Sunday 19 November 2017

Planes, prams and baby car-seats ­- and a Dublin mum making it all easier

Mum-of-two Olivia Mai is running the only baby equipment rental service in Ireland - and as Christmas approaches, she has her hands full

A strange encounter inspired mother-of-two Olivia Mai to set up her own baby and child equipment rental service. Photo: Gerry Mooney
A strange encounter inspired mother-of-two Olivia Mai to set up her own baby and child equipment rental service. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

A maggot is the last thing you'd expect to be the inspiration for a business - yet that was exactly what spurred mum-of-two Olivia Mai to set up her baby equipment rental service.

"My husband and I were travelling with my daughter when she was only a baby," said Mrs Mai. "We had booked a baby car-seat with a car-hire company. When we got to the car-hire desk at the airport, the car seat was the wrong size - and it was fairly old and a bit grotty.

"We asked the car-hire company for another car seat, but they said this one was the only one they had. It was 11.0 at night and we were still at the airport so we just took the car seat. As if in protest, my daughter then got sick all over it. When I took the cover off to wash it, there was a maggot on the seat."

The thought of her baby daughter sitting on a grotty seat with a maggot on it clearly upset Mrs Mai. She realised too that many other parents may have had similar experiences and as a parent's priority is the safety and comfort of their child when travelling, there could be a gap in the market here.

She was right - no-one was providing a baby equipment rental service in Ireland.

Mrs Mai also figured there would be a big demand for a baby and child equipment rental service given the large number of Irish people living abroad who return regularly to Ireland to visit family.

So in 2012, Mrs Mai set up The Stork Exchange, a company that rents out equipment for babies and young children, such as car seats, prams, cots, high chairs and buggies.

The company is trained and insured to fit car seats - so, where possible, it meets customers on arrival and ensures the car seat is installed correctly. The business has a shop in Dublin Airport and a pick-up and return point in Shannon Airport. It is in partnership with key airlines, including Ryanair and Aer Lingus, as well as car rental companies, such as Sixt and Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

"If a passenger comes into Dublin Airport and their pram is damaged or their car seat wasn't loaded on to the aircraft, it means the passenger is stuck," said Mrs Mai.

"In those cases, the airlines - Ryanair, Aer Lingus, American Airlines and Emirates - would send their passengers to us and we supply the equipment. We also supply all the car seats for Sixt and Enterprise Rent-a-Car."

The company recently won a contract with the Dublin Airport Authority to provide courtesy strollers for families. Those strollers, which are free for passengers to use, are currently on trial in the airport.

"The courtesy stroller trial is going very well," said Mrs Mai. "There's been a really great response from the public. It's in Pier 1 at the moment, which for little legs can be quite a walk! Hopefully, it will be rolled out throughout the airport.

"There were problems in other airports with strollers being stolen and abandoned around the airport, but that hasn't happened in Dublin and staff and public have been massively compliant - I think everyone wants it to work."

Mrs Mai set up The Stork Exchange when her two children were very young.

"My son, Nicholas, was a baby when I set up the business and my daughter, Anya, was only three years old," said Mrs Mai. "That was a big challenge. I was looking after the children at home - and I had set the business up from home.

"At the time, I was coming to the airport to meet clients and I'd have to bring the kids with me. So Nicholas would be in the sling, Anya would be walking beside me holding my hand - and I'd be laden down with baby equipment at the same time."

Of course, this experience means Mrs Mai has a good understanding of the needs of her customers. Any parent who has travelled with young children knows just how much of a circus it can be, how you almost have to pack the kitchen sink before you can leave the house - and how you would do anything just to make that task a bit easier.

"It's a niche business but it's a really positive service for people," said Mrs Mai. "Most of our business is from people coming in to Dublin and Shannon Airport. We've been really well received."

The company's biggest markets are American tourists and the Irish diaspora, depending on the time of year.

"A lot of Irish people who have moved to Australia come back to Ireland for Christmas," said Mrs Mai. "They often come home for between six and eight weeks. So they may have equipment booked - or a granddad or granny may have booked the equipment for them. From April onwards, we get a lot of American visitors using the service."

It can be quite emotional running the business from Dublin Airport.

"You have families saying hello and goodbye and we get a lot of hugs from our customers," she said.

"Christmas is especially tearful - in a lovely way. Some customers surprise their family by coming back for Christmas, which always makes me well up! I always have tissues with me when I'm waiting in arrivals at Christmas!

"And the grandparents are so funny, they give their son or daughter a quick kiss and then scoop the grandchild up and off they go, completely absorbed in their grandchild - it's lovely.

"We get to know quite a lot of our customers quite well as they come back several times a year and we see their kids grow - that sounds totally cheesy, but it is lovely!

"Sometimes it can be sad too when they are coming back for a bereavement. A lot of our customers started with their babies - and they come back every year. One woman contacted us in the summer to book a travel system for Christmas - and she hasn't even had her baby yet!"

The equipment which is rented out most by The Stork Exchange is car seats. It costs about €50 a week to rent a baby car-seat and about €40 a week to rent a booster seat.

"We cap our prices at three weeks," said Mrs Mai. "Otherwise, you'd be as well going out and buying the equipment yourself."

Mrs Mai, who is now 39, was a freelance journalist before setting up the business.

"I'd been working for a magazine that went into liquidation just before Anya was born," said Mrs Mai. "So I was freelancing from home before I founded The Stork Exchange."

She was born in Howth and now lives in Fairview.

Ironically, Mrs Mai and her husband haven't travelled that much since she started the business.

"As it's based in the airport, it's a seven-day-a-week business - so we're very busy," she said. "I started with one baby seat and one toddler seat. Now we have over 300 car seats in stock and I'd say we'll be buying more for the summer. Customer numbers have doubled every year. We noticed a big jump last summer when compared to summer 2014.

"My feeling is that people who were passing through the airport saw us here in 2014 and then came back and used the service in 2015."

Her Polish husband, Bartek, left his full-time job last year to join the business so it could cope with demand. The couple took on a full-time member of staff last August and it also employs someone part-time.

The pick-up in the numbers of tourists coming to Ireland in recent years has also helped the business. "Dublin Airport has seen huge growth," said Mrs Mai.

Although Mrs Mai said she'd love to go international, she feels she already has her hands full with the Irish airports - and so is currently concentrating on the business at hand. She would, however, like to expand the type of equipment the business offers in Ireland.

"In summer 2016, we'd like to be able to offer scooters and trikes," said Mrs Mai.

Christmas is clearly one of the business's busiest times and Mrs Mai expects to be flat-out. "Christmas is bananas at the airport so it will be all hands on deck soon," she said.

"Thankfully, the airport is closed on Christmas Day."

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