Family travel agent wins top awards as it fights back against online booking

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Travel is changing. People want more than a standard package holiday, they want something customised, adventurous and exotic.

Catering to this growing demand for exclusivity, and keeping customers coming back year after year, is why the family-owned Baldwins Travel Group has managed to defy the age of internet booking and thrive.

Its success was recognised last Wednesday when it won in two categories at the Travel Weekly Achievement Awards, hosted at London’s Park Plaza Westminster Hotel.

The firm won in the categories National High Street Agency 2016 and Travel Agent of the Year for London and the South East.

Established in 1895, the Tunbridge Wells-based travel agent has occupied the same spot on Grosvenor Road ever since – although it has been expanded to include neighbouring units.

It has only changed hands three times in its history, and each time has remained within the family that has owned it for generations.

The latest immediate family to hold the reigns are the Marks.

And since the current chairman Ron Marks took over 25 years ago, the firm has grown to include eight stores in the south east – the latest addition being Lewes – plus 60 staff and a recorded turnover of £30million.

It provided services for 23,000 passengers last year. Day to day management is now left to his two sons, Nick and Chris Marks, who through their many years at the business know the travel industry inside-out with a keen insight into the changing patterns of tourism.

One of the main factors affecting the sector at the moment has been the marked rise in global uncertainty in recent years.

“With all the problems in the world at the moment we have seen an exodus of people changing their holiday patterns from places like Turkey to the Canary Islands, Spain and Portugal, which are all now full.

“Spain alone has seen a 22 per cent increase in holidaymakers this year due to this effect.

“And it is not just the British heading there; the Germans, the Russians and the Italians are also avoiding places they see as unsafe.

“It’s not just one nation, it’s all nations,” said Nick.

The time it takes for places to recover from a negative event varies, with some countries – such as Egypt – still struggling to re-attract tourists following incidents of terrorism and political instability. But growing uncertainty is failing to stop the increase in new destinations opening up to tourism, they said.

Nick continued: “Even compared to five years ago there is a huge amount of extra choice and this will happen more and more.

“People are becoming increasingly adventurous, heading to Cambodia, Vietnam, Argentina and Peru. Even Myanmar (Burma) has been opening up recently.

“It’s just exploded the number of destinations.”

Equally, the negative fallout from Britain’s vote to leave the EU has proven short-lived he said, adding: “For the first two weeks there was a lot of uncertainty and that made for interesting times, but stability has definitely come back.”

Another noticeable trend is in the personalisation of holidays and the shift away from pre-packaged deals, said Chris.

He explained: “People are more interested in creating their own tailor-made trips, which we have certainly seen in our sales but across the Advantage Network too.

“Rather than just taking something off the shelf people want a unique experience they can talk about to their friends and this has been made more possible by increased access to information about the world.

“Although there are pockets of uncertainty and these are challenging times, the world is much more reachable.”

The Advantage Network is a consortia comprising over 900 members, including Baldwins, who pool resources to benefit from increased group-buying power.

This allows smaller firms to compete on price with larger companies such as Thompson and Thomas Cook.
Combined, the network has an annual turnover of over £3billion.

This competitiveness, not just among holiday companies but also among countries themselves looking to attract tourists, means access to places previously considered exclusive is now an option for people on lower budgets.

Nick points out that currently a two-week stay in Greece, all inclusive at a five-star resort currently costs the same as an equivalent ten days in Mauritius.

“It’s becoming more affordable to have luxury.”

The idea – and the realities – of holidaying abroad mean it is no longer in itself considered exclusive and or a luxury but a necessity, they said.

“In the past a lot more people couldn’t afford to go away and instead they would go to a campsite on the English coast.

“It may be a beautiful area but it is now very expensive to travel and holiday in the UK and despite the fall in the exchange rate it is still good value to go abroad.

“I don’t know many people who will not go on a holiday of some type. For a lot of families where both people are working it is the only real family time they get,” Chris explained.

Although it was hailed as a landmark ruling which would lead to a surge in term-time holidays, the recent case of Jon Platt – the father from the Isle of Wight who successfully challenged the local council’s attempt to impose a £120 penalty after he took his daughter to Disney World during a school week – seems to have had a negligible affect at Baldwins.

“We have not yet noticed any rise but if I am going to be brutally honest it has always happened.

“Will we see an increase in families taking their children out of school? Probably not. It will stay exactly the same,” said Nick.

Chris suggested some people see the £60 per day fine as a price worth paying as its still works out cheaper than a peak-time holiday.

But he thinks it was a ‘common misconception’ that the agents are to blame for the high prices.

“It is not the fault of the travel agents or even the tour operators, it is simply supply and demand and it’s a Europe-wide problem.

“If you go to a beach resort during the summer holidays it isn’t just going to be the British there, every country is off at the same time and there is limited room,” he said.

Moving forward, Nick and Chris believe the future of the company lies in continuing to offer a high level of specialist customer service in order to attract customers and compete with the internet.

Nick said: “We have to keep looking at new areas of the world and making sure all the staff have in-depth knowledge of the places where they sell holidays too.

“As long as we are continuing to develop our teams, that inevitably will secure new bookings as people feel better about coming into travel agencies.”

Convincing people to return to the high street travel agents is one of the main challenges facing their industry, but both Nick and Chris feel the tide is beginning to turn against online-only providers.

Chris said: “Let’s be honest, you can’t get the same level of interaction when you book on the internet.

“Someone may come into Baldwins and say ‘I want to go to the Maldives and here is my budget’ – and an agent could say ‘actually for your budget and what you want to do, I would recommend here instead’.

“You are not going to get that type of customer experience online, and this is what we are trying to develop.

“The challenge is to get people back from the internet, give us a go, and hopefully they will get a positive experience from it.

“Certainly it is the younger generations who don’t realise it is not necessarily cheaper online and they may not get the holiday they actually want.”

But Nick said they had definitely seen a trend in people returning to the traditional travel agency in recent years.

One of the catalysts for this change was the disruption wrought by the 2010 volcanic eruption in Iceland which resulted in a giant ash cloud across Europe grounding flights for days.

“People found they were stuck abroad and if they had booked on the internet they couldn’t work out how to get home because there was no one to call.

“The internet has had an impact on the industry but we are not afraid of it – it is just another platform for us to use and sell from.”

The long-term plan is to keep the company sustainable and build a legacy which perhaps their own children will want to continue.

Chris said: “We are the second generation and Baldwins has been in the hands of three different families since it was founded.

“Hopefully it will be in our custodianship for another couple of generations, if it is right for our children – but you never know.”

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