Staff camaraderie and quality service see customers queueing outside at Miss Ellies Travel in Urmston. Ben Ireland pays a visit.

A human-sized Statue of Liberty model stands proud at the back of Miss Ellies Travel, overlooking the shop in the Greater Manchester town of Urmston. In its left hand it holds a book inscribed with the date July IV – which is a fitting touch as it was on America’s Independence Day, back in 1988, that Miss Ellies Travel opened in Urmston.

The agency’s roots were in central Manchester. Founder Ellie Doherty opened her first store in Oldham Road, near the city’s famous Northern Quarter, in January 1987. The Urmston store soon followed and it was there that it became embedded into the local community. It moved from a smaller site in Flixton Road to its current site on thriving high street Crofts Bank Road in 2005. The Manchester branch closed in March 2011, moving to Heaton Chapel in Stockport for a brief stint until August 2012 when the staff all moved to Urmston.

Andrea Murphy, who has worked for Miss Ellies since day one, explained: “When we were in Manchester, you obviously get the footfall that a big city generates, but our conversions weren’t high. In Urmston, I would genuinely say that 98% of people who come in are booking. Some of our regulars make a day of it. It’s a little gold mine.”

And what makes their conversion rate so high? “It’s the personal touch,” says Andrea. “Our customers really know us. We’re all best friends and that comes across in our sales. A lot of customers have their favourite agents, so they’ll come in specifically to see Emma (Palfrey), Natalie (Grogan) or Kerry (Lewis). Like people have their favourite hairdressers, they have their favourite travel agents.”

Business is going so well that in peak booking periods there are queues outside on a Saturday morning. Even this summer, when there was talk of slow sales due to the heatwave and World Cup, Andrea says – in a subtle Mancuncian twang – that it was “proper busy”, although booking values were not as high as a year ago, owing to currency pressures.

All in the name

Doherty sold to Peter Healey, founder of travel technology firm The Vertical Group, 10 years ago. It is one of two high street agencies he owns. Andrea recalls: “Peter used to be our IT guy, coming in and fitting the systems we’d use. Now he’s the boss.”

But the name Miss Ellies, or Ellies “as it’s affectionately known”, is here to stay. “The name is really important,” says Andrea. “We will get some people who knew the Manchester branch and see us in Google results and drive from the other side of Manchester.” Customers also hail from farther afield, like Liverpool – and even Scotland.

Short-haul beach holidays make up around 60% of sales, but the agency makes bookings in all sorts of arenas. “You can do a quick booking to Benidorm and the next enquiry will be to the US or Australia,” says Andrea. She explains that a coach pick-up point for the likes of Shearings, Alfa Travel and Robinsons Holidays is by the nearby Nag’s Head pub, helping drive sales of the operators.

Jet2holidays and Thomas Cook are both popular as they have large operations out of Manchester airport, and a quick browse of the bountiful brochure racks shows the wide range on offer – with the likes of Prestige Holidays, Travelpack, APT, Beachcomber, If Only, Japan Links and First Class Holidays on display.

Andrea says the store does a lot of bookings with Jetset and Gold Medal, and has seen a rise in demand for escorted tours. “People are getting more adventurous these days,” says Andrea. “Most of our customers are 50-plus, and have done the beach holidays. They want to do something a bit different, and can afford to. What we’re good at is making sure we book them on all those different holidays over the years.”

Customer referrals

As an independent agency, and Midcounties Co-operative consortium member, Ellies gets a lot of custom via word of mouth. Andrea says the buzzing high street in Urmston, packed with local businesses, helps, as shops look out for and recommend each other.

Even the local press have taken interest, with agent Bekki Moran now a regular expert on Hits Radio, giving holiday recommendations for different budgets. And Ellies has used the Jet2holidays pop-up stands at Manchester’s bustling Trafford Centre shopping mall to get its name out there.

It’s clear that this is a shop that more than flies the flag for independent travel agencies – echoing the independence represented by the US statue that greets customers in the store.

Ben’s day at Miss Ellies Travel

Laughter is infectious, which is why I was very chirpy for the rest of the day after spending an afternoon with the team at Miss Ellies.

It was clear from the moment I walked in that the jovial bunch, some of whom have worked together for 20 years, love their jobs. And they’re all obviously great mates.

That comfort to work in an environment where personalities are allowed to flourish has rubbed off on their customers (and designated journalists) too. During my visit, one happy customer left a tenner for the team to buy a bottle of wine.

All the holidaymakers who popped in while I was in the shop talked openly with the agents, as if they were discussing their holiday plans with a trusted friend. Friends go above and beyond to help their pals get what’s right for them and the same honesty and level of care can be seen in the way the team at ‘Ellies’, as I was told it is affectionately known, treat their clients.

Up close and personal

Emma Palfrey, travel consultant

I’ve been in travel for… 20 years. I started at Miss Ellies in 1998, became a rep for Thomson (now Tui), and worked at Holidays By Phone and Thomson before rejoining Ellies.

If I wasn’t an agent… I’d have tried to be a professional figure skater.

My favourite destination to sell is… Barbados. I’m trained in long-haul, but I’m an expert in Croatia and I know Menorca because that’s where I worked as a rep.

Kerry Lewis, travel consultant

I’ve been in travel… since 2001. I worked for Going Places when it merged with Thomas Cook. I joined Miss Ellies from Cook in March.

I work for an independent because… I get a wider choice of holidays to sell and you can really get to know your customers.

My favourite destination… to sell is either New York or Vegas. To visit I love St Petersburg, on the Gulf Coast in Florida – I got married there.

Andrea Murphy, senior consultant

I’ve been in travel… for 30 years. All of them at Ellie’s.

If I wasn’t an agent… I’d be a murder detective.

I like to sell… Las Vegas. I get bored of booking flights to Malaga.

A customer once… needed to take a defibrillator on a flight. We weren’t sure of its size to take it as hand luggage – so he brought the thing into the shop and plonked it on my desk for us to measure. He probably could have called us with the measurements.