The Monday Interview: Cathy Burke: Travel Counsellors Ireland

Having experienced a sea change in the travel agency industry over the past 40 years, Cathy Burke of Travel Counsellors Ireland tells Pádraig Hoare about the new opportunities in the business.

Cathy Burke first began her career in 1978 with Noel Martin Travel in Dublin, before working at a host of other travel agencies and tour operators.

Cathy Burke , general manager of Travel Counsellors Ireland, based at NSC Campus, Mahon.

In 2000, she set up her own business providing training and consultancy to travel agents, and in 2005, she established the Irish operation of international firm Travel Counsellors.

There are now over 75 travel franchisees operating independently across the country, with a team headed by Ms Burke supporting each counsellor from the head office in Cork.

Travel Counsellors is a UK-based independent travel company which, since 1994, has posted turnover of £188m (€210m) in 2016, the 11th year of double-digit growth, while total transactions surpassed £500m last year. In all, it has over 1,700 travel franchisees, supported by over 250 staff at its UK headquarters in Manchester, and six overseas offices, including the Republic, which Ms Burke manages.

Business in the Republic is reflecting the group’s growth, Ms Burke said.

“Our short-term strategies continue to grow, we’re on target to turn over €30m at the end of this financial year, and we would certainly want to grow by about 15% each year, over the next four or five years. We are always watching the trends, to prepare for what is ahead, and that will always be the case,” she said.

With the advent of the internet, it was predicted that travel agents would die out.

“Far from it”, said Ms Burke, who is also the group’s director of international business development.

“I do remember around the advent of the internet in the mainstream, people predicted that travel agents were dinosaurs and that the industry wouldn’t last. It’s practically gone full circle now. Travel agents are seen again as the conduit. Over the years, the information overload has become somewhat overwhelming for many people, so in our business we specialise in the personal touch.

“Being independent, we aren’t aligned to any supplier, we are focused only on what the customer wants, and what is crucial is that we will stand over a choice -- we wouldn’t send a customer where we wouldn’t go ourselves.

"People do trust us, and that means we build a long-term relationship with clients,” she said. The industry has been a positive one for women in leadership roles, according to Ms Burke, as well as work-life balance.

“When I started 40 years ago, it was a predominantly female business, in that is was mostly women working in the business.

"Yet it was predominantly male in leadership, male owners, etc. In recent years, that has also gone full circle. The women who started around the time I did, and following when I started, who had their own ambitions -- they wanted their own slice of the pie and wanted to run their own business,” she said.

She said that in the last seven years, women are taking on greater roles based on merit. “When it comes to forging relationships, women, I believe, have a bit of an edge.

"Travel counsellors are franchisees, they are self-employed, so one of the big attractions for them is to have that work-life balance.

"Everyone uses that term these days, but they run their business they way they want. You make the decisions yourself as to the hours you want to work. Now that doesn’t mean it is only female -- of our 75 travel counsellors, 20 of them are men,” she said.

The recession provided the business with something of a boost, with numbers growing by 50% between 2008 and 2012. The Irish branch has one of the highest sales per travel counsellor compared to its overseas’ counterparts.

“The 50% growth during the recession was down to pure determination and hard work. Also during that time, while most people in the country didn’t have much in disposable income, some people did. They were very careful about how they spent it, and how discreet they were about spending it.

"It was the reverse of keeping up with the Joneses, people didn’t want to be seen as showing off. We provided a private service, where it’s just the travel counsellor and the customer, and that was crucial,” said Ms Burke.

But it is a far cry from the 1970s and 1980s.

“Back then, most of what we booked was probably related to business travel and people going back and forward to London, that was our busiest selling route. People rarely travelled far afield for holidays, bar maybe the ferry over to the UK, nothing too exotic.

“When people started going on holidays abroad, it was typically to places like France and Spain, Portugal took a long time to come on board, but the likes of the US was practically unheard of. Even if they knew Disneyland existed, it was a pipedream,” said Ms Burke.

Growth means room for new talent, she said.

“Traditionally travel would have been not very well paid. Certainly, when I was younger, it was about the perks and social elements, and we got to see the world.

"That has turned now. We are actually trying to talk more people into the business,” she said.

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