"Every day is a school day – there is always something to learn in this fantastic industry,” enthuses Cathy Burke, director of international business development and general manager of Travel Counsellors Ireland, who last month celebrated her 40th anniversary in travel.
A Dublin native, Burke cut her teeth at Noel Martin Travel in 1978, before working for Hickson Holidays and Tara Travel. In 2000 she set up Cathy Burke TMC – a consultation and training service for Irish agents, which offered a programme to teach travel sellers how to charge fees after airlines stopped offering commission.
She describes being approached by Travel Counsellors to set up its Irish office in 2005 as a “godsend”, admiring the company’s ethos of providing excellent customer service.
“When chief executive Steve Byrne told me about Travel Counsellors’ values, I thought: I’ve been teaching my agents the same principles for the last five years.”
Heading up a team of six in the company’s head office in Cork, Burke is now responsible for 75 homeworkers generating more than £27 million annually.
“We are now one of Ireland’s most successful leisure travel companies,” she enthuses.
Burke says that the UK and Irish Travel Counsellors are closely linked, with agents on both sides of the Irish Sea tuning into Travel Counsellors Television (TCTV) for company updates and meeting face to face at the Travel Counsellors annual conference too.
“We also set global sales challenges where we mix teams from our other chapters in the Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, Australia and Dubai. The top performers will win a trip together. We like to think about the big picture and this integration keeps us from becoming too insular. From a training point, it makes sense that everyone is on the same page.”
Setting up a homeworking business in Ireland came with its hurdles, Burke admits. “At the beginning, we had an issue with technology.
A lot of our Travel Counsellors lived in rural areas without decent broadband or none at all. Because they were already working remotely, we suggested they set up shop in a friend or relative’s house, or somewhere that had a decent internet connection.”
The Irish recession in 2008 also proved to be a challenging time. However, Burke’s resolve saw Travel Counsellors emerge stronger than ever.
“I told the team to stay positive and keep doing what we were doing. In the end, we came out as a business that was growing.”
Regarding Brexit, Burke admits that, like many, she is unsure of the outcome but remains resolute in her commitment to the business’s continued growth.
“We’re seeing a huge increase in the number of long-haul bookings, particularly to the US, which is up 30% on last year because of the wealth of flights we have.”
She says encouraging millennials to join the Travel Counsellors team is an ongoing challenge. “I believe working in travel is perceived as not desirable in Ireland,” Burke says.
“We are putting more emphasis on our Academy programme, attending university open days and advertising on our social media channels, to encourage millennials that have travelled in their gap year to join us. In Ireland, young people tend to go travelling after university and are a little older and more experienced.”
For those who want to advance their career in travel, Burke says that taking risks is necessary for success.
“You have to put yourself out there,” she says. “If you are working hard and not getting well paid, then you must move on and do something for yourself. If you love selling travel and your customers too, that enthusiasm will be infectious. My mantra is to surround myself with positive people and avoid anyone that will drag me down.”
Looking to the future, Burke says: “The business has created huge opportunities for me and my team. I get so excited seeing people become more successful than me. To think that I played a part in their development makes me proud and really gives me a buzz.”