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Your Stories: How Now Lets Travel expanded from one to five stores during the pandemic

The firm’s founder Paul Johnstone says he is reaping the benefits of helping people during the pandemic

Q. What’s your background in travel?
A. I’ve been in travel for 32 years, starting as a YTS [Youth Training Scheme] at AT Mays. Then I was at Lunn Poly, which became part of Thomson, and managed stores in Cumbria, Scotland and northeast England for 14 years. I worked for an independent Newcastle agency as business development manager, starting up cruise operations, but after seven years I was made redundant.

Having always wanted to work for myself, I joined Brilliant Travel [part of Barrhead Travel] in 2013 to launch Now Lets Travel. Brilliant gave me the opportunity to run my business as I wanted, and dynamic packaging is still a massive part of what we do. Their support through the pandemic for managed partners was fantastic. We now have five stores and a call centre.

Brilliant Travel gave me the opportunity to run my business as I wanted, and dynamic packaging is still a massive part of what we do

Q. What’s selling well?
A. Long-haul is coming back for destinations such as Thailand, Bali, Mauritius and Maldives, and people are more confident about the US and Caribbean. I’ve been blown away by lates demand; people say, ‘Just get me away.’ We had a good response to ex-UK cruises in 2021. With one deal we promoted on social media, departing from Newcastle, we booked 126 passengers in a day. Some cruisers from last year are booking again – those cruises opened up a lot for the new-to-cruise market. Since Australia opened up, we’ve seen a huge demand for VFR [visiting friends and relations], with one colleague making an £11,000 booking for a seven-centre holiday there. The cost-of-living crisis hasn’t hit us yet; people haven’t travelled for two years and many put money aside for better accommodation and flight upgrades.

With one deal we promoted on social media, departing from Newcastle, we booked 126 passengers in a day

Q. Who are your customers?
A. Families are a huge market for us but we also have a wide age range of clients, from 17-year-olds on their first holidays upwards. Our shops are in the northeast, but with our call centre we sell cruise and long-haul holidays to people as far apart as Manchester and Essex. We have a dedicated admin team who call operators. One of them will ask several questions in a single call, rather than have each store ring individually, so it leaves agents free to serve their customers. The team have been working their socks off to ensure that everything runs smoothly. We invite customers into the store two days before they travel to check everything, something you wouldn’t get with an online booking. Staff have been very good with the forms, updates and requirements – it’s all about communication.

We have a dedicated admin team who call operators. One of them will ask several questions in a single call, rather than have each store ring individually

Q. Have you and colleagues managed to travel?
A. I went to Paphos at Easter, and it was the first time travel felt normal again. I worked throughout the pandemic but managed to get away on a few breaks after sorting rebookings and refunds. I furloughed staff during Covid and worked every day. You have to tell customers about travelling to inspire confidence. We had six members of staff on the Celebrity Beyond trade showcase in April and two on the launch of Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, and we had staff on a Jet2 educational. It’s important that people get the opportunity to experience travel; you can’t beat first-hand knowledge. The feedback from staff on those trips was fabulous and they are imparting their knowledge.

 It’s important that people get the opportunity to experience travel; you can’t beat first-hand knowledge

Q. Any more expansion plans?
A. For the 32 years I’ve been in the industry, there’s been talk about the ‘death of the high street agent’, with threats from direct sales, Teletext and the internet. All I heard was negativity, but now we have an amazing opportunity to show customers our importance and our value. People appreciate service and we’re reaping the benefits of helping them during the pandemic. It was a big step to open those stores in the crisis, but worth it – you have to be positive. Lots of people left travel to work on things such as track-and-trace contracts, but are now coming back to the sector. The past two years have been the most challenging in my career – we’d had the Gulf war and 9/11, but nothing comes close to Covid.

People appreciate service and we’re reaping the benefits of helping them during the pandemic. It was a big step to open those stores in the crisis, but worth it


Now Lets Travel Cramlington

Q. How has the business developed?

I started from my garage at home, then set up a call centre in a business park in Sunderland and a store in Jesmond, Newcastle. We had put money aside in 2019 for expansion, so were able to open a store in Newcastle city centre in December 2020, followed in late 2021 by Cramlington, Peterlee and Wallsend.

Other agencies were closing and making people redundant during the pandemic, so when I opened the Newcastle store I had eight staff who had lost jobs elsewhere. When we had the Christmas lockdown, the staff were working online and on social media, but we still managed to have an amazing year. That branch made a profit in its first year despite the pandemic, because customers were looking for extra reassurance and service.

We had put money aside in 2019 for expansion, so were able to open a store in Newcastle city centre in December 2020, followed in late 2021 by Cramlington, Peterlee and Wallsend

The Cramlington agency has sold £1 million of holidays during its first quarter of trading, thanks to customers who are making up for lost time. We have been fortunate with the quality of people who work for us, and over the 12-month period that we opened four stores, we employed 25 more members of staff – before the pandemic we had 11.

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