LATTE Profile – Karen Merricks

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Like it says in the Paul Kelly song, “from little things big things grow” and that’s certainly the case for Roy and Karen Merricks, the founders of MTA – Mobile Travel Agents and the pioneers of the home-based consultants model in this country.

It might be unseemly to draw parallels with Microsoft’s Bill Gates or Apple’s Steve Wozniak, both kicked off their multi-billion dollar empires behind a garage door.

Sir Richard’s Branson failed miserably at budgerigar breeding and Christmas tree production before he tasted success with a mail order record business.

But for Roy and Karen Merricks, daring to dream of a fully-supported, ‘work from home’ travel agency concept while eating fish and chips on Burleigh Beach has evolved into one of the Australian travel industry’s great success stories. 

Today the MTA brand has attracted in excess of 350 like-minded home-based ‘dreamers’, the company is aligned with several of the world’s most exclusive travel brands, it has the industry ear on key issues affecting the retail sector, walks the walk with the likes of Sir Richard Branson and also has one of the most respected young Australians, round world sailor Jessica Watson OAM at the helm as its brand ambassador.

To say the Merricks have come a long way in 14 years would be somewhat of an understatement.

“Coming from the position of working in the industry as a mum, in my dream world everything was planned around the way I always wanted to work while having the freedom to be my own boss, to come and go as I pleased and to work the hours I wanted around my family,” Karen Merricks said.

“And that was exactly what we wanted for the people who we knew would eventually join us in our dream.

“It wasn’t about taking their clients and their databases for our business. Right from the start we made it very clear that their clients were their own and the plan was for them to work with us and for us to provide them with the support systems they needed to run their own business as part of this MTA concept.

“All these decisions as to how we would work the business, from accessing support systems and product deals right through to commission splits,  were decided in those two years of planning – and we’ve stuck to those decisions to this day.”

But like Rome, MTA wasn’t built in a day and it took two years of intense research by Roy Merricks who delved deep, particularly into the then fledgling US model as well as the legal and licensing requirements needed to satisfy Australian consumer business legislation,  in order to successfully establish Karen’s dream of a home-based agency system in Australia.

The Merricks finally took the plunge in 2000 when they bought Nobby Beach Travel on Queensland’s Gold Coast, boarded up the shop front, moved into a back room and commenced operating Australia’s first, truly home-grown and home-based mobile travel agency under a ‘Mobile Travel Agents’ branding.

“The former owner of Nobby Beach Travel, David Hyles, was our first consultant and our numbers quickly grew to 15 with everyone working from their home base. And before we knew it we had run out of room and needed to relocate to a bigger office,” Karen said.

“It was about this time that we became keen on dealing with other like-minded consultants in other parts of Australia and in order to reach them and grow our numbers beyond Queensland, we targeted people living interstate, running tiny ads in the Sydney Morning Herald which proved very successful.

“But we pretty much did everything ourselves and in the early days, it was not uncommon to see us driving from home to the office in the middle of the night to make sure a ticket has been issued for an MTA consultant needing help for a client. You can imagine the bond that developed.”

The new office was a 54 square metre room in Robina where the Merricks had just enough space to fit a couple of desks, two computers and a work-horse fax which still proved faster and more effective to deal with than the ‘still in its early days mode’ dial-up internet service.

“Everything was done by hand and via fax which was king in those days,” Roy Merricks said.

“Karen did all the ticketing, we used Metro Travel as our consolidator and Galileo was our GDS of choice.  

“And it was in Robina that we brought our children into the business. Sara (then a teenager but now a company director and head of product) answered the phone and calculated all the commission payments while sitting on the floor with piles of paper.

“Ben meanwhile used his spare time away from university to come in and help us start developing what formed the groundwork for today’s intricate IT systems, a job he still performs today in his capacity as director of IT services.

“Ben was in fact very involved in our next big step forward when we digitalised our one-stop business form. He was also the catalyst for what became our earliest ‘Virtual Office’ housing the forms we originally designed to service our consultants and as 2002 rolled around we finally had all our systems in place.

“By this stage we were turning over a fair amount of business and I remember Air Pacific’s regional manager, Victor Sharan paying us a visit with his team in order to meet the people who were creating so much business for the airline – he looked really surprised when he saw it was just us two of us in that tiny little box of an office.”

Since those early days MTA has gone from strength to strength, its resilience proven on many occasions via its ability to weather many of the storms, developments and challenges that have affected the entire travel industry.

These include the collapse of Ansett and Traveland and 9/11 in 2001, the Gulf War and the outbreak of SARS in 2003, the GFC in 2007 and 2008, commission cuts and the introduction of agents’ service fees.

“All of these had the ability to sink a lot of businesses but for us many of these events actually proved catalysts for growth,” Karen said.

“If sales were down at this time for us it was a growth period. A lot of people were put off during these times and as a result we were really fortunate to pick up some amazing people, many of whom are still with us today.

“The same applies to commission cuts and the advent of service fees – challenges that have had the ability to stall other businesses but challenges we have met, absorbed and moved on to the benefit of both MTA members and their clients.”

This growth also precipitated another move – this time to bigger premises at Ashmore but it wasn’t long before another move was required, back to Robina where the MTA national headquarters now resides spread across two floors housing some 35 support staff providing nationally spread marketing, PR, product deals, finance, IT and ticketing with 24 hour back up.

“MTA is an amazing beast – we never thought that it wouldn’t succeed but we still like to be surprised when we see how well things work and how much the industry recognises us and our brand for what it is and the results we achieve,” Karen said.

“Key to everything we have done and a major factor in our ongoing evolution has been our ability to keep pace with and harness the right technology at the right time.

“A major move was to go multi-GDS. While Galileo was our launch partner, we quickly concluded it would be better to be multi-GDS.

“Being able to have multiple GDS made it very easy for people with their own systems to transition to the home working model – as some of them often said, they had made all the mistakes they were ever going to make so best to stick with the one system they had learned how to use.

“Another key element was our move to IATA accreditation– we realised without the accreditation we couldn’t get the air deals we needed so while we were doing a lot through Metro, the need was there for MTA to be IATA affiliated – it proved a milestone for us.

“The next thing was we needed tickets and we built our ticket team around ex-Concorde staffer Paula Wright who has been with us now for 12 years and is in fact our longest serving support team member.

“There can be no doubt technology and making the right moves at the right time has played a major role in enabling us to be where we are today.”

While leisure travel initially formed the bulk of MTA’s initial business, the Merricks also recognised their ever-growing number of consultants were keen to build on their share of the opportunities presented by corporate sector.

“This is where Andrew Challenor at UTAG (who went on to become MTA’s first general manager) proved so useful,” Roy said.

“We picked his brains, realised being IATA and having corporate deals was mandatory to our growth and having achieved enough turnover to become UTAG members, promptly accessed the opportunity and today it has become a key component of our overall business.

“Now we cover the spectrum – group travel, conferences, entertainment, group travel – we even handled an INXS world tour some years back – niche product, bespoke and experiential travel.

“The key to all is understanding needs, building a solid base and researching but always being flexible to move and change the business as we see things being needed to be changed.”

Industry recognition has been strong. MTA was handpicked by Sir Richard Branson as an official sales agent for the Virgin supremo’s Virgin Galactic product.

MTA is also a proud member of the exclusive by invitation only Virtuoso luxury product group and just last year was awarded the organisation’s ‘Top Producer Australia and New Zealand’ award.

MTA is also one of only a handful of Australian-based agency groups to be invited to become a member of the Orient Express Bellini Club.

“Being hand picked by Sir Richard Branson led us into Virtuoso which in turn gave us the opportunity to push the business into a whole new area to the benefit of all MTA members,” Roy said.

“There are no ifs or doubts about it – our success to date has been based on a very solid foundation, listening to our members’ needs, reacting accordingly when the right opportunities come along and not being afraid to think outside the square.

“And we continue to look to the future.”

And what does the future bring for MTA?

“The times have changed and much today is being talked about people cutting out agents and using the internet to go direct,” Karen said.

“But we believe, ultimately, this is to their cost and they can’t do without us.

“Proof of this is the fact that ever more increasing numbers of clients are coming back to travel agents in a world where our expertise, knowledge, experience and after sales support is again being valued by many more travellers.

“It’s the same with the suppliers – some wholesalers and suppliers have turned their backs on agents but we still make up the bulk of the sales for suppliers.

“But the world has changed and we are in a very comfortable position of looking at who we deal with these days.

“We want to work with like minded people and they have to be as right a fit for us as we are for them.

“Its good to be in position to choose who you want to work with.”

So where do the Merricks and MTA go from here.

Certainly key recent developments have played, are playing and will play strong roles for the MTA brand is it continues to move forward.

The recent appointment of high profile CEO, Don Beattie, the roll out of a new member ‘Rewards & Recognition” scheme, new IT support and developments, Member agreements, personal websites – the list is ever-growing as are the accruable benefits for those fortunate enough to be invited to join the organisation.

Summing up both Karen and Roy agree that the company’s growth has never been a numbers game.

“Its all about quality – we like to deal with like minded people – its about having the right fit for us and that is the very hallmark on which we have founded MTA.”

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