Richard Slater recently opened Henbury Travel in Macclesfield after eight years as a homeworker. He tells Benjamin Coren about his career of more than 30 years as a travel agent.
Q. How long have you been an agent for?
A. I did work experience in 1986 for Carrier and in 1987 I got a job with an independent agency, Ringway Travel, in Cheadle, Greater Manchester, where I worked for 12 years. It was there I became a manager. Following that, I went on to work for an independent in Wilmslow, Macclesfield, called Bridgeway Travel, for 13 years. In 2011, I was made redundant, so I decided to become a homeworker with Midcounties’ Personal Travel Agents. It was a stop-gap at the time. All the while I was doing it, I was looking for a retail premises. I found a shop last year in Macclesfield, Cheshire, and it was ideal.
Q. When did you return to the high street?
A. I’ve been in my shop for six months. It got to the point where I was standing on the street outside properties watching the footfall. I got the shop because I missed client contact. I find it easier to sell face to face and, for me, the homeworking life is a lonely one. The business was growing so fast that I hired an assistant manager, Jodie Barber (pictured), who I’ve known for 20 years.
Q. How has it been returning to the high street?
A. Business has been incredible, I have had lots of new clients who previously knew about me as a homeworker but they said they wanted to deal with someone face to face. They lacked confidence in the homeworking market. Sales have jumped [since I opened the shop] and so far I have seen a three-fold increase in my turnover. So, I think I am doing a similar volume if not more than some bigger high street names.
Q. Any stand out bookings?
A. The biggest booking this year has been about £35,000, but despite that I’m steering away from the word luxury in terms of my brand. There are too many luxury agents in my area and it has become over-saturated. Agents calling themselves luxury can also potentially put a lot of people off with the word as it is a term so open to interpretation. We have lots of product and it’s all about the customer and there’s no directional selling. It’s all about what is right for the customer, not what makes me the most money.
Q. What kind of business do you tend to do?
A. It’s important to have diversity in what you’re booking. We’ve taken bookings from £139 per person up to £25,000 per person, not to mention everything in between. We’re not saying we’re luxury, as clients booking the cheaper end of the market are recommending us to others.
Q. How do you generate new business?
A. Word of mouth is important. About 80% of new business comes in through recommendations and referrals. BBC One’s Breakfast also featured me and my shop in a piece about the resurgence of the high street, and we had a lot of bookings off the back of that.
Q. What’s the high street like?
A. The area is on the outskirts of the town centre, which is being regenerated, and people like the shopping experience and the atmosphere. I thought the non-pedestrianised part of Chestergate [in Macclesfield] was the place to be. It’s more relaxed and we can spend more time with customers as we have less time wasters and more footfall thanks to the location. A food hall opposite is due to open in September, so we’ll see a lot of footfall. I was lucky to get in early and sign a long lease with a break [clause] so I’m safe there and I have also protected myself from rent rises.
Research is key for high street stores
I’m already researching my second branch, which will be in east Cheshire. The new shop will probably open in 2020 and I’ve identified a couple of units. They are smaller and will accommodate two to three staff in areas of town that are regenerating.
It’s important to do your research and stand in the area you’re thinking of setting up in at various times of day to gauge footfall. And don’t be afraid of knocking on the door of the shop if it’s up for rent.
I was waiting for the right location and the right price, and I wanted to make sure I was getting the best value for money that I could for the location.
People are always looking, so make sure you have a good lease with various break points so you can get out of it if its not going to plan. Work hard on achieving a deal and don’t go mad with your furnishing costs initially. Customers are buying into you and not the furniture, I spent about £1,000 furnishing my shop and putting my sign up. It’s important not to get carried away, consider upcycling, my customer chairs are recycled and they are clean and comfortable.
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