Tuesday 18 June 2019

Why do we use travel agents in the age of the internet?

Nicola Brady visits Ireland's Favourite Travel Agent, as voted by our readers, to find out how it stays ahead of the game

Tejeda, Gran Canaria
Tejeda, Gran Canaria
Sunway's Mary Denton

Nicola Brady

A trip to Sunway's Dún Laoghaire headquarters almost feels like a holiday in itself. When I drop into the offices on a winter Wednesday, the sun is splitting the stones, and there's a killer view of the shimmering sea from the top floor office.

It's a fitting setting for the company you voted Ireland's Favourite Travel Agent this year. Sunway has been on the go for over 50 years; an Irish family business that has witnessed two recessions, the boom of budget airlines and the rise of the internet.

So how has Sunway gone the distance?

"No matter what, we'd always go above and beyond for our customers," Mary Denton, General Manager for European Holidays (below left), tells me. "We're on our phones all the time. If there's a problem, we can sort it out."

Take bad weather, for example. When Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, Sunway had 132 customers located around the Florida coast and on various cruise ships in the area. Back in Dublin, staff raced into gear. "We literally worked for 10 days around the clock, moving them from location to location, making sure they were safe, that their families knew where they were," says Deirdre Sweeny, General Manager for Cruise, USA, Worldwide and Niche holidays. "If they had booked [independently] online, they would have been on their own, with absolutely no idea what to do. Stranded, basically."

An emergency number is given to every customer, whether they book directly with the company, or through a travel agent. Sunway even got a call on Christmas Day last year. Another customer on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday to Lapland realised they had lost their child's passport. Mary got the phone call, told them to relax, and then got on the blower to the immigration staff at Rovaniemi airport, sent them a photocopy and convinced them to accept it. Crisis averted.

Sunway's Mary Denton
Sunway's Mary Denton

A few days before I call in, a family overslept and almost missed their flight to Lapland - but because Sunway operates the charter flights, they were able to hold it until they arrived. "If it was just going to the Canaries, we wouldn't delay the flight," says Mary. "But this is a family that's probably paid €5,000-€6,000 for two nights, and there are kids involved. It's a special kind of trip. So we were able to do that, and they were delighted."

Of course, the way we book holidays has changed dramatically over the years. We can book flights with a few clicks of a smartphone, browse hotels while we wait for the bus, or stay in a stranger's home. So why, in this modern age, do people continue to use a travel agent?

"You can go on the internet and book a holiday, but you have no idea if the product is actually there, or if you're going to receive what you think you've booked," Deirdre says. "And you're paying in full, up front. We have low deposits and payment plans- another huge selling point. We go over and above. Our repeat clientele is massive... People like dealing with the team."

And that's another bonus. With an in-house team of travel addicts, there's always someone in the office who knows your dream destination inside and out.

"There's so much on the web that sometimes you can be overwhelmed," says Managing Director Tanya Airey (her grandfather, Roy Beatty, started Sunway in 1966, and she followed her mother in taking the helm in 1998). "The people here have been to the places they're selling, so they know what will suit people, whatever their budget or criteria."

They also know some secret travel hacks, like which cruise lines offer cheaper single rooms - something you'd be hard pushed to find yourself online.

Some things are out of even their hands, of course. Like the customer who wanted a balcony cabin on his cruise, but for it to be… at sea level.

Sunway might be Ireland's favourite travel agent, but even they couldn't swing that one.

NB: The Irish Independent Reader Travel Awards 2019 are sponsored by Iarnród Eireann. Read the full list of winners here.

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