Interview: Suzanne Thorpe, Agent Excellence Award winner

Suzanne Thorpe, winner of Best Manager, Large AgencyChampagne flowed, cameras flashed and butterflies fluttered in expectant stomachs on the evening of Travel Weekly’s Midland Trade Ball last month.

But when the results of the first Agent Excellence Award – was hundreds of miles away sunning herself in Greece.

“I was on holiday in Kos and couldn’t believe it when a text came through to tell me I’d won. I was absolutely thrilled,” said Suzanne.

The manager of The Co-operative Travel’s Nuneaton branch was also no doubt thinking how she would capitalise on her win.

Her savvy approach to marketing is just one of the many qualities that helped her scoop the award. Over the past year, initiatives such as co-ordinating a sponsored charity walk helped her keep her branch in the news eight times in 12 months.

“Good, free publicity is vital. I try and find an angle that will appeal to the local press and consider my timing too. A PR opportunity came up in the autumn that I delayed using until December so I could tie it in with our rebrand,” she said.

That rebranding was another reason she caught the eye of the judging panel. During 2007, United Co-operative Travel merged with Travelcare to form The Co-operative Travel.

The industry may be no stranger to change, but that does not make the experience any easier for the people on the ground.
Somehow, Suzanne kept her team motivated. “Mergers seem to be all around us in the travel industry at the moment, and it can be an unsettling time. It’s especially difficult when it means losing some long-time colleagues too.

“But the travel industry never stands still and you have to be able to accept change. You can’t live in the past and it’s important a manager leads by example and embraces change, because that makes your team feel secure,”said Suzanne.

And that wasn’ all she had to contend with. The start of 2007 was tough and during that first quarter the branch found itself about £80,000 behind its sales target. “It’s really hard when you know you’re doing nothing differently, but bookings are down,” said Suzanne.

“It’s important to understand what has caused the deficit. If it’s sales skills then you have to support and coach your weaker sellers. For us, though, it was the market, so I made sure my staff knew I had faith in them and turned my attention to business development.”

That business development took the form of cruise evenings, sales promotion days, lots of PR and encouragement of her team to focus on doing their best for their customers. The hard work paid off and by the end of the year, the branch was £186,000 over budget.

It’s no wonder her team felt able to keep their eyes on the ball Ð their boss clearly had their development front of mind as well, as her regional manager, Sarah Budgie, who collected the award on her behalf, explained. “Suzanne has successfully trained eight members of staff who all exceeded their sales targets in 2007, they are all trained to the best standards, which has resulted in both of her travel money cashiers receiving a promotion. This involved taking on extra responsibilities as regional travel money co-ordinators,”said Sarah.

So what of the future? “I’m lucky enough to do a job that I love and that I’m able to combine with being a mum to my son, Sam, who’s seven. Maybe when he’s a little older I’ll be tempted to take the next step!” said Suzanne.

About Suzanne

What makes a great manager? Someone who is approachable, flexible and enthusiastic. I had a great role model in Jenny Hollis, who took me on as a trainee. She taught me to always stay calm in a crisis and her fair-minded and conscientious approach made a big impression on me.

What’s your favourite destination? Long-haul it would have to be Australia or the US, short-haul I would choose Croatia  or Italy.

Where next? I’m off to Croatia in July and would love to visit New Zealand in the future.

What’s your best booking? That’s hard to say after 20 years. I love putting together tailor-made holidays. You get a real sense of satisfaction.

Suzanne’s top tips

  • If it’s important enough to a customer that they ask you a question, it’s important enough for you to find the correct answer. Never hazard a guess
  • Keep your promises – if you say you are going to do something, make sure you do
  • If you treat others with fairness and respect, the chances are they will treat you the same
  • Make a difference
  • Above all, apply common sense to every situation you face

Suzanne’s CV

1988: Joined Co-op Travelcare as a trainee
1989-1993: Travel consultant, Travelcare, Hinckley
1993-1994: Assistant manager, Travelcare, Hinckley
1994-1995: Branch manager, Travelcare, Tamworth
1995-1997: Branch manager, Travelcare, Rugby
1997-2000: Branch manager, Travelcare, Nuneaton, maternity leave
2001-2002: Part-time lecturer in leisure and tourism, North Warkwickshire and Hinckley College. Part-time travel consultant, Travelcare, Nuneaton
2002 to present: Branch manager, The Co-operative Travel, Nuneaton

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