Norwich-based Thorpe Travel is encouraging clients to take advantage of low deposits as the focus shifts to 2021 holidays, reports Samantha Mayling
At first glance, it’s like any traditional high street agency – colourful brochures, smiling staff and window offers.
But like all other agencies, Thorpe Travel is operating in the ‘new normal’, with plastic screens, two-metre markings, hand sanitiser and Covid-19 messages.
A branch of Fred Olsen Travel Agents in Norwich, it reopened on June 22, as staff returned to the 14-shop chain across East Anglia and the south coast.
Manager Lorna Neale, assistant manager Kerry Sabberton and trainee travel consultant Carley Sales are all back at work, but only two staff members can work in the store at a time, due to social distancing.
Often they’re joined by Paul Hardwick, head of commercial, who oversees the shops and films weekly videos for clients at the store.
However, falling demand after the Spain quarantine decision and a lack of operator staff at weekends means they are now closed on Saturdays.
“In a survey before opening, 70% of customers wanted to have face-to-face consultations,” said Hardwick. “That relationship with customers is key.”
Neale added: “We know our customers so well, it’s much better face-to-face. Shoppers are used to masks and hand gel – but we can’t do teas and coffees anymore.
“We don’t get as many treats, although I did receive flowers yesterday from a customer.”
Clients are urged to book appointments and details are kept in case agents need to ‘track and trace’.
Operator reps are also visiting, including those from Wendy Wu Tours, Premier Holidays and Riviera Travel.
The agency is exploring ways to hold events, which used to be popular with clients. Hardwick said: “We have a VIP club and we invite the best customers to an event to thank them.
“For example, Lorna and the manager at Jarrolds [another branch within a Norwich department store] took clients on a paddle steamer trip in the Norfolk Broads. The holy grail is to get back to events.”
The strain of refunds and cancellations is easing and the main drive is new business.
“Across 14 shops, we had £1 million in rebookings in July. We are trying to protect the money we’ve made,” Hardwick said.
“When flights restarted, we saw a surge, but after the Spain quarantine announcement, 2020 business went down, so now we’re mostly looking at 2021.”
As well as the video updates, the chain produces a digital magazine each fortnight. Passers-by can scan the QR code in the window to download the latest edition.
Last week saw the first direct mailshot since lockdown, promoting Fred Olsen Cruise Lines’ two new ships – Bolette and Borealis. During lockdown, Neale printed offers in the shop to post to clients. Staff have also rung clients, especially those without email addresses, to keep in touch.
Neale phoned one client whose cruise had been cancelled, as she spotted a sailing in September 2023 had just three cabins left. It resulted in a £26,700 booking.
Neale said brochures are still popular: “They’re tangible. People even take the brochure page on holiday. They are a great tool for sales. It brings the holiday to life.”
Hardwick also welcomed Travel Weekly’s return to print. “I spend more time reading physical rather than digital editions,” he said.
For their own holidays, Neale will visit St Ives later in August and Hardwick hopes his twice-cancelled holiday to Cyprus will finally go ahead at the end of August.
Bucket-and-spade holidays are popular and half the agency business is cruise.
Neale said Jet2holidays and Tui are selling well for 2021, and early launches are helping cater for buoyant demand. River cruise is strong although ocean bookings are mostly for much later dates.
The Spanish quarantine change was “like switching off the tap”, said Hardwick. “We need more positive stories, like the news of MSC Cruises sailing.”
He added: “Holiday costs will increase as demand will be high next year and availability will be lower.
“There’s lots of flexibility and low deposits, so we talk to clients to encourage bookings.”
Customers are keen to spend more, often making up for losing this year’s holiday. Neale said: “Clients are booking better cabins or longer cruises. They still have their bucket lists.”
Furlough and lockdown
Neale worked from home during lockdown, and about 90% of staff across Fred Olsen Travel Agents were on furlough at some point.
About 95% of staff across the chain are now back in some capacity, using the flexible furlough scheme.
“We’ve got a good network, with branches contacting each other more than before, to ask for advice,” said Neale.
During lockdown, Neale went for walks to deliver treats to her staff and chat on the doorstep. “We work so closely together, it was a boost to see people,” she said.
She shopped for one elderly customer who was alone and shielding, and has been ringing other isolated clients.
“We kept those relationships going – we are more than just a website,” she said, highlighting how a high street agency can often build a better rapport than an OTA.
Furloughed staff were encouraged to undertake training and keep updated by reading Travel Weekly.
There was only one redundancy across all the shops, although some roles have been combined.
“We don’t want to cut staff – when quarantine changes and if there is a vaccine, we could see a huge spike in business,” said Hardwick.
Outlook for agents
Despite gloomy headlines about job cuts, Hardwick and Neale feel optimistic.
Hardwick said: “I mentioned Eamonn Holmes in my video – I am a big believer in what he said about travel agents being the future.
“Any travel professional will be seen in a different light. When we come out the other side of this, we will be in a good position.”
Fred Olsen agents spoke to clients during lockdown to reassure them about refunds, whereas online agencies’ customers struggled.
Another video by Hardwick highlighted the importance of agents in the ‘new normal’. He added: “Agents know about tests and forms – we have heard horror stories about people at airports being turned away as they didn’t know what they needed.”
Neale said: “Forms are changing daily so we keep track. Some people do not have the tech to do it, and we are doing forms with the customers.”
Hardwick said constant reassurance and regular communications meant the chain had received fewer than 10 chargebacks.
He would like to see more government support for the sector, such as an extension to the furlough scheme.
And although news about job cuts is “frightening”, he feels hopeful.
“There will be huge demand when a vaccine or other measures are in place,” he said. “There are so many hard-working people in our business, and there is goodwill and commitment. The people in this industry will help us to get back.”