By Jon Murrie
Travel Counsellors has set its sights on a bigger share of Australia’s home-based agency sector, announcing ambitious growth plans and a renewed focus on recruitment.
As its members gathered at the Melbourne Cricket Ground last month to celebrate their 10th Australian conference, chief executive officer Steve Byrne declared the group was ready to expand both globally and locally, and predicted Australia’s growth would out-strip that of other markets.
“This is about building a future without limits,” Byrnes said.
“We currently have 1,600 Travel Counsellors – we want to have 3,000 Travel Counsellors globally within the next three years,” he said. “We’re going to double it.”
“We have 300,000 customers at the moment who book with us regularly. We want to get to a million.”
The Australian division, currently involving 140 home-based Travel Counsellors, was earmarked for growth to around 250-300, Byrnes said, including an additional 50-60 new recruits this year.
“We expect a disproportionate amount of our global growth to come from Australia,” he said.
“So if Australia is 8% of our numbers at the moment and we’re going to double our numbers globally, we don’t expect to just double our numbers here – we’d expect to do more growth proportionally in Australia than the other markets.
“In all the research we’ve done both from a customer point of view and from an agency point of view, (the Australian division) should be bigger than it is.”
Byrnes believes several key factors give Australia greater potential for the UK-based group.
“There’s the propensity to travel,” he said. “There’s the richness of the travel experience because it’s longer. Average booking values are higher and there’s a really rich mix of product on offer.
“Then you’ve got a large pool of experienced travel agents, comparatively, for a country of the population size you’ve got. You’ve also got a sound economic basis, and it’s a market that doesn’t have deep online penetration. And there’s a strong corporate market.
“It’s got all the ingredients to say we should be and will be doing much better. And being much better also includes being much bigger.”
Having recently expanded its Melbourne regional headquarters, the group has embarked on a three-pronged strategy it calls RR2P, focussed on recruitment, referrals & re-bookings, and the expansion of its in-house technology platform Phenix.
Recruitment will draw from several key areas, including experienced travel agents and tour operator tailor-made specialists working in established businesses. Other new recruits will come from among agents who have had a career break from travel and are looking to return — a pool considered ideal for the home-based model.
Travel Counsellors’ recently appointed managing director for Australia Fred van Eijk has been charged with leading the recruitment process, having previously forged the group’s successful establishment in the Netherlands and Belgium, markets he still manages remotely from Melbourne.
He said agents coming back into the industry would be supported through a new “return to travel program”.
“The return to travel program is very exciting,” van Eijk said. “It’s very much for people who have been out of the industry for several years and are now looking for work-life balance.
“They want to return to travel, but also recognise the industry has totally changed,” he said. “It’s a different ballgame, so we spend more time training them and renewing their skills, using their passion and travel expertise and their foundation and traditional knowledge as a travel agent to come back and set up their own business.”
As the smaller of the home-based groups operating in Australia, Byrnes acknowledges Travel Counsellors hasn’t impacted the Australian industry to the extent it might have expected as it approaches its 10th anniversary, but he believes the group is now better placed to expand.
“We’re much better at setting out how our business proposition is best, how we’re different from the rest,” Byrnes said.
More generous commission splits offered by other groups were offset by higher levels of support offered by Travel Counsellors, Byrnes said, which meant an agent could earn more by being freed from administrative burdens.
“It’s a full service model,” he said. “You don’t want to be doing admin or chasing money or debts. Our model takes care of that. You do the job that you love best, which is looking after your customers, and you can be more productive.”