Juliet Dennis visits the staff at Miles Morgan Travel in Wells, Somerset, one of the miniple’s best-performing shops, which recently scooped the Agent Achievement Award for best large agency in southwest England and south Wales.
From checking whether a chinchilla cat needs a signed export certificate, to receiving weird and wonderful gifts from clients, it’s all in a day’s work.
The staff at Miles Morgan Travel have already received hugs from regulars and a giant bar of Toblerone within an hour of opening the shop.
The agency, located at the top end of the high street near the famous Wells Cathedral, is a hive of activity. According to manager Margaret Moulton, this is a normal day.
“We have a ball here most of the time; we laugh a lot but there are also days I want to throw my computer out of the window!” says Margaret, who has just been given a large bar of Toblerone by the grateful cat owner.
She adds: “The most unusual thing I was given was a whole salmon. I booked my clients on a holiday to Canada. They caught the salmon and brought it back for me. I don’t even like fish!”
Margaret, otherwise known as ‘mother goose’ for looking after her staff and training many of the company’s newcomers, worked with two of her team under the agency’s previous owners, and even worked in the premises when it was a Bakers Dolphin, 15 years ago.
Owner Miles Morgan bought the agency, at the time Cathedral City Travel, after Ambassador Travel, which acquired it in 2010, went into administration in January 2013.
Margaret and travel specialist Maria Millard remember the fateful day the company collapsed. “The owner rang and said: ‘The business can’t go on’,” recalls Margaret.
“He told me to lock the door. It was horrible, but the public was supportive. After that, we worked from my kitchen table and delivered tickets to people’s homes.
“It was a whirlwind of emotion. I was most concerned about my customers,” says Margaret.
Agency chain owner Miles Morgan was one of the first to show interest in the business. Two weeks later, the agency was back up and running as part of Miles Morgan Travel, with some clients none the wiser.
A VIP opening night, with operator Typically Italian, attracted 65 customers – and the agency was back in business.
With reference to managing director Miles Morgan and his well-known hobby of keeping alpacas, Margaret adds: “We have lots of fun - there are not many managing directors who answer their phones to hear about a day’s trading while shearing their alpacas!”
Within a matter of months, in summer 2013, the agency moved up the high street to its current premises and was kitted out in the style of the miniple’s other branches.
The shop has gone from strength to strength and now has five staff, including Sarah Phillips, the former manager of a Thomas Cook store a few doors along the road.
Phillips, who joined after 25 years with Cook, says: “The biggest difference between working at a multiple and an independent is that there is so much more you can sell.”
Margaret describes her biggest challenge as “coping with our success”.
“We need another desk, and if my target gets any higher, I’ll need another team member,” she jokes.
The agency’s client base is largely retired professionals, and with the area boasting top private schools such as Millfield and Wells Cathedral School, there is also an affluent family market locally.
Seeking new business
The agency continues to court new business with regular operator events. It is also planning a Macmillan coffee morning in the branch.
“Every member of staff has been affected by friends or family with cancer,” says Margaret.
The branch’s best-selling destinations include Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Croatia and Sicily.
There is no doubt Brexit has had an impact, according to Margaret. “It has affected customers’ confidence, with some people not committing to big bookings.”
Despite a drop-off in the lates market, customers are still coming in to book further ahead, she says. And the recent failure of Lowcost Holidays actually boosted the agency’s trade. She adds: “People who had booked Lowcost Beds came in to ask for help, and then came back to book their next trips, so it did us a favour.”
Up close and personal: Margaret Moulton, manager
I’ve been in travel since . . .
I was 18. I worked in various roles until 2002, when three of us opened Cathedral City Travel. In 2010, we sold to Ambassador Travel and when that closed, Miles Morgan Travel bought us.
My favourite destinations are . . .
China and Egypt
If I hadn’t become a travel agent . . . I would have been an archaeologist. I always fancied being Indiana Jones.
Up close and personal: Maria Millard, travel specialist
I’ve been a travel consultant since . . .
2010. I was 49 when I started in travel, but I’ve always worked in sales. If you can sell, you can sell anything. You just need to know the product you’re selling.
My favourite destinations are . . . Vietnam and Cambodia.
My biggest challenge is . . . when you can’t find what clients are looking for within their budget.
If I hadn’t become a travel agent I would have been . . . an air hostess.
My most unusual booking . . . was a man who wanted a holiday within an hour’s drive of his house because he took his parrot with him, and it got car sick and threw up if he went any further.
As soon as I entered Miles Morgan Travel, I felt part of the family.
Within minutes, I had a cup of tea in my hand, and was chatting to manager Margaret and consultant Maria, who came in especially on her day off.
That’s exactly the behaviour that makes customers return to the agency.
It’s obvious the staff have a close relationship with clients from all the chit chat. But importantly, they retain the professionalism and efficiency customers want.
As clients came in, Margaret dealt with complex-sounding queries effortlessly, and introduced me to some of her loyal customers.
No one was left hovering at the brochure rack for too long without politely being asked whether they needed help.
What struck me most was just how busy it was. It was positively buzzing – exactly how I imagined a good high street agency should be.
As we stood outside taking a photo, the staff waved at passers-by and joked: “Fame at last!”
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