August 31, 2018
World at their feet
With 40 years of combined travel industry experience and 77 countries visited between them, Neil and Therese Playford have worked hard to build a team of well-travelled staff who are just as passionate as them when it comes to ensuring their clients have the trip of a lifetime.
Whether it’s trekking through the game reserves of Africa or taking in the bright lights of the Big Apple, there are not too many places husband and wife team Neil and Therese Playford haven’t experienced first-hand.
Owners of Travel Associates Caloundra, Mountain Creek, Noosa and Hervey Bay as well as small group tour company, Escorted Escapes, the dynamic duo attribute their success in the travel game to being able to offer a real, first-hand account of their travels to their clients. And it’s something they value highly in their staff across all four branches.
“It’s all about experience and knowledge,” says Neil. “Every one of our staff would have 10 to 15 years of experience, which really sets us apart from the competition. They have hundreds of years of experience between them. Talking to someone who can craft your holiday based on personal experience and acquired knowledge can add valuable suggestions to your travel plans.”
“Even if they haven’t been there themselves, often there will be a staff member who has,” adds Therese.
“People build a relationship with our travel agents. They might have been booking with them for the last 10 or 12 years because they have always received excellent customer service and always get more than they expect. It’s all about building trust.”
Originally from the UK, with a background in sport and recreation, Neil was living and working in New Zealand when he decided to change paths to work in the travel industry.
“I have always been an avid traveller,” says Neil. “I had been around the world a couple of times already and was booking a trip back to England when I realised I knew more about the airlines and where they flew than the agent did and I just had a passion for it so decided to become a travel agent myself.
It was while working for Flight Centre in New Zealand that Neil met Therese, who had already clocked up quite a few years in the industry and the duo then relocated to a Sydney branch of the business.
Two years later, the opportunity arose to open Flight Centre’s first franchise of Escape Travel in Australia, which happened to be in Caloundra and they jumped at the chance.
“We had holidayed on the Sunshine Coast and loved it so we bought an investment property here with a view to move up at some stage,” says Neil.
“Prior to opening the Caloundra store, we visited the location and studied our potential competitors. We felt that if we based our business on the values of great customer service, honesty and integrity, our clients would become clients for life. We feel this ethos is the backbone of our success,” says Therese.
Over the past 12 years, the Playfords have earnt themselves a reputation as being among the best in the industry and have built a loyal customer base through referrals and repeat customers, which they attribute to their highly experienced staff.
“The main secret is our staff, if you have great staff the clients will follow them. Clients want to see the same people and receive the same great service every time,” says Therese.
“Travel has become a people business and that is what the internet doesn’t do. It doesn’t give you that personal connection and relationship,” says Neil.
“You get to know your clients so well over the years. We have some who go for lunch with their consultant or they might pop in to the office when the girls are having a champagne and we will offer them a glass too, some even bring us in baked goods, you become family really,” says Therese.
“I stopped consulting 18 months ago because the business had grown too big but I still had clients I looked after in Sydney who still wanted to book through me even though I hadn’t lived there for more than 10 years, so it’s about the person and not the name above the door,” says Neil.
After clocking up 10 years in business at Caloundra, the couple took a leap of faith and opened another branch in Hervey Bay. Two years ago, they added a branch at Noosa and they have just opened the doors of their Mountain Creek branch.
“We never set out to have four retail stores,” says Therese. “At 10 years we thought, ‘Yay we have done it’, and then the rest just happened organically. It was all opportunity and good timing and again great staff.”
Just when you thought they couldn’t fit anymore in to their busy schedule, the entrepreneurial couple, who also have two young children, have another arm to their business focusing on personalised small group tours.
“We started Escorted Escapes six years ago. There was a great deal on a cruise in the Mediterranean and I emailed my personal clients and said, ‘Who wants to come?’ and 27 people joined me. They had such a good time, most of them came to the next one I hosted in Canada and Alaska and then we added in South America and Africa. Now we have a world-wide program of escorted tours,” says Neil.
“Basically, it’s travel made simple with one very transparent price. We pick you up from home, we include all your airfares, tipping, visas, all of your touring and sightseeing, so there are no nasty optional extras and they travel with one of our consultants from Australia and back.
“It is very popular with the more mature traveller or solo travellers, as it offers security and peace of mind. We have about 15 departures a year to nine different destinations.”
In another first for the couple, Neil and Therese became the first ever Travel Associates franchise in May.
“Flight Centre rebranded their business in February this year, to no longer include Escape Travel and offered Travel Associates as a franchise brand, which we felt was a perfect fit for our existing businesses,” says Therese.
“Travel Associates have been around for 20 years, they are a premium travel brand of Flight Centre Travel Group and their unique selling proposition is ‘Our Experience Counts’. It’s the experience of our consultants that sets them apart from the rest of the travel industry.”
“The premium side of things is more around the service and experience rather than the product necessarily. We sell all travel products, from your Bali holiday to a luxury ocean cruise,” adds Neil.
“Our stores are spacious and inviting, creating a pleasant environment for both clients and staff.”
The couple is also doing their bit for the local community and is passionate about giving back to the people of the Sunshine Coast who have supported them.
“Neil is a keen golfer so two years ago we met with Mark and Caroline from 92.7 Mix FM and the opportunity came up to run the Give Me 5 For Kids Golf Day. We auction a prize, which includes a river cruise and airfares. We have raised $50,000 in two years,” says Therese.
“What we love about Give Me 5 For Kids is that all the money stays on the Coast, which helps everyone,” adds Neil.
And it’s that support that has helped them in the recent expansion of their business.
“Even though it’s growing, the Sunny Coast still has that small-town feel. People are so generous and kind to each other on the Coast, it’s incredible,” says Neil.
“Give Me 5 For Kids is the perfect example, the community raised a staggering $600,000 for charity in one month.
“People know their neighbours here and that has really helped us in business as well. In Sydney, we wouldn’t have got the referrals we do here. People stay here long term, you get that loyalty and they refer their friends and family. There has also been a big shift with the shop local campaigns supporting local businesses and it has a knock-on effect for the whole community.”
Neil and Therese certainly have the same ethos when it comes to their business but when it comes to their favourite travel destinations, they are worlds apart.
“I’m an African nut, I love the place, particularly the game reserves. I’m not a city person, museums and churches do nothing for me to be honest. I love wildlife and scenery. We offer three different small group trips to Africa. I love seeing people’s faces when they see their first elephant in the wild, it blows their mind,” says Neil.
“I love New York,” says Therese. “It’s such a great city, there is just so much to see and do.”
Either way, wherever in the world you are dreaming of travelling next, they probably have a story or two to share with you.
Meet the dream teams …
Ask them a travel question about any country in the world and one of them is sure to have the answer. Clocking up a whopping 126 countries between them, the teams behind Neil and Therese’s Sunshine Coast retail branches offer their clients a wealth of first hand knowledge and experience. Profile chats to the managers of the Caloundra, Mountain Creek and Noosa branches about their passion for helping others discover the wonders of the world through travel.
Danielle Wulf – Manager
Travel Associates Noosa Civic
Combined years of experience at branch: 100
Countries visited: 25
Favourite city: Vancouver
How long have you been in the travel industry? 22 years
Can you share your experiences so far? Most of my experience has been as a travel agency manager on the Sunshine Coast. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure, alongside my colleagues, to achieve global award achievements and been to as many as 25 countries. I have lived and worked in various locations in Australia and more recently spent four years living in Fiji before relocating back to the Sunshine Coast to open Travel Associates Noosa.
What is special about the Noosa branch? Our experience! All of our team have been in the travel and tourism sector for a long time. We have some of the longest-standing employees in the industry. I truly value my team and their ability to help design a memorable holiday for our clients.
What is it about Neil and Therese’s work ethos that has led to their success? When I came back to Australia I wanted to work in an environment that provided great leadership, yet empowered me to grow in my role. Neil and Therese offer the nurturing environment of a small business. However, they provide the support and guidance of a large company. We feel appreciated and rewarded for doing a job we love.
Why is it still important to book your holiday through a travel agent rather than doing it yourself? We as agents know the market. But the most important thing to know is booking through a travel agent doesn’t cost you more, we actually save you money, but I recommend to book with experience. The internet has a definitive place for researching, but through an agent, you gain a product and a service. We are here to provide a service to ensure your needs are met and services are guaranteed. We save you time and offer professional advice and will look after you from the day we meet to the day you return home, 24/7.
What makes a great travel agent? A visionary, a personable person with attentive listening skills, great attention to detail and a good travel agent should make everything less stressful. We work so closely with our clients’ travel journeys, we commonly create great friendships along the way. And of course a passion for travel.
Darin Warburton – Manager
Travel Associates Mountain Creek
Combined years of experience at branch: 101
Countries visited: 54
Favourite city: Prague
How long have you been in the travel industry? I have been in retail travel for 20 years and prior to that I was based overseas for eight years working in various travel roles.
Can you share your experience so far? My travel experience started 28 years ago. Prior to 1999, I was a coach tour guide in Europe, I worked in ski resorts in Italy as a local representative and guide. I also worked and managed resorts in Bali and Canada. These work and travelling experiences allowed me to have a great understanding of what a client feels when they arrive overseas, whether it be their first time or their 30th trip. After I came home in 1999, I sought a role where I could add value to people’s lives given my overseas experience and as a result I became a travel agent.
What is special about the Mountain Creek branch? We are a store which is small and very personable. We take the time to get the details right.
What is it about Neil and Therese’s work ethos that has led to their success? They have a reputation that is synonymous with the very best in our industry. Our clients are paramount always. They do a fabulous job creating relationships in the local area. Their support of the Give Me 5 For Kids charity is one such example.
Why is it still important to book your holiday through a travel agent rather than doing it yourself? We offer maximum convenience and guidance borne from personal experience and the expertise of sending many, many people to that destination. We can also support clients should they run into difficulties.
What makes a great travel agent? An agent with high expertise industry-wide who builds long term interpersonal relationships through great service and arranging consistently great holidays.
Jo Rea – Manager
Travel Associates Caloundra
Combined years experience at branch: 100
Number of countries visited: 47
Favourite city: Vancouver
How long have you been in the travel industry? 24 years
Can you share your experience in the travel industry so far? I started working for Queensland Rail holidays almost a lifetime ago! Twenty four years! I moved onto Flight Centre in 2007 becoming a cruise specialist. In 2012, I made the decision to join Neil and Therese Playford in the Caloundra store. I haven’t looked back.
What is special about the Caloundra branch? Our experience. Not only for working in the travel industry but our experience travelling. Unlike many agents, we can give true, first-hand accounts of many countries in the world. If one of us don’t know an area, someone in the office will. We pride ourselves on being your local cruise experts.
What is it about Neil and Therese’s ethos that has led to their success? They look after their staff. When you work for Neil and Therese you join the family. You feel valued, appreciated and very much spoilt.
Why is it still important to book your holiday through a travel agent rather than doing it yourself? We can give first-hand experience and knowledge. As they say, ‘Without a travel agent you are on your own’. We are your first point of contact, a local phone number. With one phone call, not only can your holiday be organised but we are also able to help you if changes need to be made to your booking before or while you are on holiday. We love to travel and we love sharing the excitement of your next holiday. The internet does not offer this. We can recommend restaurants, little bits of information from our last holiday and favourite shopping spots. These are the little extras we can offer compared to booking online yourself.
What makes a great travel agent? Our job is more than just selling travel, we maintain and grow our business based on our repeat and referral business. Our clients are part of our family, we care about their travel needs and aim to go beyond their expectations.