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Your Stories: How Travel 1st sold £1 million worth of holidays despite opening during the pandemic

Manchester-based Lee Ashton set up Travel 1st in October 2020. He spoke to Josie Klein 

Q. What is your background in travel?
A. I fell in love with the industry while working in a travel agency when I was young and living in Australia, and I have now worked in the sector for more than 10 years. My first UK travel job was at Expedia, then I moved to Cruise Club UK and then onto Tui, where I was lucky enough to win Leisure Agent of the Year at the Agent Achievement Awards in 2018. After that I moved to Cruise 1st. I have always loved the industry because I enjoy talking to people and that’s what working in travel is all about.

My first UK travel job was at Expedia, then I moved to Cruise Club UK and then onto Tui, where I was lucky enough to win Leisure Agent of the Year at the Agent Achievement Awards in 2018

Q. Why did you start your own company?
A. I was furloughed by Cruise 1st at the beginning of the pandemic and told I would be made redundant when the furlough scheme ended, so I began thinking about other options. I reached out to Lee Evans, a friend of mine and former colleague at Cruise 1st, and we spoke about setting up our own travel agency. He got in touch with his friend Greg Barratt, who has a finance background, and the three of us created Travel 1st.

We contacted the Travel Trust Association and chose them as our agency consortium. They give us weekly newsletters and updates and invite us to training events, which helps bolster the insight we get from our own network. Ironically, Cruise 1st didn’t make me redundant when the furlough scheme ended in October 2021, so, to avoid a conflict of interest, I signed my third of the business over to my wife Lesley-Anne, although I’ve continued to work for Travel 1st. I have since left Cruise 1st and work as a sales manager at IT services and consulting company Tech Mahindra during the day, and Travel 1st in the evenings and at weekends.

[Travel Trust Association] gives us weekly newsletters and updates and invite us to training events, which helps bolster the insight we get from our own network

Q. What was it like starting a travel business during the pandemic?
A. The whole experience has been a whirlwind with so many ups and downs. When we started, we targeted the network we already had from previous jobs to try to build our client base, and then we did some paid advertising on social media which really boosted interest. We’ve been far busier than we expected so Lesley-Anne, a teacher, works for us in the school holidays and my 19-year-old stepdaughter helps with the paperwork. There’s no doubt that it has been hard work – none of us has taken a day off since we started in October 2020. The business is still very new so we all have other full-time jobs to avoid taking a wage at Travel 1st. Greg and Lee both work at Manchester airport, where Greg works days and Lee works nights. Greg covers the day shift at Travel 1st and then Lee and I take over in the evenings. Fortunately, most people email us instead of call, so we don’t always have to be readily available and can reply when get a chance – which is always within the hour.

We’ve been far busier than we expected so Lesley-Anne, a teacher, works for us in the school holidays and my 19-year-old stepdaughter helps with the paperwork

Q. How is your business developing?
A. We created the company in June 2020 but didn’t start trading until the October of that year. Since then, we’ve booked trips for nearly 600 passengers, sold £1 million worth of holidays and our profit is going up every day so it’s looking really good. We have been thinking about opening a retail store, but the profit margins are small so we might hold off on doing that. The pandemic forced people to book holidays online and customers are seeing how easy it is so there is less of a demand for an in-store service. We still see many of our clients face-to-face as we offer a mobile service to those who want it, so we still offer that in-person experience. In an ideal world I would make Travel 1st my full-time job, however, I would then need to take a wage which would cut into our profit margin. I’ll put it off for as long as I can before I quit my day job, but if we get too busy at Travel 1st, I may have to rethink it.

The pandemic forced people to book holidays online and customers are seeing how easy it is so there is less of a demand for an in-store service

Q. What would be your dream holiday?
A. My dream holiday would be to go on the Inca Trail to see all the sights and then onto the Galapagos Islands. I have always wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands – it’s a unique place in the world and so untouched. Who wouldn’t want to travel there?

In an ideal world I would make Travel 1st my full-time job, however, I would then need to take a wage which would cut into our profit margin


Lee Ashton, your stories two

What makes your business unique?

We don’t just focus on overseas travel, we also book trips to UK attractions, such as sporting events or theme parks, which was a great market during the pandemic when people couldn’t travel abroad. A lot of other companies don’t really acknowledge repeat customers, but we think it’s important to give people a reason to come back and to do it with a personal touch.

For example, if a customer books a trip with us, we’ll thank them with a bottle of wine or champagne depending on the value of the booking. We always said we’d rather be personal and customer-friendly instead of behaving like a big business and sending loads of spam emails and losing that personal touch.

One of my good friends is actor Andy Whyment who plays Kirk in Coronation Street, and he’s been booking his holidays through Travel 1st. When he went on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, his social media following shot up to hundreds of thousands of people, so when he posts about Travel 1st on his stories they have a massive viewership. It’s an amazing way for us to get our name out there, and even better that he’s enjoying the holidays we book for him and wants to share that with his fans.

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