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Your Stories: ‘We doubled the size of our business in the middle of a pandemic’

Managing director of World Travel Lounge David McDonald tells Juliet Dennis that taking over three branches of a competitor was the right thing to do, and about the launch of Chillimix – a LGBTQ+ tour operation

Q. Do you have a travel background?
A. I previously worked for Thomas Cook. I had always had a dream to run a travel agency so one day I bit the bullet and Louise Logan and I set up the business together in 2015. By 2017 we had grown to three shops. That wasn’t initially the plan, but we had the bug and loved what we were doing. It was all flying and doing well. Then Covid hit.

Q. What’s it been like operating during the pandemic?
A. Covid was a big shock to us all. It’s been really tough but it’s given us time to evaluate the business and working from home has given us the chance to work on the business rather than in it.

“I had always had a dream to run a travel agency so one day I bit the bullet and Louise Logan and I set up the business together in 2015.”

Q. How did your agency help the local community in the first lockdown?
A. We made a pledge to help as many customers as we could. We phoned up 500 customers to see what they needed and went out and bought them their food and delivered it to them. At the time we were having pretty tough conversations with customers about refunds so helping people out kept us going. Our staff were nipping to the supermarket after work. It meant the world to us to help them and they are customers we will retain for life.

Q. How did the expansion of your business come about this summer?
A. During Covid I spoke to one of our competitors, an agency called Book In Style, which was about 10 miles from our nearest store. In passing, the owner said he was looking to sell. We decided to take over their three branches, doubling the size of our business in the middle of a pandemic! They are a natural fit to our business. We now have five shops.

“In passing, the owner said he was looking to sell. We decided to take over their three branches, doubling the size of our business in the middle of a pandemic!”

Q. In hindsight, was it right to expand at the height of the pandemic?
A. It was the right thing to do because we’ve gained some fantastic people and it complimented our estate. We rebranded the shops and kept on the majority of staff. We’ve used the time to do staff training and worked with store managers. It’s been a challenge to integrate the two businesses together but it’s worked well.

Q. Tell us about the launch of your LGBTQ+ online tour operator
A. We had been trying to launch Chillimix for 18 to 24 months. We’ve had a couple of stumbling blocks. We were ready to launch last year but Thomas Cook Airlines was going to be our flight supplier. We decided it was the best time to launch because there were no legacy refund problems or Covid cancellations. It gave us energy and the fire to work on something positive! When travel rebounds we wanted to be ready and established.

“Myself and Scott Tyrer, our brand manager, will host the first groups; they will include water parks, city sightseeing as well as Pride events.”

Q. What does Chillimix sell?
A. We are not racing to the bottom on price, it’s about added value, mainly short-haul beach holidays but a bit of long-haul, that can be bought online. We are only selling destinations approved by the ILGA [International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association] ‘rainbow’ map. We have launched with 25 destinations and offer tailor-made and charter packages.

We are working with easyJet and Virgin Atlantic and have just signed a year-long deal with broadcaster Gaydio as a partner. We’re hoping to break even in the first year. We have a mix of tailor-made and charter packages. We’ve put on Pride packages to Benidorm and are about to launch Gran Canaria. Myself and Scott Tyrer, our brand manager, will host the first groups; they will include water parks, city sightseeing as well as Pride events.

Q. What’s the future for high-street agents?
A. When we come out of Covid, those left will flourish because the high street will bounce back for retail travel. I’m already starting to feel more optimistic about the future of travel. We could have a really good January when the business comes back; I can’t wait.


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What do agents need to know about Chillimix?

We launch in December and want to be the ‘go-to’ LGBT operator in the trade. We are creating an agents’ guide on how to sell LGBT holidays and the right terminology as it can be difficult to know what to ask customers. We are keen to help agents overcome that confidence issue.

We are members of Protected Trust Services and are working with the Civil Aviation Authority on our launch to make sure we have everything fully protected. We’re looking at 1,000 passengers a year but have scope to grow.

“We are creating an agents’ guide on how to sell LGBT holidays and the right terminology as it can be difficult to know what to ask customers.”

We are committed to working with agents and will offer price parity. I’d rather make a smaller margin and get a share of trade business because I’m an agent myself. We’ve had a lot of interest already.

We expect most bookings to be online or through the app. When clients book they can download our app and for every destination we’ve written a full guide with the best LGBT-friendly bars and places to go and places where we have discounts.

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