A consortium for travel agents and destination specialist tour operators who want to focus on creating bespoke packages has more than tripled in size during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Merlin Travel Group was set up in 2019 by owners of homeworking agency Blixen Travel and Travel Portfolio, previously a managed service travel partner of Barrhead Travel under its Brilliant Travel brand.

The group, a member of Protected Trust Services, entered 2020 with eight agents, mainly homeworkers. Just over a year later, it now has 28 members, both agents and operators, specialising in markets including Kenya, coach trips to Disneyland Paris and Dubai and the Indian Ocean.

Operations and product manager Garry Butcher, also a director of Travel Portfolio, attributes the expansion in part to changes in people’s circumstances as a result of the pandemic as well as a desire by agents to create their own packages backed by a trust account model.

He said: “We didn’t’ set out to grow during the past year. We thought ‘let’s get through it’, but it’s grown massively.

“A lot of that is down to people moving around and people with other consortia not being able to create their own packages. We’ve taken a holistic approach and looked at what members want to do and if we are the right model [for them].”

Butcher insisted the group’s growth had to be sustainable, adding: “It’s not a numbers game.”

The consortium was set up to cater for experienced destination and niche market specialist operators as well as agents wanting to create their own specialist packages. Members’ brands all sit under the umbrella of Merlin Travel Group.

For a monthly fee, members have access to Atol, scheduled failure insurance and trust account while the group deals with direct contracting and commercial agreements with suppliers. It doesn’t offer marketing support.

Butcher added: “Some of the agents who have come to us have never been able to create their own packages or put together their own product. They were quite frustrated because there were reselling the same offers [as everyone else] rather than creating something unique.

“That was one of the frustrations we had. It all came down to price, with agents up against each other and direct sell operators. We felt we were not able to develop our business in the way we wanted to which is why we set up Merlin Travel Group.

“PTS provides us with the framework to develop our business and with the trust account means we can sleep easy at night; we don’t have any Refund Credit Notes.

“We work with members in partnership to help them achieve their goals. We take a percentage of the profits.”

PTS head of business development Jacqui Cleaver said the group’s growth was testament to the hard work of those running the consortium and an effective business strategy. “Through their effective management of client funds and supplier funds through the PTS trust they have empowered their travel business and taken advantage of their strengthened position,” she added.