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Your Stories: Joanie, Tony and Sam Blakey run their agency from a converted garage

The Chester-le-Street-based Blakey family speak to Samantha Mayling about switching to GoCruise & Travel during the pandemic

Q. What is your background in travel?
Tony: I started at Thomson and worked for retail agents and tour operators.

Joanie: I have worked at several agencies and met Tony when I was at college and sent to Tony’s office as a trainee. We set up the business in 2003 for a better work-life balance – we live in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, but Tony’s job was based in London. Our nephew converted our garage into an office for us.

Sam: I studied marketing at university, then travelled for a year. I started part-time here and am still here more than 10 years later.

Tony: Joanie and I mostly take care of sales and Sam handles marketing, e-shots, social media and websites.

It was very useful to meet operators and cruise lines at [the GoCruise] conference in May, and we won the top newcomer award at the conference awards

Q. Why did you join GoCruise & Travel in 2020?
Tony: We’d been focusing more on cruise for the past 12 years so wanted a consortium with the same focus. At conferences, we’d spoken to Steve Williams [managing director of GoCruise & Travel parent Fred Olsen Travel] and he suggested we would be a good fit. With the pandemic starting, there were cancellations and no one travelling so it seemed the best time to move.

Joanie: They’ve been very supportive – always there for us during the pandemic with Zoom calls, virtual events and coffee mornings. GoCruise is small enough that you can always speak to someone. They kept producing material to put in front of clients – not holiday offers but to remind them about travel. It was very useful to meet operators and cruise lines at their conference in May, and we won the top newcomer award at the conference awards.

We promoted ‘seacations’ last year and, as people saw travel start again, they were booking for 2022 and 2023

Q. How did you survive the pandemic downturn?
Tony: Working from a converted garage means our costs are low and we cut back on spending. GoCruise cut membership costs by 50%. We did virtual events during Covid for people on our database with Star Clippers, AmaWaterways, Celebrity Cruises and Amadeus.

Joanie: Clients were ringing to check we were OK and even offer to help pay the mortgage. People were concerned, saying they would book with us as soon as they could. We couldn’t work in a more caring industry. We promoted ‘seacations’ last year and, as people saw travel start again, they were booking for 2022 and 2023.

Clients are spending more – upgrading their flight and cruise ship cabins, booking more pre and post-cruise stays and opting for back-to-back cruises

Q. How are sales now?
Tony: Bookings for 2022 look good; we have a reasonable number of people travelling each week, and 2023 is selling strongly. There is more and more interest in 2024. Clients are spending more – upgrading their flight and cruise ship cabins, booking more pre and post-cruise stays and opting for back-to-back cruises. Cruisers tend to be more mature so not as affected by the cost-of-living crisis. We sell land-based holidays too and can offer packages through Fred Discover. But flight cancellations and delays have hit summer 2022.

We have a partnership with a magazine called In and Around Durham, which will see us focus on different cruise lines for the next six months

Q. Who are your clients?
Sam: We have clients around the world – we have more in South Africa than County Durham. We’ve had our own website, The Vacation Company, for 16 years and it ranks very high on searches. For the past two years, our marketing has been e-shots but now we’re more proactive. We have a partnership with a magazine called In and Around Durham, which will see us focus on different cruise lines for the next six months. We also want to do pop-ups with GoCruise’s ‘shop-in-a-box’ service, at places such as garden centres, and one in a quaint pub with Star Clippers and the Barbados tourist board.

We also want to do pop-ups with GoCruise’s ‘shop-in-a-box’ service, at places such as garden centres, and one in a quaint pub

Q. Have you travelled much in the past two years?
Tony: Joanie and I went on a round-Britain cruise with Celebrity Silhouette in summer 2021. We all attended the Clia River Cruise Conference in March in Budapest and added on a sailing to Vienna. Restrictions were changing so we told our clients about them in our blog and e-shot. The GoCruise & Travel conference was on Celebrity Silhouette from Southampton to Bruges and Amsterdam, and we did a VIP trip with Celebrity Beyond too.


Tony, Joanie and Sam Blakey 2

Tell us about your group tours

Tony: Before Covid, we usually took a couple of groups away each year on Star Clippers cruises. We started in 2017, promoting them to our database of regular clients. This month, Joanie and I are taking our first group since 2019. We will have a Greek dinner in Athens before we board Star Flyer for a seven-night sailing around the northern Cyclades with a group of 10. We head back to Athens and then we’ll have a group of 14 on the second sailing – seven nights in the southern Cyclades.

Next February, we’re hosting a trip to Costa Rica with 30 clients, 16 of whom are new to us. It is a four-night tour of the island plus a seven-night cruise on Star Clipper around Costa Rica and Nicaragua and we have 30 people booked. We always throw in some extras such as a cocktail party. Lots of clients have booked with us for years, so it is lovely to see them face-to-face. In 2019, we had back-to-back cruises with Royal Clipper in Barbados. For the changeover day in the middle we organised a tour of the island, ending with a visit to the Mount Gay rum distillery.

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