The pandemic forced the owner of Prestwich-based Footprint Travel, Mia Walmsley, to reassess life as an agent and return to her marketing roots – while retaining links with travel. By Juliet Dennis.
Q. When did you become a travel agent?
A. I set up in 2016 as a homeworker before I moved into my shop in 2019. I came from a marketing background, having previously worked inhouse with brands and creative agencies. My intention was always to grow the agency and have a team to look after bookings, while I managed the business and did the marketing. We had a year before the pandemic hit. I ran it entirely on my own. I was doing long days, but it felt worthwhile.
“The pressure to keep everyone informed, when it’s just you in the business, was immense. My customers have been lovely but it’s been stressful. I can’t even describe how damaging it was to my mental health.”
Q. Why are you going back to marketing?
A. When the pandemic hit, it was panic stations. The pressure to keep everyone informed, when it’s just you in the business, was immense. My customers have been lovely but it’s been stressful. I can’t even describe how damaging it was to my mental health. Then we started booking again last summer and had to pick up the pieces of so many booking amendments. I took a step back and thought about what I had invested to get to where I was. It gave me the opportunity to think about what really makes me happy. It’s the marketing side of things that excites me. I’ve always done freelance marketing on the side. Last year, I worked on a marketing planner with agent Kate Holroyd (Strawberry Holidays). We sold 500 copies. That reignited my passion for marketing and made me think.
“It gave me the opportunity to think about what really makes me happy. It’s the marketing side of things that excites me. I’ve always done freelance marketing on the side.”
Q. How have you repurposed your agency?
A. I have changed the aesthetic of the shop. Manchester artist Myro Coates, who designed my windows, started doing doodling workshops and was looking for a space to host them. I wanted to evolve the business, so I turned my agency into a co-working space. We have a new sign, Co.Prestwich. It’s about people using space in different ways. I’ve told my customers I’m taking a sabbatical [from travel] and concentrating on marketing. My clients have been supportive. They understood how difficult it’s been. I’m offering my shop space to small businesses. If someone wants a meeting space, for example, they can take it for the day. I liked the idea of making space an option for people to test something if they want a pop-up shop. At the moment, it’s used by myself and Myro, and my customers still come in to pay their holiday balances. After the year we’ve had of not being able to open the shop, this feels like a release. The shop space works for me – but now I’m sharing overheads, which was critical, as I’m tied into my lease. I’ve had quite a lot of interest, especially from the creative industries, for workshops. The pandemic taught us about living more flexibly. I see this as a different incarnation of Footprint, suited to my skills.
Q. Do you have any regrets about becoming a travel agent?
A. I could never regret working in travel, as I’ve learnt so much. Once you work in travel, it’s always part of you. I never imagined I would have my own shop by the age of 30. I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved. I don’t have anything to prove. We all worry we have to stick with [our careers] but I don’t think that’s true. If I hadn’t set up Footprint Travel, I wouldn’t have this shop. Now I have lots of co-working space as another income stream. I wouldn’t say I will never be a travel agent again – perhaps in a couple of years. I’ve got some VIP clients who just want to deal with me. I might keep these clients. It’s a case of building a life and job that works for you.
“I wouldn’t say I will never be a travel agent again – perhaps in a couple of years. I’ve got some VIP clients who just want to deal with me. I might keep these clients.”
Q. Do you intend to stay in the travel sector?
A. I still have live bookings. I’m not closing the business but I’m not taking new bookings. I want to keep my options open. I appreciate a big change can be a kneejerk reaction, so by keeping the business open, if I do get a juicy booking, I’ve got the option to service it. But I want to turn my attention to freelance marketing, especially in travel, but also in other sectors. I’m open to ideas. It may be that an operator doesn’t have a marketing person inhouse and needs someone once a week, or an agent needs someone once a month to do their blog. I’m trying to do something that makes me happy.
Tell us about the second agent planner you are working on
Last year Strawberry Holidays’ Kate Holroyd and I produced Beyond The Bookings. We did a crowdfunder and got funding from NatWest for the print run. It was a page-by-day A4 planner with pages for planning for social media, daily prompts and goals, as well as travel industry events, national holidays, cruise sailings, inaugurals and hotel launches. We printed about 150-200 copies initially. As soon as it landed on agents’ desks, we got a torrent of demand. We have a closed Facebook group and I share content ideas. We have just carried out a survey, and 90% of the agents said they would rebuy it. This year, we want to make it better. The more valuable content we can put in, the better. We are going to try to get it on pre-sale for the summer and like last time we’ll donate some of the profits to mental health charity Mind.