Pamela Thornton tells Samantha Mayling there are similarities between the two industries
Q. What is your background?
A. After my dad left the navy, we settled in Cowbridge but spent a lot of time overseas in remote areas as he was a helicopter pilot. I studied economics then joined a commodity company, trading sugar, cocoa and coffee. I’ve spent more than 30 years in the sector, largely supplying cocoa to chocolate companies, which required me to set up export operations throughout producing countries. I’ve loved every minute. For the last four years I have been a consultant. I have a stake in a cocoa farm in Brazil and a passion fruit farm in Ghana. I consider them as hobbies as I’ve not made money from them.
I have a stake in a cocoa farm in Brazil and a passion fruit farm in Ghana. I consider them as hobbies as I’ve not made money from them
Q. Where do you travel for trading?
A. I look at all aspects of cocoa supply and demand and then predict future prices. The major cocoa producers are Ivory Coast and Ghana along with other West African countries. Ecuador is the third-biggest, while Brazil, Peru, Colombia and the Dominican Republic are important Latin American producers. In Asia, the focus is on Indonesia. I know all these countries well.
I’ve also worked with coffee so countries such as Vietnam are on my agenda. In November I was in West Africa for two weeks and in January I’ll be in Ecuador and Colombia. I’ve always enjoyed the origin side of the business, which largely involves gruelling travel, but working with incredible people is rewarding. I try to add downtime onto work trips to minimise flying.
I’ve always enjoyed the origin side of the business, which largely involves gruelling travel, but working with incredible people is rewarding
Q. How did you move into travel in 2021?
A. My mum owned a dress shop in Cowbridge for 30 years then leased it to Tailor Made Travel, which went into administration in September 2020. Hays Travel took over the group, including the Cowbridge store, but we could not agree lease terms so I said: “Maybe I can take the girls on and start an agency myself.” For the first three months, Simon Morgan [former Tailor Made chief executive] advised me and recommended Hays’ Independence Group (IG) as a consortium. Hays IG gives me access to a large range of suppliers at competitive commissions and simplifies financial aspects of the business. Hays has given us good support, encouragement and exposure. They’re down to earth and friendly.
Hays IG gives me access to a large range of suppliers at competitive commissions and simplifies financial aspects of the business
Q. How did your first branch deal with Covid restrictions in 2021?
A. For the first five months we sold holidays and then spent the next three cancelling them because of Omicron, so 2021 was a write-off. By January 2022, people were keen to get a change of scenery. There was more checking and double-checking, but business was back.
Q. How was the Association of Touring & Adventure Suppliers Conference in October?
A.I am pushing touring and adventure and picked up good insights in Liverpool. From January 1, I will be providing incentives to the team in the form of subsidised air travel to go on their own vacations to provide first-hand knowledge of the great trips on offer. I am still involved with cocoa, so I leave the sales to my experienced team.
From January 1, I will be providing incentives to the team in the form of subsidised air travel to go on their own vacations
Q. What sort of marketing do you do?
A. We are about to launch our website and take advantage of social media. We also use local publications and support community activities. Being embedded in the community is very important to us. Word-of-mouth remains the best form of advertising, but I am old school and believe an employer has an obligation to contribute to its wider community. We sponsor the local music festival, a theatre group, various sports clubs and choirs.
Trading is not a hierarchical career but one that requires teamwork and values input from others, which is exactly like running travel agencies
Q. What skills from your trading career have been useful for running agencies?
A. Looking at the big picture; not getting upset about problems but trying to solve them; paying contractors immediately, so they always prioritise you; and picking good locations for sites. Trading is not a hierarchical career but one that requires teamwork and values input from others, which is exactly like running travel agencies.
How did you expand from Cowbridge to Porthcawl, Barry and Penarth?
Travel is a high-volume, low-margin business so returns from a single store do not justify the management time. I named Cowbridge Travel and Porthcawl Travel after their location to have “a local identity”. The shops in Barry and Penarth are called Thornton Travel as they are close to each other. Compared to other sectors, we are fairly low payers, relying on our employees’ love of travel to compete. My strategy has been to fit out bright, modern shops with a relaxed vibe, offer family-friendly working hours and then provide a decent remuneration package so that I can attract and maintain employees and hope customers come.
My rule of thumb is that it takes three years to establish a business and become profitable and, so far, we are ahead of that objective. We sell everything, but I am a big believer in stretching people’s minds – both staff and customers – so I encourage advertising more luxury, more active holidays as well as specialist trips for foodies or culture vultures.