Production company bookings have proved lucrative for Sean Hickey, who posted his best-ever month at Travel Counsellors in October. Juliet Dennis reports.
Q. How long have you been an agent and what’s your background?
A. I used to work in marketing at an IT company. When I turned 30 I went travelling, and when I got back I saw a job advertised at Flight Centre in Bath. I worked in [leisure] retail for about five years and then in Flight Centre’s corporate division for a year. I joined Travel Counsellors in June 2018. Now corporate sales make up 75% of my business and leisure about 25%.
Q. How did you get into selling travel to TV production companies?
A. I had a lucky break at Flight Centre. One of my friends worked for the production company behind the Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild programme, so I started booking travel for its crews and for Ben to various remote locations. My customers followed me to Travel Counsellors and I’ve grown that business since. I’ve got quite a few other production companies I work with now. It’s a nice market to get into. When individuals move to other production companies they recommend me.
“One of my friends worked for the production company behind Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild, so I started booking travel for its crews and for Ben to various remote locations.”
Q. Are you still booking TV crews on trips despite Covid?
A. Production companies are still sending crews out to destinations for filming. It’s allowed as it’s classed as travel for work but obviously it is very restricted in terms of where they can go. When Covid first hit I had two production companies out filming in South Africa. That country was about to close its borders and I had to get about 20 people home, including two celebrities who were working on a new series that is still in production. Some had to go on different flights. It was quite a stressful 48 hours but I got them all home safely. Some had only flown out the day before.
Q. Is it proving harder to book group travel during the pandemic?
A. The only thing that has changed during Covid is TV companies now ask me about restrictions to a country, what countries they can get into and what they have to do beforehand. My role now involves instructing people on exactly what they need.
“When Covid first hit I had two production companies out filming in South Africa. That country was about to close its borders and I had to get about 20 people home, including two celebrities.”
Q. Prior to Covid, were there memorable or tricky travel requests from production companies?
A. Mongolia sticks in my head. The TV crew had to travel through Russia, so it was quite difficult. There was no direct flight; they had to take a low-cost flight from Russia. I had to find an airline that charged per bag not per kilo; crews usually have quite a lot of luggage and need an airline that takes luggage all the way to the end destination.
Q. How do you think your experience of the past year compares with other agents’?
A. The mix of [corporate and leisure] business has been good for me. Last year was weird; the first three months [after the Covid outbreak] was about rebooking and cancelling. But I got some people away when the travel corridors came in, and when they closed I got some corporate bookings. During October, 90% of my bookings were corporate. I managed to get a production company to the US after speaking to the US Embassy as they had to get special dispensation.
I’ve had to work longer hours. At the moment I am rebooking people for this year, and doing September leisure bookings, including holidays for the US in September and Lapland and the northern lights in December. I got the self-employed grant; I was lucky I hadn’t gone limited – I just hadn’t got round to doing it. The grant helped me for the first few months of lockdown but I know a lot of people have fallen through the gaps [in grant provision]. It has been tough but I actually had my best-ever month at Travel Counsellors in October which seems total madness!
“At the moment I am rebooking people for this year, and doing September leisure bookings, including holidays for the US in September and Lapland and the northern lights in December.”
Q. How’s it been for you personally?
A. Quite a few people in my family have had Covid, including my dad and his wife. This has affected childcare for my son, but when you have good relationships with clients, they understand.
Pictured: Sean and family
What trips have you booked for TV companies recently?
I have been working for the Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild production company for about six years. Most of their recent filming has been in the UK but I did manage to get them to Iceland. They had to have negative Covid tests before they went and another test five days after arrival. I actually got a mention on the TV credits after it aired a few weeks ago!
“Contestants had to have a negative Covid test 72 hours beforehand, but if they didn’t I had to make last-minute changes, which happened on six of the eight weeks.”
In October and November, I did bookings for an eight-week reality TV show in Antigua. There were six to eight contestants who needed flights every Saturday. I must have organised more than 100 flights! Contestants had to have a negative Covid test 72 hours beforehand, but if they didn’t I had to make last-minute changes, which happened on six of the eight weeks, meaning I had to work very late on Friday nights. Sometimes the contestants got cold feet or didn’t pass the medical or get the test done on time. Then in November, British Airways cancelled its Antigua flight for the last two weeks of the month. I had to move all the contestants to Virgin flights and fly the crew home on Virgin. It was a bit hectic!