Company Focus: CallUma

Tony Partridge got his first taste of travel by buying lost luggage – now he gives it back through his multi-lingual information, emergency and lost luggage service CallUma. Juliet Dennis finds out more about the business and its plans to work more closely with the travel trade.

A year ago few in the trade would have heard of CallUma.

The 24-hour worldwide multilingual help service, which launched to the trade in March last year, is now being used by The Co-operative Travel, Expedia, and Easyjet.

Last month its profile was raised when former managing director John Bevan joined its ranks as a non-executive director.

In a move that  could see the service rolled out across the majority of the high-street travel agency market, founder Tony Partridge is currently in talks with TUI Travel, Thomas Cook, and Advantage. Two operators are also understood to be on the verge of signing up to its services.

The timing of the trade launch of the company – which offers an emergency and information phone and text service as well as luggage tracking – is likely to have played in its favour.

The travel landscape has changed, with company failures such as the XL Leisure Group and the economic recession encouraging holidaymakers to be better prepared for emergency situations.

If anything, these conditions have made the company more attractive, confirmed Bevan. “People are more aware in tough times of what can go wrong,” he says.

Similarly, as companies cut back on out-of-hours services to reduce fixed overheads, he is hopeful this will provide a gap in the market for an extra help service for consumers.

He adds: “How many online travel agents have got ground staff in hotels and cities? Most OTAs have a mobile number on standby out of hours for emergencies.

“We have had a lot of interest from OTAs because they are more aware that customers are going to look to them for more help in the case of bonding. Agents who dynamically package are actually responsible out of hours for their customers.”

Partridge is adamant CallUma could help the trade in future “XL” situations through its text service, by delivering information quickly on a large scale to holidaymakers.

“Working with The Cooperative Travel we have realised that XL took the wind out of their sails. We could have delivered a message on the phone: we didn’t because we didn’t the contracts in place to do that but this is a key part of what we could do,” he says.

The business

The company has around ten staff in its Sudbury head office in the UK and 700 homeworkers on its books, many of whom live overseas in holiday resorts.
Employed as interpreters, they speak more than 100 languages. They earn money depending on how many calls they deal with, based on a call routing system.

CallUma has operated in Spain since 2005 and now covers more than 20 countries, with 70% of business coming via third-party companies and the rest direct from consumers.

CallUma is backed by a group of private investors, including former Orient-Express Hotels president Simon Sherwood, whose father James founded the hotel chain. It predicts it will be in profit from this year.

Its busiest months predictably coincide with the peak holiday months of July and August, during which time it will have around 50,000 clients on holiday using its service.

Partridge is confident the service will cope, adds: “We can turn 20,000 handsets on in an hour.”

As well as its Pass The Phone multilingual assistance and Tag’n’Trak luggage tracking service, CallUma offers to store personal document information such as passports and travel insurance policies.

Partridge says: “If someone hurts themselves overseas, the first thing the doctor asks for is their insurance policy but no-one ever has it with them. We store these details so when you have a problem overseas we have got the policy number.”

A service to be offered in the near future will be to send customers a text message three months before their passport expires. “One of the biggest problems we have is that people don’t know when their passports expire and it is causing big problems at airports,” adds Partridge.

Another new service allows travel companies to alert customers that their balance is due to be paid.

Already CallUma provides pre-departure emails for Easyjet clients, including flight confirmations and weather reports.

Partridge said its Just Text Help service allows customers to phone or text “help” and one of its advisers will ring back the customer. “Travel companies are trying to cut back staff in resort and out of hours’ staff. They see us a back up for those situations,” he says.

The Co-operative Travel has offered CallUma’s ‘just text help’ in a white-label service as a free “gift” to customers as well as Co-op branded tags for its luggage tracking service as part of a launch promotion.

The founder

Forty-eight year old Tony Partridge describes himself as the “Robin Hood of luggage” referring to his former occupation of buying lost luggage to re-sell to second-hand shops and the luggage tracking service now offered by CallUma. “I used to buy luggage but now I give it back,” he says.

In the 1980s, Partridge was one of the biggest buyers of lost luggage in the UK. What started off as a trip to Gatwick’s lost luggage department to find his own bag, turned into a business.

He recalls: “I gave £3 for a holdall and £4.50 for a suitcase. Most people took their best clothes on holiday and I was shocked by the numbers of snow skis and wedding dresses.

“E-bay wasn’t around and I saw an outlet in the second-hand shops. You would open up suitcases and sometimes there would be a wedding dress and photos. If we could, we would send them back to the owner. It got boring after a couple of years; it was just another load of dirty washing.”

After an 11-year stint living in the US, running a home security call centre business selling hurricane shelters and a short spell selling windows in the UK, Partridge decided semi-retirement in Spain was the answer.

However, it was that move that inspired the creation of CallUma in 2005, originally called Pass The Phone and offering multi-lingual assistance. Uma stands for universal multilingual assistance.

Partridge says: “Business got slow after 9/11 and I decided to go to Spain to look at semi retirement. After a week my two year old daughter became sick at 2am in the morning. Our villa was in the mountains and I had no idea who to call and didn’t have any emergency number and spoke no Spanish.

“In the end we managed to find a doctor and she was fine but it was the most traumatic experience of my entire life.”

Another emergency cemented his idea for CallUma when a burst pipe at Partridge’s home in Spain led to him creating an overseas helpline for Norwich Union customers overseas, sourcing tradesmen to do urgent repairs. “I set up a call centre for anyone who has domestic emergency problems and it now works across seven countries. Norwich Union asked if we could provide a helpline for people at holiday villas and that’s when I started thinking about people going on holiday.”

Expansion plans

CallUma is only available for UK customers, but Partridge says interest in the service from Spain, Portugal and Canada could lead to expansion in other overseas markets.

Meanwhile, in the UK, it has plans to work with mobile phone providers to offer multi-lingual help to travellers attending the 2012 Olympics in London.

Partridge adds: “There will be two million people coming to the capital for the Olympics and we have spent more than £2 million on a system that will allow every nationality coming into the UK to have access to every language including their own.”

While “significant” expansion plans are in the pipeline, the short term goal is to get more tour operators and other companies such as airlines to sign up to the service.

Partridge says: “For the next 12 months the focus is on getting the word out there as much as possible and getting as many operators on board.”

For agents, the service is a potential extra revenue-earner, paying commission of between 20% and 40%. “Once they have sold the holiday, where else can they make money? Not everyone wants car hire but everyone is taking luggage and most have mobile phones,” he says.

Bevan believes the service could reduce travel insurance claims by reducing the amount of lost luggage and could help companies cut call centre overheads by offering an out-of-hours emergency service.

He claims: “The travel industry has not really had anything like this before.”

More information:

* CallUma
* Management team
* Investors and advisors

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