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Big Interview: David Speakman – 20 years and still counselling

‘I had always been in awe of travel consultants,’ says David Speakman, founder and chairman of Travel Counsellors, as the agency marks its 20th anniversary this month. Lee Hayhurst reports

Twenty years ago, in May 1994, a new travel agency opened for business, inspired by the words of 1990s futurist Faith Popcorn.

Among some of her more outlandish predictions – mechanised hugging booths in big cities; pets customised to look like their owners – was the observation that underpins Travel Counsellors.

Popcorn predicted that people would increasingly stay at home, surrounded by the latest technology, to run their lives and, crucially, businesses.

Her ‘cocooning’ thesis has since been challenged, but did include the now-irrefutable claim that at-home electronic shopping and business would become ‘commercially significant’.

With this thought in mind, experienced travel agent David Speakman was looking to return to travel following the disappointment of a failed venture in the restaurant business.

He still owned a small travel agency in Atherton and saw this as his opportunity to get back into a sector for which he is one of the most passionate, and at times controversial, advocates.

In ‘awe’ of agents

“I had always been in awe of travel consultants,” he said.

“A consumer could sit opposite them and book to travel anywhere in the world. I thought that was unbelievable. And yet these agents, who were expected to know everything about everywhere, were regarded as no higher than shop assistants.”

For Speakman, founder and chairman of Travel Counsellors, this respect for the role of the travel agent remains at the core of the home-based agency’s philosophy 20 years on.

He believes agents tend to undervalue themselves, so a central plank of Travel Counsellors’ success, Speakman believes, is its formula to instil in agents the skills and confidence to sell themselves.

In light of the rise of the internet, Speakman says: “The travel agent has to understand that they no longer sell the product; the differentiator for them is the value they add, and that value is trust, reassurance and validation.”

Speakman describes his agents – Travel Counsellors now has 1,300, plus 270 staff, across eight countries – as people whose expertise is in building relationships. There is a sense that the company’s agents fulfil an emotional and practical need, akin to marriage guidance or debt counsellors.

Life-changing

Speakman says the most fulfilling aspect of the past 20 years has been seeing agents succeed and turn their own lives around.

“We have been the catalyst to allow many people to achieve success,” he says.

“By working hard, some of our counsellors have been able to send their kids to university or own their houses. Those kinds of things are life-changing and we have been part of that in our own way.

“Our top 25 counsellors earn on average £88,000, the top 50 £66,000, the top 50 £56,000 a year. We have people earning £180,000. That’s the potential.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by people who have taken this on and been massively successful, but also frustrated by some who have wanted to control their own destiny and not fulfilled their potential.

“Anybody in business must understand that everything is down to them: if you don’t have a busy restaurant, it’s your fault. The ones that fail say it’s always something else – life’s dealt them a bad hand.”

The focus on the more pastoral side of the business might seem creepy to some, but Speakman is not embarrassed by allusions to Travel Counsellors resembling a cult.

“We are a cult because I basically believe that means being part of a culture and that is part of our DNA as a company,” he says. “We build a community of believers that believe in themselves and what we are doing.”

Day-to-day management of Travel Counsellors is now in the hands of a team led by managing director Steve Byrne. But Speakman remains the figurehead and harks back to his hometown’s heritage to explain how he sees Travel Counsellors as being part of a modern-day revolution.

Production revolution

Situated close to the fabled Lancashire cotton mill towns, Bolton was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution in the northwest.

One of the town’s famous sons, Richard Arkwright, the ‘Father of the Industrial Revolution’, a wig maker based close to where Travel Counsellors’ headquarters is today, invented the spinning frame.

This innovation created the factory production line for goods – and Speakman says Travel Counsellors’ 20 years of experience makes it a modern‑day production line for producing relationships.

The company’s business is powered by a bespoke IT platform, overseen by 52 technical staff in Bolton, that has allowed Travel Counsellors to expand into seven overseas territories.

“They always used to say ‘what Lancashire thinks today, the world thinks tomorrow’,” he says. “If you accept that doing business now is all about relationships, what you have to do is build a production line of relationships. You have to put it in your DNA and do it consistently, and that’s what we do.”

Respected ‘outsider’

Despite being an ‘ennobled’ pillar of the travel industry – Speakman has picked up numerous awards including entry into the Travel Industry Hall of Fame – he says he likes being something of an outsider.

Travel Counsellors’ status outside of Abta, and as a pioneer of financial protection based on a trust account, have given him a platform to criticise those he regards as operating less ethically.

“If you are part of the establishment, the establishment has a certain comfort that you are within their sightlines,” he says.

“If you do not play that game then they are at a disadvantage because they do not know what you are doing. I do not want to let my competitors know what I’m doing.”

Having said that, Speakman believes many of his competitors, and Abta itself, are coming round, if belatedly, to Travel Counsellors’ vision of a modern travel business.

“I think we have changed what the industry believes to a certain extent,” he says.

“Abta’s got this ‘The Power of Personal’ theme for its convention this year, although it still represents people who stack it high, sell it cheap.

“But everyone is realising in travel, and in business in general, this is the age of personalisation and customisation and, to be honest, trust and reassurance. We are not afraid to admit it.”

Internet and trust

“The internet is now ubiquitous and, while customers are empowered, who do they trust? They default to TripAdvisor or Google, but they are no longer trusted because so many people are bogus.

“The customers you build relationships with may be tempted to look at Google but there is a parallel universe – another paradigm where it’s not all about Google or the internet.

“The industry has totally embraced the internet but the problem is we have come to see it as the only game in town. We have swallowed it, and we have gagged on it.

“At Travel Counsellors we have never seen it as the only game in town. There will be more and more abuse on the internet and what people will turn to is people they trust.”

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