Joint managing director of Market Place Travel in Burton-on- Trent, Mark Lomas, reflects on the decision to invest in a high street shop as the business marks its fifth anniversary. Juliet Dennis reports.
Q. Why did you decide to set up a high street travel agency with joint managing director Karen Brown?
A. Karen and I worked together for years at Thomas Cook in Burton-on-Trent. I was her manager and she was a consistent top-selling travel advisor. We had this pipedream of having our own agency. I remember a unit becoming available so we went to take a look at it during our lunch break. We have such a good business relationship, I know exactly how she works. We are almost like a double act and my weaknesses are her strengths. The dynamics just work for us both so when one of us is stressed, we pick each other up. Karen has been in travel for years; it would have been criminal to set up with anyone else! We opened in 2018 as Market Place Travel in Burton.
[Karen and I] have such a good business relationship, I know exactly how she works. We are almost like a double act and my weaknesses are her strengths
Q. Why did you relocate the shop to new premises during Covid?
A. It was a larger store and such good premises. It fitted five desks, whereas we had three in the old store, and in the summer it was like a greenhouse! It used to be a haberdashery shop on two floors and we spent £45,000 on it. We signed for the shop in the second month of the first Covid lockdown and opened on October 31, 2020. The day we opened, we were plunged into lockdown once again. We had a beautiful new shop and five staff including us, but we only opened for one day! All the time after that we kept wondering if we would be able to get back in. We both thought this new shop would be perfect, but I was a bit more worried and wondered whether it was a good idea. Our friends and family were asking that too, but Karen said that when business came back it would “come back with a bang”, and she was right. We wanted to show the public we were not just surviving, but evolving.
The day we opened, we were plunged into lockdown once again. We had a beautiful new shop and five staff including us, but we only opened for one day!
Q. Did the decision to open a larger shop pay off?
A. We reopened as soon as we could in 2021. We had all the staff back in the shop and since then we’ve just seen growth; we have eight staff now, including us. Straight after we went back, we knew demand was there. Once everything was back to normal, we got a lot of praise and people booked with us because they had seen us opening again and thought if we were confident enough to open in the pandemic they would book with us. When our first shop had a ‘For Let’ sign on it, we got calls from the local press who presumed we were shutting. They called up for a doom and gloom story, but we turned it into a positive story about getting new premises ready for after the pandemic. We took the risk [to move to larger premises] because we knew there was going to be a need [for travel]. In fact, during Covid there were only two months in the whole two-year period that we made a loss!
Once everything was back to normal, we got a lot of praise and people booked with us because they had seen us opening again and thought if we were confident enough to open in the pandemic they would book with us
Q. How did you approach business during the pandemic?
A. We turned it round by seeing it as a challenge, instead of refunding everyone. Even if we had to change a holiday five or six times, it was worth the pain because customers still wanted a holiday. It was a case of being patient and working five times harder for five times less. It would have been too easy to simply give in and offer refunds. On social media we decided not to promote discounting messages. We had a big team picture with the words ‘Let Us Take You There’ on the shop door and on social media, with a challenge to beat any high street price, which turned out to have really good results for us. We decided we would not just match it, but beat it. It attracted a lot of customers. I know some agents just concentrate on certain areas. My view is we are expected to offer everything. We are all very experienced and have a great rapport and customer service and more than 25,000 people follow us on Facebook. We book people all over the UK.
We had a big team picture with the words ‘Let Us Take You There’ on the shop door and on social media, with a challenge to beat any high street price
Tell us about the opening of a luxury lounge
After having the agency for five years, we now sell a lot of luxury holidays so we decided to open a luxury lounge upstairs in our agency. We launched the appointment-only lounge on July 1, the day we celebrated the agency’s fifth anniversary. Before we used the upstairs as a brochure room.
We spent £35,000 refurbishing the area, which has an open-plan layout with benches and chairs and two really big desks. It’s a different feel to downstairs.
Having the extra space means we can give more attention to a couple planning their honeymoon, for example, so they feel extra special, or to a group trying to book a stag party
We offer clients prosecco, tea and coffee. It has a beach vibe. Having the extra space means we can give more attention to a couple planning their honeymoon, for example, so they feel extra special, or to a group trying to book a stag party. The lounge also benefits staff as it allows them to give customers all their attention. We advertise appointments to create a calmer environment with no pressure – everyone who has had an appointment in there has booked. We are running at around 25 appointments a month.
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