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Behind the scenes of a travel agency’s opening: Inside Helloworld Travel Stanhope Gardens

There were points at which I thought I was being punked. Had they paid those people to walk past and wave? Was the ‘old customer’ who came in for a chat and then casually asked about a cruise holiday a plant? And surely the perfectly timed first sale was just feigned for my benefit? Karryon reports from Helloworld Travel Stanhope Gardens and gets a glimpse into the days before opening to the months that followed. 

There were points at which I thought I was being punked. Had they paid those people to walk past and wave? Was the ‘old customer’ who came in for a chat and then casually asked about a cruise holiday a plant? And surely the perfectly timed first sale was just feigned for my benefit? Karryon reports from Helloworld Travel Stanhope Gardens and gets a glimpse into the days before opening to the months that followed. 

I’m stalking the place a little before I enter. Helloworld Travel Stanhope Gardens is in the local shopping centre, Stanhope Village, about 30 kilometres north west of Sydney. Kmart is opposite and between it and the new store is a café. I perch here for a minute and witness what I come to realise will be the refrain for the day: people walk past the new store, look inside and then look up to the Helloworld sign. Most of them wave. 

Helloworld Travel Stanhope Gardens is Alyce Muscat, her husband Ben Gleeson and Jodie Garner with tech (and most likely emotional) support from her husband, Mark. 

Alyce and Jodie have worked together for eight years or so and when I see them talking to a customer, they not only finish each other’s sentences but also spark off each other. 

“We used to butt heads but then it just became a really beautiful friendship,” says Alyce.  

“We’re family now.”

Throughout the day I come to meet the rest of the family as they pop in to say hello. It’s bigger than you’d expect because a family in Stanhope Gardens, as I soon come to understand, is more than just the people to whom you’re related, it’s the community. And they’re bringing gifts.

One of my best friends lives in the suburb and when I called to let her know that I’d be in the area for the opening of a travel agency, she casually said, “Oh, the Helloworld store. We’ve all been waiting for it to open.”

Helloworld Stanhope Gardens

The team invested in a huge wrap before the store opened. It was expensive, but worth the investment, says Ben.

“The foot traffic here is crazy.” It really is. Everyone seems to know Jodie and Alyce who had both previously worked in the centre before the pandemic. I watch as people recognise one or both of them and it’s like seeing old friends catching up. As successful as the store wrap was, I think if the team had just stood at the entrance to the store, they’d pull in even more customers than they already do.

Working for the community

“The community has been absolutely amazing,” says Ben.

Stanhope Gardens has been without a traditional travel agency with an actual shopfront since the pandemic. And the locals have been super excited to have one finally opening up.

“We really considered where we wanted to open our store,” says Ben. 

“Stanhope Gardens is a really community-based area. And it’s a community of people that support each other. With our team being in travel for as long as we have, we’ve got a strong repeat client base, but the response from new clientele from within the surrounding areas is crazy. We’ve just been absolutely blown away.”

Helloworld Travel Stanhope Gardens is open late on Thursday night and all day Saturday and being ‘on’ all that time can’t be easy.

“We’re doing things to service the community,” Ben says.

“It’s really simple, if you provide a good service, you’re going to get people coming back.”

Alyce agrees.

“We want to service our community in the best way we can. When working here you become the community. People will come in, recognise our faces and say, ‘We thought we lost you!’ The reception has been incredible.”

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Taking the leap

It was after Alyce came back from maternity leave that she says she and Ben considered doing something on their own. And they knew Jodie would be the ideal partner.

I ask Alyce how scary it was moving from being a team leader to running a business. “It’s nerve wracking,” she says. 

“Ben and I have basically given everything to do this. This is our life now.” 

“But if you change nothing, nothing changes. So we’re giving it a red hot crack and fingers crossed it works out.”

Jodie too had been considering going out on her own for years. But that “scare factor” held her back. 

“It’s a big thing to do. And even though I have a lot of clients who have always been supportive and encouraging and promised to come find me wherever I go, I was just too scared to take that step. Doing this with Alyce and Ben has been amazing. And then once we got started, I was like, ‘This could be something great’.

But why Helloworld?

“We wanted to be recognised coming out of COVID,” Alyce says. 

“Brand recognition is so important in anything that you do. You don’t want to have a travel agency where the brand’s not recognised. You want people to feel comfortable and confident in transacting and giving you money. So we did a bit of research on Helloworld and we felt like it was the right fit for us.”

I ask why they didn’t go down the independent path. Ben says they could have given it a go, but “I just felt the market wasn’t ready from a confidence perspective”. 

“When you see a travel brand come through COVID and go from strength to strength, to us, that was a huge draw card.” 

It’s a month or so after opening when I check back in with Ben and he’s sure they made the right decision. The team is celebrating. They’ve made a hefty profit the first month in.

“And the autonomy has been really good,” he says. 

“Helloworld is there when you need them. But otherwise, you really are in control of your business. Renee (Nightingale, Head of the Branded and Associate networks) and Adrian (Boccia, National Network Development Manager) from Helloworld have been great but it’s really like you control your business and all the decisions around it. Which is exactly what we were after. 

“You have the control and you make decisions for the business, whether that be pay structure, how you implement marketing strategies, and how you implement your business strategy in general.”

Renee Nightingale, Helloworld Travel’s Head of the Branded and Associate networks has been “very excited” about the new store opening. 

“From the outset, Ben, Jodie and Alyce have been extremely proactive and positive and it has been a joy watching their vision of their own store really come to life,” she says.

“We are confident this will be the start of a big future with the Stanhope Gardens team and Helloworld and we cannot wait to see what amazing heights these three will reach.”

From the first sale to profit

Ben makes the first sale while I’m in the store. There’s some light construction in the background as the Travelex stand is installed. And I’m chatting with Alyce and Jodie about the store fit out. I particularly like the store’s use of round tables instead of rectangular desks. 

“You can fit more people at a round table,” Alyce says. 

“You want to bring people into the dream, right? You don’t want a barrier.”

It’s at this point an old customer walks into the store. She’s just booked a cruise online and starts chatting about her family’s travel plans in the coming years. Jodie and Alyce suggest tweaks, remembering what she’s already seen and done and ways that she could do it better. I thought the pair were nice, but it’s soon clear Jodie and Alyce are consummate professionals. And that’s why people come back. They know they’re stuff. Inside and out. 

A good while later we settle back in.

“I’ve never looked at anyone as a time waster,” says Alyce. 

“We’re selling a dream. And whether they’re dreaming for five years down the track, whether they’re dreaming for next month, it’s an honour to help them get there.” 

Alyce’s and Ben’s one-year-old daughter is in the store. Ben’s finalising the store’s first sale and I notice their daughter has casually rested her head on the customer’s lap while the customer gently rubs her back. The unusual sales tactic has clearly worked. Everyone is smiling.

After banking the first month’s profit, Ben says that first sale seems like an eternity ago. They’ve since had a big grand opening with champagne and coffee, cake and giveaways. 

“You’ve just got to back yourself,” he says.

“Have confidence in yourself and your service level then you’ve just got to do it.”

“It just helps not to do it on your own.”

If you want any further information about Helloworld, reach out to Adrian Boccia, Helloworld’s National Network Development Manager. You can contact him at Adrian.Boccia@helloworld.com.au.

The writer was invited to visit the store by Helloworld Travel. Should you like Karryon to share your ‘behind the scenes’ story or visit your store, please reach out to gaya@karryon.com.au.