Interview: Mercury Holidays plugs expanded product range to trade

Chief executive Tom Bugeja tells Juliet Dennis about the operator’s Covid journey

As the trade enjoys the green shoots of recovery, Tom Bugeja believes now is the time to raise Mercury Holidays’ profile among agents.

Like many travel firms, the family business was forced to make tough decisions over the past two years, including cutting more than half of its 100-strong workforce.

“The most difficult job has been for those on the frontline,” says the chief executive. “We had to reduce our staff significantly. We went down to about 40 staff, but we went through a hiring process in October and are now up to 50-plus.”

Bugeja is hopeful the company’s handling of customers during Covid will stand it in good stead to expand its trade partnerships further.

“We refunded every one of our customers,” he says.

“We have done the right thing and I think that has cemented our relationship with the trade.”

Now we have price parity for escorted tours [with direct channels] there is . . . an opportunity to get more agents to sell our tours

Founded in 1980 as a Malta specialist and traditionally known as a ‘good-value’ operator offering beach packages, the Kent-based company operates the brands Mercury Holidays, previously Mercury Direct, and Sunspot Tours.

Its portfolio of beach holidays now includes about 20 destinations, from Cyprus, Malta and the Algarve to the Indian Ocean and Caribbean, but it also sells escorted tours to 58 countries and river cruises in 11 countries.

Bugeja believes many agents are not aware of its range.

“Our customer base is 50-plus and we’ve always been strong for winter‑sun holidays but we don’t just sell Malta,” he says.

“We have an offering across Europe and sell the Caribbean and Indian Ocean. We’re really strong in Mauritius. I don’t think agents realise that. We want to get that message across.”

Agent sales

While beach holidays continue to drive volumes, Bugeja is confident escorted tours, for which the operator introduced price parity across trade and direct channels last year, offer the key to working with more agents.

“Now we have price parity for tours there is a lot more scope,” says Bugeja.

“We think it was one of the barriers to sales. There is an opportunity to get more agents to sell our escorted tours.”

The trade currently accounts for about 25% of sales across Mercury and Sunspot, but Bugeja is hopeful this will rise post-pandemic as clients look for security, value and service.

He says: “We see the trade as a natural fit with our business. We’re really excited about working much more closely. It’s business we really value and we’d like to increase.”

The operator wants to build closer bonds with individual agents. Bugeja adds: “We want to start creating individual, personal relationships.”

Unlike other operators, it has no plans to reinstate its five-strong on-the-road sales team and instead intends to develop relationships remotely. Bugeja says he is “not sure about the efficacy” of an on-the‑road team. “It was very difficult to measure,” he says. “What we want to do is call every agent after they make a booking.”

Trade activity

The operator is planning an agent fam trip to Sri Lanka later this year and Bugeja believes working with a broader range of agents, such as homeworkers, could also be key.

“We have always been strong with bricks-and-mortar agents but there is an opportunity with homeworkers,” he adds.

During the pandemic, the company also improved the speed of its website’s search. And with all product bookable online, Bogeja believes this could make “a big difference” as the company bids to attract even more agents.

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