East Anglia: Fred. Olsen takes brand loyalty to a new level

Steve Williams, managing director of Fred. Olsen Travel

Steve Williams, managing director of Fred. Olsen Travel - Credit: Archant

AS Fred. Olsen Travel embarks on a year of celebration to mark its 25th anniversary, SHELINE CLARKE speaks to managing director Steve Williams about expansion, new challenges and what makes his customers so loyal to this very East Anglian brand

STEVE Williams started his career with Fred. Olsen 25 years ago when the company moved from London to East Anglia, recruiting a swathe of local people in the process.

Since then he has progressed from trainee accountant to managing director, occupying several roles, including financial controller, along the way.

His long service is typical of the loyalty shown to the company by staff and customers alike.

Fred. Olsen Travel is a privately owned independent travel agency, quite different from its ‘cousin’ Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines which was created solely to market Fred. Olsen Cruises on its four ships and whose ultimate owners are quoted on the Norwegian stock exchange.

As such, Fred. Olsen Travel sells holidays offered by all cruise lines as well as tours and stays. It is the exclusive agent in the UK for Star Clipper holidays and AmaWaterways river cruises. It also has a franchise business, Go Cruise, and business travel division.

There are seven Fred. Olsen travel agencies scattered across the region in Ipswich, Colchester, Norwich, Bury St Edmunds, Felixstowe and since its acquisition of TravelQuest earlier this year, Woodbridge.

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It is, therefore, a complicated business which is enjoying continued and sustained growth.

Despite the inevitable confusion between the travel and cruise companies, Steve believes the name Fred. Olsen still stands for strength, stability and second to none personal service.

“If you talk to our shop managers and ask them ‘what’s the biggest strength in the business?’ they say ‘the name’. Ask them ‘what’s the weakness’ and they say ‘the name’, because some people think all we do is sell Fred Olsen cruises, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Steve.

“Fred. Olsen Cruises accounts for about 20% of our cruise business and part of the challenge has been to educate people to all the other things we offer.”

When Steve took over as managing director in 2005 the business had six shops plus the business travel and he knew it needed to grow.

“I was very lucky at the time because the cruise industry was just starting to take off. Many more cruise lines were starting to operate and it was no longer just Fred. Olsen and P&O. Suddenly there was all this investment in cruising and we could see it was going to grow which it has done exponentially over the last five to six years, and we have been lucky to ride that wave.”

Fifteen years ago Fred. Olsen Travel secured the exclusive agency for Star Clipper cruises, offering holidays aboard tall ships in the Mediterranean and Caribbean which has now gone from being a very niche market to an important seller for the independent travel agent, with sales growing in light of the increased popularity of holidays at sea.

“That business started from a personal relationship between our marketing director and the owner of Star Clipper who designs and operates these amazing ships. The misapprehension is that one, you have to climb the rigging and two, that they are extremely expensive. You can climb the rigging if you want but it isn’t compulsory, and they are affordable and we have just finished another record year with them, it has been a tremendously successful relationship.”

Another exclusive agency agreement is with AmaWaterways, offering four and five star river cruises in Europe.

“I always think river cruising appeals to the lakes and mountains type traveller,” said Steve. “These beautiful ships deliver you right into the centre of the town you are visiting where you can explore on foot or go on an excursion; it’s all about the destination whereas some would argue with ocean cruising, the ship is the destination.

“They are quite different markets and it has been great for us to have them both in the mix.”

Further areas of growth under Steve’s watch have been on the business travel side with the acquisition of Johnson Stevens Travel in Felixstowe and in its franchise business Go Cruise. When he took over the business there were 17 franchisees, today there are more than 60, giving Fred. Olsen Travel a national reach.

So having a range of exclusive holidays and a network of agents has no doubt helped Fred. Olsen Travel buck the trend which has seen other independent travel agencies go out of business in these tough economic times. Above and beyond that, Steve firmly believes it is the value added by his agents to every transaction that makes the difference and he is proud that customers come back to time and time again.

“Some people don’t think twice about booking online but there is a real resistance to it among our customers and that’s because there are still a lot of people who value personal service and good solid advice.

“Most of them aren’t booking a week on a beach, they are looking to travel and explore and they want advice and assurance that if they are going to spend £6-7,000 on a holiday that it is going to be right for them. I think that is what brings people back to us and why so much of our business comes from recommendations.”

To make this work, all Fred. Olsen Travel agents are knowledgeable about the products they sell, are well travelled and have experience of the tours, hotels and ships they are selling.

“If people come to us and they know more about the holiday than the person serving them, then why would they bother?

“We are only as good as the as the experience the customer is going to have and I think giving the customer a unique experience and adding value to the transaction is the only way travel agents are going to survive.”

A good example of the benefits of using a dedicated travel agent was the ash cloud incident of 2010 when thousands of travellers were stranded overseas as flights were grounded and its effects were felt across the globe.

“That was a really stressful time for anyone in the travel business but in many ways it turned into a positive for us because it made people realise that if you are not booked with a travel agent, that you had booked online and you couldn’t remember who with, that you couldn’t contact them. A travel agent couldn’t necessarily get you home but we could reassure people that everything was being done to repatriate them and we could make sure they were ok, or if they needed anything.

“ I think clients realised after that the value of having a personal travel agent. That’s what we are trying to create; a situation whereby people are loyal to us and our brand and they come back because we add value to every holiday they book. The people they deal with in the shops are almost their personal agents because they have been booking their holidays for years and understand what they like and what they don’t like.

“I don’t think that kind of service will ever be replaced by the internet. Some people will go for the cheapest deal and are comfortable to click a button and send thousands of pounds through the ether but others just aren’t. All the time we enrich the experience and the transaction then I hope people will keep coming back to us.”

The figures certainly back up Steve’s theory. In 2004 the company turned over £17million; last year the figure was £52m with the operating profit increasing by a £1m in the same period. The value of its cruise sales has risen from £3m to £30m. The company employs 85 staff in the region and is looking for further expansion.

Earlier this year it acquired TravelQuest in Woodbridge, and sees further acquisition as one way of sustaining its growth.

Said Steve: “Customers visiting TravelQuest should notice very little difference; the travel agent already provides exceptional customer service and offers a host of prestigious holiday destinations and products, all of which are attributes Fred. Olsen Travel also prides itself on, and one of the reasons we decided to acquire TravelQuest.

“This successful business requires no restructuring. Our hope is simply to add to the already discerning selection and profile of holidays already on offer. Maybe it’s my cautious accountancy background but if something doesn’t need fixing,then don’t fix it.”

Fred. Olsen Travel is also looking to reinvigorate its training programme for young recruits, introduce an over the counter foreign currency service and engage with local charities to mark its 25th year anniversary.

“I think it’s about staying true to what you believe in,” said Steve, “and offering a service people can trust and believe in.

“I think there’s a parallel with a good butcher’s shop. Ten years ago a lot of butchers went out of business because everyone thought they could get cheap meat at the supermarket; now we will drive 20 miles to go to a farmers’ market with all the extra cost of doing that because we want to know where the meat came from and we love the fact that we are getting better service and quality product.

“We are going back full circle to traditional industries and trades and quality products and people are prepared to pay extra for it and I think that is where travel is. Everyone assumed the internet was going to take over but what we do is to try and invest ourselves as part of that transaction and add value.

“People in travel are usually very positive people who are resilient and can take on all the challenges of the economy and things like the ash cloud and still deliver great service and take pride in everything they do, and that’s the cornerstone of our business.”