In this week’s Long Read, we wanted to speak to someone with a different view of the cruise and travel industry from what we’ve been hearing, and the best way to do that was to speak to an independent travel agent.
Ocean World Travel is based in Chandlers Ford, just outside Southampton. Their owner and director, Alan Godfrey agreed to talk to us about his business. You can read part 1 of our interview below.
Damian: To start with, how long has Ocean World Travel been going?
Alan: We started trading in 1995, so next year it’ll be 15 years. We’ve always been in cruise up until the last couple of years, where we’ve started moving into general retail as well.
Damian: Have you always had a shop?
Alan: No, we’ve always been very much a telesales operation, up until two years ago. The market has changed quite a bit and the opportunity for retail seems to have come back into being, so we decided to open a up a retail shop. It’s introduced new customers to the business, and actually given us a chance to expand and move slightly away from cruise as well. It’s been good.
Damian: Interesting that it’s given you a chance to move towards other things. So when you first started, how did you get customers with no internet and no shop?
Alan: That’s the interesting thing, because technology has been the biggest thing that’s changed over the years. In those days teletext was the biggest media of them all to create cruise customers. These days the distribution possibilities are massive, so the market has become quite diluted in a sense, and has become tougher to trade in.
Damian: Given everything, would you start up now?
Alan: Yes I would. The internet is key to everything we do, and because of that, one of the big changes in terms of distribution has been that cruise lines have chosen to move into a more direct booking model, as have many companies. They need to have an online awareness and presence, and I full understand the reasons why that is the case, but it just makes it slightly more difficult for everybody to have a share in the market really.
Damian: So do you find that although cruise lines marketing their product is very exciting, there’s more of an opportunity for customers to book direct with the cruise lines?
Alan: Yes, and again I fully understand that because we all access the internet numerous times a day. So if you’re a big brand then it’s absolutely right that you have to have a presence on there yourself. It just means that the people that are trying to sell you sit a little bit further down the list of places that people see first.
Damian: If a customer walks in and, for example, wants a cruise on Fred Olsen’s Black Watch, for two weeks around the Mediterranean - what’s the point of difference that Ocean World Travel offers?
Alan: Well, that really would be telling wouldn’t it! I think, if I tell you that consistently over the past 24 years of trading, our repeat recommendation business sits at about 70% of what we do. It’s all about looking after customers, because really we’re all selling the same product, generally speaking at the same price.
Damian: You must be doing something right to have kept going, and with recommendations that high.
Alan: It’s a constant thing, and it’s an ethos we have within the business. The culture is that ‘the customer is king. We offer the best price that we possibly can, but more importantly than that, you have to look after your customers. It’s cheaper to maintain and keep a customer on board than it is to go out and find a new one.
Damian: So how do you talk to your existing customers? I know you used to do regular print mailings?
Alan: Well it’s changing a lot, and has done over the last few years. We do still do print mailings and there are still elements of that; businesses are quite cyclical and I think direct mailing is coming in again at the moment. Again with electronic communication these days it’s a lot of email, but also as much as we can we communicate on with customers on the phones, because talking to them just engages them a bit more and also keeps them as being your friends.
Damian: You’ve got a shop now; was that just an opportunity that you saw? What was the thought process behind that?
Alan: In an electronic world these days we all tend to spend far too much time online, all day, every day, and although there’s a debate that says you can look for your own holiday, do you really after a week at work want to spend two or three hours of an evening trying to search for things? Or is it better that you actually go to an expert who can spend some time on it and come back with some good recommendations.
Time is precious, so I think there is a need to go back into the high street and give customers what they want, which is the information in the format they want rather than just spending hours trying to find it themselves.
Damian: You’re the only travel agent in Chandlers Ford, how has the location worked out for you?
Alan: The location is interesting because it’s not a mainstream town. We happen to be right at the start of where the traffic comes through so visibility-wise it’s very good, and I’ve got no regrets of having moved into a shop. I would say that the early indications are, that after just over a year and a half, are very promising. I would suggest that another shop at some point in the future wouldn’t be out of the question.
Damian: How much walk-in business do you get?
Alan: It’s started to grow more and more. One of the challenges we have is that because of our name - Ocean World Travel, it’s synonymous with cruise. However the traffic now has lifted quite considerably in the last 4 - 5 months, and is it a case like with anything really, if you started a business today, you’d be very fortunate to be successful within a few months. It takes a while to get established, and we’re now seeing the benefits of just being there for that amount of time.
Damian: and are they all local people?
Alan: Yes mostly. However there is a little bit of an overspill - we find that some of our regular customers actually want to come and say hi now that we have a shop. Otherwise they would have booked over the phone but now they come in, but actually it’s about building those relationships and if people want to come down and have a coffee with us, then that’s absolutely fine.
Come back next week to read part 2…