Ben Ireland met the team at Travel Designers in Balham, south London, who put their stamp on long-haul and luxury bookings.
Attention to detail and a taste for the finer things in life has helped Travel Designers prosper while its clientele lap-up luxury.
Staff at the independent store – who lunge to celebrate a substantial sale – are encouraged to do things a bit differently to make them stand out from the competition.
They vlog, put together personal gift packs for regular customers, attend wedding shows and have recently set up an LGBT brand. This week they are launching a bi-monthly evening (with prosecco) to cater for young professional customers with little free time on their hands.
And the fresh approach is working, as the honeymoon specialists have moved from being 15% behind target in the first quarter of 2016 to 35% ahead now.
“I can already say we’re going to have our best year ever,” said director Nicholas Harding-McKay. “We have already made the same amount of revenue and we’ve got two months left. One more sale and we’re there.”
Each member of the team has specialist knowledge of certain locations built up from fam trips they have been on; but all insist they can “sell anywhere”, with a tendency to focus on luxury and long-haul.
Popular routes in the last 12 months include the Maldives, the Caribbean, Asia and America.
Harding-McKay said this year’s turnaround began in April when he decided to put the power in the agents’ hands. He empowers them to take ownership of their clients and projects, and put the customer at the centre of their strategy.
Personal gifts such as chocolate hampers, cards, speciality teas or champagne, are sent out on birthdays, bookings or at random, not as part of the deal but as a “reminder that we’re there”.
He has also appointed a new business development executive – Aimee Rogers – who starts next month, and Nick will open a new high street store in Dulwich next year employing two more staff.
“There’s a space for being on the high street,” Harding-McKay added. “But you have to approach it in a different way. Gone are the days when a travel agent could just sit at their desk and wait for the business to come in.
“The team is the heartbeat of the business and we are all heading in the same direction.”
Vlogs and other posts on social media are a new initiative, first piloted by PA/agent Bev Kerr on a recent trip to Portugal. She filmed a nine-second clip of her showing customers the pool at the Club Med Da Balaia resort in the Algarve.
The business has now invested in a new camera and boom mic ahead of an impending launch of #TDTV, which they’re hoping to take on to YouTube in the coming months with more clips to showcase destinations.
In May next year, Travel Designers, which is a Kuoni partner store, plans to rename its high street shop The Balham Traveller and call its new store The Dulwich Traveller as it hopes to appeal on a hyper-local level as well as to its ever-growing online client base.
Selling holidays at wedding shows is no new phenomenon but Travel Designers’ offering has been given a new lease of life under senior travel designer James Whittaker-Sheppard, who joined the team in January.
“Brides and grooms need someone who knows what they are talking about, they trust, and they can always get hold of,” said Whittaker-Sheppard.
“Even if we don’t know we can find out. But at the end of the day, it’s the most memorable holiday of your life and you should speak to an expert so it’s as good as it possibly can be."
Example in point was when one couple found out, through James’ research, that if you want to get married in Mexico you need to pass certain blood tests to prove you’ve been loyal to your other half.
“It might not be something you’d like to talk about ahead of your wedding,” he added. “But it’s important information to know!”
Meet the team
James Whittaker-Sheppard, senior travel designer
I got into travel… by accident. I wore shoes made out of real money, because my first job was a sales role, and I ended up as the Africa specialist. I never intended on getting in to travel but now I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
My specialist destinations are… The Caribbean, Africa, Maldives, Far and Middle East.
If I hadn’t become a travel agent I would have been… a writer. I love to write.
Sarah-Jayne Hawkins, senior travel designer
I first got into travel… 19 years ago. I worked in hospitality in hotels after studying travel and tourism at college. I also worked for a tour operator and launched a new branch in Bristol.
My specialist destinations are… Africa, the Caribbean and weddings.
If I wasn’t a travel agent I would… still work in hotels or have gone into nursing. I’m a people person.
Bev Kerr, PA /agent
I started in travel… when I was 17 and worked in the industry for 10 years before I had my children. I came back in 2011 and it was a different industry. In the 80s you never really sold outside of Europe. I had to relearn everything.
My specialist destinations are… the places I’ve been to, including Mauritius, Saint Lucia and Morocco.
I couldn’t be anything other than a travel agent… because even when I left I always wanted to come back.
I would have worn looser trousers had I known about Travel Designers’ celebratory lunges.
In all seriousness though, the lunge epitomises the fact that the team has such a rapport with each other and their customers, as well as a genuine enjoyment of their work; they also like a sing-song.
Much of this is due to their down-to-earth boss, Nick, who encourages his team to take ownership of everything.
Each ‘designer’ has an ‘about them’ section on the website and they come up with their own sales ideas, whether it’s prosecco-driven evening openings, partnerships to capitalise on Jet2’s new Stanstead routes or video marketing blogs.
Travel Designers has had a resurgence after a few flat years and you can sense the excitement in the office. The fact that they are opening a shop in Dulwich and embracing social media is testament to knowing what they are good at and making it fit in the modern world through all the relevant channels. Long may it continue.
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