Travel Counsellors agent Gail Dunwoodie, well-known for her years at Attraction World, tells Juliet Dennis about her career change to homeworking to enjoy a better work-life balance.
Q. What made you switch from working for a supplier to becoming a homeworker?
A. I was at Attraction World for nearly 20 years. I left at the end of September 2018; it was just my time. The year before, I’d met a Travel Counsellors agent while on a fam trip in Florida and thought what a great work-life balance [the job allowed]. I was nearing 50. I wanted to change my life around a bit. At that time, we were trying to relocate my dad from Cumbria to Henley, near me. I was questioning my life and what was important; I felt if I had some free time, I could do more with my dad. I did my Travel Counsellors training in October 2018. Having industry experience has really helped.
“Opposite where I live is a luxury retirement village. I spoke to the manager and I do regular Tuesday afternoons in the coffee shop to talk about holidays.”
Q. How did you build up your customer base as a first-time homeworker?
A. I knew lots of people but they were all in the travel industry! Opposite where I live is a luxury retirement village. I spoke to the manager and I do regular Tuesday afternoons in the coffee shop to talk about holidays and I’ve got a few customers from that. I’m also a member of a gym and there are quite a few wealthy individuals there whose travel needs I now look after.
At first, I did find it difficult to call people I didn’t know, but it’s so true that picking up the phone is by far the best way to get a sale. Strangers are not going to say ‘yes’ to a holiday on email. [Cold-calling] is not my strongest point but I’m getting more used to it. At first I was quoting and booking anything people wanted, but as time goes on you know what business you want and don’t want. I started to get a nice little income pre-Covid and was working hours to suit me. Summer 2019 was a good year for business.
“I knew it was never going to be a 9-to-5 job but it has got harder [during Covid]. The support I’ve had from Travel Counsellors has been second to none.”
Q. How did you cope when Covid hit?
A. I had quite a number of large bookings at the time and all rebooked. I have got some corporate accounts, sending engineers all over Europe. A few were stuck in Italy when Covid started and I had to get them back, which was a bit hairy. I also had clients who were desperate to get home but stuck in Germany. I felt really stressed but no one lost out.
Even during lockdown, I still sent engineers abroad. I had to check the regulations and on arrival clients had to self-isolate. I knew it was never going to be a 9-to-5 job but it has got harder [during Covid]. The support I’ve had from Travel Counsellors has been second to none.
“I was one of those who fell through the net. I had to be self-employed for three years to receive the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) grants.”
Q. As a self-employed agent have you had financial support during the pandemic?
A. I was one of those who fell through the net. I had to be self-employed for three years to receive the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) grants. It’s only recently I was contacted by HMRC to say I was now eligible. I had to send three months’ worth of bank statements. I claimed and two days later it was in my bank account. Until then, I’d lived off my savings. I was also eligible for Universal Credit, so I claimed that; it wasn’t very nice [to have to claim benefit] but everyone was in the same boat. I took a three-month mortgage holiday on my home and had to start looking at what I was buying in the supermarket. Now, we have a light at the end of the tunnel as long as things go according to the roadmap.
“The biggest fear for my customers is that they are going to go away to a ‘green’ destination but halfway through their holiday there will be a change to ‘amber’.”
Q. What’s your opinion of the market and the prospects for this summer?
A. I am hopeful about this summer. I know there are a lot of people who will book once we get the go-ahead to travel. Greece seems very popular. There is massive pent‑up demand but no one is really booking. I’ve done a few UK bookings and have some nice bookings for 2022 but I’m not back to pre-Covid sales levels yet by a long way. A lot of people don’t want to wear masks on holiday. But the biggest fear for my customers is that they are going to go away to a ‘green’ destination but halfway through their holiday there will be a change to ‘amber’ and they will have to self-isolate. But at least the government is now going to give us some notice of changes, and that will give people more reassurance.
You lost your dad last year during the pandemic. How have you got through this difficult time?
My dog Audrey, a red and brown cockapoo, has been a big part of this stage of my life. She’s been my little soulmate. I’d always wanted a dog but, living on my own and working full-time, it was never an option. When I was deciding what to do, I thought why wait? I got her in November 2018. I used to take her and my dad out for lunch; he loved Audrey.
He suffered from a muscle degenerative disease and was using two sticks and a wheelchair. I had been visiting him in Warwick Hospital when they told me I couldn’t visit any more because of Covid in March last year. They took him to a care home. We weren’t even allowed to go to the window to wave at him.
He also had Alzheimer’s and that accelerated. He died on his own in April last year. We couldn’t even hug family at the funeral; it was horrendous. It’s been a terrible, tough time.