Limavady Travel’s director Hazel Simpson has just opened the doors of her Northern Ireland agency for the first time since the lockdown. Juliet Dennis reports.
Q. How does it feel to open your shop for the first time in three months?
A. We were allowed to open on June 12 in Northern Ireland. We put on Facebook that we were offering appointments and on our first day we had two appointments with customers which led to two bookings. We are getting bookings for September, October and November, not just for next year. It’s been busy on the high street since we opened and it’s nice to back in the ‘new normal’.
Q. How many of your staff are working?
A. I’ve brought back one member of staff part-time so far. Normally we are four full‑time staff and one part-timer. The other girls are still furloughed.
“We put on Facebook that we were offering appointments and on our first day we had two appointments with customers which led to two bookings.”
Q. How was the lockdown for you?
A. I was working on my own. I only live five minutes’ drive away from the agency so I was coming in to a locked shop from the start. It would have been hard to bring all the customer files home. For the first few weeks, I felt like I was drowning in a sea of paper files. After that it began to calm down. I got into a routine, with a box for refunds and one for balances coming up, to deal with on a weekly basis. We were open to customer calls from 10am to 4pm but I was working 9am until 5.30pm, or sometimes until 7pm. When it’s your own business you do that.
Q. What’s the response been like from customers?
A. Most of our July and August customers have moved their holidays to 2021. I’m now dealing with the first week of September. We still have people planning to go away in September. I’ve been sending out text messages and prompts to customers to ring me and ask for their options. I only phone them if they have a balance that needs to be paid. I advise customers of their options.
It’s their choice and it has to be what they feel confident with. The cruise customers all want to go! I had a family last week who moved their booking to 2021 and then phoned me back and said if the holiday was still going ahead on August 14 [this year], they wanted to go – and I managed to rebook it. The majority of refunds coming through are ones for holidays cancelled between March and June. Companies like Jet2holidays have made the process so much easier for agents. We’ve only had one customer start a chargeback.
“I had a family last week who moved their booking to 2021 and then phoned me back and said if the holiday was still going ahead on August 14, they wanted to go.”
Q. Have there been some low moments?
A. I did have a wobble at one point. It felt like groundhog day every day and a whole year’s work had just disappeared.
Q. Do you have a plan to bring your staff back?
A. I will see how these first two weeks go and then I hope to increase the number of staff. From July, we can offer them the chance to work part-time. Even before the lockdown we could see the downturn in business. I have already had discussions with my staff and talked to them about working part-time to save their jobs.
I feel responsible for my staff. We all used to work together for Thomas Cook [after the joint venture with The Co-operative Travel]. We were all made redundant in 2013. I started the business up again and recruited the same girls and we moved to smaller premises across the road.
“I have already had discussions with my staff and talked to them about working part-time to save their jobs. I feel responsible for my staff.”
Q. What does the future hold?
A. I’m confident we will survive. I can see an end to this. There is definitely customer demand. We have made new bookings for the spring. One customer who cancelled in April came back and rebooked for November. People are saying they will come back and rebook. But it will be totally different, even down to the small things. We used to have a hand towel in the bathroom in our agency, now we have had to buy paper towels.
What changes have you made to your travel agency?
“Normally I would have four desks, now I’m restricting that to two. In the first phase I will only use the desks downstairs in our shop. I also have an office upstairs and a back door, so we could have people come round the back for an appointment upstairs.
“We have had Perspex screens with wooden frames made by a local joiner. We then had them painted navy blue to match the agency’s colours.
“The screens are on our desks, so when new customers come in we don’t need to sanitise our own desks, just the plastic desks.”
“I’ve also purchased four small foldaway tables for customers to sit at. The screens are on our desks, so when new customers come in we don’t need to sanitise our own desks, just the plastic desks. To buy the desks and get the screens made has cost £420. To me, it’s not a huge cost.
“The desks were the first thing I got; I bought them the week after lockdown started! We will be able to use them again.
“I also have blue-and-white spotted masks for the staff. The floor markings are the only thing I’ve not done. I have put a sign up about appointments. I‘ve been ready to open for some time; we originally hoped to reopen on May 9.”
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