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Maureen: the travel industry’s favourite columnist – 19 Jan 2007

Pain in the neck

My new year’s resolution was to take life less seriously and not sweat over the small stuff, so I’m grateful to the Financial Services Authority (FSA).

When I read the directive from this esteemed association decreeing that agents may no longer sell travel insurance over the counter to clients who have not purchased flights, accommodation or packages with them, I merely smiled. In the past I might well have worked myself up into a minor temper tantrum at the implication that we agents don’t know enough about advising our clients on insurance products or are incapable of selling travel insurance without sitting multiple exams.

I guess that with our extensive knowledge of the world and our supreme retail skills, we represent too much of a threat to the insurance industry. But it does strike me as rather unfair that this travel insurance thing doesn’t work in reverse. Insurance salesmen selling travel insurance don’t need to know anything about geography. Or biology, as a client of mine pointed out this week.

He’d had to ring the medical line of the insurance company who’d sold him a policy to advise them that he was over 65 and had recently been prescribed medication for his high blood pressure.

“Any other problems, ailments or newly diagnosed conditions?” asked a young female clerk.

“I sometimes have trouble with my Achilles tendon,” said my client.

“Is that the one in your neck?” she asked tentatively. The client explained where the Achilles is sited and what function it performs before she continued.

“And where are you going?”

“I’m taking a cruise around the Norwegian coast,” my client replied.

“So will you be going to Spain at any point?”

“Nooo,” replied my client with more patience than I’d have been able to show, “as I said, we’ll be firmly based in Scandinavia.”

“Oh, Scandinavia isn’t that where Prince Charles is thinking of buying a place? You know, with all the vampires?”

“I think you mean Transylvania.”

And they want us to sit exams?

Treasured islands

It’s not only insurance clerks who need a map in front of them – some operators could do with a visual prompt too, as was recently proved when I tried to get quotes for a family who wanted to visit an island founded by their ancestors and which still bears their name.

I requested prices for flights to Flinders Island, also known as Furneaux Island, and was met with giggles. “Where’s that then? I’ve never heard of it!” laughed one call centre clerk. Another asked me for the three-letter code (for your information, it’s FLS).

Finally, a eureka moment when I rang Stephen at Silverbird who immediately came up with a price, times, connections from Sydney and Melbourne to Launceston and then on to Flinders. The clients called in to book on Saturday, when Stephen was out of the office, but Sue picked up the file, fine tuned it and we were sorted.

It’s always nice to feel that you’re in the hands of people who really know their stuff. But then when I recalled how Silverbird came into being, I realised I should have expected nothing less.

The company was founded by Jerry Quinn, a man whose experience as an employee served only to confirm that he was destined to be an employer

Headhunted from P&O to join a company called Behring International, Jerry’s brief was to set up a worldwide tour operation and this he did, starting in the Far East. On a visit to Singapore he popped into Behring’s office there to introduce himself: “Jerry Quinn, Behring International, London,” he announced cheerfully.

The only English speaker in the room replied, “Oh, you’ve obviously not heard then?” Whereupon the penny dropped that the reason the phones were being pulled out of the walls and the desks were awash with files was that the company had gone bust.

Jerry jumped on the next flight home and vowed never to work for anyone else again. He renamed the programme he’d set up ‘Silverbird’, handpicked his staff and has never looked back. Which is why nobody at the end of their phone lines will laugh nervously when you call with obscure island names or tricky requests.

Maureen Hill works at Wessex World Travel, Gillingham, Dorset




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