Retired senior business travel consultant Charles Woodley reflects on agency life in the 1960s
I joined the travel industry in the 1960s when it was very much a slower-paced “people” business, and I am hoping today’s generation of travel staff might be interested to hear how it was in those far off days before smartphones.
In 1969 I joined MD Travel in Liverpool, a somewhat unusual agency as its management had decided to specialise in business travel for the many industrial concerns on Merseyside at that time. The office accommodated a dozen or so staff, seated around a long boardroom-style table. In the centre of the table were revolving bookshelves housing the many manuals necessary for the operation.
Booking requests came into the office via a very efficient “key and lamp” telephone system and the details were entered onto large cardboard booking files with plenty of blank space for amendments and scribbled notes.
Many of the most frequent callers became well known to us over time, even though we had never seen them in person. It was not possible to give them an instant confirmation. A speedy return call was promised and the booking process commenced. At that time rail bookings were regarded as some sort of dark art by most of us, and the call was transferred to the two dedicated rail staff. Rail tickets took the form of small pieces of cardboard, pre-printed with the most frequently used routes.
Seat or sleeper reservations involved a phone call to the appropriate British Rail office. Hotel bookings were made over the telephone after consulting one of several bulky hotel manuals listing just about every establishment in the world. If a booking took several phone calls to achieve we were permitted to add the cost of these to the invoice for the stay. Once booked, a confirmation had to be telexed to the hotel. The details were typed onto the keyboard of the telex machine, which transposed them onto a punched tape.
The hotel telex number was dialled, and once the connection was made the punched tape was fed through the machine. Care had to be taken not to put the punched tape in upside down!
Most of our workload consisted of air reservations and ticketing, however.
When constructing an itinerary for a client much use was made of the ABC World Airways Guide. This massive two-volume work was published monthly and listed flight connections between just about any two points on the globe. Each airline’s reservations office had a “freephone” telephone number to reduce the travel agent’s phone bill.
These numbers had to be accessed via the GPO telephone operator. Each airline could only give immediate confirmation for its own flights. Seats on connecting flights with other carriers had to be requested and confirmed later. Once all the sectors were confirmed it was the job of the booking clerk to calculate the fare (more manuals involved) and pass the file over to the dedicated ticketing clerk for issuing. They then sent the file into the typing pool for preparation of the itinerary and the invoice before the whole lot was parcelled up and handed to one of the delivery drivers.
The work could be pressurised at times, but office life had its compensations. Good-humoured banter lightened things up and most days we had a visit from an airline rep or two. Anyone who could be spared was taken across the road for a drink or two and the airlines frequently organised fam trips to one of their new destinations. Invitations for these all-expenses paid goodies were allocated fairly, so we all got our turn. And, of course, there was the Christmas party… Happy days.