The founders of Westoe Travel will hold celebrations this weekend to mark the 35th anniversary of their agency.
Husband and wife team Graeme and Joan Brett started the business on January 28, 1989, when they set up in the family newsagent’s premises at 134 Westoe Road in South Shields.
Graeme Brett said: “We will be celebrating this weekend with a series of events to thank those who have made our business such a success, with travel partners, customers, local businesses, families of the team as well as a visit from local MP Emma Lewell-Buck.”
As well as many happy memories, they will also be thinking about the “saddest time” in their history, when they lost apprentice Chloe Rutherford and her boyfriend Liam Curry in the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.
“The support we received from Abta and so many people throughout the travel industry – most of whom we had never met – was amazing,” said Graeme.
“Our colleagues in the travel industry and residents of South Shields helped us raise £33,107 for the families of Chloe and Liam.”
When the agency launched in 1989, it only offered Blue Line coach tickets to London but this soon expanded to include hotels, rail travel and coach holidays in the UK.
Joan Brett said: “We then became Abta members, allowing us to offer the full range of holidays from all tour operators.
“Being independent, part of the Worldchoice consortium, we are not biased [and can] use the right tour operator for each customer’s preferences.”
On July 4, 2005, they moved from the newsagents into the current shop at 120 Westoe Road, with local MP David Miliband due to perform the opening ceremony on July 8. However, July 7 was the day of the Russell Square bombing in London so Miliband had to attend the government’s Cobra security council meeting.
“However, as soon as the meeting finished, he drove from London to the shop so as not to let us down,” recalled Joan.
In 2020 they started their own tour operator – Rail Adventures – to package rail breaks to UK cities.
“This has been a huge success for us with sales far exceeding expectations,” said Joan.
Since Covid, the team has doubled in size and five of the staff were not even born when the agency opened in 1989.
As well as Graeme and Joan, the staff include their daughter Gillian Vogel, who is the manager, and assistant manager Alice Appleby, who started 11 years ago as an apprentice.
They also have Chloe Brown, who started as a business administration apprentice in September 2020 and graduated in January 2022. She has just started another apprenticeship in social media to expand her knowledge.
Maddy Amos started as an apprentice in September 2022 and has just graduated, while Charlotte Hanson started in September 2023 and is doing an apprenticeship in travel.
Tia Finnigan also started in September 2023 and is doing an apprenticeship in business administration.
When the business started, Graeme’s mum and dad, Olive and Stan, worked in the newsagents. Son Martin also worked in the business for nearly 20 years before moving to a new role outside travel.
Gillian started working in the business when she wanted to go on a school trip to Belgium and worked to earn pocket money, and then carried on working in the shop.
She then completed her education including a law degree and legal practice course and spent 18 months in Japan teaching English before returning to work in the shop. Last year she became manager.
One of the highlights was in May 2017 when South Shields FC went to Wembley and won the FA Vase.
“We sponsored the team coach and the second coach for club officials and players’ wives,” recalled Graeme.
“Westoe Travel was appointed the official travel partner to transport supporters to Wembley. We arranged for supporters to travel by train and coach to Wembley.
“Many supporters left on Saturday to make a weekend celebration with a huge party in Covent Garden on the Saturday night.”
One young supporter, who had travelled with a neighbour, missed the game as the adult had fallen ill.
“We spoke to the club and the manager Graeme Fenton arranged for us to take the supporter to the ground for the team’s return,” said Graeme.
“Graeme Fenton gave him the trophy to carry and lead the team into the ground.”
Another highlight came in 2011 when Little Mix won X Factor.
The mothers of band mates Jade and Perrie contacted the agency to arrange their travel to the show each week.
South Tyneside College produced ‘Vote Little Mix’ posters and the shop became the collection point, with 1,000 posters distributed to residents.
Shops and businesses throughout South Tyneside also displayed posters, while the council and Tyne Tunnel changed the electronic road signs to say ‘Vote Little Mix’.
They became the first and only girl group to win the series.
“We still have our framed, signed Vote Little Mix t-shirt and a thank you letter from Jade displayed in the shop,” the Bretts recalled.
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