Travel Counsellors was a pioneer of home-based travel selling when it was set up in 1994, a time when the future of the high street was uncertain.
The franchise model championed personal customer service and bespoke holidays. It has gone on to recruit 1,200 agents in the UK and 1,800 globally, turning over £600 million.
Between January 2018 and January 2019, 190 new travel counsellors joined and 40 more are due to start this month.
While the traditional model of the self-employed, home-based agent working alone is still at the core of the business, Steve Byrne says four other models have emerged:
1. Travel counsellors who partner with fellow counsellors: for example, an agent who is great at winning business but not so good at the admin, so they can scale their business without having to employ people. The counsellors work together remotely and set up reciprocal commercial terms via the company’s in-house platform.
2. The employment model: travel counsellors who want to expand their business and bring people in to grow it and manage bookings. Many agents have their own limited companies which employ staff to work alongside the travel counsellor. This includes agency owners who move their business from a shop.
3. Partnerships: groups of travel counsellors who share offices and pool their income as a team.
4. Client services: a lead travel counsellor manages an account and wins the business but creates a team to do the bookings. The commercial arrangements are facilitated by the platform.
Byrne says: “It’s a reflection of how we have evolved. To scale your business you have to liberate talents and you reach a point where you can’t do everything yourself.”
Will we ever see travel counsellors opening shops?
“We don’t permit that at the moment and I don’t think that would be a positive step,” Byrne says. “The model is based on high levels of customer service and intimacy and the success has shown you don’t have to take on a fixed cost to deliver that.”
Ask a member of the public if they have heard of travel counsellors and they are likely to say no.
Travel Counsellors has no TV or billboard advertising campaigns, so how does it raise awareness of the brand and attract business?
“We are a retention and referral-based business,” says Byrne. “In 15 years, we have done a TV campaign maybe twice with limited success.
“We’re proud that Travel Counsellors is doing incredible things with that model and without advertising. We’ve always been a word-of-mouth business.
“We do direct marketing for our agents and tailored, consumer events with suppliers. Significant brand awareness is an opportunity down the line, but at the moment it’s about intimate relationships with the customer.”
In 2015, Travel Counsellors moved its head office from Bolton to £2 million premises in Trafford City, Manchester, where its 350 staff are based.
Asked if the new location had helped attract talent, Byrne says: “We don’t know what our retention and talent would have been like if we’d stayed in Bolton, but Manchester is a nice office environment for our staff. We do a lot more with suppliers, so there’s more of a community hub.
“We moved to have more space, a better working environment and to appeal to a wider pool, especially on the tech front.”
The business employs 90 staff in its technology team as well as a small division in South Africa.
Byrne says the business is investing in cybersecurity and continually tweaking and improving the “user experience”.
In 2017, Travel Counsellors launched its myTC app, which allows customers to enquire, book, message, pay and download documents. Byrne says the app will continue to be improved.
Around half of all sales are made through Travel Counsellors’ in-house dynamic packaging platform, Phenix. Byrne says there are plans to make the platform more intuitive and simpler for its agents to find products.
How does Phenix fulfil the company’s ethos of offering independent advice to clients, not driven by commercial deals?
“Phenix is independent and supplier agnostic,” says Byrne.
“It doesn’t have any of its own inventory. It’s a conduit to access a large number of hotels and every type of airline. There is no third‑party tour operator content.
“The system shows rates and recommends a price but counsellors can raise them lower or higher. They are empowered to choose the holiday that is right for their customer.”
Last year, private equity firm Vitruvian Partners backed Travel Counsellors in a secondary management buyout from Equistone Partners Europe.
The deal saw founder David Speakman and his wife Maureen dispose of their final interest.
Byrne, who joined the business in 2004 as managing director and became chief executive in 2016, says: “We want to use tech and artificial intelligence to improve support. Currently, if agents need advice or support, they have to call, so we want to look at how can we use technology to make sure they have the information they need.”
Other target areas include corporate travel, which has grown 15% year on year, and making Travel Counsellors “more visible” to people thinking of joining.
As for recruitment, Byrne says the company is attracting an increased number of applicants who have run their own business or travel management company.
“We want to make more explicit the different ways that business owners use the platform,” he adds.
“The empowering nature of our model and our culture of supporting people has enabled them to develop and use the company community to meet their needs.”
60 seconds with Steve Byrne
Q. Where are you from originally?
Q. What’s the last film you saw or book you read?
A. Stan and Ollie.
Q. Where are you going on holiday this year?
A. Majorca with the family – my wife and three daughters.
Q. Any hobbies?
A. Keeping fit – mainly running.
Q. What’s your guilty pleasure?
A. Dark chocolate.
Q. What’s been your best experience working in travel?
A. This industry is full of brilliant people and it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to meet and work with them, plus the chance to see so many places across the globe.
Q. What one thing about the industry would you change?
A. Customer experience at the airport.
Q. What’s your favourite food?
A. Any fresh fish dish.
Q. Which three people in travel would you invite to dinner?
A. Richard Branson, and Mike and Nicola Graham from Reuben’s Retreat.
Q. Which three people NOT in travel would you invite?
A. Sarah Millican, Lee Mack and Michel Roux Jr – he could also do the cooking!
Q. If you were PM for the day, what would you do?
A. Easier said than done, but I’d put the country first, forget party loyalty, make a decision on Brexit and get on with it.