Doreen McKenzie, Managing Director, Knock Travel, talks to ITTN’s News & Features Editor Neil Steedman about the agency, her best and worst decisions, the state of the industry in Northern Ireland – and celebrating 25 years in business. Knock Travel has two offices in Belfast with 19 staff and was the Ulster finalist for the 2014 ITTN Travel Agency of the Year Award.
“I always wanted to be in travel and after a couple of years as a clerical assistant in the Civil Service I joined Horizon Holidays’ reservations office in Belfast, later transferring to Spain as a courier – until the Courtline disaster in 1973 led to the company’s bankruptcy, along with other tour operators.
“I returned home and was asked to provide maternity cover for Hamilton Travel – and the six months turned into 17 years! I worked my way up from retail travel clerk to Director, responsible for opening branch offices and overseeing ABTA rules and regulations.
“When Hamilton Travel faced financial difficulties I purchased two of the offices I had previously opened for them and created Knock Travel 25 years ago on 1st April 1990 – one was at 255 Upper Newtownards Road, the other at 32 Gilnahirk Road, both in east Belfast.
“Despite it being on April Fool’s Day (!) starting Knock Travel was the best decision of my career – while my worst was investing £60,000 in Loughlink Ltd, the failed effort in 2001 to start fast-ferry commuter services across Belfast Lough from Belfast to Bangor and Carrickfergus. Investment lost, lessons learnt!
“We bought 253 Upper Newtownards Road and transferred here from number 255 in 1998. Then in 2002 we took over number 251 and made the two premises into one, with connections through at each of the three levels, as well as a small roof garden.
“The Gilnahirk Road business was transferred to new premises in nearby Kings Square Shopping Centre in 2000, but this was closed in 2005 and the two staff moved into head office.
“We also have a second branch at Newforge Country Club, 18b Newforge Lane, which we took over from Oasis Travel in July last year after closing the Bangor premises in Hamilton Road that we had acquired from McClure Travel in 2003.
Footfall and Business Sectors
“We are three miles out from Belfast city centre on the main arterial road going east to Co Down, so there is not a lot of natural footfall – at least, not during office hours. We are in the old village of Ballyhackamore, which has become the place for restaurants and bars, so there is plenty of footfall at night time!
“As a consequence, our B2C retail leisure business focuses on target niche markets for which travel arrangements are not easily made on the web, such as weddings abroad, cruises, safaris, groups, complex travel itineraries, and so on.
“We are also very active on social media, with more than 3,150 likes on Facebook, and we will soon be launching our new website including a blog – although ‘blogging’ is just new terminology for what I have been doing for all those years, giving recommendations! Also, as part of our 25th anniversary celebrations, we will be launching a three-minute animated video on the website and YouTube. This is partly a response to the fact that people retain 20% of what they see, compared with 10% of what they hear, and partly an indulgence for ‘going back to childhood’!
“Our B2B business travel department focuses on two markets – travel arrangements to small corporate businesses and where targeted arrangements with business suppliers have been put in place to increase commission levels.
“Finally, our B2G business equates to 80% of the income of the business travel department, which has been achieved by Government tendering – and we have retained the contract for the Northern Ireland Office and its associated bodies since its inception.
Staff Levels and Turnover
“Between the two offices Knock Travel currently has 19 staff, myself included. At peak we had 24 staff and the reduced number came through natural wastage rather than redundancies.
“Two staff members have completed 25 years of service this year – Pauline Shuttle, General Manager, and Peter Johnston, Retail Manager, both worked with me in Hamilton Travel and have been with Knock Travel since its inception.
“Some 60% of all other staff have 10 years or more service with the company, and staff have combined travel experience of over 450 years.
“From a cramped office with four staff and turnover under £1 million in 1990, we now have 19 staff, a £7 million turnover and a tremendous working environment. Our turnover increased to more than £10 million in 2013, the year in which we were awarded the travel contract for the G8 Summit talks held in Fermanagh.
“The company has achieved profit each year since its creation 25 years ago.
“I have been involved with the Consort agency consortium since the beginning, initially as the Hamilton Travel representative and then with Knock Travel as a member. Consort currently has 20 members with 38 shops – there were more than 200 shops in Northern Ireland in the early-mid 2000s but only around 75 now, through retirements, sales and mergers.
“Three years ago Consort was approached by both the Advantage and Worldchoice UK groups, and it was decided to become affiliated with, and take shares in, Advantage. Consort members thus have access to deals through Advantage, as well as having our own deals.
“Profit margins in the travel business are low and travel agents handle their clients’ problems so well, but never get the credit. Travel agents are still seen as soft targets and not as professionals. My husband Maurice points out that people willingly pay £150 to speak to other professionals – but try asking for that across a travel agency counter!
“I am very involved in ABTA and have served on many training committees to raise standards and awareness within and without the industry. The brain that has a problem also has the solution, and travel agency staff need to be taught that they also have the solution. I would spend about two days a week in London or on ABTA work.
“Two issues are the APD and whether Northern Ireland is empowered to fix its own long-haul rate, and the 600 people (increasing year-on-year) out of our 1.8 million population who are travelling down to Dublin Airport. Total numbers travelling are not increasing, so these are being lost to Belfast City and Belfast International Airports. We have to work with Dublin Airport, of course, but there needs to be a balance, and we need our Government to talk with airlines.
“The largest travel agencies in Northern Ireland would include Clubworld Travel, Oasis Travel and World Travel Centre, which acquired Selective Travel Management. I have no wish to be ‘number one’ and am quite happy to be second or third, making a good living for myself and my staff.
“In tour operating Travel Solutions is now our only ‘homegrown’ company, with all the others being killed off in the 1990s.
“I have seen the industry here get through three recessions and it is very resilient. Even during this latest recession travel figures still grew. People now want more experiences rather than the traditional two-week sun holiday and the industry needs to find ways to meet that demand and to offer travel consultancy. Overall I am positive about the future of the trade.”
Awards and Accolades
Seemingly everywhere you go in the main office there are trophies and awards on display. Indeed, Doreen keeps a list of them, with the current total at 28 and the most recent being the ITTN Travel Agency of the Year 2014 for the Ulster Region. They also include ‘The Most Switched on Boss’ (2006), and the Shine Company of the Year Award (2007).
“We are one of the few travel companies in Northern Ireland to be accredited with ISO 9001 and Investors in People, and we have won three awards for our environmental policies and practices.
“We received two offers to buy Knock Travel just in the past year, but I will retire when my passion for the travel business disappears – and that hasn’t happened yet! Maurice and I get away about eight to 10 weekends a year and we bought a house in a white village near Ronda in Andalucia, Spain, for which the year-round easyJet flights from Belfast City Airport, which is near the office and home, come in handy.
“I had travelled the world about five times before we got married, but we still take holidays! Last year we visited Dubai and India’s Golden Triangle, we have taken a five-week cruise around South America and Cape Horn, and next August we are taking a two-and-half-week river cruise with the American Steamboat Company.
“Having such great staff is a blessing as I don’t need to worry about the office when I am away – I was even away during the G8 Summit! We have very loyal staff and they enjoy what they are doing, and that comes across to our clients.”