Big Interview: Travel Counsellors tech chief on powering collaboration

Big Interview: Travel Counsellors tech chief on powering collaboration

Lee Hayhurst visited the home working agency’s Manchester HQ and heard from CTO Rob Snelson how its Phenix technology platform has evolved

Lee Hayhurst visited the home working agency’s Manchester HQ and heard from CTO Rob Snelson how its Phenix technology platform has evolved

Today’s digital economy places such a value on the sharing of stuff online that entire business models and tech giants have emerged to support it.

What is Facebook but a huge sharing platform for people to disseminate user generated content to as wide an audience as possible and in Airbnb and Uber travel has two sharing economy pioneers.

For Manchester-based homeworking firm Travel Counsellors the same principal of sharing knowledge is guiding how it will develop the technology that powers its 1,800 agents worldwide.

Podcast: Travel Counsellors’ Steve Byrne

But for Travel Counsellors it is all about fostering collaboration by sharing agents’ expertise with each other and analysing the data and insight they generate constantly as they serve customers.

Travel Counsellor’s in-house dynamic packaging system, Phenix, has evolved to become a full stack technology platform supporting its network of franchisee agents, however they do business.

Rob Snelson, chief technology officer, said: “We understand our customers, our product and our counsellors and we have a data platform to consume all of that information with that in mind.

“It’s trying to leverage everything we do, and our travel counsellors are doing, across the platform and using that to help them understand what’s selling and what’s converting.

“We can tell them what ancillaries are available and what excursions and attractions they can offer their customers within a particular destination.

“We have specialists across the globe with all of that expertise and information. It’s all about sharing, making our counsellors’ knowledge work for the whole community.”

A culture of sharing

Snelson said as well as sharing agents’ expertise the technology also analyses what consumers are booking to give agents insight into the market and what to offer prospective clients.

And even though Travel Counsellors structures its business so that every agent runs their own business, Phenix reflects a sense of shared purpose and community among them.

“Our travel counsellors are all there to help each other, that’s the spirit of our community. They are extremely collaborative and the platform encourages that collaboration.

“The things we are doing with our technology are all built alongside and working with our travel counsellors. That’s in the spirit of who we are and in the culture of what we have. Nothing’s hidden.

“That’s one of the reasons why we do not buy our technology from anyone else because it’s for our community. It really is that tool that sits in the middle of everything.

“It brings everyone together and allows them to have the business success they want, whether that’s financial, or work/life balance, or just to run their own business.”

Four years ago, Travel Counsellors moved from Bolton, the town it had called home for its entire 20-year existence, to new modern offices in Trafford on the outskirts of Manchester.

The move came after its first private equity investment from Equistone (last year the company was bought by Vitruvian Partners) and was intended to help it tap into new tech skills by offering the sort of working environment expected of a modern digital company.

The firm now has nearly 80 technologists in Trafford supported by a smaller team in Cape Town that works on corporate travel technology reflecting its agents’ main focus in South Africa.

And investment in technology has been ramped up considerably. In 2015 the firm spent £3 million, or £2,000 per agent, compared with last year when it spent £6 million, or £3,500 per agent.

The Phenix agent dashboard, which Snelson says achieves sub-second responses wherever the user is around the world, is now able to support emerging homeworking business models.

Emerging business models

“Traditionally a travel counsellor has been a single person working from home, but we now have a variety of operating models where you have travel counsellors working together,” says Snelson.

Phenix allows collaboration between individuals and enables them to “scale their business and work in an entrepreneurial way,” he adds.

Examples of these emerging models include four agents working together out of an office in Formby, Merseyside, and an Isle of Mann based agent who employs staff.

Snelson said there is also a successful business travel specialist who is an expert at finding and securing corporate accounts but who gets a group of other counsellors to manage transactions.

In addition, many of Travel Counsellors’ agents now cover each other’s businesses if they are themselves on holiday or off work due to ill health or other issues or personal commitments.

Because of the community nature of the Phenix platform, Snelson says making changes and releasing updates has to be done carefully to avoid disrupting the businesses that rely on it.

“We have six agile teams working within the tech function and we compile releases and make changes every three weeks.

“We want travel counsellors to focus on their customers and what’s important to their business.

“If we disappeared for 18 months and then made fundamental changes that would be confusing and there would be a huge learning curve.

“So, we make small iterations and frequent changes and support that through live Travel Counsellors TV shows which are designed to be instructive and show what the changes are.

“There is constant collaboration and sometimes that generates an awful lot of feedback. But it’s important we are not just producing tech we think they require but that their voice is included.”

Bigger, new feature launches, like a revamped point-to-point transfers portal that is due to go live this month, are tested first with a small group of agents before full rollout.

Feedback from agents forms part of the design process and only when they are comfortable will it be made available to the wider agency community, with the old system running in parallel for a time.

“We can control adoption of our technology and make sure we don’t stress anybody out – make sure there is a careful management process,” says Snelson.

“Although the individual changes we make could be perceived as small, the net effect means that the application is moving forward at a rate of knots.”

Peak Performance

The growth of Travel Counsellors, not just in the number of individual businesses it now supports but also in its geographic reach, means techn performance has become an increasingly key issue.

“Travel Counsellors are moving around, they are working everywhere, and the platform needs to work in a secure manner everywhere,” Snelson says.

“We are constantly monitoring performance by country where ever they are in the world and we are always tuning it to make it as responsive as it can be.”

Travel Counsellors’ tech service team enjoys a 97.3% satisfaction rating and 95% of the time it is meeting its Service Level Agreement (SLA) targets. “Figures Apple would be proud of,” says Snelson.

Core systems are run from an external data centre and are designed to be highly available with no single point of failure and backed up with disaster recovery systems.

A server room in the Manchester office indicates not all technology has been migrated to the cloud, Snelson saying he takes a hybrid approach but is always looking at what can be put in the cloud.

But cyber security is critical in a business that provides individuals around the world with laptops that can access its core systems, as well as access from their own mobile devices.

“As long as you have WiFi you can access the system anywhere across the world, so we provide this security wrapper that spreads across the planet.

“We have worked with ethical hackers to get them to try to compromise and test all core applications and to work with security teams to make sure they are secure.

“And we have internal awareness programmes, because people are actually the weakest link. It’s mandatory for everyone to consume this information.”

Monthly videos produced by NINJIO, which highlight real life examples of security breaches to raise awareness in an entertaining way, have become essential regular viewing for Travel Counsellors.

Adopting Artificial Intelligence

Just as most travel firms are preparing and trying to understand what a future powered by Artificial Intelligence looks like, so too Travel Counsellors is working on adopting the emerging technology.

It is poised to launch a service within Phenix that will answer its agents’ questions saving the time and trouble of making a phone call.

The system learns by tracking how or if a question is answered, building capability on successfully answered questions and understanding why questions were not answered.

And because Travel Counsellors does not run its own brand marketing it is also working on ways to provide its agents with the content and expertise to use increasingly powerful social media sites.

But whatever the future holds for Travel Counsellors, Snelson says the technology that underpins it will not divert the agency from its central mission.

“Yes, attracting new customers is important but we have to focus on existing customers and when we do that we get referrals and they then become our customers.

“We have a people-based business model. It is service oriented and we want to make sure we do not lose that essential essence.

“What we do has to complement and support that primary requirement; to build a relationship, trust and service.”