Sue Alexander, sales director, Eagle Executive Travel, Bedford

Biography: I’ve been in travel for 30 years, always as an agent. I’ve been at Eagle since 1995. I love the excitement of every enquiry, especially the challenge of finding out about new places. If someone comes in to enquire about a new destination, I love getting the maps out and doing some research.

Our agency: We’re a small business with just three agents and three in the back office working on administration and accounts. Eagle has evolved from predominantly selling business travel to now being almost 100% leisure. We started doing holidays for the bosses of businesses that had accounts with us, so we’ve never been about capacity. We sell very few bucket- and-spade packages, nowhere near as many as we sell round-the-world cruises.

Branching out: We also specialise in selling group travel and, among others, represent the friends, family and supporters of the British rowing team. We sent them all over to Beijing, and Jessica, who deals with the account, has met Sir Steve Redgrave and James Cracknell. We also have large numbers of clients who follow rugby and cricket, so we send them out to sporting events around the world.

How we work: We don’t look like a traditional agency – we don’t have special offers in the window and we don’t display brochures. We’re out of town so there’s little footfall. Local clients do drop in to have a coffee and talk about their holiday, but we do a lot of our work over the phone and by email. We’ve only had our website running for three years, and there’s no booking engine – we believe you need to have a long conversation with clients about the sort of holiday they’re looking for.

Specialising in luxury: With good public schools and located only 40 minutes from London, Bedford is a relatively affluent area, so there are plenty of clients looking for deluxe holidays. However, we have large numbers of clients nationwide. We started with those who used to have business accounts with us, and increased sales through word of mouth.

Increasing business: Recommendations are invaluable, and have even brought in clients from Australia and Canada who couldn’t find what they wanted at their agencies at home. We’ve recently advertised in national papers and magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar – it’s something we’re trying out. Two years ago, we ran an afternoon tea for Silversea at a local hotel with about 20 to 30 guests. Since then, bookings have gone through the roof; it’s really paid off in the long term. We have in-store days, where specialists come in and clients can drop in to talk about their area: Africa, Latin America, Hebridean or Silversea, for example.

On what makes a good luxury agent: We make every client feel they are the most important. I can spend a morning or a whole day on one booking – when it’s costing thousands, it’s worth it. Paying extra attention to detail is important. We’re happy to go the extra mile for clients, making table reservations, checking them in online – anything to take the worry and hassle out of their holiday. I’m always truthful. If I don’t think a destination will suit a client, I tell them so and make another recommendation.

Gaining knowledge: There’s no substitute for first-hand experience. Anyone looking to specialise in luxury should take every opportunity to take part in every fam and educational they can. We always welcome reps and sit down with them to learn about new hotels.

Changing your agency: If someone is looking to specialise in luxury, they need to look at the client demographic and perhaps take the decision to stop selling other type of holidays. Being blunt, those who come in to book a luxury holiday don’t want to wait in line behind the masses booking Butlins. Select luxury tour operators and lose the other end of the market.

Support: We were members of Advantage anyway, but when it launched the specialist luxury initiative, we jumped at the chance. It’s extremely helpful for us, giving access to the knowledge and services of great luxury tour operators. It provides great back-up and we can get together with other agencies and discuss what works for each of us.


Karen Barnes, General Manager, Meon Valley Travel, Petersfield, HampshireKaren Barnes, General Manager, Meon Valley Travel, Petersfield, Hampshire

Biography: I’ve been in travel since I was 16 – for 30 years. I’ve worked for Meon for the whole of my career. I started on the shop floor selling holidays, and lots of our customers wanted business flights. When I was 18, I went to the owner and said: “I’d like to specialise in this and open up a department.” Now my typical day involves dealing with departmental issues, making sure everything is working smoothly, and lots of meetings.

Our agency: Leisure sales are only one small part of our agency; we also have a large business travel arm. We run an out-of-hours service for other agencies, so when they close at 5.30pm, their phones divert and we become them until 8.30am the next day.

We also have a medical repatriation arm, working on behalf of insurance companies. When their clients who have been taken ill or injured abroad want to come home, we organise the flights. Few travel companies do this. It’s fast moving and can be complex in a changing market. Many airlines don’t have stretchers anymore, so sometimes we need air ambulances.

Growing business: We just bought Quorn Business Travel, an Advantage agency in Leicester. It’s given us a hub there, and as Quorn is a bigger player in the business market, it’s also added more weight to our business travel accounts.

Branching out: In the last couple of months we’ve also taken on five homeworkers, and this is part of the business we’re looking to expand in 2010. We’re recruiting business or leisure agents with their own client base; we’ll do their licences and take a split of the commission.

How we work: There are 34 of us at the Petersfield branch, but only four leisure agents, with the rest working nights or shifts on the out-of-hours or medical repatriation services. We have 30 agents at Quorn Business Travel.

Specialising in luxury: Petersfield is an upmarket area, so luxury is what our clients want. We would sell cheap holidays, but most of our clients are looking for good value luxury instead. Advantage sends through some great offers – free nights, transfers, helicopter taxis. We’ve got a large database, and our window, which we change every other day, sells very well, especially late bookings. We run local events in the town, and as we’re privately owned, it makes it easy for us to interact with other local retailers. We run joint promotions and open evenings with boutiques selling clothes, jewellery, photography equipment and so on.

Our clients: Whenever I’m in the shop, I’m amazed by how adventurous our clients are. When I hear about the places they want to go, it makes me want to go with them – the Okavanga Delta in Botswana, Antarctic cruises – it’s so exciting. Luxury travel is about the experience, and the best luxury operators give good quality product at reasonable prices.

Our staff: Our youngest staff member is 19. She’s been with us a couple of years and is doing incredibly well. Then we go right up to more mature members. We take on one or two trainees a year for the medical repatriation and business markets, and train them up ourselves.

Gaining knowledge: Agents have to have a real passion and enthusiasm for travel and destinations. There are so many training courses, roadshows, educationals, books, brochures, videos and online opportunities. Anything can be taught, but they need a passion to learn.

Support: Luxury operators have in-depth knowledge and can fill in any gaps for us. They’re great for recommending excursions, and we feel safe sending clients to talk to them without worrying that they’ll try to sell them the holiday direct instead. They come around for regular briefings on new products, and we build up a good rapport.