its importance and confessed the multiple may have been slow to react to changes in ther market.
"We were the first to expand our range of retail shops which took the market by storm but I think we lost our way a bit which can happen when you are out in front," he said. "There are complex reasons why we lost our way, some external and some internal. But this call centre is a critical part of our armoury for going forward. It's all about giving customers choice.
"I spent three years at Portland Direct and I know the power of the call centre. You can build up a rapport and develop a relationship with customers."
Lunn Poly's call centre will initially be based in CallPoint Europe in Glasgow, a company which specialises in fledgling call-centre operations. Within 12 months it will move to purpose-built offices to the west of the city. By Christmas, 60 staff will be employed by Lunn Poly Direct, increasing to 1,000 over the next five years.
David stressed the new venture will be supported and work in conjunction with e-commerce and digital TV strategies. Customers who book through a high-street Lunn Poly will also be able to contact the call centre with enquiries.
"This is not just about booking over the telephone. There will be a range of opportunities to pick and mix," said David. "If you treat call centres, the Internet and Digital TV as discreet channels you are doomed. You need them to work together.
"You might, for example, want to browse the Internet for holidays but prefer to make the booking verbally. You could pick up the phone and call the centre. The more creative you are the closer you become to the customer."
David said Lunn Poly's Internet site, which currently contains only late availability, will be greatly enhanced over the next 12 months.
"At some stage it will be on-line which I regard as essential," he added.
David also said Lunn Poly, and the Thomson group as a whole, now recognises its duty to shareholders and predicted at least 50% of its business will be generated by Thomson products.
"We have woken up to that fact we are a public company," he said. "The City will want to see Thomson sales through the call centre otherwise they will wonder why we are bothering."
Sources believe the call centre will help ease Thomson's distribution which relied heavily on Lunn Poly's retail shops.
However, David insisted the company has a strong relationship with independents.
"Lunn Poly sales generate around 40% of Thomson's business which has gone up significantly since the advent of directional selling last year. But Thomson is still a long way from being totally reliant on Lunn Poly," he said.
But he admitted that Lunn Poly Direct, by employing 1,000staff, will aid distribution for Thomson.
Lunn Poly Direct
Location: initially at Callpoint Europe in Glasgow, moving to a purpose-built call centre to the west of the city in 2000.
Cost: declined to reveal figures but said it was a multi-million pound investment.
Staff:60 by Christmas expanding to 1,000 over the next five years. Reservations staff will specialise in areas such as cruise and ski.
Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm, Saturday 9pm-5pm. Will operate seven days a week later in the year.
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