Mark Rawn and his colleague Kevin Hogg joined Travel Counsellors in October 2020.
After a career in travel and the past decade running their own independent travel agency, Escapa, Mark and Kevin faced a tough choice in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: shut up shop or find a survival solution to move forwards.
Hear from Mark in his own words.
I’ve worked in travel since 1988, with the majority of that time specialising in tailor-made and long-haul travel. After the financial crash in 2008, Kevin and I invested our redundancy pay outs into setting up our independent tour operator business, Escapa. We worked from a shared office space in South London, running our business on the phone and online.
We thrived under our own management; both Kevin and I had been in travel for 20+ years so had a strong knowledge of the travel industry centred on tailor made travel with a focus on personal service. With the freedom to make all our own decisions and build on our strengths, we really flourished.
Over the years, as any business owner will know, things can be challenging and perhaps the novelty of having complete responsibility took the shine off at times.
Things like ATOL licensing, CAA reporting, preparing company accounts, liability insurance, merchant services and foreign currency transactions became more of a headache than a proud reminder of what we’d created.
To build an itinerary we’d liaise with UK suppliers and overseas DMCs, access flights in Galileo and manually create client quotes on an email platform.
It would take the best part of a day to put together a complex itinerary and professionally communicate it to a client. This process was a consequence of the software we could afford.
Everything worked, but the vibrant customer experience we wanted to achieve was not being fully realised.
We outsourced business services or bought software to help with our marketing, accounts and admin which, with all our other outgoings, added up to quite a significant financial sum for a small business.
It was manageable, but I couldn’t help but think there had to be a more efficient and better way to realise our business potential.
Kevin and I had been thinking this for about 6 months before COVID hit, but that’s what really forced us to take a look at our business.
With travel so badly affected, continuing on the same path was not really a viable option anymore.
I considered going into teaching or pursuing my passion for football – I am a qualified FA2 youth football coach - but I quickly realised it wasn’t just travel that was affected by the pandemic!
And I didn’t want to ‘give up’ on our business, all we’d built to date, and my love of travel.
That’s what led us to look into Travel Counsellors. I wanted to get back to travel being fun, let go of the responsibilities that kept me from fully engaging with my customers but keep the control and retain the sense of achievement that comes with running your own business.
Kevin and I did a lot of research to find a suitable company to partner with and evolve our business.
I spoke to colleagues in the industry and a number of Travel Counsellors, and the feedback was very positive: professional, stable and organised, honest, superb tech, quality marketing content, support, warm and an organisation with a human face.
Over time we’d found our best marketing strategy was an approach of building personal relationships, delivering on our proposal of quality holiday experiences and subsequently being referred to others. This approach and an absolute focus on customer service are central pillars of Escapa’s business and they are completely aligned with what we happily found at Travel Counsellors.
When I spoke to Travel Counsellors, they were entirely focused on finding the best solution for us. I felt they took our history, our brand and our goals seriously and didn’t expect us to just hand over the keys to something we’d poured our all into.
From the options we looked at it felt like Travel Counsellors was an opportunity to really move forwards, not just survive.
Moving Escapa over was relatively straight forward as we’d wound down our business a few months prior in preparation, had refunded all customers with cancelled COVID bookings and had no forward bookings due to the pandemic.
Mark and Kevin in Zimbabwe, 1997
After 10 years out on our own, joining Travel Counsellors felt like coming in from the cold.
We’re now part of a much bigger network, the marketing is truly inspirational and we benefit from global buying power, excellent technology and private investment that you just couldn’t achieve on your own.
I’ve realised how much we’d been missing before that will now push us on - the support of a dedicated and savvy team of travel professionals has helped re-energise our business and build forward momentum.
Product-wise we’d previously operated in the mid-to-upper end of the long-haul luxury market.
Now we have broadened our product base to include UK and short haul to meet immediate market demand for 2021.
Our customer experience has markedly improved with the use of Travel Counsellors’ technology including the outstanding myTC app and the in-house booking platform, Phenix, which produces quality customer documentation.
There are of course challenges – the biggest is relinquishing some control.
But by ‘giving up’ on some things, you actually gain more. Now we don’t have a regulatory admin mountain to climb, a sea of customer and supplier transactions to navigate or a library of marketing content to write.
We’ve freed up a lot of time to engage with customers, grow our business and spend quality time with our families.
By handing over 40% of your commission, you get all of the systems and state of the art technology you need to generate business and deliver an excellent customer experience: the costs of licenses, insurance and bonding covered, 24-hour emergency support and 100% financial protection for your customers, marketing, training, client and supplier transaction accounting, merchant services and more.
With your own business you’d have to employ additional staff to accomplish these tasks at additional cost. At Travel Counsellors, we still have the freedom to employ staff, but to do tasks that will drive the business forward. The whole Travel Counsellors set up is extremely cost effective.
My advice to other agency owners would be to face your fears head on.
The reality is you probably have two choices like we did; to either call it a day or find a way to survive.
You might be like Kevin and I, having thought about it for a while or you might feel like your hand is being forced.
Either way it is a bit scary to take your pride and joy in a new direction, but speaking from my experience, there is light on the horizon.
Yes – we know it’s still going to be challenging until the world opens up but we know we’re on the right path with the right people.
My message would be to not give up on travel.
The harsh reality is that there are only few industries that are thriving right now.
Travel will bounce back so I’d encourage you to use this ‘down time’ to seriously consider if you’re in the right place for when it does.