Luke Western of The Holiday Franchise Company gives us his honest take on being in the travel business during the coronavirus pandemic
At the beginning of the pandemic, we didn’t know how bad it would get. I remember being at a franchise show at the beginning of February 2020 and everything was pretty much normal. There was a distant talk of this virus breaking out in Asia, but my initial thought was that we’ve heard all of this before, and it would blow over in a few weeks without spreading into this worldwide killer.
Seven weeks later, we’re in lockdown and everything changed.
It’s a strange feeling going into something that you don’t know much about, have no control over and don’t know the end of. But here we are, working from home and very quickly having to work out a plan to get us through – for who knows how long.
Needless to say, running a travel business has been tough throughout the global pandemic. Going into this we had 14 travel businesses to help look after that were run by people who were new to travel and looking to us (rightly so) for support.
There was no question we had to adapt. We needed to allow our franchisees to have the information and freedom to act independently, efficiently, and confidently in a time that none of us have experienced before.
Customers come first
Our immediate focus was customers. How do we help our franchisees get ahead of this? How do we help them manage bookings that have already departed, bookings that have been cancelled, and bookings that are likely to be cancelled?
We worked with them daily, pulling reports, working on documents together to manage their business. We produced FAQ recorded training videos allowing our franchisees to take action at any time of the day. We established new procedures quickly for COVID-19 affected bookings. We did everything we could to support our team.
Throughout the pandemic we fought for our customers, spending hours on the phone with tour operators that cancelled or postponed their plans. Our main objective was to try to get customers to rebook for future holidays, therefore, getting good prices and still having that trip to look forward to.
Ahead of the curve
80 per cent of the time our customers trusted us and rebooked a holiday. This is pretty incredible when you look at the market and see other companies rebook rates as low as 15 per cent. We achieved this by being ahead of the game. Phoning customers before they had to phone us.
The loyalty and trust of our customers has been amazing throughout this experience. It has boosted the group’s standing on Trustpilot – we ONLY received four- and five-star reviews so it’s clear that we will come out of this as a bigger, stronger company with a fiercely loyal customer base.
When life gives you lemons…
We didn’t just cope, we pushed the franchise business forward.
We took the opportunity to get our induction training programme accredited by the Institute of Travel and Tourism. We increased our supplier training sessions and launched a fantastic new e-learning platform Journey to Success, so our franchisees could learn at their own pace about anything from destinations to tour operators and everything in between.
We wanted them to utilise any downtime by increasing their knowledge to ensure they were at the top of their game when the world reopened.
Sticking to the new normal
Our training went from face-to-face to Zoom, something I was personally against pre-pandemic. But it’s amazing how you can make things work when you have no other choice. Offering this method will continue post-COVID. It’s become the new (and improved) normal.
This improved method of one-to-one training has allowed us to break our sessions down from six to seven-hour training sessions to more three to four-hour ones, allowing for more preparation and follow-ups with the franchisees, offering much more value to every franchisee that joins us.
We sought opportunities to create additional revenue streams for our franchisees, securing partnerships with travel insurance and foreign currency, plus, we launched the ability to sell gift vouchers.
Recognising the need to support the franchisees and the head office team with their mental health, we partnered with Everymind and launched our own app. All our head office team are trained as mental health champions, so our network always had support. We’ve started to implement sessions with the team such as live yoga, to connect with them outside of travel and their business.
We have built a culture of evolution that will never stop. We always seek ways to improve our offering and show our franchise network that they chose the right business partner.
Exploring other options
Despite the business climate at the time, we were still speaking to people thinking about starting a travel business. As we got deeper into the lockdown, I was having great conversations with people who love travel, who have always had this itch to get involved but always lacked the time to do so. Suddenly they found themselves on furlough, being paid 80 per cent of a wage to do nothing, so with a lot of time on their hands.
A work day during the pandemic
I worked a lot of hours during July, August, and September 2020, possibly the hardest I’ve ever worked. I would hear people talking about this amazing weather (apparently there was a heatwave?) while I was on Zoom, answering questions honestly to help people get started with a solid grounding of knowledge.
3.00 am starts were the norm to catch up on emails and get ahead of the day. Coffee was an absolute must and my lunchtime run gave me the energy I needed for the afternoon.
I started recording videos in reply to people’s emails, and honestly, I probably put off more people than I inspired to join us. But that’s because I wouldn’t want to railroad people into joining us. I did everything honestly and openly, gave people as much information as they needed to make an informed decision that’s best for them, not us.
My answers were and still are black and white, no sugar coating, no sales tricks, no ploys. As John Smiths used to say, ‘no nonsense’.
Honesty is the best policy
We went into a global pandemic with 14 travel businesses and a franchise head office team of three. We’re coming out of it with 40 travel businesses and a franchise head office team of six. Our training is better than ever, our systems are industry-leading according to the travel industry and franchise professionals.
We’re built on solid ground, our group is on the up, our network of franchisees is truly inspirational, and our head office team is more dedicated than ever. We are excited about the future.
Luke Western is head of sales and marketing at The Holiday Franchise Company. Over the last 18 months, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Luke has grown the business from 14 franchisees to 40 while maintaining high standards of selection. With a back in the travel industry, Luke understands the role of a travel agent and the skills, knowledge, and personality traits needed to be successful.