It’s not often that a Nasa astronaut walks into your travel agency.
But Dr James F Reilly, who has been on three space shuttle missions and completed five space walks, not only visited Thomas Cook’s concept store in Manchester’s Trafford Centre but also gave a talk, signed autographs and even brought samples of the food that is eaten in space.
For customer services manager George Kelly-Triggs, who coordinated a day of festivities to mark the spaceman’s visit, it was a particularly special day.
Sales consultant Sharon Boulger had won the astronaut visit in a competition by Attraction World, based on her bookings for Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. And the event proved to be one of the shop’s most successful events ever.
George knew the opportunity to promote the store could not be missed. He recalls: “It’s not every day you get an astronaut in your store. We knew we had this amazing opportunity to raise our profile.”
But there was not much time to turn the event around. “We only found out about two weeks beforehand, so we quickly contacted three schools and got the event on to the Trafford Centre’s website and on Twitter,” he says.
“We did a countdown to ‘launch’ – his arrival – on Facebook and turned the store’s welcome area into a presentation area.”
In the end, about 60 people visited the store to meet the astronaut – from schoolchildren and shoppers to local radio and newspaper journalists – all of whom were captivated by his tales, from what you eat to how you wash in space.
“The children were asking him all about life in space,” says George. “And as it was his birthday, we got him a cake and the children sang him happy birthday.”
For Sharon, there was just time to buy a space-themed book for her son which Dr James signed “from infinity and beyond” after children’s film character Buzz Lightyear.
George also found time for a one-on-one chat with James. “He said failure is not an option and to never give up on your dreams,” recalls George.
“I asked whether he had any regrets and he said only not getting to spend more time with his children as they grew up, as he spent more than 850 hours in space. But his son now works for the Kennedy Space Center.”
George, who made sure customers received discount vouchers, adds: “This was one of the best events we’ve done. We came away thinking we couldn’t have done any more.”
The only trouble now is finding an event to top this one, admits George.