British based independent travel company Travel Counsellors has always intrigued me, who are they? What do they do exactly, and how do they do it?
It’s easy enough to hit Wikipedia and find out how the company was founded in 1994 and operates in Australia, Belgium, Ireland, The Netherlands, UAE, Ireland and, of course, the UK. But I need more, soon I had tracked down a Travel Counsellor of six years Allison Barnard to find out how she got started, the best and worst features of being a TC, tricks of the trade and more.
TD: I can’t help notice your slight American twang, how did you come to be in the UK working as Travel Counsellor?
AB: I started out in Santa Cruz, hippy central in California, United States; surfers, skaters and a wide variety of music pumped through the town – it was also the location of 80’s classic vampire movie Lost Boys – I loved it there but I was desperate, even from when I was little, to kick-on and see the world.
Then, as a teenager, I got the chance to go to the UK to work as a nanny. I arrived with 20 dollars in my pocket but at least I had a job. The nanny thing turned into more of a challenge than I thought. What I expected to be 40 hour a week job soon became 80 hours — for just 40 quid weekly wage. But I had come to the UK as part of my yen to see the world, so I decided that I should get into travel and began looking for a job.
What was your first travel job?
I started working for Travel2, where I sold rooms, wholesale, for the travel trade – which was nice to get to learn the ins and outs of the industry, it even helped me with geography and where everywhere was. This was a great grounding to build my career on.
What came next?
From there I moved to a private members travel club – a bit more of concierge style with more hand-holding involved. Then, just after I had returned from maternity leave after the birth of my first child, I was made redundant and was being asked [by employment agencies] to apply to similar jobs but with more work and less money – I decided to go a different route and joined Travel Counsellors.
“I had to build from scratch”
How did you get on, was it plain sailing from there?
Not plain sailing, no. They accepted me thanks to my background and I had come to know the industry quite well. I started with absolutely no clients and I had to build from scratch. My first booking was a web enquiry, which rarely pan out.
Now, I said I had no clients but then I realised I live in London, one of the biggest cities in the world, and everyone travels so, in theory I had access to millions of potential customers.
“There is not much I can’t source”
So, I put my head down and worked, worked, worked. It was a struggle for the first couple of years, I was busy and it was hard. But as things do, as I progressed, it began to spiral and I started getting better and better clients, so now I look after major music artists when they are going on tour, planning their routes and where they will stay; I look after family holidays, as well as short and long term business trips. There is not much I can’t source.
So how does the Travel Counselling gig work?
I am self-employed. Basically I am a franchisee of Travel Counsellors; they provide financial protection, branding, business support, buying power, access to booking tech and help me make my business successful.
The good and the bad
Do you have an office?
I tend to work from home but I can work anywhere in the world, and set my own hours. I have even built an itinerary whilst on holiday. I just need a decent internet connection and I can go.
What’s the best part of being a Travel Counsellor?
Hmm, it sounds cheesy but I get to make peoples dreams come true. Even with business travel, which you might not expect to be someone’s dream, even working with bands they are doing what they always wanted, getting out on the road and playing their music to crowds all over the world. With families you are creating this special moment in their lives, I find it very rewarding.
Even when I am unable to travel myself, I get to live vicariously through some of the bookings I make.
And the worst part?
Giving bad news. Having to call a client and tell them the price of the holiday has shot up or cancelled, is never a nice thing to have to do, I always have an alternative for them but it’s still a disappointment.
“My business always does better when I remember to do things for me”
Do you have any tips for prospective agents trying to make their way as a freelancer?
Know your tech, make it work for you and always pick up the phone, endless email threads can be condensed in to one concise phone call. It’s efficient and your customers will value you more by having actual contact.
Don’t forget you. Make sure you have me time, not just work time/kid time. Even if it’s just walking the dog or stopping in the park for a coffee on the way back from school drop off or a yoga class or a swim. My business always does better when I remember to do things for me. And you really can’t look after anyone else if you don’t look after you.