Chief operating officer tells Ben Ireland of plans for tech to help human interaction

Travel Counsellors announced the appointment of its first chief operating officer in January, but Mark O’Donoghue had been quietly on the books since just before the company’s 25th anniversary conference in Manchester in November.

He says the event was the perfect opportunity to get under the skin of the “constantly evolving” business and its 2,000-plus travel counsellors.

“This role has been created to maximise the potential for our digital platform,” says O’Donoghue, who joined from online learning provider Avado Learning. “I was attracted because there is a lot of potential to use tech better, but at its heart it’s a very human-led organisation.”

Technology benefits

He draws comparisons between Avado and Travel Counsellors. He says both use tech to drive human interaction.

“Historically, the technology platform has hugely served Travel Counsellors, and that’s not going to change,” he says.

“But we want to extend it to the stakeholders in the enquiry or booking.”

By this, he means Travel Counsellors’ customers, although he is keen to point out “this is not a self‑serve objective”.

“Travel counsellors are experts,” he adds. “We want to help them make the most out of that expertise.” That is, to “turn more quotes into bookings” and “offer the best possible experiences to their customers”.

The plan includes a lot of decision-making driven by the “huge volume of data” gleaned from the 350,000 customers of more than 2,000 travel counsellors in a bid to make the platforms they use more useful.

“We want to help travel counsellors understand their customers better,” O’Donoghue says. “We are never going to replace the personal conversations, but we want to use big data to predict customers’ next moves.”

That might be “simple functional stuff” like predicting when a customer tends to book or when they are “ripe for conversion” – and will take place in the form of “helpful prompts” to “nudge the travel counsellor to nudge the customer”.

Tech could also be used to make run-of-the-mill processes simpler for customer and counsellor, such as payments. “Nobody likes to ask for money, especially if you have a personal relationship with someone,” he says of a service that can now be done in-app.

O’Donoghue also wants to build on the tech announcements made at the November conference.

These included a recommendation engine, or “virtual version of 2,000 travel counsellors giving each other ideas”, and an updated MyTC app, now available on desktop and tablet and proven, with data, to increase the likelihood of customers booking.

He also believes it’s “critical to continue evolving” dynamic-packaging tool Phenix, which accounts for more than 50% of sales, and 80% of premium leisure bookings.

New ways of working

Business models are also shifting, he says, with agents not just working from home but increasingly sharing office space and building their own teams.

Whatever their model, tech, in its various guises, can be implemented to give travel counsellors more time for what they do best – sell holidays. O’Donoghue firmly believes this is a skill where traditional methods – the human touch – still work best.

“Some businesses think reducing friction is the be-all and end-all,” he says. “But at Travel Counsellors there is a concept of valuable friction: an upfront investment that, in time, reduces friction further down the journey because they’ve understood everything at the start.”

And while he believes that “if the business had been founded today, it would be considered gig economy” – he notes that the Ubers and Airbnbs of the world, while having good tech, would be nowhere without the humans at their heart.