The founder of Your Perfect Travel, Norma Fenwick, tells Samantha Mayling about riding out the pandemic and celebrating her agency’s 10th anniversary
Q. How did you start in travel?
A. I’ve run my own businesses since 2005. I had a phone‑answering service which I sold and went travelling for a year. I had an epiphany following my travels around southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji: I just knew my future lay in travel. It’s all about customer service and being a people person – and you have to have a passion for travel. I did my research into franchise options and set up Your Perfect Travel with Not Just Travel in 2013, working from my spare bedroom.
I had an epiphany following my travels around southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji: I just knew my future lay in travel
Q. How was business in the beginning?
A. My first booking was a family holiday for my sister to Lanzarote. I finished my training on the Friday, then went to a wedding fair on the Saturday and made bookings for couples, such as the Maldives and safaris. I’d kept in touch with people from my previous business, so they came to me when they wanted to book holidays. I was full-time from the start and put in a lot of hours – but that’s easy to do when you love something. I soon outgrew my bedroom and built an office in my garden, where I could meet clients who wanted to meet face-to‑face, such as brides and grooms planning weddings or honeymoons. I went to local and industry events – I’m still part of the Chigwell BNI business networking group, in Essex, which has 100 members. I take £1 million worth of bookings through the group every year.
I soon outgrew my bedroom and built an office in my garden, where I could meet clients who wanted to meet face-to‑face
Q. What made you open a high street shop?
A. I wanted to open in Knight Street, Sawbridgeworth, in May 2020 as I’d got so busy and needed to take on staff. Sawbridgeworth, where I live, is a quaint place where local people like to buy local. But the pandemic meant we actually opened in May 2021. During Covid, rebookings and refunds were a nightmare. I worked harder than ever and didn’t earn anything. But I had a nest egg so I could ride it out. I took on Laura [Staniland] on day one – she had 30 years of experience and had previously worked with Thomas Cook. We also now have Danielle Payne and Melanie Martin. I’d moved to Hays Travel Independence Group on April 1, 2020, just as the first lockdown had started. Hays suited me and gave me lots of flexibility to run my business.
During Covid, rebookings and refunds were a nightmare. I worked harder than ever and didn’t earn anything. But I had a nest egg so I could ride it out
Q. How is business now?
A. I think the pandemic has done independent agents a favour, as we are now valued more than ever. During the pandemic, people would pick up the phone or email us, and get a positive outcome. But it is a struggle to recruit good staff. If I could take on the right staff, I could open another high street shop. We don’t specialise in any type of holidays – we sell anything apart from UK breaks. Despite the cost of living, people around here have money to spend on holidays. After the pandemic, we did lots of multigenerational family holidays, including one for £92,000. Cruises are going insane and customers also want experiences, rather than just sitting on a beach. Prices have gone up a lot but people are paying them. Some customers take five or six holidays a year.
It is a struggle to recruit good staff. If I could take on the right staff, I could open another high street shop
Q. What about your own travels?
A. I used to do lots of fam trips but I’m too busy now. I went to Barbados last month with Sandals, and the Hays IG conference in Portugal, in March. I’ve had six holidays this year, including a skiing trip, city breaks and two weeks in Zanzibar and the Serengeti, in Tanzania, with my husband Andrew. The wildlife was jaw-dropping – we were in a luxury tent and saw a mother elephant with two calves eating nearby. We sell a lot of Mauritius, as my first fam trip was there.
I’ve had six holidays this year, including a skiing trip, city breaks and two weeks in Zanzibar and the Serengeti, in Tanzania, with my husband Andrew
Q. What do you do when you’re not travelling?
A. I spend as much time as possible with my son Lance, his wife Amber and my two adorable grandchildren: Harvey, aged five, and three-year-old Myla. We are going to Spain in a few weeks’ time and I can’t wait. Playing the piano is one of my hobbies, and I am learning Spanish. I’ve also just started Latin and ballroom dance lessons.
How were your 10th anniversary celebrations?
We invited everyone who’d ever made a booking with us, so there were more than 200 people in the shop. They joined us for prosecco and nibbles, and we offered discount vouchers. The shop was buzzing. It was not about gaining business, it was a thank you for their support. But we did get some bookings from it. Some of our team met regular customers face-to‑face for the first time – it’s good to put a face to a name. Beachcomber Resorts & Hotels, Travelpack, Classic Collection and Jet2 gave up their time to support us and provided raffle prizes. We sell a lot of Jet2, as we are 15 minutes from Stansted. Helen Williamson, business development manager at Hays Travel Independence Group, spent the day with us – and took a Jet2 holiday booking.
There’s nothing better than the travel industry – we sell dreams.
Hays Travel is so good to partner with. I’ve met (the late founder) John Hays and Dame Irene (chair) and they’re so supportive and down to earth. She is an incredible lady and always has time to talk to you. She was inspiring at the Hays IG conference. There’s nothing better than the travel industry – we sell dreams.