Juliet Dennis visited Ascot Travel House, the only travel agency in a town best known for its race course.
Just after the financial crash in 2008, Ascot Travel House sent letters to regular clients warning it would have to close.
“We got to the point where business had dived, and everyone was booking online to get the cheapest deal,” recalls UK manager Simon Everett.
But eight years on, the agency is thriving.
“At the time, customers came in and asked us not to shut, so the owner, Peter Mackness, decided to give it another year,” says Simon. “He is very proud of the business and said let’s just plug away. It was just two of us back then and we carried on. Then business picked up.”
But, like many high street businesses, the agency has been forced to adapt.
“We have had to be better at encouraging people to come in,” adds Simon. “But I think, people have slowly realised that booking online is not necessarily the best way.”
Six years ago, the agency switched from being a US and Canada specialist to selling all destinations and holiday types.
Branch manager Sarah Busby says: “We were missing out on a lot of other business.”
The agency’s roots in the US and Canada are derived from the parent company’s origins as a US and Canada tour operator, one of the first dynamic packaging specialists, founded in 1981.
NAR (UK) (North America Representatives) still operates as a ground-only specialist selling hotels, tours and attractions through Ascot Travel House and other independent agents. Its trade-only arm Travel Trade Tickets & Tours specialises in US attraction tickets and tours.
By becoming a general agent, the shop, a Worldchoice member, has been able to broaden its product range and customer appeal.
“Now we sell everything from a Warner break to a £40,000 tailor-made holiday,” says Sarah, who is a hands-on manager.
She handles the agency’s booking enquiries with sales consultant Tom Murphy, while administration manager Lisa Fuller completes all the paperwork. Simon focuses on the tour operation as does Tony Williams, who is attraction tickets manager for NAR (UK). All of the team are based at the agency, in a small parade of shops a few minutes’ drive from the town centre.
One of the company’s biggest challenges is the forthcoming GDPR data protection legislation, according to Simon.
The business has appointed a consultant to provide advice on what the company needs to do and how to improve its IT security.
“The legislation is very unclear and it’s one of the things I am most worried about at the moment,” says Simon, who estimates the changes needed to meet the new regulations will cost the business about £3,000. “The biggest challenge is to get it right. It’s particularly hard to know if what you have decided to do to protect the data you are handling is good enough.”
Simon says the business has no plans to return to being a two-branch agency – it briefly had another shop in Farnham Common – but hasn’t ruled it out either.
Spending some time in the agency, it is clear that many clients know the staff well and often drop by for a chinwag.
As we chat, Simon’s wife and daughter appear with a sofa at the back door that needs a new home, while customers pop in to say a quick hello or check on a booking.
For Sarah, building this type of rapport with clients is crucial. The shop has also become involved in community fundraising, which has helped it forge stronger ties with locals.
“We started with a Macmillan World’s Biggest Coffee Morning event in the shop and we have done other events for different charities,” says Sarah. “We raised £700 from the Macmillan morning. Lots of customers came in but we didn’t try to sell them a holiday. It’s just nice to build a rapport with people who might come back in. We believe in strong customer service and personal recommendations to grow the business.
“We get a lot of business through recommendations – it can make or break you.”
Sarah also encouraged Lisa to enter the Great Inghams Cake Off competition last year – which she went on to win after a day-long baking challenge.
“We had to design and bake a mountain-themed cake at their head office,” recalls Lisa, who has been at the agency 12 years, and was a sales consultant before taking on the agency’s paperwork in a full-time role two years ago.
“At home, I bake to relax,” she adds. “But the competition was quite stressful, although there were four of us and we had good fun.”
And for Simon, having friendly staff who work on mutual respect and flexibility creates the perfect atmosphere in the office.
“I don’t impose rules, but I expect people to work hard,” he says. “We are a team and have fun, and everyone gets involved. Staff are the most important part of the business and my priority is to make sure they are happy.”
Up close and personal
Tom Murphy, sales consultant
I’ve worked for Ascot Travel House… for two years. I did a travel and tourism course and then I was an apprentice at Thomas Cook for two years. When I was at school I thought I would join the army.
My favourite destination is… Japan, although we don’t get that many enquiries for it.
I sell a lot of… tailor-made holidays. One of the highest-value bookings I’ve had is a Disney package for a big family trip that cost between £15,000 and £20,000.
The hardest part of the job… is working out what people want if they are vague and don’t give you much detail to work with.
Sarah Busby, branch manager
I have worked for Ascot Travel House… for about 13 years, but I’ve been in travel for 30 years, since I was 16.
My favourite destination is… Greece, because I go for my family holidays there, but I love the Indian Ocean and Canada too.
What I love most about my job… is selling, especially tailormade holidays. The more complicated the itinerary the better!
The strangest request I’ve had… was a lady who wanted to take her dogs to Switzerland. I didn’t know if she was being serious or not! It involved booking ferries, trains and taxis, but she got there.
Juliet’s day at Ascot Travel House
The first time I tried to visit Ascot Travel House I didn’t make it due to numerous train cancellations and delays.
Fortunately, my second attempt was plain sailing, and as I walked along the platform at Ascot train station, I immediately spotted the friendly face of agency manager Sarah Busby who had driven down to collect me. The team couldn’t have been more welcoming. I had a cup of tea within minutes of arriving and instantly felt at home chatting to Simon and the team.
The office is spacious, light and colourful with parking directly outside thanks to its out-of-town location. It’s clear the team enjoy each other’s company, but also take pride in working hard and efficiently to get the job done. Lisa, the first person clients see when they enter the shop, clearly loves keeping on top of all the paperwork and administration, allowing Tom and Sarah to focus on what gives them a buzz – selling holidays.
They are such a friendly bunch, it’s no wonder the locals like to pop in for a chat!