Regent Travel celebrated 30 years in business at the end of 2016. Owner and founder David Barrett talks to Juliet Dennis about how the business has adapted to survive since the 1980s.

Q. Why did you set up a travel agency on your own?
When I was 16, I was saving up for a car and got a job in the summer holidays at a travel agency. I enjoyed it so much that in 1986, when I was 23, I decided I could do it myself, and with a business partner, I set up Regent Travel. There were two of us to start off with; now there are 18. I bought out my partner nine years ago and decided to carry on with the business. I still enjoy what I do. I don’t think I could work in any other industry.

Q. What has your agency done to ensure its survival?
Several years ago, we decided that with the internet we had to do something to offer our clients exclusive product. So we started escorted tours. Some we did ourselves and some were with preferred suppliers. It started with one, but now there are 50 to 60 a year, taking groups of 30 to 36 people. Anything abroad is with one of our suppliers and all tours are escorted by a team member; I do 10-15 a year. I have done about 17 tours of China. These now bring in 25% of overall turnover. A lot of our success has come from engaging with the local community. We choose a charity every year that we do different fundraising events for. Like most forward-looking travel agents, you have to continually engage with customers, whether it’s e-shots, text messages or mailings.

Q. How was life different for travel agents in the 1980s?
As there was no internet, everything was done over the phone. It was all manual, using carbon paper for bookings. When brochures went on sale, the phones would be engaged for hours. You’d dread the day brochures launched because your fingers would be worn out from dialling. Educationals were to different destinations too. I went to Yemen and Pakistan, and to Syria to see the fortresses. The world is continually changing, with Foreign Office advice dictating where you can send people. In business, you have to adapt and be flexible. Having been to some of these stunning places, it’s such a loss. I’m out of the office for four to five months of the year. There is nowhere that I wouldn’t go.

Q. What have been the biggest challenges of the past 30 years?
The September 11 attacks were one of the most challenging times, but the [2004] tsunami was also a big challenge. When something like that happens, you suddenly realise what a good team you have. To have your staff come in on Boxing Day is a real credit to them.

Q. What has the agency done to mark 30 years in business?
We took a group of 103 clients on a Fred Olsen cruise to celebrate. We could have sold a lot more customers on it, but we wanted to keep it personal and special. We had four staff members on the trip and gave everyone a commemorative mug and stopped at a nice hotel for an anniversary lunch. Staff and operators also gave me a map of the world by a local artist, with caricatures of all of us on it, as a present. There will also be a staff event in July – but that’s under wraps for now.

David’s tips

  • Offer exclusive product to help you create a niche.
  • Engage clients by supporting a local charity or hosting in-store events.
  • Build a strong team to generate customer loyalty.