MTA looks to growth from home

The home-based concept brought a seismic shift to the way travel consultants live and work. But to MTA chief executive officer Don Beattie, there’s still another evolution to come. Jon Murrie reports.

In afro wigs and psychedelic costumes, the consultants of Mobile Travel Agents (MTA) gathered last month for their first annual conference since Helloworld purchased a 50% stake in the group from its founders, Roy and Karen Merricks.

A 60s & 70s themed dinner on the Gold Coast provided a chance to let down their hair — both real and polyester – but not before an intensive two days in which much of the talk focussed heavily on adapting to change.

In the opening session, Helloworld chief executive officer Andrew Burnes gave an upbeat address that not only dismissed online competition, but also put forward MTA as a key reason to view the future with optimism.

“The business Roy and Karen developed over the past 17 years is unquestionably the best of breed in this model of agency network,” Burnes told the MTA members. “Not only within Australia – I’ve looked at these models all over the world and I don’t know of a better one anywhere.”

Having driven Helloworld’s $14 million investment in MTA — and with an option to purchase the remaining 50% in five years’ time — there’s no doubting his conviction.

But to MTA chief executive officer Don Beattie, the introduction of a new shareholder is only one part of a greater evolution that is still to shape the home-based landscape.

With about 360 members, MTA says it has grown with a focus on recruiting only highly experienced, high achieving agents.

“We still turn down about 95% of all people who apply to join us,” Beattie said.

Most are aged between 40 and 50 with between 15 and 20 years’ experience, attracted by flexible work arrangements as they balance a career with other life pressures like children or caring for older family.

Almost all are individuals, but Beattie expects the next development in home-based travel consultancy will likely be the emergence of larger member entities.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity ahead and it will take a lot of different guises,” Beattie told travelBulletin at the Gold Coast conference.

“Whereas we’ve traditionally dealt with sole traders, the MTA model can also deal with partnerships, trusts and incorporated bodies,” he said. “We’re also able to bring in whole agencies, should we choose to do so.”

As individual members grow their businesses, many would seek to form partnerships with spouses or colleagues, or engage additional staff, he said.

“I think what we’re going to see in the future is a large number of people saying we want growth within this model,” Beattie said. “Today they have the opportunity to be different models that suit whatever lifestyle they’ve got and I think that’s where it’s going to go.

“The successful home-based models are going to be the ones that offer the greatest flexibility of choice, that have the greatest support structures that allow people to manage their lives and capabilities and support what they want to do.”

The modern scenario is in stark contrast to what Beattie calls the “dressing gown and slippers image” of the past, and vastly different to the home-based models of the US.

“What we have in the US are people who are life changers – today I was a lawyer, tomorrow I’m going to wake up and become a travel expert,” he said. “They were looking at it as a means to retirement income or they were looking at it as a sea change.

“Here, we have professional travel experts, and that’s right across the models.”

For now, Beattie said there was likely to be little change in MTA from the involvement of Helloworld.

“It’s business as usual,” he said. “This happened in November. Any changes? I haven’t seen them.”

Instead, the group will focus on introducing new measures to support members, including a Global Fares Search and Booking Tool, ongoing training schemes, a new accreditation program and a mentoring system.

“The people who join us, we want them to stick with us,” Beattie said. “We want to make sure we are always creating value for our members.”

 

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