Travel Plug

The travel industry took a new direction in 1998 with the launch of the first holiday shopping channel. A dedicated call centre and well-trained staff have allowed it to make big inroads.

TV Travel Shop is the UK’s first holiday shopping channel, stocking all the brochures you would expect from a high-street travel agency and offering features on destinations.

While call centres have a reputation for training staff quickly and offering them highly tailored scripts to follow, the travel industry is different. TV Travel Shop runs a dedicated call centre. Staff are on a steep learning curve and have to think on their feet because holiday purchases are so open-ended.

TV Travel Shop, majority owned by Flextech, was launched in April last year with 50 staff. It now has 360 employees, about 250 of which are full-time telesales consultants.

In addition to the office and call centre, which are based in Bromley, the company has TV studios in London.

The decision to locate the call centre in Bromley was influenced by the presence of a number of travel-related companies that were potentially a good source of staff, says commercial director Carol Smallman. “We also had to find a location that was easily accessible to the TV studios so that we could keep communications flowing. By Christmas, we will have a second call centre site outside the M25.”

She admits that recruiting staff in the South-east has been a challenge: “We’ve had to recruit quite aggressively, for example through open days. We’ve had a better response from ads in local newspapers than from travel titles.

“We recruit both qualified and non-qualified staff. ‘Qualified staff’ means those people who have been in the travel industry for a few years. When we’ve been looking for senior management positions upwards, we’ve either gone through agencies, used the travel trade press or specific publications.”

Outsourcing was considered, but rejected because of the massive growth in calls. “It’s not like selling a product that you offer in blue or yellow. The price of a holiday is considerably more than you would generally spend on a purchase from the TV. At an average selling price per person of about &£580, booking value is generally in excess of &£1,000. We need staff who are articulate, enthusiastic and able to talk about holidays with an understanding.”

The company’s coverage has increased dramatically, says Smallman. “When we launched last year, we broadcast five hours a day as part of the Sky analogue broadcasting package. We then increased that to more than ten hours. Then in October we went to 22 hours a day on a split transmission basis.

“In the meantime, we signed up for deals with TeleWest and Cable & Wireless. With the advent of digital, we’ll be on SkyDigital 24 hours a day. Where we were broadcasting to 3.5 million households, we’re now going out to about 6.5 million.”

The initial response mechanism is through a phone number, so it is not yet truly interactive TV. Smallman comments: “When the initial response becomes more interactive, it will provide us with very good pre-qualified sales leads, because it will allow the customer to find more information before they call us.

“There will be a ‘call me’ button, which will go through to a voice manager, and an appointment time will be set for us to call them back. Or if agents are available immediately, we will be able to have someone book the holiday.”

True interactivity will take up to two years to achieve, says Smallman. The main reasons for this delay are customer resistance to disclosing details and insufficiently sophisticated operator systems.

The call centre recruitment drive is ongoing, according to Maureen McGrory, human resources manager. “This is a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week operation. It has taken a long time to feel fully staffed. It was looking like a bottomless pit for a while because we’ve got so many different shift patterns to cover.

“We initially thought that we’d be looking for about 50 sales staff. Now we’re up to 300, and still growing.”

All calls are in-bound, explains McGrory. “Most of them are in response to the television ads. However, people are not necessarily calling specifically in response to a product they’ve seen – often just the idea of a holiday.

“It’s a very complicated process. It’s certainly very different from asking someone their postcode and house number and then providing a cheery response.”

There is a constant demand for training as many staff have not worked in the travel industry before. Equally, staff with experience in the travel industry may not adapt well to the call centre environment.

McGrory adds: “A lot of people who work in travel agencies would find the environment here impossible. It’s incredibly chaotic, and we need people who aren’t going to be thrown whenever we come up with new ideas. Working in a travel agency is a very routine environment and this is by no means routine. But we want people from the travel industry, as well as people with a telesales background.”

Interestingly, TV Travel Shop has not experienced the high turnover of staff traditionally associated with call centres. McGrory believes part of the reason for this is the diverse nature of the call centre workers. “We look for an ability to create a description of a holiday in your mind. We want people who genuinely love going on package holidays.

“We have a good mix of people, aged from 18 to late-50s. I honestly have not had a problem with turnover of staff. The only challenge I’ve had is with the growth we are experiencing.

“I’m now looking for an additional 60 to 80 people who can work either a part-time or twilight shift, because these are the gaps in the rota.”

Call Centre Expo

Call Centre Expo 99 is taking place at NEC Birmingham from September 28 – 29.

The show will feature some of the leading industry names, including Lucent Technologies, BT Commsure, Apropos Technology and Unisys. Alongside the show, a number of activities will be taking place, including an advice centre which will answer visitors’ questions about call centres and customer relationship management (CRM) issues.

There are an estimated 7,000 call centres in the UK employing about 60,000 people.

Call Centre Expo event director Mark Shell says: “Adoption of a call centre is no longer the sole preserve of large corporates with hundreds of customer agents in purpose-built greenfield sites.

“The advent of lower prices and off-the-shelf packages is attracting the small to medium-sized businesses.”

The Expo will also include free keynote sessions, including a presentation from call centre and telecoms expert Harry Newton.

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