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Riviera Travel’s chief executive on the importance of keeping contact with customers

Phil Hullah updates Harry Kemble on the operator’s 2022 plans after two years of Covid-impacted trading

Riviera Travel chief executive Phil Hullah wants the business to maintain a “high-touch” relationship with its customers.

He plans to expand by recruiting up to 30 staff by April, when the touring and river cruise specialist is due to operate its full programme again.

In the last three months of 2021, 25 people joined its customer support and operational teams.

Hullah says staff have been tasked with talking to customers “as many times as we can”.

“We need to be ready and we will be,” he says. “That high-touch relationship has really paid off.

“We need more people available and trained to do that. We’re recruiting quite hard to make sure people are ready to manage things.”

Hullah, who was Riviera’s chief operating officer before taking the top job in February 2020, says the operator has set itself up “very differently” from previous years and will work “much harder than normal” to negate the “rollercoaster” effect caused by Covid.

Riviera took away only 6,000 customers last year – down from nearly 130,000 in 2019 – due to pandemic restrictions.

“It’s been hard work because every single itinerary is different from how it was two years ago,” he says.

Forward booking levels, however, are around 40% to 45% ahead of where they normally would be at this point in a pre-pandemic year.

Trade plans

Riviera’s full-time on-the-road sales team expanded last year from three to four people.

Building “personal relationships” with agents who are “up for it” and “a good fit for customers” is vital, says Hullah. Trade sales make up 25% of the operator’s business.

“The trade should be, can be and will be an increasingly important part of our business going forward,” he says. “It’s something we’re investing in and we’re going to invest more in.”

Hullah says “trusted” agents can fulfil a role much like Riviera’s customer-facing teams and are “even more important” than they were two years ago.

“We can’t do everything ourselves,” he says. “People need looking after. We work with partners increasingly, and that’s what we want to do.”

2022 outlook

Hullah is upbeat about the coming months despite the possibility of travel restrictions being tightened again if a new variant emerges.

“We’re still moving in the right direction,” he adds.

“I’m very positive overall despite bumps in the road like Omicron.

“There’s no diminishment in terms of desire from people to get out and see the world.”

Asked if the pandemic had forced Riviera to rethink its offering, Hullah says products are constantly reviewed but there has been no “contraction” in any area.

But he adds: “However 2022 plays out, there will be some things we did differently in 2019.”

Peaks campaign

Riviera’s peaks campaign is themed “Time to catch up” and Hullah says “it’s all about making it easy to get back out there”.

Customers who book two holidays by the end of March will receive a discount of between 10% and 20% on their second.

Agents can earn a £50 lifestyle voucher for every river cruise booking made by February 28 for sailings between April and June.

Hullah believes it’s important the entire sector pushes “hard at the right times” and outlines how Riviera is putting together joint marketing plans with agents.

But he admits some “uncertainty” about “how fast things are going to take off” this month.

Riviera, though, will not be caught short due to a lack of staff when passenger numbers finally ramp up.

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