Long-time high street agent Rachel Houghton-Mort set up her own homeworking business at a difficult personal time during the pandemic, but hasn’t looked back since. Juliet Dennis reports.
Q. What’s your background?
A. I started my career as a trainee travel agent at Going Places in Bolton when I was 16. I worked my way up to branch manager. In total I worked for Thomas Cook for 23 years before I became self-employed. It was a bit scary. I took the leap five years ago and started to work for Shore Travel as a homeworker. We were part of the Freedom Group, which went down when Thomas Cook collapsed in 2019. I had hundreds of bookings when Thomas Cook went under. Most were refunded or moved. I still looked after my clients and they never knew any different but I had to work around the clock.
“I set up Aspire Travel in August last year. I chose to join Travel Specialists by Advantage. I believed Advantage had a good reputation and that’s why I contacted them.”
Q. Why did you set up your own homeworking business Aspire Travel?
A. I always wanted to go it alone but it was never the right time. Even though I set up my business at the height of the pandemic, I thought what have I got to lose? All my affected bookings had been recovered and changed. I set up Aspire Travel in August last year. I chose to join Travel Specialists by Advantage. I believed Advantage had a good reputation and that’s why I contacted them. I rang a few of their members and did a lot of research first. They have a trust account and their systems were completely different to what I’d been using before. The support has been amazing; I cannot praise them enough.
“I wanted to make the business a success in [Jane’s] memory. It’s been the worst three years of my life so it’s nice to know something good is coming out of it.”
Q. A close friend died when you were setting up your business. How did that affect you?
A. I worked with Jane Disley at Thomas Cook’s Wigan branch for 10 years and she left to become a homeworker for Shore Travel three years before I did. I’d called Jane to ask her thoughts on becoming a homeworker. She was the one who prompted me to take the leap and leave Thomas Cook after 23 years of working in a store. Sadly, Jane passed away last September after battling a short illness. She was only 42 and left behind a husband and two young boys who she absolutely adored. Her death affected me massively. I wanted to make the business a success in her memory. It’s been the worst three years of my life so it’s nice to know something good is coming out of it.
“Working from home means I am more proactive and it works for the girls too. I am doing four times more sales in my kitchen than I did in a busy shop in Wigan.”
Q. Tell us about the team.
A. The business started off as just me and my administration lady Rebecca Sinclair, who I know from my days at Thomas Cook. She does all the invoices and tickets. Now there’s four of us. A year ago I took on Rachel Hurley and Sharon DuToit started a month later. I always wanted to build the business but I didn’t want it to be too big. Rachel was a client who used to book cruises and I found Sharon after I advertised on Facebook. Both live in Wigan and work from home but they have completely different clients. Working from home means I am more proactive and it works for the girls too. I am doing four times more sales in my kitchen than I did in a busy shop in Wigan. We have a monthly Zoom meeting and message each other on WhatsApp. The girls put any questions or recommendations on there.
“We have a monthly Zoom meeting and message each other on WhatsApp. The girls put any questions or recommendations on there.”
Q. Will you take on more staff?
A. I would like one more member of staff but I want to keep the team small because I want it to be manageable. I am a mum and it’s hard work, but it always seems to come together in the end. Time management is one thing I need to work on. I want to be able to go on holiday!
“[The pandemic has] been as busy as I would have liked it to be. In fact I have not had a quiet time – I work most days, even on holiday.”
Q. How have sales been during the pandemic?
A. During the pandemic I was still sending clients away. I had clients tell me they trusted me and I’d send them wherever I could. I’ve had clients in Barbados and Dubai, where some stayed for a few months. It’s been as busy as I would have liked it to be. In fact I have not had a quiet time – I work most days, even on holiday.
How is the business faring now?
I do on average 60 bookings a month. In September, our turnover was £300,000 on bookings made in that month. October was about the same. I’ve had a lot of late deals, with clients going to Barbados and Cyprus. It was a surprise to do that well in September, but we have all worked hard. My sales in September were £225,000 and the girls did the rest. I always say if you work hard it will pay off.
“At the moment, every booking seems to have an issue, with tests or requirements, but we are coming through it. Now I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
At the moment, I wake up to around 10 enquiries in the morning. If I hadn’t taken the plunge, I’d still be sat in [my former] shop talking with the girls about what I was having for lunch! I have learnt so much. I could never go back [to my old job]. At the moment, every booking seems to have an issue, with tests or requirements, but we are coming through it. Now I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.