Homeworking group’s president explains its ‘respect for regulations’ and outlines its appeal to agents seeking to enter the industry. Ben Ireland reports.

It’s a bit of fear, it’s a bit of resistance to change, and protectionism.”

That’s InteleTravel president James Ferrara’s assessment of the criticism his company has received from some agents in the UK since it began advertising on social media for homeworking staff with no industry experience.

The company was this week granted membership of Abta, meaning it is now bonded as a retail travel agent in Britain.

But its entrance into the UK market has raised eyebrows in the trade, some of whom believe InteleTravel is devaluing the role of a travel agent and others going as far as calling it a pyramid scheme.

But the company does not hide the fact it is targeting agents who have no prior experience. That is, in fact, its differential. Its website says: “It shouldn’t matter if someone already has a career or doesn’t know anything about travel; what’s important is how passionate he or she is.”

And it has 1,800 agents signed up in the UK already.

‘New but legal’

Ferrara is not afraid of ruffling a few feathers. He’s done it before.

The company goes back to 1991 when Ferrara’s venture‑capital firm bought a Californian homeworking travel agency advertising for “outside agents” – its term for homeworkers. InteleTravel now operates in all 50 US states, Mexico and 10 Caribbean countries – with 30,000 agents on its books globally.

“We recognised something in the idea,” he tells Travel Weekly. “We researched it and had a law firm look into it. What came back was that it was a fairly new concept but totally legal – so we invested in it. We were pioneers, and took a lot of arrows in our backs. We made mistakes, of course, but we learnt.”

Abta membership

One of the lessons Ferrara says he has learnt is to always comply with the law of the land. In the UK, that means regulation and it starts with Abta.

“We respect the process,” he says. “You don’t last 28 years if you are disrespectful of regulations.”

It first started looking for recruits two years ago, and the Abta application process began at the same time.

InteleTravel had to jump through some hoops. Abta requested that its agents complete in-house training modules, which have now been created for areas like GDPR, package travel regulations, Atol, customer service and complaints resolution.

Ferrara says “more than 90%” of UK recruits have completed these thus far. Off its own back, InteleTravel also created a mystery‑shopping exercise through which its agents were tested on these lessons.

He said: “I understand the reaction we have seen since we publicly began entering the [UK] market. It’s very natural. We saw it 25 years ago in the US as well.”

Ferrara was keen to point out InteleTravel is a member of “all” the trade associations in the US, naming Iatan, Arc, Clia and Asta as examples.

It is also in the process of applying for an Atol licence in the UK as an “extra layer of protection”, with Ferrara ruling out a dynamic packaging operation.

“In business there are some people who think you can protect your business instead of earning it,” he says. “I’m old enough to know that it doesn’t work.”

Ferrara prefers not to directly address InteleTravel’s doubters, but says “some people have crossed the line”.

“We haven’t commented on that at all along the way,” he adds. “The cost to us for that has been to allow people to imagine our story without us being able to tell it.”

Agents’ costs

InteleTravel charges homeworkers a £142 sign-up fee and £32 monthly charge. “We keep costs extremely low,” says Ferrara.

Agents keep 70% of the commission paid by suppliers, but this can rise to 80% if they hit sales targets, which about a fifth do. Crucially, there are no obligatory targets. Agents can sell as little or as much as they want and leave at any time with no fees. “It can be a plan B for a lot of people,” Ferrara notes. “But plan Bs often become plan A.

“One of the reasons for our longevity is the simplicity of our model. I’ve seen other companies charge thousands for set-up – that’s never been our model. Monthly fees do offset our costs but it’s a fraction of what we make in commission.”

Client bases

Another way InteleTravel works differently to other homeworking models in the UK is its hands-off approach to marketing. It doesn’t generate leads for agents, who have to build up their own networks.

“That’s the power of independence,” says Ferrara. “These are not people sitting in high street stores.

“Our agents have rich lives, often doing something else. That gives us access to different groups. They are almost implanted into these groups, whether through church or the golf club, friends and family or whatever.

“They actually bring us an inordinate amount of group business. It’s our technology and our systems that push them further – every major [travel] brand in the world works with InteleTravel.

“People think of us in terms of numbers and scale but there’s a quality vector here too. It doesn’t work unless you can increase the productivity of each agent.”

Training and suppliers

“Our secret recipe is education,” says Ferrara. “When the first webinars came out in the late 90s, we were on it immediately.”

Online training is still pivotal to the company today. There are preferred suppliers, but agents are urged to be independent.

“Instead of restricting them [to selling certain suppliers], we try to teach them why it makes sense,” Ferrara points out.

InteleTravel will be using its connections with global suppliers to bring them into its UK model, but will also look to seek out new partners that don’t sell in its existing markets. Ferrara says “we’ve found it easy – there’s a real appetite [so far]”.

Recruitment

“There are homeworking companies in the States that attract existing homeworkers, but that’s never been our model,” says Ferrara, when probed on whether other UK travel retail companies should fear its growth in the market.

“We don’t offer the systems that experienced travel agents would want – we have our own. We don’t ask them to decipher Amadeus’s cryptic code.

“We create new market share and bring new people into the industry. The industry also needs it. It’s new blood and that’s important for the future of the industry. We are bringing in people who have a passion for travel and who are also comfortable with technology.”

New recruits’ backgrounds are not examined forensically, but Ferrara says those with pre‑existing sales and marketing skills tend to do well.

“One of our top-three sales people came from a senior marketing role at McDonald’s,” he says. “Her only experience was having travelled for her job.

“Some might be surprised at the level of professionalism of these people – we have teachers, accountants, educated people. A number of them are making six‑figure [salaries].

“If you are interested in coming into the industry, particularly as a first-timer, where else are you going to get this?”

MoreInteleTravel granted Abta membership

tw3