IC Interview Sessions…Blue Bay Travel

So after our summer hiatus from our series of interviews (questionable if that was a summer…weather wise) we are pleased to welcome them back to their regular monthly slot.

Next up is Stuart & Angela Wilson, owners of Blue Bay Travel, the UK’s leading independent on-line travel agency.

From working in their garage to employing a 30 strong dedicated team, the business continues to grow healthily year on year, whilst seemingly amassing awards at will (honestly their trophy cabinet needs extra steel supports!).  It is with great pleasure that we were given the chance to prod around the brains of two of Britain’s finest entrepreneurs…

Hi both, please can you give us a brief history of your professional careers?

We are both retailers through and through, having gone straight from school/college into full time positions.  Stuart started as a Y.T.S at Sainsbury’s and quickly progressed onto the management training scheme.  Having spent several years learning the trade he moved to Asda to become deputy store manager, before moving to the ‘George Clothing’ head office to work within the supply chain.  I (Angela) worked for several brands within the British Shoe Corporation and eventually ended up as area Sales Manager for Brantano Footwear.  A move to Asda was quickly followed by a rise through the ranks to Trading Manager for the central region.

Tell us all about Blue Bay Travel, you have gone from novices in the travel industry to National award winners – where did it all begin?

Blue Bay Travel was born following a trip to the ‘National Franchise Exhibition in 2003’.  We were looking for an opportunity that would enable us to work from home & gain a better work/life balance.  The Travel franchise drew our attention as it had minimal overheads, requiring just a phone & computer and in terms of business skills the most important would be a good understanding of sales & marketing.  Or so we thought!  We began trading on 08th December 2003  and have made a profit every year since, however it certainly was not the lifestyle business we anticipated and we soon realized that if it was ‘that easy’ everybody would be doing it.  That first year was very much trial & error as although we could sell holidays, we had to quickly learn the intricacies of the Travel Industry. A chance meeting  in 2005 with a hotel contracting manager led to a re-think of our strategy & we decided to streamline our product offering & become experts in one area; we chose the Caribbean & that’s when things really took off………

What are you key headlines in terms of revenue, staff head count, customer numbers and conversion?

Retail sales in 2011 were £15million & 2012 is proving to be very strong with forecast sales of £18million. We have a team of 30 staff who service over 4000 clients a year with a conversion of nearly 30%.

How did the recession impact you?

The last few years have seen some big players in the industry go under; this caused a wave of consumer confidence issues that hit the Independent Travel Agent harder than the major multiples.  Clients were hanging onto their money for longer & were much more wary of handing it over to an unknown company.  At the same time they were cutting back on the little extra luxuries they would have booked e.g. premium flight seats, room upgrades etc & also shopping around for price.  Margins dropped significantly for a period of time & we had to work hard to get the team to really sell the benefits of their service as opposed to booking directly on the web.  We made the decision to cut the volumes of quotes coming through & concentrate on select destinations & hotels, but target the team with a higher conversion.  This worked well & has led to a 60% repeat booking figure.

What has made you such a huge success?

We are both perfectionists & always want to be the best. This means we want the best website, the best team, the best commercial deals & the very best service.  Nothing less will do & we don’t stop until we achieve it.

What values and beliefs are important to you as owner/managers of Blue Bay?

We believe that trust & integrity are the basis of any relationships, whether with clients, colleagues or suppliers.

What leadership and management approaches have you had to deploy during the evolution of Blue Bay?

We were obviously very hands on the first few years & both learnt the business inside out, as we had to perform every task.  As we started to employ people we remained hands on & stayed close to the team, if anything, too close, it was sometimes hard to stand back & let them grow.  This is a skill that we have to work at every day – getting the balance right between being daily operational tasks & building on new idea’s & initiatives.

How do you engage and maintain a relationship with your customer base?

We stay in contact with our clients throughout the booking process to ensure they have everything they need. We send an emailer every week detailing new offers, best buys, competitions or just good news.  Social media forms a big part of our strategy & we interact daily through all the channels available, sending news stories, blogs, travel information or stories about team events.

What has been your approach to developing new business?

We are not afraid to try new avenues of distribution e.g. wedding shows, travelzoo, newspaper. However we always ensure that there is either a profit to be made or, a considerable addition to our client database to be had.

What tactics did you use to develop an unknown brand in the market place?

It’s all about reputation, repeat clients & recommendations. We take our services levels very seriously & monitor the internet for any mention of our trading names in any sort of forum. Negative comments are addressed immediately with a personal apology & a call to the client; positive comments are shared on our website & through our social media distribution channels. This has gradually built us into a brand that people can trust & are happy to book with or, recommend their family & friends to. We also believe that our website should reflect our personality & we promote our awards, training & travels allowing people to get to know us.

How many awards have you now won and which ones are the most significant to you?

Over the years we have won numerous industry awards for being the top sellers of a particular tour operator or hotel chain. However the ones we are most proud are; 2012 Travel Company of the Year as voted for by the Travel Trade Gazette & also two of our managers were commended as finalists in the same awards in the category of ‘Manager of the Year’. These mean a lot as they were awarded by our peers & recognise the considerable effort of the entire team.

What’s the biggest business risk you have taken and what was the outcome?

Starting the business in the first place knowing nothing about the industry. As long as you like customers, enjoy selling & continue to try new things even when the previous ten have failed you’ll be a success!

If you could give one piece of advice to a person who is looking to set up a business what would it be?

Don’t be afraid, if you don’t try it you’ll never know. Don’t try & copy someone else they will always do it better. Take bits of what you like & create your own unique business where you can continually innovate & expand.

Just one more thing*…Can people contact you personally for additional information – if so which method is best?

Yes, no problem always happy to help a budding entrepreneur email is best [email protected] or [email protected]

*borrowed from Columbo!

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