Inside Co-op Travel’s multi-channel concept agencies

Multi-channel selling – the joined-up use of web, shop and call centres – is often heralded as the future for high-street agencies.

While most travel companies have woken up to the need for a web presence, the challenge remains to successfully combine online with face-to-face interaction.

TUI Travel and Thomas Cook have been developing their multi-channel strategies for some time, but according to head Tony Evans, it is vital that independents also redefine their working practices.

That’s why Midcounties Co-operative has taken the bold step of transforming two of its Co-op Travel shops into multi-channel concept stores.

So how does the multi-channel theory work in practice? The first major difference within the new concept stores in Evesham, Worcester and Thame, Oxfordshire, is their name:

Evans, who has been working as a consultant to the company for nine years, explained: “I wanted to take to the high street, and find out whether it is possible to create a sustainable high-street brand. The renaming is vital to ensure customers identify the shop with the website.”


‘Bookstore atmosphere’

Both shops moved from high-street locations into the front of Co-operative Food stores – former Somerfield shops bought over by Midcounties Co-operative – and were redesigned.

The shops have an open-plan design so that customers from the food store and coffee shop are tempted to wander in. A new selection of resources is available to customers, including a library of Rough Guides and destination videos.

“The idea is to create a bookstore-like atmosphere so people will come in and browse. We want people to feel comfortable,” said Evans.

Evans hopes the new shops will attract a broad spectrum of customers. “Traditional high-street shops only attract traditional shop bookers, but that market is fizzling away. We want to attract all customers, from shop bookers to those who only book online,” he said.

He is also reaching out to the local community, via the website. Evans has set up affiliate schemes with schools, charities and rugby clubs to drive traffic to the site. “We want the shop to become a hub of local activity. We are looking to increase market share in the area and set ourselves apart from Thomas Cook and Thomson,” he explained.

The move also signifies a renewed focus on customer service for the team. At the moment, all customers who book receive a follow-up phone call to ask if they would recommend the sales consultant to friends or family, and score them out of 100.

Evans plans to introduce a scheme where the team’s incentives will be based on the customer service score they receive, as well as sales. “We have got to move away from just making the sale. If we tie incentives to this score, the staff will understand the importance of it,” said Evans.

Under this concept, the shop is seen as only one part of the booking process. Evans believes staff should be rewarded for advising customers who later book online. Therefore, the shops get a cut of all bookings made within a number of surrounding postcodes.

New technology is also key to establishing a seamless experience for customers. Agents will have access to a tool called Live Person, enabling them to see who is online, the search terms they used to get there, and any pages they have viewed. Consultants will then be able to open up a live chat service to help consumers through the booking.


New lease of life

The new stores have involved a change of mindset for the employees, who used to think of the website as their competition. “The biggest challenge was to convince our staff why we changed to this name,” said Evans. “They had to understand that the name would draw people in.”

Despite initial misgivings, staff have embraced the concept stores. Kerry Fifield, manager of the Thame store, who worked at the previous location for three years, said the changes have given the store and its staff a new lease of life.

“It’s amazing how many new customers we have had since we moved. “People didn’t realise we were there before, but now we’re in the food shop, they are more likely to pop in. Often people will research online and then book with us, or they book online but come to us for advice or to change currency.”

Evesham shop manager Tracyanne Sheldon, who has worked at the company for seven years, thinks the new shop has a bright future. “It was scary at first when I heard about the changes, but the shop is fantastic,” she said.

“It’s early days for us, but customers have been really impressed with the technology. It’s really heartening when people come in who usually book online. It is also a great opportunity for the staff to work in a completely different way.”

The success of the new shops isn’t just obvious from the employees’ new enthusiasm. Sales in the Thame shop are 23% up year on year in the period since it opened on March 21 until now. Last week in Evesham, the team met their target for the week on Tuesday, two days into the working week.

Evans has high hopes for the brand’s development and hopes to roll the idea out to other stores, and is convinced a seamless multi-channel approach is the only option for the future of the high-street agency. He said: “This is a fundamentally different business model. Even small independents can do this – in fact, it is vital if they want to survive.”

Independents are lagging behind the multiples on developing multi-channel offerings, agreed Global Travel Lounge managing director and former Elite Travel Group director Peter Buckell.

He is working on a website that complements his three agencies, two of which he recently acquired from the defunct Harvey World Travel. To help merge online and the shops, he is offering a 24-hour helpline for online customers, which is manned by Buckell and his staff.

However, he said most small independents were slow to catch on to the idea of a joined-up approach. He said: “This is not something small independents are doing, but it is the way things are going to go.

“Those who do embrace it will reap the benefits when we come out of the recession. Independents will have to totally rethink their business strategy or they won’t be around in a few years.”


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