‘Sense of community’ key for home-based travel advisors

Australia's 'Big 3' of mobile travel networks explain the impact of COVID-19

The close knit community environment of home-based agency networks in Australia is keeping travel advisors level headed as the industry begins to see signs of what the new normal post-COVID 19 starts to take shape.

LATTE asked some of the country’s largest home-based agency groups, including the big three (MTA- Mobile Travel Agents, TravelManagers and Travel Counsellors) how their business and members have faired during the coronavirus crisis and what they are doing to keep their advisors motivated. Ongoing communication and engagement was unsurprisingly viewed as being of utmost importance.

Kaylene Shuttlewood, Regional Managing Director, Travel Counsellors Australia said connections during these “turbulent times” was paramount.

“Regular calls to our agents – using web cams – keeps us connected and the Travel Counsellor feeling they are a valued part of the community. All members of our TC Australia community are invited for a live daily ‘team meeting‘ conference call debrief with the aim to keep connected and informed,” she told LATTE.

Shuttlewood said Travel Counsellors’ social groups and message boards provide a platform for members to “have a laugh, learn about everyone’s ‘iso’ journey and keep the travel dream alive about where we want to go next”.

Barry Mayo, Chairman of TravelManagers Australia said the group’s personal travel managers (PTMs) have benefitted from constant communication with state business partnership managers. Regular video meetings, which originally started out as generic, have evolved to specific topics that are “well received with high engagement”.

“There is a powerful sense of community among the 600 PTMs and NPO [National Partnerships Office].”

Karen and Roy Merricks, Co-Managing Directors of MTA – Mobile Travel Agents said their members kept each other motivated, sharing anecdotes on a closed MTA Facebook group.

“Like everyone in the travel industry, our MTA- Mobile Travel Agents have found the COVID-19 pandemic challenging and heartbreaking as dream holidays and months of planning are cancelled or postponed. Instead they’ve been working long hours often unpaid to achieve the best possible results for their clients,” the Merricks explained to LATTE.

The advantage of your home-based model?

Kaylene Shuttlewood

“We’re a very unique business. We don’t view our business as simply “booking the customer” but rather as a business that supports the customer throughout their entire journey from booking to coming home. Our TC’s and their customers have been our number one priority and as part of a global company, we’ve supported and had the support of global colleagues to ‘follow the sun’ to service our  TC’s and their customers around the clock, during such an unstable time.”

“However, situations like these often bring out the best (or worst!) in people and the ‘MTA family’ has pulled together, shared information, collaborated on solutions and cheered each other up when they’re having a down day,” they added.

Benefits of a home-based model during C19

Shuttlewood said Travel Counsellors Australia’s Melbourne based support staff were already nimble and able to work remotely. “Being equipped in this way ensured that we were able to seamlessly adapt to the government directives with limited disruptions to our Travel Counsellors”.

She said the home-based model had other benefits for its travel agents, including no assets and therefore no liability “allowing us to swiftly reduce costs to move the business into survival mode”.

How is your model working with its PTMs ?

Barry Mayo

“We have worked through all business options with our PTMs from pausing their business so as to enable them to work elsewhere to continuing to service their client via a range of marketing activities in preparation for when travel recommences. As a self-employed business owner, each PTM is able to choose what works best for them and their clients.”

That was a sentiment echoed by Mayo for TravelManagers Australia’s PTMs.

“Compared to bricks and mortar agencies, most of our personal travel managers are sole traders and being home-based are exposed to less overheads (rent, salaries, utilities and other expenses),” he said.

TravelManagers also introduced a new lower cost model for PTMs due to the virus, enabling members to hibernate their own business while retaining access to the group’s systems and NPO support to process client requests and enquiries.

Likewise, Travel Counsellors has paused its monthly franchise fees and is encouraging and supports members to continue to operate their businesses and offer their services.

Job Keeper lauded

The Morrison Government’s ‘Job Keeper’ wage subsidy was welcomed by Mayo, saying it has assisted financially and enabled PTMs to “overhaul their operations, refine business plans and/or up-skill on systems, product and destinations while allowing them to be available to clients and preparing for a return to trading as domestic travel recommences and borders gradually reopen”.

MTA’s Roy and Karen Merricks provided similar feedback.

“As a company, we’re extremely grateful for the government’s Job Keeper scheme which has allowed us to keep on our full Head Office team and many of our advisors have also qualified for this,” the Merricks said.

New member interest

With COVID-19 forcing some of the larger national travel agency networks to close stores and make redundancies, LATTE quizzed the home-based agencies to see if potential new member interest had spiked in the past few months.

“The number of enquiries we’ve received from experienced travel advisors to join MTA has remained steady. The idea of running their own travel business and the freedom that comes with it is consistently appealing for experienced travel advisors.

“Our ‘Welcome Training’ program and our dedicated Business Development Managers assist our new advisors in making the transition from employee to business owner and nearly all of them agree they wish they’d done it years ago!” the Merricks remarked.

Mayo said interest from new members has continued, but there was no increase in enquiry.

“There have been several ongoing conversations, a couple of which have resulted in new recruits who are very experienced with differing reasons for joining but not COVID-19 specific.

“We do expect this to change as the impact of COVID-19 is more evident and once travel starts to recover,” Mayo added.

How has your business responded to C19?

Karen and Roy Merricks

“We’ve approached the situation in three stages – Crisis, Recovery and Rejuvenation and we’ve developed plans and supporting materials for each of these stages. We’re delighted to see signs that we’re starting to move into the recovery stage now – the opening of state borders, domestic travel and trans-Tasman travel will cement the move to this stage.”

Shuttlewood said there hadn’t been a substantial increase “but we are definitely seeing more referrals coming through from our existing TCs who are encouraging others to consider Travel Counsellors as a good and stable business model”.

“What we have noticed is that the conversation we are having with prospects are more serious and these good conversations are speeding up the progression from the initial enquiry to joining.

“Many people we are speaking to have either been stood down or are without jobs which has given them the time to do their research, compare models and think about their options. They are looking at what they can do if they can’t go back to their previous roles,”
Kaylene Shuttlewood, Regional Managing Director, Travel Counsellors

Green shoots

Over the last few weeks Travel Counsellors has started to see a number of green shoots, particularly from the corporate travel sector as businesses start to consider re-commencing domestic travel.

MTA’s advisors have noticed an appetite for short-haul travel and cruising in 2021.

The mooted Australia/New Zealand travel bubble has started to generate enquiries at TravelManagers.

“There are a small number of new leisure/VFR bookings being received towards the end of the year, but as with everything, the industry is currently operating on a day-to-day basis, so what’s available today could be different tomorrow or next week,” Mayo concluded. 

What others had to say

There are multiple other travel companies offering their own home-based model in Australia, including itravel and Spencer Group of Companies.

itravel Managing Director Steve Labroski says the pandemic has turned the travel industry upside down and is also of the view that the only benefit has been the way his network of mobile, franchise and affiliates have supported each other “and the great resilience that has been built by each and every one of our agents”.

Steve Labroski

Labroski says that regardless of it the member is a mobile agent or has a shop front, they need to be open for business.

“We have to keep moving forward and continue to support your clients and keep them updated on what is happening and what the best solution is for their situation,” he told LATTE.

In a positive sign for itravel, Labroski has this week signed two new mobile agents

“People have experience in this industry and they are good at what they do, so why would they want to throw it all away. As an industry we have been through so many disruptions, this is just another one that we have to overcome. And those that are thinking about their future have the time to see what else is out there.”

He says keep team members motived during the lull in business hasn’t been easy, “but we are not giving up.”

“We have regular zoom calls to catch up across our team. This gives us all a chance to discuss topical issues and speculate about the future. Suppliers are also providing the team with updates. We also have a laugh together and at time have a cry together, but what’s important is we stay together,” the itravel founder told LATTE.

Despite the struggles, Labroski is optimistic for the travel rebound as new bookings begin to “trickle in”.

“There are so many people within Australia wanting to travel. People want to get out and explore again and get out of their iso situation,” he concluded.

Spencer Group of Companies Managing Director, Penny Spencer, summarised, saying her contractors have all been “working hard” dealing with client relocations, cancellations and refunds. Zoom meetings have been conducted to keep contractors informed of new policies and procedures of refunds and cancellations, and that new enquiries were now starting to come through for domestic travel.

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