Agents make it a personal journey

Why not plan your holiday at the kitchen table over a coffee? Travellers and consultants alike are discovering the benefits of the mobile service model.

IT BEGAN with a single agent who wanted to work from home and has become one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry.

An estimated 1400 travel consultants are now working as "home-based" or "mobile" agents, taking their laptops and knowledge to consumers.

Just as we have come to expect mortgage brokers to come to us at a time and place that suits, many travellers are now meeting their travel agents in cafes, homes and workplaces instead of high-street agencies.

The chairman of House of Travel, the parent company of the TravelManagers group of home-based agents, is Barry Mayo, who says about 1400 Australian travel consultants are now offering their services in this way.

TravelManagers has more than 300 agents in its group, MTA Travel has about 240 and Travel Counsellors about 90.

Mayo believes there are several hundred consultants who are attached to traditional bricks-and-mortar agencies but work as mobile consultants with their own client list. Further adding to the numbers will be a new group, Travel Partners, which is recruiting agents for its own home-based network.

The growth of the sector is quite remarkable when you consider it is yet to be advertised to consumers.

Home-based networks are focusing their efforts on advertising to potential agents and nearly all their business comes through referrals.

TravelManagers, which has grown to more than 300 agents in less than four years, expects its growth to accelerate over the next two years, to reach at least 500 home-based agents.

Mayo says the concept is well proven in the more mature markets of the US and Britain and there is growing acceptance from both agents and consumers in Australia.

In some cases, agency owners are closing the doors of their bricks-and-mortar operations to become mobile agents, bringing their client databases with them.

"I think it will be a bigger percentage of the industry," Mayo says. "The potential for growth is high."

For agents, the concept offers a "less stressful and more [financially] rewarding model" of selling travel.

For consumers, the benefits include convenience, personal service and a high average experience level among consultants - generally 15-plus years, a high figure for the travel industry.

There is also undoubtedly a selling factor in the brag value of having a "personal travel manager".

One of the potential downsides of using a mobile agent is that travel consultants tend to rely on colleagues for knowledge on certain destinations or types of travel.

A traditional agency might have an Africa expert, a cruising expert, an Asia fanatic and someone who is a guru at putting together complicated airfares.

To get around this, home-based groups have created extensive intranet sites and other information-sharing forums that allow agents to draw on the collective experience of the group.

"It's amazing the amount of information sharing that takes place," Mayo says.

"There's no shortage of accessible and detailed information on even the most obscure destination." MTA Travel, which launched in 2000 and had the market to itself until TravelManagers and Travel Counsellors launched within days of each other in late 2007, recently added dedicated product specialists to its management team.

Its managing director, Roy Merricks, says the network now has an air product manager with 50 years' experience and a land product manager to look after tours and accommodation.

Another potential downside of the mobile agent model is the risk - or perceived risk - of giving money to someone you have only met in a cafe, rather than at an established travel agency.

Mayo says TravelManagers has mitigated this by only allowing payments to be made direct to the parent company, by electronic transfer or credit card.

The parent company meets all industry regulations for licensing and consumer protection and no money is handled by the individual agents.

Another possible issue is not being able to contact an individual agent at a time of need.

MTA Travel says it offers 24-hour-a-day back-up so travellers always have a point of contact.

"We have dedicated staff employed for the sole purpose of client back-up for these circumstances," Merrick says.

The two faces of technology

It is ironic, for something that is all about personal service, that the home-based travel agent model has been made possible by technology. Mobile or home-based agents rely on internet-based technology to research options, make bookings and share information and recommendations with other agents in their network. "At one end of the internet you've got the Webjets and Wotifs, who are selling commodities, and at the other end is the personal travel manager model, which is all about service and tailor-made itineraries," says Barry Mayo of TravelManagers.