Managing director Chris Harrison says the 23-store agency chain prides itself on its high customer feedback scores, open-door management style and restrained attitude to growth. Lucy Huxley reports

Service Beyond Expectation. That is the mission statement of Dawson & Sanderson, one of the few family-owned travel agency businesses left in the UK.

It has been around for 55 years, with Tom Dawson still the chairman.

But day-to-day, the business is run by managing director Chris Harrison, who lives and breathes the company’s high-service ethos.

“Because we’re family-run, looking after our staff, knowing their families and treating them like a family is what we’re all about,” he says. “We look after them as people, not numbers.

“If you’ve got happy, well looked-after team members, then they will give the best service to our customers. And if you do that, customers come back,” he says.

“The pound is becoming ever more precious in people’s pockets so they increasingly want to place it with someone they can trust.

“That’s the culture here,” Harrison says. “We want to offer customers a high level of choice every time they visit and for them to know they are dealing with a team of highly skilled agents. It’s a cradle-to-grave service.”

Harrison says the average length of service of Dawson & Sanderson’s 260 employees is nine years.

“We get CVs through the door all the time from agents wanting to come and work for us – even when we don’t have vacancies,” he adds.

Profit focus

Dawson & Sanderson’s heartland is the northeast but its 23-store network extends as far south as Hull and Doncaster and as far west as Carlisle.

It also has a call centre, which deals with customers calling up from its website and handles issues out of hours, and a business travel division.

Harrison is not in any hurry to grow the business.

“We’re growing gradually. We have opened two to three shops in the last three or four years – the last ones in Durham and Washington, Tyne & Wear,” he says.

“It’s about profit, not development for development’s sake. We look carefully at opportunities and are growing slowly but surely.”

The business currently turns over £130 million.

Harrison says he would never say never about opening shops farther afield if the right opportunity arose, but says: “The northeast is our strength. We have a lot of brand equity here – our name is trusted, so it would be easier to establish a new development in our heartland.”

Feedback scores

Harrison is very proud of customer feedback scores, which gives the company a rating of 4.9 out of 5 based on 4,000 reviews.

“We also regularly mystery-shop our stores to keep everything fresh. Staff really appreciate the feedback,” he says.

The Dawson & Sanderson chain has recently undergone a full refurbishment programme to create “really welcoming and comfortable environments” for both staff and customers.

“Environment is really important to our customers so we have created hybrid stores – a combination of modern-conceptual and comfortable,” he says.

“A lot of other agencies have turned their shops into something more akin to a car showroom and that makes people feel nervous. We want our shops to be welcoming, bright and approachable. Consultations can take anything from half an hour to two to three hours so customers have to feel comfortable,” he says.

The business sells a mix of everything and has beach, worldwide and cruise specialists in its call centre. It also has cruise specialists in its bigger stores.

Dawson & Sanderson is a member of The Advantage Travel Partnership, which it uses for certain group functions and benefits, but negotiates its own commercial deals.

It has an Atol for 15,000 passengers so it can dynamically package its own Flight-Plus holidays through its own ‘Fly and Stay’ programme.

Between 75% and 80% of all holidays that the business sells fly out of Newcastle airport, so Dawson & Sanderson puts a massive focus on suppliers with regional flying programmes.

Flat management

Harrison is very proud of the “flat structure” he operates.

“We don’t have endless layers of management,” he says.

“We want to know what’s going on, so people know where they are. It’s very straightforward.

“Frontline staff would go to their shop manager and they would come straight to the board. It’s very much an open-door policy.

“There are no layers or buffers and that keeps the business running really smoothly.”

There are eight people on the board, but the business is run predominantly by Harrison, retail director Jan Fawcett, finance director Alistair Cormack and foreign exchange director Ian Clough.

Charity work

An important activity for Dawson & Sanderson is the work it does for local charity. This year, the chain is supporting an organisation called Daft as a Brush, which supports vulnerable young people going through chemotherapy by supplying free private transport to get them to sessions in hospital.

The charity needs £100,000 a year and this month (June), Dawson & Sanderson will present it with a cheque for £25,000, raised through various efforts, including golf days, shark dives, a zipwire challenge from the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle and a sponsored walk by the entire workforce along Hadrian’s Wall.

“We have always supported charities, but had a bit of an epiphany last year and decided we wanted to support a local one,” says Harrison. “A lot of our customers have first-hand experience of Daft as a Brush too, so it’s really nice link.”

Looking ahead, Harrison believes it’s going to be less and less easy to predict patterns.

He says the build-up to the general election affected business as people got distracted, while major traumas, such as the terror attack in Manchester, “really impacted people’s thought processes”.

“It doesn’t make us more cautious about the business,” he says. “It makes it harder to read trends, but we will always trade through it with great service.”

Talking tech: CRM overhaul

Dawson & Sanderson is investing in new customer relationship management (CRM) technology with two objectives: to better segment its customer base and to “improve the customer journey”.

The first aim focuses on how the agency communicates with its database.

“We’re able to segment to a degree now but this new technology will allow us to go three or four levels deeper,” said managing director Chris Harrison.

“We’ll be able to create a much better profile of the customer and that will enable us to market to them better, with more relevant offers. It’s about having better intelligence on our customers.”

Harrison said the system to achieve this would be in place this summer.

The second objective is to improve the flow of documentation and access to information. It aims to ease the customer journey.

The technology to achieve this will be rolled out in the next financial year, said Harrison.

Both initiatives are designed to enable the miniple to improve its service levels, Harrison explained.