Oasis Travel, winner of the 2015 ITTN Travel Agency of the Year Award for Ulster, recently opened its new flagship branch in Bangor. The head office remains in Lisburn, where Managing Director Sandra Corkin started the business 32 years ago.
With five branches, Oasis Travel is Northern Ireland’s second largest independent travel agency, the largest cruise agency, and probably the largest by staff numbers (now 47) and turnover. Three are in Co Antrim: the head office at 28-30 Railway Street, Lisburn; 587 Lisburn Road, Belfast; and 18-20 Howard Street, Belfast; and two in Co Down: 71 High Street, Holywood, and the new flagship office at 4 Castle Street, Bangor.
“After school I worked in a Lisburn travel agency for five years then, at the age of 21, started Oasis Travel across the road, in 25-27 Railway Street, with the backing of my father, Leslie Corkin. He had a business background in electronics and took care of the business and financial side while I sold the holidays. From day one he said that the bills and staff would get paid before I got a penny, so that was a great incentive to sell holidays!
“There were several independent travel agents in our home town of Lisburn in those days and everyone sold everything, from bus, rail and ferry tickets to long-haul holidays. Then in the 1990s Thomas Cook opened, offering generous discounts, and new holiday discounters offered 10% back in vouchers, resulting in many independents closing their doors. We also got hit on price but we had a 10-year customer base, local recognition, well travelled and experienced staff and we offered a wider range of holiday products, so we worked hard on selling and on closing sales. My father had died in 1989 so he didn’t witness the arrival of the multiples.
“Our branch network has mainly grown by acquiring other agencies. Twelve years or so ago we added two branches, in Bangor and Holywood, by taking over an existing agency, and in 2005 we moved across the road in Lisburn into 28-30 Railway Street, again taking over another. The owner of the Co Down agency, who semi-retired, was surprised at our lack of cruise business, so we started to develop that – and have become very successful at it!
“Then five years ago we added Howard Street in Belfast city centre and, in July 2014, Lisburn Road in Belfast’s upmarket residential and shopping area. Howard Street had also been a travel agency that had closed and the building’s owner, who was a client of ours, asked me to move in. I initially said no, but he invited me for coffee and showed me the office, which I immediately liked and, co-incidentally, another agent contacted me about selling up and became the branch manager!
“We did also open two other branches, in Hillsborough and Dromore, but we decided to close these and move the staff into existing, bigger branches. We own the Lisburn property and lease the other four.
“In one sense you could say that Oasis Travel has nine branches because four of the five are also locations for Portfolio, which is a different cost centre and comprises private offices within the branches. These are areas dedicated to weddings, honeymoons and high-end holidays, which are run on a private appointment basis and enable customers to discuss their options in unhurried privacy.
“Portfolio started 11 years ago when we moved into 28-30 Railway Street, with Julie-Ann Vaughan as Portfolio Manager, and has its own brochures, promotional events, and an annual dinner for clients.
“Oasis Travel has been an ABTA member since the beginning and is a member of Consort and, individually, part of the Advantage consortium – and we thus avail of the full marketing package provided by Advantage including, for example, ‘welcome back’ emails, whereas some Consort members do not.
“We acquired our own ATOL licence a couple of years ago, when the rules were changed, and last year obtained a Commission for Aviation Regulation licence so that we can sell packages from the Republic of Ireland.
“The increase in Northern Ireland travellers using Dublin Airport began more than 10 years ago, but has accelerated in recent years. The comparative prices ex-Belfast and ex-Dublin, the ease of access to and car parking at Dublin Airport, and the wider choice of destinations ex-Dublin, particularly via Istanbul, Abu Dhabi and Dubai and their respective stop-over options, have all driven that increase. The T5-T5 transfers at London Heathrow have improved the ex-Belfast options, but the fares ex-Dublin continue to be a big factor.
“Also for North America, while we use United ex-Belfast a lot, if the client is not New York bound then an ex-Dublin route can be more advantageous – including price and aircraft size.
“Cruising has developed into a big business for us and we organise several promotional events for clients in various branches, such as dinners and afternoon teas, in conjunction with individual cruise lines.
“Oasis Travel also organises the Northern Ireland Cruise Fair each September with multiple cruise operators, with last year’s event at the Titanic Belfast attracting over 1,000 people. We always have a big raffle prize – last year’s was a seven-night cruise for two onboard NCL’s Epic – which raises more than £1,000 for the Children’s Cancer and Haematology Unit at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
“We also organise a cruise pavilion at Holiday World Belfast, which attracts numerous cruise operators, is visited by over 20,000 potential customers and generates over £200,000 in sales for us.
“Our current complement of 47 staff is our highest yet, with four joining in recent times, and we may increase staff numbers further because we are currently looking at other opportunities. Three staff members are verging on 30 years of service with Oasis Travel.
“We recently started an Oasis Academy, with a trainer coming in two days a week. For example, following a staff survey, two subjects for coming weeks will be Customer Focus and Dignity at Work.
“We still have a high level of walk-in customers and have a high percentage of repeat customers. We have also introduced a new CRM system because our previous one did not give us all the statistics we wanted. We changed our website last year and have seen enquiry numbers increase as a result, while digital marketing and social media activity is a work in progress and improving.
“Last year was our best yet for winning awards. In addition to the ITTN Travel Agency of the Year for Ulster, Oasis Travel won the accolade of Best High Street Agency in the small business category at the Travel Agent Achievement Awards – as well as Best Regional Small Agency Award for the fourth year in succession – and the Best Small Business in Northern Ireland from Business Eye, which was a great achievement.
“In October 2014 we had received our Investors in People award, which followed an 18-month business improvement programme, and I was really shocked last year to be named Business Person of the Year for both Belfast and Lisburn.
“Overall, travel bookings in Northern Ireland were well up in January – Oasis Travel’s increase was in double figures – and this has continued in February, although the early Easter affected bookings for last week’s school half-term. The extended St Patrick’s Day + Easter period will be good – and also creates a good gap until the summer season.
“America seems popular for 2016 more than ever, but Turkey is down. We received a lot of enquiries about the Zika virus, but no-one changed their bookings, and Paris continues to be popular.
“In long-haul destinations clients are looking for a combination of quality and value for money, so the Indian Ocean, Thailand, India, the Far East and South America are popular. Also South Africa now because the rand exchange rate is brilliant.
“Cruising continues to grow and January business was well up, helped by the great early booking offers and the excitement of Royal Caribbean International’s new ships. River cruising tends to be a different client base of couples rather than families, over 50s and higher spending, more discerning customers. They are not necessarily cruisers – they could previously have booked escorted coach tours.
“I love to travel and my favourite destination is the Caribbean in general and St Bart’s in particular. I visit the Costa del Sol once or twice a year, went to California last year, and will be visiting South Africa this year.
“My top yet-to-see destination would be Australia.”