Travel Counsellors has a series of tech-centric support options on its in-flight menu, which CEO Steve Byrne believes has allowed its 1,800 franchisees to soar to great heights
I’m at home at the moment,” says Steve Byrne, CEO of Travel Counsellors. “I’m heading off to London in about an hour’s time.” When we speak on the phone, he’s temporarily embodying the essence of the Manchester-based travel franchise he helms where remote working is the norm – at least for workers. For Byrne, it happens to be more circumstantial in this instance. “This time of year is quite busy for us with our overseas conferences,” he details. “I’ve just come back from South Africa and I’ve got a function tonight, so it’s one of those things.” Byrne notes support staff are actively encouraged to work from home once a week, which he can only dream of. “I probably do [one day per] month,” he laughs. “I try my best to do it more often but it doesn’t really work out – it’s nice when you can do it.”
But taking a trip back to Byrne’s earlier career, the relaxed travel industry culture wasn’t something he was accustomed to. He got his first break in the corporate world at professional services firm KPMG as a principal consultant where he worked for six years following his study of accountancy and an MBA. “It mainly involved what they called strategic option reviews, which was looking at different organisations and their options to get more competitive,” Byrne says of his role. “A lot of the work was involved in presenting to different organisations and convincing them of the value you could provide.” Having relocated to London with the business, his upcoming marriage prompted him to return back to his home in the northwest. And alongside tying the knot, there was another union that came about.
While the north isn’t necessarily known for its warm weather, the sun was shining on Byrne’s career prospects. “I met [a friend] who knew the owner of a travel business called ITC – International Travel Connections – based in Chester and they were looking for [a financial director],” he remembers. “I was thinking about my next step and at the time the only option would have been moving back to London with KPMG but that didn’t suit for personal reasons, so I was thinking about my next move anyway.” A chat with the owner of ITC and the post with the luxury tour operator, which arranges high-end holidays to the Caribbean, Africa and beyond, was his. “The role was based in a business with great people, in my hometown and in an industry that was really exciting,” Byrne says. Referring to the now deceased founder-entrepreneur Drew Foster, he calls his former boss and ITC owner “great.” “At the time [of joining] we were hoping to take the company forward,” Byrne details. “It had been very entrepreneurial until then, so we were looking to put structure into the business.”
During his time there, he happened to come across travel agency Travel Counsellors which was sourcing some holidays through ITC. Having visited the company in Bolton where it was based at the time, he got talking with the then managing director to find out more about the operation. “He left to launch his own business so they asked me to be the MD at Travel Counsellors,” Byrne says. While ITC ran using a “conventional workforce” it was turning over somewhere between £50m and £60m and Travel Counsellors was already doing around double that, so it was a bigger operation. There were also another reasons the franchise attracted him. “It had this nature to it where the Travel Counsellors were self-employed and working from home and that added a different dimension, so that was the appeal,” he says. “And it was still within the northwest and at the time I was thinking about [being close to] my three daughters.”
In the time Byrne has been captain of the ship at Travel Counsellors, the franchise has grown massively. “When I joined 15 years ago, it had 400 franchisees and turned over about £100m,” he reflects. “I worked with the family ownership for about ten years and then did our first private equity investment with Equistone who took a stake in the business,” says Byrne. “And now we’re on a second private equity ownership with Vitruvian to take the company to the next level.” Of course, one could argue Travel Counsellors is already at the next level. From 400 franchisees when Byrne joined, it now has 1,800 members in its franchise network.
A decade and a half with a company is a long time, so what is it that’s kept Byrne so invested in Travel Counsellors? Well, its forward-thinking nature is one thing. “A lot of people who are progressive about their career and life like to see progress don’t they?” he opines. “And you don’t necessarily have to leave to get progress. The business was hugely successful before I arrived and one of the fastest-growing companies in travel and that’s continued, so there’s always been variety.” With change and challenges continual since he’s been there, Byrne notes the business is always pushing itself to be and do more for both its customers and franchisees alike. “Travel could be susceptible to not just to the economic events but to terrorism and so on,” he details. “So both externally and internally there have been things we’ve wanted to do to make the company better. And that can be anything from the evolution of ownership structure to the technology.”
While technology is a dominant force in the world of startups and scaleups, it’s a different story for the franchising industry, although Travel Counsellors has ripped up the rulebook on that front to write its own chapter. “We’ve completely developed the technology within the business – when I started there were three developers,” Byrne says. “We’ve now got 100 people working in tech. And we have a tech platform that enables travel entrepreneurs to run their business from home.” Continuing, he notes that “sales have grown from £100m to over £600m” and it’s clear he believes tech has been the driver behind that financial surge.
Seemingly leaving no territory uncharted, Travel Counsellors caters to both leisure travel and business travel customers. “Leisure travel is member of the public who wants a tailor-made holiday to any part of the world – could be Europe, could be the UK, could be overseas – that’s right for them and their families,” Byrne explains, whether that’s a beach, safari or cruise they’ve got their eyes set on. “So we look after and service people who value advice and recommendations from someone they trust.” From advice to booking and even ongoing communication throughout the holiday, it’s very much about handholding.
On the other side of the coin, while larger businesses are supported with Travel Counsellors’ services, SMEs are the franchise’s bread and butter. “It’s bespoke travel planning, so that corporate customers can book flights, accommodation and everything else they want to do whilst they’re on the trip,” says Byrne. “So we’re not just there with you for the transaction and that’s it, we’ve developed a proven sales structure that’s enabling the franchisees to build a relationship and critical to that is the skill of the franchisee. We’re very selective about who we offer a franchise to. They must have the ability and desire to offer care to a customer and then we give them the technology tools to be able to run their own business from home.”
Flexible working is a requirement of increasing attractiveness among Brits. The end of June 2019 marked five years since the Flexible Working Regulations came into play, granting employees the right to request more adaptable working patterns. And although cybersecurity firm Avast Business found 38% of workers don’t receive the technological help needed when remote working, it’s a different story for Travel Counsellors franchisees. “We’ve consistently proven we have a strong sense of community so the franchisees feel a part of it,” says Byrne. With a great amount of independence provided to members of the network including deciding what they sell, who they sell to, how much they’ll charge and so on, that community is key. “So we put a huge amount of focus on internal engagement and that takes effort and time so that people feel part of that sort of thing,” he adds.
In the same way that franchisees are able to cater to the specific bespoke needs of customers, Travel Counsellors aspire to meet every conceivable requirement the franchisees may expect. “Our platform enables the Travel Counsellor to have all the things they need to run their business so they can look at their income streams, their costs, they can look at their sales, they’ve got their own customer records,” says Byrne. In other words, they have all the data they could possibly desire, which you would hope considering the business is investing £6m a year into tech alone. “Wherever they are in the world, whether they’re working from home at a Starbucks or in an office, they can access the product that they need for their customers 24/7.”
But although tech is central to the operation, the job couldn’t be done without people either. “The [platform] enables the franchisee to build up an intimacy with a blend of tech but the customer doesn't see the tech, the customer sees the Travel Counsellor,” concludes Byrne. "And the Travel Counsellor takes their genuine care, human empathy and expertise and uses the tech to embellish that so the customer gets an extra layer of service that they couldn’t get anywhere else.”