A £6,000 family holiday to Abu Dhabi was at stake when travel agent, Tracey Smith, took a call from a desperate husband with an expired passport. "I could hear his wife in the background going 'I can't believe you've done this, you've ruined our holiday'." Smith left her office to meet him and helped him get his passport renewed in time for his flight later that day. "I think his wife eventually forgave him," she smiles.
This kind of hand-holding is characteristic of Trailfinders' bespoke touring desk, which organises high-end tailored holidays for customers who want "soft" adventure – that is, with a safety net and no roughing it. "They want to go to adventurous destinations but they don't want to have to worry about anything," says Smith, 42, an assistant supervisor at the company's Kensington branch.
Itineraries – often throughout Asia and South America – comprise five-star accommodation and off-the-beaten-track activities, coupled with support services such as airport pickups and 24-hour emergency assistance. When we speak, Smith is rearranging trips for customers in – or imminently travelling to – Borneo, following violence in Sabah. "We will contact all of them and get them out of there by whatever means – rearranging their flights, arranging a similar holiday in a different area of Malaysia. We take full responsibility and pay for that."
Given the spend involved for a trip of this type, the customer base comprises honeymooners and "my parents", smiles Smith. "People in their late 50s and 60s, who are spending the inheritance. You are getting a lot for your money but not everyone can spend £10,000 on a holiday."
This is trip-of-a-lifetime stuff – and it warrants a rather old-fashioned approach to selling, says Smith. Email is avoided; agents liaise with customers over the phone or in person, allowing them to develop a relationship and offer appropriate suggestions. "If you've built up a rapport, they can feel confident about your advice."
That advice is informed by regular trips to experience suppliers' hotels and activities – last year Smith was sent to Zambia and Zimbabwe – as well as their own travels.
In the travel industry, it's a relatively secure niche to be in, feels Smith. Where travel agents selling package tours compete with the internet, the luxury, bespoke market has a certain amount of future proofing. "I can't see any time when [customers] won't need to phone up, talk through it all, seek our personal experience and get us to put it all together," says Smith. "I think it's a really comfortable place to be in travel. I'm glad to be a part of it."