It’s not just about the commission. Head office support, lead generation and technology are among the other key issues to consider, says Samantha Mayling
Becoming a self-employed, home-based agent can be daunting in the best of times. But in the middle of a pandemic, with travel bookings reduced to a trickle, it might seem foolhardy or, worse, reckless.
Yet hundreds seem undaunted by the prospect of launching a travel business amid an unprecedented crisis, as homeworking agencies all report rising enquiries.
Business models vary widely, with different commission splits, training, support, leads and fees – even within organisations – so careful research is vital.
However, the variety means there’s likely to be a model to suit every different agent.
John Milburn, head of homeworking and telesales at Hays Travel, says: “It’s become much more accessible and diversified.
“It’s now seen as a real business opportunity as well as a lifestyle choice.
“We have seen an increase in applications due to the current market. Lots of people in the industry have been working from home and really enjoyed the balance it brought to their lives – so why not make it a career?”
Kirsten Hughes, UK managing director at Travel Counsellors, says: “We’ve seen an increase in interest from people who’ve been made redundant or are worried about their future, particularly from corporate travel.”
US firm InteleTravel recruited 4,000 UK homeworkers during a three-month period in the pandemic. Tricia Handley-Hughes, its UK director, says: “Covid accelerated the WFH trend; people are reassessing their lives and some have lost jobs.
“If you have a mortgage and bills but yearn to work in travel, there can be a huge risk to starting.” However, she says the company’s low costs means it can offer a “low-risk entry” to the sector.
Do your homework
Richard Dixon, Holidaysplease director, has also recruited agents during the pandemic but urges would-be homeworkers to “think very carefully”.
“Lots of people are wide-eyed. There are lots of different propositions, so it is more important than ever to research,” he says.
“Is it right for you now, next year, in three years, in five years?”
Weighing up whether homeworking is right for you? Here are some factors to consider:
Dixon recently held a webinar in which he highlighted 50 questions that would-be homeworkers should ask an agency. These covered topics such as reputation, position in the market, lead generation, fees and charges, supplier deals, commission, average earnings, support staff, training and technology.
“You need to be honest; it’s hard to find clients beyond friends and family,” he warns.
“You need to be super-motivated and resilient. Create a clear plan for year one and a vision for where your business will be by year three. If you’re desperate for money, this may not be for you. It’s a great opportunity but it may take six to 12 months to build up a decent level of income regardless of when commission is paid.”
Alistair Rowland, chief executive of Blue Bay Travel, says a good homeworker should have 200 or more clients and turn over between £500,000 and £1 million in a normal year to generate a good income. Top earners can turn over £2 million a year, he says, but start-ups can target £300,000 from about 100 clients.
However, in the current crisis, there are few bookings, so Blue Bay’s new homeworking offering will pay half the commission upfront to help cashflow over the winter. That model may not suit all homeworkers as commission has to be repaid if a holiday is cancelled.
The new model from Advantage levies 2% of the turnover of Travel Specialists homeworkers, as well as its share of commission. But in exchange, homeworkers can access Advantage’s marketing and business development teams, commercial deals, incentives, education, administrative support and out-of-hours support. It operates using a trust account.
Jacqui Cleaver, head of communications at Protected Trust Services, says the problems many travellers have experienced with online travel agencies could prove a boon for homeworkers.
“The power of a travel agent’s local network is important again,” she says.
“Forward bookings for 2021 are amazing but you need a business plan to survive the winter – the next six months will be hard.”
Claire Willoughby, business development manager at The Personal Travel Agents at Co-operative Travel, agrees. She says: “The primary consideration is ‘can you survive without guaranteed income?’ Most options are commission-only.
“Some applicants are naive; it is not easy, especially now.”
Know your market
Gary Pridmore, co-founder of Aquilium Travel – a member of Midcounties Co-operative – launched The Travel Managers brand in October to attract more homeworkers in the mainstream market, alongside its luxury venture, The Travel Directors.
“We have been inundated with enquiries,” he says. “The flexibility of homeworking is attractive, especially if agents look at the cost of high street premises.
“Customers want peace of mind and a real person rather than OTAs.
“There will be a long winter to survive, but this is a cost-effective way to start a business.
“We talk to prospective homeworkers on the phone but if they don’t talk with excitement and confidence, they will find it a struggle.”
The recruitment process also includes a Zoom call with the applicant and their spouse or friend.
“The other half may ask questions that the homeworker doesn’t think of, and they can chat about it together afterwards,” says Pridmore.
Many homeworking businesses work on a franchise basis but only one, GoCruise & Travel Franchise, operates territorially.
Samantha Gibbs, head of franchise at the business, which is part of Fred Olsen Travel, says GoCruise & Travel has 67 territories currently, each with a minimum population of 250,000.
“If you have a franchise [with us] in Exeter, you can book clients across the country but physically market yourself in Exeter,” she says.
“You can go to a wedding fair, networking event or travel show without bumping into someone else from the same group.”
Lending a hand
Ivrie Cohen, business development manager at Inspire, says homeworkers have to wear many hats: sales, customer service, account manager and marketing. “Ask if the company can adapt its support model to match your needs,” he says.
Support is a key factor cited by all homeworking bosses – even more than commission and fees.
Gary Gillespie, managing director of Independent Travel Experts, says: “We do all of the admin, so you can do the selling.”
As part of the Travel Trust Association – itself part of The Travel Network Group – ITE helps homeworkers with emails, training, marketing, social media and opportunities to meet suppliers at events.
Paula Nuttall, chief executive of The Holiday Village, says her firm offers support from 9am to 9pm, helping with queries. The Holiday Village pays half the commission upfront, but if the holiday is cancelled, the company liaises with the homeworker about ways to pay it back, to help with cashflow.
Support and training are important even for experienced travel agents. Damian McDonough, business development director at Your Holiday Booking, says: “The ones who succeed are Abta-trained agents, but coming from the high street, their Achilles heel is the fact that they have never had to market themselves.
“The first year is hardest, the second is better. We give them as much ammunition as possible as you need everything in your armoury: cruise, ski, city breaks, Disney, business travel, long‑haul and extras.”
Jason Oshiokpekhai, managing director of Global Travel Collection, urged potential homeworkers to seek companies with financial stability, especially as revenue has dried up during the pandemic. Advisors with the group also have access to a 24‑hour travel safety desk offering Covid-19 destination updates.
“Our travel advisors need instant access to the most up‑to‑date information on rapidly changing destination policies and requirements,” says Oshiokpekhai.
“They provide complex, bespoke travel services to discerning clientele across a broad spectrum of industries including entertainment and corporate travel as well as luxury leisure.”
Questions to ask homeworking companies