Belfast Telegraph

Three into one equals a sunny outlook for travel company

By Paul Gosling

The McNeill & Thriftway Travel Group is one of the largest independent travel operators based in Northern Ireland and as a subsidiary of Ireland's World Travel Centre, a private company, it is one of the biggest travel businesses in the whole of Ireland.

McNeill & Thriftway has been formed through the merger of three companies - Thriftway, McNeill Rigby Travel and Selective Travel. Thriftway was the family business of Mukesh Sharma, the enlarged group's managing director.

Thriftway was started in 1982 and is Ireland's largest long-haul specialist 'ticket consolidation' business - acting as a wholesaler to re-sell discounted tickets to travel agents. In 2009, Thriftway merged with McNeill Rigby Travel, a provider of corporate travel services with many large corporate clients. Last year, the group acquired Selective Travel, a provider of travel services in both the corporate and retail markets.

Selective is a significant operator in the niche business of providing travel arrangements for universities. It is the sole corporate travel services provider to Queen's University and recently won a contract worth about £35m for the provision of travel services to the Southern Universities' Purchasing Consortium in England. Winning further travel arrangement contracts with English universities is a priority for the Selective division.

While all three businesses are strong and growing impressively, Mukesh Sharma admits that they fail to optimise their marketing opportunities because of the various names used.

"I am currently involved in rebranding the Northern Ireland operation - it is just too messy, with too many names," says Mukesh. The aim is to launch a clearer branding with a single name and a new logo in September. This is likely to also involve some refinement of the product range.

"Our next step now is to amalgamate all these into one premises," continues Mukesh. "We now have almost 40 employees and we are moving into Murray's Exchange [behind Belfast's Europa Hotel]."

Existing services are not restricted to air and other travel tickets, but also include worldwide accommodation and car hire booking. These are arranged through the use of the latest and most sophisticated online booking systems and internal IT systems, including an online booking facility tailored to the needs of individual corporate clients.''

Investment in IT and staff training is central to the business's approach, says Mukesh. "We invest heavily in IT - we always have done so," he says. "We have four in-house IT developers. This is one of the reasons we are so successful with corporate clients."

A valued service to corporates is the Management Information System, MIS, which provides detailed data on business travel expenditure, enabling clients to improve cost control.

Staff training is another key element of the McNeill & Thriftway approach. When Heathrow's Terminal Five opened, employees were sent to see it and learn the internal geography of the new terminal - for example, how long it takes to reach from other parts of Heathrow.

Similarly, when Emirates launched its new Dublin to Dubai route, agents flew on the journey to enable them to provide clients with relevant and accurate information on the service.

"That is one of the reasons for our growth in [the corporate] sector," explains Sharma. "Our market is the whole of the UK and Ireland. We have a number of clients opening up now in Great Britain. In the past, the trend has always been that businesses in Great Britain have picked up business from Northern Ireland. Now that is gone into reverse. We are trying to bring business back to Northern Ireland."

McNeill & Thriftway also has important clients located in the Republic, including businesses in border areas whose staff prefer to fly from Belfast, rather than Dublin, and companies with offices in both countries.

A key factor behind the group's growth is its capacity to win procurement tenders. "A lot of the travel industry major clients are won through a tender process," says Sharma. "That has been where a lot of our success has been - a lot is to do with presentation. It's down to a combination of being competitive, having a good portfolio of existing clients and making a substantial investment in presentations."

Charities are another important niche sector. "We do a lot of work for charities," says Mukesh.

"There are certain types of fares that are only available to agencies that specialise in that type of work. We have the volume to achieve that."

But, stresses Mukesh, it is a two-way process. "We put a lot back into those charities as part of our role as a socially responsible business," he says. This includes Sharma's own position as a director of the Belfast Mela Festival.

Social responsibility may be one factor behind the success of McNeill & Thriftway, but it is clear that there is a whole package of reasons for its various achievements.

Getting the branding sorted out, though, could be very beneficial for its future.

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