Ahead of the game

Other industries have just discovered the merits of working from home, but travel agents have been doing it for decades, finds Samantha Mayling

Over the past 25 years, the homeworking agency sector has evolved from a handful of pioneering companies to an estimated 50-plus players. Now, amid lockdowns during the Covid-19

crisis, vast numbers of office and shop workers in many industries are becoming accustomed to working from home – and hundreds of agents have or are planning to set up as homeworkers.

Homeworking agencies across the board

have reported a spike in interest since March, as redundancies and reassessed lifestyles have accelerated the ‘WFH’ trend. But homeworking in travel can trace its roots much further back.

History of homeworking Trailblazer David Speakman founded Travel Counsellors in 1994 and the brand has grown from three homeworkers to almost 2,000 in seven countries. Other early adopters include Future Travel, the homeworking arm of Co-operative Travel, which was the market leader in the mid-2000s, with more than 500 agents by 2004. It was renamed as The Co-operative Personal

Travel Advisors following the retail merger with Thomas Cook in 2010. Thomas Cook rebranded the homeworking

group to The Freedom Travel Advisors in 2017. Sadly, Freedom ceased trading with the

collapse of Thomas Cook in September 2019, and many agents moved to consortia and groups such as Midcounties Co-operative, The Vertical Group, The Travel Network Group and Protected Trust Services. The Vertical Group is the parent of Your Holiday Booking, which has grown over the past couple of years as multiples have cut back on their high street presence.

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Homeworking by numbers

✪ Estimates of agents working in the typical self-employed model range widely from 3,000 to 7,000.

✪ The market leader is Travel Counsellors with 1,300 agents in the UK, plus 600 overseas.

✪ However, InteleTravel said in October that it has more than 10,500 recruits in the UK after taking on about 4,000 in three months this year.

✪ Hays Travel homeworker numbers have risen from 300 to 400 since the lockdown in March.

✪ It is estimated there are 3,400 brands in Abta’s membership, so there could be as many individual homeworkers as Abta members.

✪ Estimates suggest homeworkers make up 8%-9% of all agents, but their turnover could be as much as 20% of the leisure travel market.

Marginal gains Commission cuts by major operators such as Thomson in the mid-noughties spurred many homeworkers to turn to dynamic packaging as the margins on package holidays shrank. Hays Travel ramped up recruitment of homeworkers around this time, doubling numbers from 80 in 2004 to 160 in 2006. Travel Counsellors’ in-house dynamic

packaging system, Phenix, was a key technology driver in shifting the balance for its agents from traditional packages to tailor-made holidays. The company’s model has also evolved, and now its franchisees also work as pairs, trios and teams, employing assistants, or even moving into high street stores or shared office spaces. Alistair Rowland, now chief executive at Blue

Bay Travel, has overseen homeworkers for 20 years. He was managing director at Future Travel and remembers when agents sold via Teletext. He has seen business models evolve, with

self-employed options becoming dominant while employed agents working in a call-centre- style role, albeit from home, are fairly limited. “There are myriad self-employed models: either they fulfil from a source – with lower commission – or offer the classic 60:40 commission, with 60% to the agent, 40% to the business. Some people mix the offer,” he says. Now at Blue Bay Travel, which is part of

Midcounties Co-operative, he has launched a new homeworking offer that pays half the commission in the month of booking to help with cashflow during the Covid-19 crisis. Midcounties Co-operative launched its homeworking division, Personal Travel Agents, in 2012 and encompasses other homeworking ventures such as The Travel Directors and newly launched The Travel Managers brands from the Aquilium Travel Group. Protected Trust Services is another firm with

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