Soon after winning the inaugural ITTN Travel Agency of the Year Award last November, Lee Travel in Cork acquired Stein Travel in Tralee, Co Kerry, to bring its number of branches to six, so are more acquisitions on the cards? “Never say never,” Declan O’Connell, Managing Director, told ITTN’s News & Features Editor Neil Steedman.
Lee Travel has five branches in Co Cork – the head office at 24 Princes Street and Unit 6B, Paul Street Shopping Centre in Cork City; 57 Main Street, Midleton; 13 North Main Street, Youghal (trading as MacDonald Travel); and The Square, Ballincollig. The independent agency trades under licence number TA0162 and also holds a tour operator licence, TO200.
“Lee Travel was established as an independent travel agency in Cook Street in June 1975 – on the very same weekend that I joined Joseph Barter & Sons straight from school,” said Declan. “The agency then moved to 34 Oliver Plunkett Street and in 1981 to 23 Princes Street. I had been approached to take over the running of the agency at Christmas 1978 and by 1981 I had bought it.
“In 1996 an old pub next door to 23 Princes Street came on the market so we bought it and in 1998 the head office moved across into 24 Princes Street, where we are today, with two floors divided into five departments – retail, corporate, cruises, groups, and honeymoons & weddings abroad.
“I didn’t set out to build a chain of offices, it was just that different opportunities came up. The Midleton branch was acquired in 1987, Youghal – which still trades as MacDonald Travel – in March 2009, Ballincollig in March 2010 (it had closed as Getaway Travel a year before and was like the Marie Celeste – diaries were still open on the desks!), and Paul Street, previously Foreign-A-Fares, in September 2010. Finally, we acquired Stein Travel at 6 The Tennis Village, Killeen, Tralee, Co Kerry, in December 2014 – so now Lee Travel comprises six branches in two counties!
“Our motto is: ‘Small enough to care and big enough to count’.
“We currently have a total of 30 staff, all of whom work in the branches – we have no home workers – and all of whom have been with us for some 10 years or more. Mary Lee Johnston, who manages the Midleton office, has been with us for 20 years and Sean Healy, who along with my wife Rosemary is a co-Director, came with that agency. Dympna Crowley manages the branch in Ballincollig, Siobhan Dineen manages Youghal, and David Slattery heads up Stein Travel. I would also like to mention Annette O’Milan, who retired last year.
“Each travel consultant has a special interest and expertise in specific destinations, for example in Mexico or Thailand. Sheila Deasey takes care of our award-winning Cruise Department, Mary Jones our Corporate Department, and Linda Cronin our Honeymoons & Weddings Abroad Department.
“We also specialise in sports travel and are the official agent for Cork City Football Club. We organise joint charters with Dawson Travel, who are just across the street, for example to Rome for the Italy v Ireland match.
ITAA, Travel Centres and Training
“Lee Travel has been a member of the Irish Travel Agents Association since it started – and I was on the ITAA Board for two years up to 2014. Did I ever stand for President? No, there has been too much going on in the business!
“The agency has also been a member of Travel Centres since its days as Travel Alliance. We get good rebates and benefits, including advice and influence if and when we can’t get something sorted out.
“We make extensive use of suppliers for staff training and from Easter to September we have two inhouse sessions on Wednesdays per month on either a product or a destination.”
One of a number of innovations that impressed the ITTN Travel Agency of the Year judges was Lee Travel’s decision to charter cabins on Royal Caribbean International’s Independence of the Seas from Cork on two occasions, thus enabling Irish passengers to embark in an Irish port for the first time ever. The two cruises went to the Norwegian Fjords and were a major success with a combined income of over €500,000.
“In 2009 I went to London for an RCI awards ceremony and I told them: ‘Some 60 cruise ships go in and out of Cork each year and we wave at you but we are not allowed to embark.’ Then in 2012 RCI approached us and we signed a €0.5 million contract and guarantees. We planned two cruises in June and September 2013 each for 500 people, produced an eight-page brochure, and marketed the cruises through a media company, a public relations company and the travel trade – and sold all places at full price.
Travel Trade, Websites and Social Media
“As a trade we need to get more young people choosing to enter the travel business. My main concern about the travel trade in general is that the percentage of people using agencies is shrinking – and that our biggest competitors can be some of our suppliers!
“The main advantage for clients in using a travel agent is the face-to-face communication and individualised service that they receive, combined with the consultants’ expertise, depth of information and accountability. Word of mouth recommendation can be very important and we focus on areas where these factors are to the fore – such as cruising and honeymoons/weddings.
“There is less loyalty among consumers nowadays – not just in the travel business – and I sometimes use the line: ‘Why don’t you ring the internet?’
“On the other hand, some travel agencies still don’t even have a website. We do, but had to rebuild it recently because it was invaded by a virus. We don’t have online booking yet – except on the Stein Travel website – but we will have by the end of this year.
“Our social media team also meet every six weeks to review progress and every office has its own Facebook page.”
Now 57 years old, Declan originally trained as a marine engineer and also obtained a BA in Management in 2001. His three children, however, are finance rather than travel orientated, with one daughter an accountant, a son in a bank, and another daughter in pensions.
So what is Declan’s favourite country? “It tends to be the last place I have been to, but I do love London and New York. I love travelling and travel writing and have been to Iran, Taipei and, last May, Jordan to see Petra and the Dead Sea.
“We tend to take short breaks rather than long holidays. We have been on a good few cruises, mainly in Europe, because you get to see a new place every day.”
Best and Worst Decisions
So what have been Declan’s best and worst decisions?
“My best decision was to take over Lee Travel, as I have been able to watch it grow from a small start-up with just myself to the six branches, 30 staff and €10 million plus turnover that we have today. To be honest, I don’t think I have made any catastrophic decisions!”