Readers’ Lives: Helen Johnson

Four years ago, Helen Johnson decided to put her experience to good use and open her own travel agency on the high street.

She now has two branches of Polka Dot Travel and has not ruled out more.

Looking back, Helen says it seemed a natural career move after 15 years in travel, mostly managing agencies and having taken a break to have a baby. “I spotted a shop in my local town that would make a perfect agency,” says Helen. “I thought about the experience I had gained over the years and the fact I could implement my own style.”

For many new mums it would have been too daunting, but Helen took it all in her stride, contacting consortia to find the best option for her planned shop. “It was relatively straightforward,” she says. “The first thing was to ensure I could be competitive on the high street with the multiples and secure the commercial terms I needed.”

Helen chose to become an Advantage Managed Services branch, which meant paperwork, such as supplier payments, would be dealt with by the consortium’s head office for a monthly fee. “I wanted everything to be looked after for me so I could concentrate on serving customers and selling holidays.”

She also secured a business grant which paid half the set-up costs of the Oswestry, Shropshire, shop, which opened in October 2011. Helen was joined by her friend of nearly 20 years, Philippa Wilcox, who also worked in the industry, as a business partner.

The pair’s experience paid off, with the first shop profitable in its first year, despite being one of five agencies in the town and trading opposite a multiple.

“The support we had from local people was really encouraging. The most challenging time was at the start when we only had three staff and had to work long hours; that was hard. We had to start from scratch with the client base. We tried to make customers feel like they were our friends and family by making our service exceptional. We don’t like a pressurised sales environment,” says Helen, who opened the shop with an offer of a free meal at a local restaurant for every booking.

The agency’s success gave her and Philippa the confidence to open a second branch 16 miles away in Shrewsbury. Not only has that succeeded but staff are lining up to work there.

The pair are now looking to extend 
the reach of the brand even further. “I have a huge passion for the high street and hope to open another branch. However, I also want to do more social media activity,” says Helen.

Watch this space.

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