Travel Counsellors vows to continue investing in tech as enabler of the ‘human touch’

Travel Counsellors vows to continue investing in tech as enabler of the ‘human touch’

Managing director Kirsten Hughes told the Institute of Travel and Tourism conference in Turkey that the homeworking model proved to be “ahead of its time” during the COVID pandemic

The Covid pandemic demonstrated how the Travel Counsellors business model was “ahead of its time”, the homeworking agency’s managing director told the ITT conference.

Kirsten Hughes said the Manchester-based business reacted to the pandemic by supporting its 2,000 agents to survive because without them they do not have a business.

And she said the firm was well-placed to survive and recover from the pandemic due to being set up for remote working and prioritising relational over transactional customer interactions.

Hughes, who has worked since it was founded by David Speakman 28-years ago, said the founding principle of doing the right thing by the customer stood it in good stead over the last two years.

“David’s vision was way ahead of its time, but it’s never been more of its time. People can run their businesses the way they want. They can care for their customers. That will never change.”

Hughes added: “We used to incentivise people for how long they could stay on the phone. That’s how to create relationships. We always have to strive to be better, to evolve and to change.

“By keeping it personal our clients become friends, they become family. We have always talked about being relational rather than being transactional.

“Customers, first and foremost, are human beings, and as much as data and technology comes into it you need to invest in personal experiences.

“Technology does not replace empathy and care. What the last two years has taught us more than anything else is being able to speak to people and being able to reassure and trust us is so valuable.

“People will forget what you said and what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Hughes said when the pandemic hit the agency went from trading at 25% up to 95% down within three weeks. “It was pretty horrific,” she said.

“Like any good business you have to pivot quickly and see what opportunities that gives you. We sat down and said we have one job, and that’s to get our travel counsellors through it.

“We had to get them through this because our business does not exist without them. It’s personal, there was no way we could let the business fail because 2,000 businesses would go down with it.”

The firm put in place a number of additional support services, including financial, and invested in its platform that encourages collaboration between the community of agents.

Some were supported to find second jobs to tide them over while those that continued to work were offered wellbeing and mental health support.

Despite the hit on bookings, Travel Counsellors ended up with more agents as the pandemic receded than it went into it with and expects to recruit 200 a year.

“We had a strong community culture pre-pandemic but it really came into its own. Our counsellors supported each other extremely well.

“They were collaborative previously but now more of them are working in teams and groups.”

Hughes said Travell Counsellors will continue to “invest heavily” in its technology but as an enabler rather than as a way of replacing the human touch.

Its top performing individual counsellor is expected to do around £10 million worth of business this year as travel bounces back, she said.

“People will buy from brand that have a purpose and are very clear on their purpose. We all have social and environmental responsibilities. That’s what the younger generations are looking for.

“We have to ensure our impact is a positive one. That’s something we are looking at all the time and we are setting goals and targets. The future belongs to those that care.”