A former finalist of The Apprentice, Jim Eastwood joined Travel Counsellors from Groupon as global sales director in March. He tells Ben Ireland about his first six months in the job and the firm’s plans for the future.

Q: Having come from outside the industry, what drew you to Travel Counsellors

A: “I found Travel Counsellors to be really progressive. I was intrigued by the model and impressed by the senior leadership team. I come from a high growth entrepreneurial environment, so it fits my skill set. Everyone wants to be part of something groundbreaking. A lot of businesses say they want to be people focused, but at Travel Counsellors I feel it to be totally the case” It’s rare that you find both these aspects as business priorities.”

Q: Have you travelled much yourself?

A: “Through sport, yes. I was an All Ireland cycling champion, played county level Gaelic football and studied in America on a soccer scholarship. So I’ve travelled fairly extensively with all that. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like travelling, seeing the world and experiencing new cultures. I wasn’t pro-actively looking to get into the travel industry but it’s certainly a fantastic bonus.”

Q: What have you learned about what they do in your first six months?

A: “My wife would testify that I’m fairly consumed by work, so whenever I looked to buy a holiday it was rushed and we would inevitably make mistakes. There’s an overwhelming amount of information out there, so it’s actually quite difficult to make an informed opinion. There are so many components that you buy in good faith, hoping everything will come together, which can often lead to mistakes and stressful situations. I used to say to my wife: ‘wouldn’t it be great if someone could do it all or you’. I think it’s very common nowadays for people to think that they have all the information at their fingertips.”

Q: What about travel agents, who have been around for a long time? What do Travel Counsellors do differently?

A: “A traditional travel agent may wish to promote a certain product or destination that’s in their interests to do so. But a Travel Counsellor has a genuine commitment to offering what is right for their customer in every aspect, not trying to sell them something that might be beneficial for the Travel Counsellor – which is why they have such a high repeat and referral rate. Travel Counsellors are genuine travel experts, they have travelled extensively and have sent customers to multiple destinations around the world and configured all those holidays. Within the network, I’m sure there’s not many corners of the globe that we haven’t either been to or sent people. They offer a concierge type service where they find out what is most important to the traveller and that extends beyond what someone’s budget is. It might be that you want to go somewhere with status or prestige, or another customer might want complete relaxation. Every customer is truly different. Travel Counsellors don’t have a one-size fits all service, they offer a bespoke service.”

Q: Tell us about the senior management in the business…

A: “The strength and complimentary skills really struck me. It was a mixture of male and female, those from within the travel industry with lots of experience of it and those, like me, new to the industry but with entrepreneurial backgrounds. I hope I can offer new perspective and draw on that to help bring in developments that are new to Travel Counsellors and the travel industry.”

Q: You had six years with Groupon, and saw them grow massively and have been brought in to help Travel Counsellors scale. How are you going to do that?

A: “It’s quite demanding, but we want to scale with intimacy. I often hear our Travel Counsellors talk about their friendships with customers. Things like price, that start out as priorities, become a secondary thing. I’ve met more than 1,500 of the 1,700 travel counsellors in my first six months, be it at events or at the Manchester head office. We’ll be helping them grow their businesses by implementing technology [Travel Counsellors is investing £21m in new technology during 2017] to help them share best practice. We’ve created an accelerator programme, which is currently being piloted with 40 Travel Counsellors.”

Q: Tell us about the accelerator…

A: “We want to help our Travel Counsellors improve their digital footprint and give them the support to do that. The accelerator is a three to nine month project where Travel Counsellors are supported by the business development team to hone their skills. There are extra modules for them on our e-learning portal, Coach, and they are doing video diaries as well. Within 48 hours of putting it out there, 20% of Travel Counsellors applied. It’s already started to get promoted through the wider organisation, Travel Counsellors on the pilot have shared it with colleagues. Stats show that these counsellors who are most committed and passionate improve their business and do well.

Q: What else have you been involved in since you started?

A: “I like public speaking, so I’ve got involved in Travel Counsellors TV. It’s a weekly show that goes out to all our Travel Counsellors globally. There’s a live studio audience, a bit like This Morning with Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield. It’s lots of fun and informative for Travel Counsellors. It teaches you to communicate relevant information in a user-friendly way.”

Q: What does it take to become a Travel Counsellor?

A: “Just like no two customers are the same, no two Travel Counsellors are the same. We are very selective about who becomes a Travel Counsellor, but it can include people from any background. We get a lot of travel agents, and people returning to travel, the travel bug can often bring you back. But we also have our Academy and we take people with a massive passion for travel, strong business acumen, real talent and the mindset to be successful. They are on a very steep learning curve but we offer a very intensive introduction and they often become very successful. They have usually travelled extensively as well.”

Q: How did going on the Apprentice help your career? (Eastwood was a finalist in series 7 in 2011)

A: “Undoubtedly it put me in the shop window. Thankfully I acquitted myself well enough that the general public and potential employers had a positive impression of me and my contribution. I was very fortunate to receive some great opportunities as a result of it.”