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Premier Travel enjoys jet-fuelled results

Premier Travel finance director Rachael Willis at the firms HQ in Cambourne. Picture: Keith Heppell
Premier Travel finance director Rachael Willis at the firms HQ in Cambourne. Picture: Keith Heppell

We visit the firm's Cambourne headquarters to speak to finance director Rachael Willis.

A young family playing on the beach at sunset
A young family playing on the beach at sunset

Having settled into its quirky new headquarters in Cambourne and begun a programme of investing in its branches, Premier Travel is flying high.

“Looking at our shops, currently we’re trading very well,” says Rachael Willis, finance director.

“Across all of our locations, we are plus 12 per cent, which is exceeding our targets. Some of our individual branches are doing incredibly well – plus 20 per cent and, in one case, plus 50 per cent. That’s fantastic – way above our expectation. And the call centre is tracking up five per cent.”

Key to this growth has been a new deal with Jet2, the family holidays company that headed south from its northern stronghold last year.

Rachael explains: “We are working very closely this year with Jet2. They have launched into the area and have a lot of summer sun routes out of Stansted and are very, very price competitive.

“They’ve spent a lot on their marketing campaigns and have been working with us on a number of promotional events. They are very happy to work with the trade, which is super, as a lot of the bigger operators are pushing direct, so it’s refreshing that we’ve got that relationship going.

Premier Travel finance director Rachael Willis. Picture: Keith Heppell
Premier Travel finance director Rachael Willis. Picture: Keith Heppell

“That has definitely helped and, you could say, has skewed our figures a little bit because from a standing start it’s doing incredibly well. It’s giving Thomas Cook a run for their money.”

In 2017, how does an independent, East Anglian travel company compete with the holiday giants like Thomas Cook and Thomson – or, for that matter, the myriad of competition online?

“We are constantly looking at who we work with and who our preferred operators are and making sure when a customer comes into one of our branches we are giving them the selection that they won’t necessarily get elsewhere.

“If you book in a Thomson’s shop, you’re most likely to go on a Thomson’s holiday. One of our USPs is we are independent. We have no allegiance to one particular operator and therefore we can offer that breadth of product and really tailor to what a customer wants.

“I think that’s one of our key selling points as to why we’re continuing to perform well.”

That’s a message you have to get across to customers, though.

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands in Thailand
Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands in Thailand

“Marketing and publicity is key,” agrees Rachael. “Last year, we celebrated our anniversary with our 80 years project. It was all about giving something back to the community, getting our name out there and people realising we are in these market towns.

“We try to run some local marketing events that are a little bit different to engage the customers. We’ve recently been running some Thai cooking demonstrations and we had a tuk-tuk van outside a shop in Norwich. We often do in-store promotions with different operators where you can come in and hear from the experts about Sri Lanka or Thailand and so on.

“More importantly, it comes down to our people and whether they are happy. Our aim is always to offer the complete travel service to the customer. Our staff are not just order takers. The relationship between the member of staff and customer is a long-standing one.

“We make sure our staff are very well educated: We send our staff to many destinations for ‘educationals’. We make sure our staff are well travelled. Because we’ve got a branch network and a lot of people, if a customer wants something specialist, we’ll usually ask the whole company who has got experience of this so we can give customers something extra.”

Those calling Premier Travel’s call centre in Cambourne benefit from similar skills.

“The call centre here is skills-routed, so if you’re going to Australia, you’ll speak to an Australia expert. If they’re booking in branch, they can call through to the expert here too.

Premier Travel finance director Rachel Wills at the office in Cambourne. Picture: Keith Heppell
Premier Travel finance director Rachel Wills at the office in Cambourne. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We’re finding staff retention is good. Over 50 per cent of our staff have done over 10 years’ service – and I think that’s testament to the kind of business that we run.

“A number of people have joined from some of the bigger players and they find it refreshing how, as an independent, we try from top to bottom to be fully inclusive with an open-door policy. We’re selling people’s dreams – we need to make sure we are a friendly company.”

Premier’s approach is exemplified by the building we’re talking in. Amid a degree of secrecy designed to surprise and delight staff, the company fitted out its new Cambourne HQ last year with travel-themed rooms. From palm trees and canoes in the entrance to ski-lift chairs, an upturned kayak for a table and fully-stocked tiki bar in the canteen, it’s an office that exudes a sense of humour.

“In the last three to four years we’ve had a heavy investment programme in our branches and for our head office,” says Rachael.

“It was a big move for us to come here and part of the reason for the move was about staff retention. Where we were in Cambridge, it was difficult to recruit and retain staff and parking was a problem.

“Since we’ve been here we’ve held a couple of recruitment days that have been so successful and there’s a lot more interest.

Thailand is one of the most popular destinations for Premier Travel customers
Thailand is one of the most popular destinations for Premier Travel customers

“It’s easy to get to, it’s a nice place – you look out the window and see trees rather than concrete and cranes, and we’re really focusing a lot on staff wellbeing.

“We’re doing a programme of reinvestment in the branches. We’ve done some new shop fits in the bigger branches and that programme will continue. We’re giving them a clean, fresh look to modernise them, putting in wall art and making them inviting places for the customers.

“It’s definitely the case that if we can ensure our staff are happy and they’re well trained and well educated, that naturally results in good customer service.

“The other day our regional manager took a call from a customer who wanted to sing the praises of our St Neots staff. As soon as he went in, he was welcomed with a smile and the consultant did everything for him and got the quote he wanted for Mexico. He was so impressed he wanted to ring head office and tell us, which is so nice. That’s a testament with the ethos of the company.

“These are relationships that are nurtured over time. We offer the full service, from making sure a customer goes on the right type of holiday to asking if they’d like airport parking or a lounge. Do they need transportation to the airport? Do they want travel money reserved?

“We send anniversary or birthday cards. The individual who booked a holiday makes a welcome home call to see if the holiday went well and if there is anything we could do better next time.”

Premier Travel now occupies building 1020 on Cambourne Business Park, From left, Mark Godfrey and John Parker. Picture: Keith Heppell
Premier Travel now occupies building 1020 on Cambourne Business Park, From left, Mark Godfrey and John Parker. Picture: Keith Heppell

That personal touch helps Premier to retain customers.

“One of the main competitors is the internet,” says Rachael. “The big boys are pushing a lot of their business directly online and customers are very well educated as to what they want. But there have been some high-profile failures.

“We’re finding customers want that reassurance. They know their money is going to be safe. The industry is very well regulated and we only work with businesses that are ATOL-protected if it’s an air booking and the commercial arrangements are water tight. We are ABTA-regulated as well.”

What about Premier’s website?

“With our tour operation, Premier Holidays, that is something we are heavily investing in. Our short-haul programme has just gone through an overhaul and is bookable online. Now we’ll start looking at long haul.

“We are finding that customers want to go in and if they are spending quite a lot of money they want that reassurance. They want to know everything is going to work.”

A family at sunset
A family at sunset

Premier Holidays are sold nationwide, primarily through travel agents.

“What we’re seeing within Premier Holidays is a lot of good agent publicity and some good high-revenue bookings. They tend to be the long-haul destinations.

“The biggest destination for us is Thailand, but there is also the Indian Ocean resorts, South Africa, Australia. They tend to be multi-centre holidays with complex itineraries. In that scenario one of our USPs is that customers need to talk to somebody. If you’ve got 10 destinations, you want to know how to order them, where to stay. A lot of our long-haul holidays are tailor-made.

“We constantly have to look at the product we’re offering. There are customers who want the premium product and others who want the tour but at a more competitive price.”

Research is vital to ensure staff know what they are selling.

“We have a product team that travel to our destinations. We’ve got one on a big trip in the Far East now,” says Rachael. “It might sound glamorous but they work very hard and visit a lot of places and hotels. What’s important, especially in the Far East, is our relationship with the product hotels. Our product manager knows the managers of the hotels. That close relationship enables us to deliver the excellent product.

Premier Travels new HQ has themed rooms. Picture: Keith Heppell
Premier Travels new HQ has themed rooms. Picture: Keith Heppell

In an age of constant security concern, how does Premier help its customers stay safe?

“We make sure through our travel experts team that we are constantly monitoring Foreign Office advice and have rapid response if there’s an issue and an area goes off sale. But customers are very well educated these days. I think that’s part of the reason the business with Jet2 is doing so well. They are traditional summer sun destinations at a very good price.”

For those looking to stay in the UK, Premier also offers coach trips and Shearings Holidays.

So what’s next?

“A continued look at the investment across our branches. We know what works well with promotions with different operators and branch-level events. Within our tour operation, we are continuing to invest in our website. We’ve just gone through a major IT restructure to make sure our branches and head office are well networked to improve business processes.

“One of the other things is looking at what we display in our windows to make them look fresh and inspirational with big images.

One of Premier Travels USPs is that it is independent
One of Premier Travels USPs is that it is independent

“Then there’s a continued investment in the staff. We now pay the apprenticeship levy and we’ve got some apprentices in our shops. We’re hoping to recruit more.”

Premier employs 250 staff and has 17 branches across the East of England, plus three franchises on the South Coast. It opened its latest branch, in St Neots, last year. Branches use social media to connect with customers and operate a ‘recommend a friend’ service.

So where would Rachael recommend?

“I’m a skier with my family so the last place we went was Austria,” says Rachael. “For summer sun, I would always recommend Thailand. I had a fantastic time there. The places you can visit are stunning and the service and hotels are first-class. It is not that expensive. It’s a long flight, but the standard of accommodation is excellent.”

• Interview conducted in association with Grant Thornton and its Vibrant Economy initiative.

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