What's it like starting a corporate travel business during the pandemic?

With 15 years’ experience in corporate travel, James Houtby set up his own business as a Corporate Travel Counsellor in July 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hear from James in his own words

The job security myth

I was made redundant towards the beginning of the pandemic and that made me realise that nobody is indispensable, as harsh as that sounds!

I’d been thinking about becoming a Travel Counsellor for around 3 years but was always hesitant as I wanted the security of a regular income and I felt a sense of loyalty to my employer.

Because I now see every penny that goes in and out of my business, I feel like I have more control over my ‘job security’ than ever before.

I’ve worked in a range of roles for a number of different organisations in corporate and sports travel so in terms of my confidence to ‘go it alone’, I knew I had the skills and connections to build my own business, and I knew I just had to take the opportunity that was now presenting itself.

It’s a good time for building your client base

When I first started, I was a bit worried about networking and cold calling, as that’s not my area of expertise. I had a relatively small Linkedin network, but in just a few months that’s grown by over 600% as I’ve learnt to use the platform to my benefit.

I’ve found a lot of clients are receptive and certainly open to at least a conversation.

I think because of the disruption the pandemic has caused, businesses are realising the value of a travel expert who knows them inside out and is truly there for them. Businesses want someone who they can trust to take on the responsibility of keeping their travellers safe.

And because things are generally quieter, decision makers have a bit more time to consider new opportunities, so it’s actually a pretty good time for building a client base!

Over the first few months, I was building my corporate client base, but to keep some money coming in, I’ve been selling leisure holidays. It’s not what I want to do long-term, but to have the ability to do both allows me to be reactive to the market.

My advice: Find your niche from the off

The one thing I wish I’d done sooner is defining my target audience and communicating my difference.

I’ve worked in sports and accessible travel and have grown my client base in this sector, but had I started by targeting these companies, it would have allowed me to have more meaningful conversations from the off.

My advice to anyone starting as a Corporate Travel Counsellor now would be to have a plan for which industries you’re going to target. This way you can approach the handful of clients you want with a strong offering rather than a scattergun approach.

I’d also say it’s important to get long-term buy-in and remember that you’re building clients for the future. It’s true that some may not be able to come onboard right away, but I’ve found a number of clients have come back to me 6 months after our initial conversation as their businesses have evolved.

There’s no harm in looking

Speaking to my network, it sounds like a lot of people are feeling uncertain about what might happen over the coming months.

If you’re in that position, I’d really encourage you to take a look at setting up with Travel Counsellors.

There’s no harm in having a conversation, and if things work out for you elsewhere then great! But if not, you’ve already set the ball rolling with another opportunity.

And I would say it really is a fantastic opportunity. Yes, it is a big decision, but the pride I feel in knowing I am doing something completely for myself, and excelling at, is unmatched.

I no longer feel like I’m just trying to get through everything, instead I can see light at the end of the tunnel and I’m so motivated in my new venture.

Feeling inspired by James' story? Get in touch with us to find out more about becoming a Corporate Travel Counsellor.

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