Each morning at Thorne Travel, bespoke holidays are packaged up and sold proactively rather than waiting for customers to come in to the store.
Dynamic packaging is the big hitter at Thorne, in the Scottish town of Kilwinning, half an hour from Glasgow, and equidistant from Glasgow and Prestwick airports.
One recent New York deal secured more than 50 bookings in February alone, although they do sell pre-made packages too.
Overseas travel accounts for 77% of business, with Thorne Experience – it’s domestic arm – the remaining 23%. And the model works; the number of staff has increased from four in October 2009 to 20 today.
“Our focus is extreme customer service,” said owner and managing director Shona Thorne, a former sales director at Tui. “We’ll happily find a five-star all-inclusive resort and send clients there on cheap flights, if that’s what they want.”
Thorne Experience provides tailor-made theatre or shopping trips, excursions around the Scottish highlands and islands and is the official travel partner for The International Airshow, in Ayr, and Bowls Scotland.
“The key to the best customer service is the right people,” Shona said, adding that she hires staff on personality rather than experience and trains in-house. She pays half of their holiday if they go somewhere to help improve product knowledge.
“I choose people who like holidays and to travel,” she said. “All my staff get to go on multiple trips a year. It’s part of their job.”
Thorne Travel hit the headlines in 2014 when its YouTube promo video, taking the mickey out of Virgin Atlantic’s famous Still Red Hot advert, went viral.
Despite queues of newspaper reporters outside the shop – and turning down more than 40 requests to take part in reality TV – it led to bookings, with a 110% rise that year. And those customers keep coming back.
“It had a big impact,” Shona recalled. “It led to brand awareness. We’ve now got customers all over the UK, in Poland, Austria, Romania and Australians who we book to Bali.”
Social media did not only help Thorne Travel’s advert go viral, it also accounts for the majority of bookings. In fact, 60% of Thorne’s customers shop with them through Facebook. Each agent takes it in turns to monitor the account so they can reply swiftly to messages. They log in from home, giving Thorne a late-night presence for their customers’ convenience.
“Facebook is massive for us,” added Shona. “We were on Facebook early and it’s paid off. But it’s not about likes and shares, it’s about engagement. Customers have the convenience of booking online, but the reassurance that a specialist is on the other side.”
The Thorne Travel team turned down the chance to become reality stars, but it hasn’t stopped them looking after famous clients.
Unable to reveal who due to non-disclosure agreements, Shona said clients include footballers from both sides of the border – many of whom choose to fly from Prestwick for more privacy and on low-cost carriers you might not expect to see them on.
But you don’t have to be famous to get the VIP treatment. Every customer is offered a signature cocktail – the contents of which are top secret (and delicious).
On the day of my visit, regular customers were in for tea and biscuits and to give views on the design of Thorne’s two new websites – for Thorne Travel and Thorne Experience. They appreciate the consultation.
Retirees Jim Whiteford and his wife Nanette have booked with Thorne Travel for three years, including a recent trip to Hawaii from which they are sharing a video with Thorne.
Jim said: “You are number one as a customer. When we were in Hawaii the hotel tried to charge us for sunloungers, which were part of the deal. We called at 2am – forgetting the time difference – but it was no bother. And it was sorted. We don’t book anywhere else now. Inviting us in shows they care what we think.”
Shona said she always knew dynamic packaging and good customer service was a recipe for travel agency success. She said: “I’ve been travelling since I was 17. In those days there wasn’t an awful lot of dynamic packaging. I knew I’d get what I wanted doing it myself and I knew others felt the same way.”
Meet two of the Thorne travel team
Christiane McCorgray, travel consultant
I got into travel because… it what I wanted to do. I studied travel and tourism up to Higher National Diploma level.
My specialisms are… California, I went there for a month. I’ve also been to Saint Lucia, the Arctic Circle, Barbados and northern Thailand.
My strangest request was… We had a couple whose Scottish islands tour was cancelled. I booked them boats, B&Bs and a taxi around each island because they still wanted to go.
John Ferguson, travel consultant
I got into travel… because I didn’t like my job. I used to be a bar manager at a four-star hotel. I was a customer at Thorne Travel and Shona showed faith in me.
My specialism is… cruise. The Canaries is my favourite. You get the weather all year round.
I love working in travel because… every day is different. You get to see places and get to really know your customers. Even returning customers tend to go somewhere new.
Ben’s day at Thorne Travel
There’s a cute saying that all the staff at Thorne Travel tend to answer a question with. A simple “uh huh” in dulcet Scottish tones goes a long way to reassure you that you are being listened to and that they want to help you get exactly what you want. It’s that dynamism and attention to detail that stands out when you visit the agency in the quaint Scottish town of Kilwinning. The shop stands out as a sort of gateway to the high street and I noticed regular customers would pop their head in to say hello to their trusted local travel agent. They were keen for me to meet their customers, confident in what they’d tell me – rather than telling me what they do for their clients, they wanted me to hear it first-hand. Those same clients are valued so much that they’re invited in to help shape how the business moves forward, and they’re happy to be there because they clearly see the added value of their travel agents.
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