Mark Bratt got a taste for travel after years of backpacking. He tells Benjamin Coren how he has built a career as an agent and why he loves the creativity of devising big trips.
Q. How did you get into travel?
A. I’m a backpacker at heart. I’ve spent, in total, about four years backpacking, and I wanted to share my love of experiential travel. My experience is in long-haul tailor-made travel. Following a big backpacking trip, I worked for Trailfinders as an agent for four years, from 2003.
Q. Where did you go backpacking?
A. After working at Trailfinders, me and my (now) wife, Ruth, went travelling for two years. We lived in New Zealand for a year and managed a backpacking hostel in Kaikoura on the South Island.
As part of that trip, we also backpacked around South America, China, Pakistan and India. We were stranded in Chengdu during the biggest earthquake China had experienced in 30 years.
Q. What work did you do when you got home?
A. When we arrived back in 2010, I had a sales role at On the Beach, which wasn’t really my bag – but I learned a lot about online travel agents. Then I went to Carrier, which is a far cry from On the Beach, where I learned about luxury, tailor-made travel.
I quit Carrier and set up a small-group adventure company offering canal boat tours, called Wandering Duck. We had a 70-foot narrowboat with eight bunk beds and took individuals on the canals of the Peak District and into Manchester. We won Manchester Tourism Experience of the year in 2014.
Q. What did you do next?
A. We sold the canal boat business to start a family. In 2016, I started as a homeworker with [Travel Network Group division] Independent Travel Experts. In June that year, I moved over to being a Travel Trust Association [TTA] member and we became a limited company.
Last August, we set up as Mark Bratt Travel Ltd. As a TTA member, we have more control over the back-office system, and we work from a shared workspace in Manchester.
Q. How have you expanded your business?
A. Initially, it was me and Ruth, who helped out in finance. We took on a new director, Scott Hadden, last October, which has been a big move forward. Scott is passionate about travel but does not have a background in the industry. I met him up a hill in the Peak District at a business networking event called Fresh Walks, and booked him a holiday.
He went on a self-drive tour in Namibia and got the travel bug. He was writing travel blogs and doing photos for me in return for a slightly better rate on his holiday. He later became a marketing director, and has a lot of marketing experience and a large network of business contacts in Manchester.
“Our busiest month was last July, when both of us were flat out on sales.”
Q. How do you drum up new business?
A. We pretty much rely on referrals and repeat business. We communicate via social media channels and email shots but we really use social to share our passion for travel rather than the hard sell. Referrals are our main business drivers – and that’s snowballing outwards. Customers are becoming strong ambassadors for the brand, and they share their trips and photos online and always tag our business.
Q. What next for Mark Bratt Travel?
A. My wife is on maternity leave – our youngest is six months old. Ruth is the finance director, but in the meantime, we have taken on our first non-executive employee, Phoebe Cross. She looks after the day-to-day finance in a part-time capacity. But when Ruth comes back, we will keep Phoebe on. The challenge on our own is that you are so busy, it’s very difficult to develop your business.
Scott is doing business development, but sometimes we are so busy, he gets drawn into sales. Our busiest month was last July, when both of us were flat out on sales. We now need to get sales people in, so I can focus on being the managing director and Scott the marketing director. Since 2016, we have pretty much doubled our profit and turnover annually.
How I put together a £30k booking with a 186 page itinerary
A semi-retired customer wanted to blow his life savings travelling the world. The booking totalled about £30,000 and took in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. I’ve booked every night of accommodation for the eight-month trip.
It wasn’t high-end luxury products – I booked him in four-person dormitories, motels and budget hotels. He wanted to spend his money on the experiences.
He’s on a combination of small-group tours and independent travel. In the US, I have used [Exodus brand] Grand American Adventures, Intrepid in southeast Asia, and Intrepid Urban Adventures and Travelpack for the day trips.
The trip was put together with [itinerary management system] Travefy, and the customer has an app, so he can see what he is doing each day. I’ve also provided him with a 186-page booklet about his trip, which I had professionally printed. This kind of booking showcases what dynamic packaging can achieve. I love the creativity of putting together a holiday for someone – that’s why I do it.