With an empire that spans Manchester to Melbourne, Steve Byrne, Travel Counsellors’ managing director, tells Daniel Pearce why the recent private equity deal will place even more power in members’ hands
Eleven years is a long time to be managing director of a travel business. But Steve Byrne is showing no signs of stopping yet.
The 49-year-old, who joined Travel Counsellors in 2004, has overseen growth at the Bolton-based business in both members and sales in every one of those years.
Now both Travel Counsellors and Byrne have been given a new impetus, following the sale of a significant chunk of the business to private equity house Equistone last October.
Travel Counsellors has already seen a spectacular rise in the UK following its launch by David Speakman in 1994, and a solid performance with its foreign ventures - the company now has a presence in Ireland, US, Netherlands, Australia, South Africa and Canada - giving it more than 1,300 members worldwide.
“It’s the same people running the business in the same way with an even more renewed focus”
Turnover was £428 million for the year ending October 31, 2014, and the growth is expected to continue this year. But Byrne says the arrival of Equistone means the business can move to a whole new level.
“It’s not a major change for us. The perception externally is greater than it is internally,” he claims.
“Equistone has backed myself and the other directors, including David Speakman, to take the company to the next level. It’s the same people running the business in the same way with an even more renewed focus ensuring that we grow the business.”
Travel Counsellors’ headquarters Travel House is just on the outskirts of Bolton city centre. While many tour operators and travel suppliers have passed through, it’s an unprepossessing building in an unglamorous northern town - but one suspects that Byrne likes it that way.
An unassuming character, he avoids the usual travel industry trail of conferences and awards ceremonies, with David Speakman - now chairman - often the one taking the headlines in TTG.
Prior to his current role, Byrne spent six years at luxury travel specialist ITC Classics, getting to grips with the travel industry following a stint as a management consultant with KPMG.
It’s easy to conclude that it was the combination of Byrne’s external business nous - he has an MBA from Henley Management College, as well as a degree in Politics, Economics and History - together with Speakman’s entrepreneurial flair and natural passion for the brand that have been the major factor in pushing the company to where it is now.
More recently, working closely with commercial director Kirsten Hughes and sales director Malcolm Hingley, Byrne has simplified the business, making the proposition even clearer - they are here to grow their travel agent members’ businesses, whether in Manchester or Melbourne.
“When we talk about growth in Travel Counsellors it has a singular business model - we take on great people, we enable them to work from home, we give them all the tools and techniques to build a business based on relationships,” he says.
“So when we talk about investing in the business we talk about investing in our Travel Counsellors to help them grow their business - when they become successful, we become successful.”
Communication with members has always been key to the strategy, whether spreading the word through their legendary conferences, or via Travel Counsellors TV, where the company can genuinely claim to have been ahead of its time. A state-of-the-art TV studio was installed in Travel House as long ago as 2003, and a weekly update programme goes out to members across the world every Wednesday.
It’s the TV station that has led critics to decry the “cult” of the business, or specifically the cult of Speakman.
“We want people who love travel and are passionate about their customers - if that makes us a cult, then we’re a cult!”
“We want people who love travel and are passionate about their customers - if that makes us a cult, then we’re a cult!” jokes Byrne.
“This company has a strong set of values that all our members would shout about - we simply try and attract like-minded people. All of our members are committed to doing the right thing by their customers. They pride themselves on being professionals. They are no different from anyone else that reads TTG.”
While Travel Counsellors is always keen to attract new members - recently appealing directly to consumers with radio commercials and Tube station advertising in London aimed at recruiting agents - it’s true that there are plenty who are rejected along the way.
However, once they’re in, Byrne is keen to emphasise the freedom that Travel Counsellors are afforded.
“We sell everything. Our products are driven by what customers are demanding, and our general trends are no different from what you’ll see in an independent agency or multiple.
“The Travel Counsellor will always sell what’s right with the customer, and secondly they’ll always be genuinely empowered - they can source their holiday or their business travel from lots of different sources.”
And for those who get the proposition right, the rewards can be great. “There aren’t many businesses where the members can earn more than the directors - and some do. That’s where Travel Counsellors has got to.”
Byrne cites tailor-made travel - agents can use the company’s Phenix system to pull together their own packages - plus business and cruise as three areas where members are seeing real success so far in 2015.
“An increasing number are tailor-making their own itineraries and earning more margin for themselves. What we sell is customer driven, so everything is tailor-made for the individual customer.
“Cruise is a growing market, of course, and we had lots of Travel Counsellors on the launch of P&O Cruises’ Britannia in March. And we’re seeing good growth in corporate travel - particularly with members offering both holidays and corporate travel to SMEs.”
As to the future, the concept of giving members a stake in the company will continue to be explored while Travel Counsellors remains a business based on growing both its members’ turnover and its membership base.
There was no fanfare when Byrne marked 10 years at Travel Counsellors last year. Yet with him at the helm, the current management team in place and the new investment in the business, it seems that Bolton is becoming an ever more important location on the map of the travel industry in the UK and beyond.