Belfast Telegraph

Playing the generation game for a bright future

Family businesses are the backbone of the economy. A travel agency and a car dealer talk about how the relative values work for them and help their companies go from strength to strength

By Paul Gosling

Terra Travel managing director Damian Murphy is maintaining a family tradition.

The business was established in 1972 by Damian's father Terry, who remains the company chairman. Damian's brother, Terry junior, and his sister, Marie Metcalfe, are also directors.

The reason why Terry senior set-up the company was unusual, Damian recalled.

"He was a school teacher and began by organising school trips - first in his own school and then for other schools," he explained. "It became very busy, so he thought there was an opening [for a business]."

Initially Terry operated part time with an assistant from a small office, but the business expanded quickly. "He gave up his job and opened up a proper travel agency," continued Damian.

But despite its origins, Terra Travel does little trade with schools now. There are fewer school trips as the legal obligations and insurance costs have made them more difficult and more expensive to organise.

"School travel has become a very, very specialist operation now," Damian explained. "You have to have someone dedicated full time on it to keep up with the legal changes."

Today the main trading focus is on the leisure sector, organising family and individual holidays - particularly in Europe and the US. One of the most popular destinations from Northern Ireland is Las Vegas. "We have special deals to Las Vegas that are as cheap as a holiday in Spain," said Damian.

It is, perhaps surprisingly, pricing that is one of the factors that enables an independent travel operator such as Terra to be competitive with the heavyweight online presence of better known brands. Damian also insisted that the attractiveness of organising holidays independently online is waning.

"Certain things have happened in the last couple of years, like the ash cloud [disruption]; travel companies going into liquidation; airlines [changing schedules] - such as bm1 baby pulling out of Belfast. People have realised that with a travel agent, their money is safe."

However, stressed Damian, that only applies with a respected agency - like Terra - a member of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), which provides a payment guarantee.

Terra Travel has withstood the internet challenge pretty well, Damian insisted. "The internet is not always cheaper," he said. Often Terra Travel can match the prices offered online and in some cases can beat them. And much of the business that has been lost is on simple bookings such as flights to London where travel agents never make much money anyway.

But, argues Damian, it is on personalised service that the independent travel agent scores best.

"In many cases people still prefer personal contact, so they get reassurance that the holiday they book is the correct holiday for them. They want to speak to people with knowledge."

With offices in Lurgan, Craigavon and Portadown, Terra Travel is well positioned for that individual service. It has also fought the online threat through IT development. "We have embraced the technology," said Damian.

"We promote our own website []. We have our own database of customers who want information by email. We keep in contact with them at least on a weekly basis and at the moment daily, because people are trying to get away."

Damian added: "We have to maintain our standards for how we deal with people."

There are exciting plans for the future including an even better website. This will support customers doing more of their bookings online, enabling them to come into the agency offices to discuss holiday options, making their decisions when they go home and making the bookings from there.

Interestingly, suggested Damian, some of the biggest travel agencies are again recognising the importance of high street shops.

The future for independent travel agencies which provide added value may be better than was assumed a few years ago.