Taking a trip to the northeast, Andrew McQuarrie visits one of the chain’s oldest stores and meets the manager who has spent two decades with Hays
Ruby Lynn gives a shout of delight. “I’ve just made a booking,” says the 17-year-old, beaming. It’s a six-person trip to Lanzarote for six nights in October totalling £6,270.
Hays Travel’s Vine Place store in Sunderland, one of the business’s oldest branches, has been managed by Rachel Keith for the last four years. It’s a warm mid-June day when I stop by, and although the fine weather has dented footfall, customers continue to drop in, the phones carry on ringing and the emails keep on arriving during my two-hour visit.
Creating a connection
The client range is diverse and the transactions are varied, says Rachel. “No two days are the same. People will come in and say, ‘I want to do this’, and I’ll think, ‘Oh, I’ve never done that before’.”
One of today’s bookings appears to be a perfect example of the surprises that come along so frequently: a pair of women – one aged 78 and her friend a year younger – have decided to opt for a last-minute weeklong stay in Ibiza’s San Antonio Bay.
Rachel confirms the age of customers is a “total mix”. “We get boys who are 18 or 19 years old – they often come in – and then we’ve got a customer who’s 91 and books cruises. He went on cruises with his wife and then he lost his wife. After that, he was a bit nervous about going by himself but he came in and booked with us [again].”
No two days are the same. People will come in and say, ‘I want to do this’, and I’ll think, ‘Oh, I’ve never done that before’
Assistant manager Caitlin Hewitt has arranged several trips for this client – and her popularity with customers is evident when a couple pop into the store following their return from Gran Canaria.
“They were sending Caitlin photos when they were away,” says Rachel, adding that many regulars feel a similar level of connection with the staff.
“We have a lot of people coming in for a chat off the street,” she says.
“They do book holidays with us, but sometimes they might just pop in and talk to us. We have a lot of repeat customers, so a lot of people come in here who know us by name.”
“Even when I was at school, I always wanted to be in travel,” says Rachel. “It’s all I’ve ever done.”
This year marks her 20th anniversary with Hays and her 22nd year in the industry.
Before becoming manager at Vine Place, Rachel was in the same role at the Metro Centre branch – and she previously managed the Gateshead and Newcastle stores.
The lates market has been performing well, says Rachel, with the most popular destinations including Turkey and Spain
Although she loved working at the Metro Centre, having a baby meant the shift work became difficult. Now at Vine Place, with consistent hours, Rachel and her team have success selling “everything”.
The lates market has been performing well, says Rachel, with the most popular destinations including Turkey and Spain.
“Turkey is always really popular,” she says. “It offers value for money so it’s good for families.” And with Spain, Rachel says part of the appeal is that “people know what they’re getting” and the flights are short.
For holidays booked at least four months in advance, a direct debit option is available – and this is proving valuable for customers, Rachel says.
“We do well on direct debits. I would say maybe half of the bookings use it.”
As for the mode of enquiry, Rachel has detected a shift in the last couple of years. “You do get a lot of people on the phone,” she says. “It’s changing from pre- Covid. Before, you got a lot of walk-ins.”
A lot of people who come in have looked online, but they come in because they want the experience and they want you to say, ‘I think this one best suits you’
Social media is another source of business.
“Sometimes there will be 30 to 40 messages or comments on Facebook,” says Rachel. “A lot of people follow us.”
Yet for all of the changes in recent times, greeting customers face-to-face remains a core part of the job.
“A lot of people who come in have looked online, but they come in because they want the experience and they want you to say, ‘I think this one best suits you’.”
Rachel is comfortable with any means of approach. “I don’t have a preference at all,” she says. “I don’t think it makes a difference. If people ring, we try to keep them on the phone and get them to book.”
Andrew’s day at Hays Travel
Being a matter of weeks into the job at Travel Weekly, my visit to Hays’ Vine Place branch was a hugely helpful experience. Rachel and her team were kind enough to juggle their work with my questioning, and it was a privilege to hear their stories while learning more about the art of the agent. Halfway through my visit, apprentice Ameilia Bainbridge returned from training and I got to witness the four agents work their way through their respective diaries by handling emails, phone calls and social media messages. On busier days, Rachel told me, when customers arrive thick and fast, it can be a challenge getting through the day’s schedule – but the key skill is prioritising what’s most important, she said. “If it’s admin, that can wait, but if it’s a customer who you need to call back about a booking, you’ll call them first,” she said. The store will soon have a team of seven agents, Rachel said, plus the foreign exchange specialist who works four days a week.
Up close and personal
Rachel Keith, manager
Q. Which destination do you enjoy selling the most?
A. New York. I just love selling New York because I’ve been before and when people are going they’re so excited. When you get there and you’re standing in Times Square, it’s just like in the films.
Q. If you weren’t an agent, what would you do for a living?
A. An air hostess with one of the bigger airlines.
Ameilia Bainbridge, apprentice
Q. When did you join?
A. I joined in August last year, when I was 16.
Q. What’s the most memorable booking you’ve done so far?
A. A multi-centre in America. They wanted to go to New York and Washington DC, but I’d never done a multicentre before. She wanted to go to a lot of festivals that she had already booked so I had to do a lot of research.