Two years after switching careers to become a luxury specialist, the MD of agency Seven Icons Alex Lavender, whose stepfather is Colletts Travel founder Roy Collett, tells Juliet Dennis he has no regrets about joining the sector
Q. Why and when did you set up your agency?
A. My two passions in life are travel and sport. I chose to go down the sports route initially but I was always planning to come back to travel at some point. The business was set up in January 2019. Before that, I worked on the commercial side of football for 10 years, in sponsorship and ticketing for Tottenham Hotspur and Queens Park Rangers. Travel is completely different. My interest comes from my stepfather, Roy Collett, who set up Colletts Travel. When he sold the business to Travel Leaders Group [now Internova Travel Group] in 2017, I met the UK managing director of the Global Travel Collection [luxury division of Internova]. We had an open chat and I said it was my ambition to set up my own business. I’d never worked in travel before so it was a big leap into the unknown. I was 35 and didn’t have any children – I now have twins – and I thought it was a great time to do it. I gave up a good job but became master of my own destiny.
“My interest comes from my stepfather, Roy Collett, who set up Colletts Travel.”
Q. How difficult was it starting up on your own in a new industry?
A. I had to learn to be an agent from scratch. Two-and-a half years on, I sometimes can’t believe how much I’ve learnt and how much the business has grown. I set up as a luxury travel business as part of Global Travel Collection. We sit under their banner as an independent contractor. We get our Abta and Atol licences through GTC, as well as access to the global distribution systems, their ancillary relationships and contact database. The costs of setting up on my own would have been huge. By doing it this way I have the support of GTC. You are in a forward position from day one. We have been in profit every year.
“The costs of setting up on my own would have been huge. By doing it this way I have the support of Global Travel Collection.”
Q. Tell us about your clients?
A. I had a book of clients from my career in football and approached them. We are in the luxury space and the business is all relationship driven. We have a lot of high-profile clients including footballers and celebrities. What I find amazing is that when I approach them, most book direct and have no idea about travel agents. There is a misconception that agents are going to cost more [than booking direct]. They have no idea we have fully inclusive tour products and deals with hotels. Most of my clients know where they want to go. It’s about having an agent to guide them to the right property. My clients include England international footballers Ollie Watkins, Sam Johnstone and James Tarkowski, reality TV stars Billie and Samantha Faiers, TV and radio presenter Maya Jama and singer Myleene Klass.
“There is a misconception that agents are going to cost more. They have no idea we have fully inclusive tour products and deals with hotels.”
Q. How do you promote your business?
A. One of our calling cards is to get pictures of the families and ask the hotel to put the pictures in the room to create a ‘home from home’ environment. Lots of clients do videos to say thank you for their holiday and post them on Instagram. It really adds to our credibility. We have never spent a penny on marketing. Football can be a very incestuous business and most of our business is by referral and comes from WhatsApp and Instagram. If one of our clients posts to thank us for a holiday, we get a lot of messages from other footballers or celebrities.
“I get messages at all times of day and night. Bookings can be done in 15 minutes on text; it depends what it is.”
Q. You take most bookings on instant messaging service WhatsApp – how does that work?
A. We do most of our bookings on WhatsApp because so many of our clients are used to dealing with it. They will often send me a voice message on WhatsApp to say what they need. I’ve booked holidays for up to £50,000. It’s all based on trust. People just want to know they are being looked after and are getting a good price. I get messages at all times of day and night. Bookings can be done in 15 minutes on text; it depends what it is. Ordinarily I end up on the phone to the client but a percentage of bookings are completely on WhatsApp.
What’s it been like during the pandemic and what does the future hold?
It’s been a really challenging 18 months but because we sell high-end holidays there have been lots of occasions where people have been able to travel and travel well. It’s still been a good year because when windows have opened up, clients have been able to travel. When Dubai opened up, we had clients go out; and when it went back to the red list, some decided to stay longer. We are really optimistic. We are always learning and looking to grow, but only by taking on the right staff. We want to remain a bespoke luxury travel agency; we’ve no ambition to become a high street name. We want to maintain the ethos of the business as an independently-owned luxury travel company that creates bespoke trips for clients.