As many of my readers know, I was once a travel consultant for a well-known luxury travel firm (tour operator) in the UK. This was my dream job (well I thought it was), and one I was in for around a year and a half, so I think I got a pretty good taste for everything the jobs entails. This article is about my experience, how I got the job, and what it entails!
Travel Agent vs Tour Operator
What many people don’t realise is there is a difference between a travel agent and a tour operator and the difference in the two jobs. I worked for a tour operator and my title was ‘Personal Travel Expert’. The difference? A travel agent is an agency that sells products from tour operators and hotels/airlines etc, a tour operator is the one who creates the initial package. So… a travel consultant working for a tour operator will sell their own product to a customer OR a travel agent, a travel agent will sell a package put together by a tour operator. I hope that makes sense?
Personally, for me, I think working for a tour operator gives you an extra level of expertise as you get to really know your product, you know exactly what you are selling and you are often specialising in specific destinations. That being said, travel agents have to learn about and remember details on a huge amount of products, that can’t be easy, and the clientele is often different too.
The Application Process
Before working as a Personal Travel Expert (I will call it a ‘PTE’ from now on), I worked in sales support for an upmarket African safari company. I wanted to take a step up to being the actual sales girl, rather than supporting sales staff. It was a natural progression for me, In December 2014 I quit my job in sales support and went travelling with Alex for 8 weeks to Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines (best experience ever, except the food poisoning..). On my return, I moved my life from Market Harborough in Leicestershire, down to Hertfordshire to move in with Alex. It just so happened that in the last few weeks of our Asian trip, a job became available in Welwyn Garden City at a luxury tour operator. I was so excited, I felt like my prayers had been answered, the timing was perfect for me and this was my absolute dream job!
The application process started with writing a short essay on my travel experience and why I thought I would be good for the job. This suited me well as I had no prior experience in selling directly (only supporting), and my main expertise for this job was the amount of travelling I had done. I sent the application off and enjoyed the rest of my holiday. After arriving back into England I received a call offering a telephone interview, I clearly passed this as I was then invited into the store where I would have an interview with the store manager and area manager.
I had to do a fair amount of preparation for the interview, I was offered three customer scenarios and had to put myself in the position of the sales consultant, the area manager would be the customer. The scenario I chose was selling a holiday to the Maldives to a honeymoon customer, there were more details about their wants but I can’t remember exactly. A week before the interview I visited the store to grab some holiday brochures, I wanted to be really prepared. I spent hours flicking through the brochures in order to find the perfect holiday for the customer, I was really nervous about the interview as I am very shy at first and I had never done a role play for a job before, so I didn’t know what to expect. The manager and area manager were both lovely people and I instantly felt at ease, the interview was a lot less intense than how it appeared on paper.
During the interview I was asked all the normal questions you would imagine for a job, we went into great detail about my personal travels, and the role play only lasted for around 5 minutes, the area manager acted as a fairly easy customer so it wasn’t too daunting.
I was offered the job within a few days, the store manager called me telling me she would love me to join, I was over the moon!
For what many might see as ‘just a travel job’, the training was pretty intense. It would be a total of 6 weeks training, 5 weeks of which would be spent at the company’s head office in Surrey (around 1 hour 30 minutes from where I live). I was really nervous at first, training was done in groups so all new starters would be trained together, I had to pack my bags and drive down to Surrey and the first night spent in the hotel before training commenced I had no idea what to expect.
On day one I felt so much better. Everyone in the head office seemed very friendly and I was in a tiny group of three for the training, I was with a guy from Kent and a girl from Cambridge and we all got along very well.
The training was full on and covered a range of topics, there was a huge emphasis on the brand and its values which I appreciated, this definitely seemed like a brand I wanted to work for and a brand which cared about both the travel and its customers, which it genuinely did to be fair.
After a few weeks of training, I then had a week in the store where I would practice putting together itineraries (the systems were intense and looked like Teletext), picking up the phone, and basically shadowing the other PTEs. This was pretty overwhelming at the time and I felt completely out of my depth, but I put that down to being new. We then had our final weeks in Surrey where we learnt about (the majority of) the computer systems and booking process and then had to practice roleplay together of selling holidays, this including popping champagne correctly, making the perfect cup of coffee, and remembering to offer our ‘customers’ chocolates.
As I mentioned above, my store was in Welwyn Garden City, a small/medium sized town in Hertfordshire (ignore the fact the town name has city in it, it is most definitely not a city). Welwyn Garden City is a nice place, if you ignore the kids that get bored during school holidays and harass you when you are tucking into some chips in McDonald’s, our clientele had a lot of money and the store was actually based within a John Lewis store (that is a middle-class department store for those unfamiliar with our UK shopping!).
At the time of joining our closest stores were Brent Cross (30 minutes), Cambridge (1 hour), and Milton Keynes (45 minutes). We had a decent catchment area of customers, although Brent Cross wasn’t far away, it was rare we had an overlap in customers as theirs were very much London based, our catchment area covered most of Hertfordshire, some Essex, some north London and a bit of Bedfordshire.
As I mentioned, our customers had money, BUT the footfall in our store was limited. The town is small, we were tucked away in John Lewis, and people in the local area tend to work in London, so weren’t around to just waltz in and chat with us. I struggled with this at first because I hate picking up the phone… most of our enquiries were through the phone rather than face to face and I hated having to put customers on hold when I was still learning and didn’t have a clue what to say to them (this got better, don’t worry). I much preferred the email enquiries, these would either be direct to our store, or they would come from the central system. There was also a web chat feature on our website so we would often chat to customers through this.
When I first started, the other girls working in my store changed a fair bit over time. My manager, Becky, was lovely and I got along with her great, we are still friends now. Two girls that were there when I started, also lovely, but were only around for a few months. Then there was Jenny, who showed me the ropes and kept me calm when I was having a flap, Jenny was there for about a year whilst I was there and I don’t know what I would have done without her, she kept me grounded. When working in travel you often meet likeminded people, people you can’t really get along with, but you also meet colleagues that can be completely ruthless.
This leads me to the process of bookings… I will go more into detail in the next section, but the thing I really struggled with during my time here, was other employees stealing bookings! Yes, it happens, and no, it should not be allowed in my opinion!
Like I said previously, our store was small, with little footfall, this meant taking ‘central bookings’ – ones in which customers called the mainline rather than directly to their local store. The issue with this is you would often spend hours and hours putting itineraries together for them, and then when they would call up to book, they would call that central line again. Usually, this wouldn’t happen, as you would email the customer directly with their itinerary and correspondence would continue via email, you would build up a rapport with them and they would take your email/number so they would always contact you specifically again. However, there were some customers that just did not have the loyalty, no matter how much work you did for them, or there were the impatient customers that wanted to book exactly on their terms, so if you were on your lunch break or a day off, they would contact you and be annoyed you weren’t in store, instead of waiting they would book with another PTE.
I will never forget the first time I had a booking stolen from me. I can’t remember where exactly the holiday was to, but I did a fair bit of work on it. I then came in from a day off, went to check all my open enquiries, and I saw that my customer had booked with a guy in Liverpool. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach, we worked for a base salary and relied a lot on commission, so he was able to earn commission on a holiday he spent 10 minutes booking, rather than me who got absolutely nothing for days and days of work. I still remember him and every time I see his name crop up on Facebook, I feel rage! It has been 4 years… Clearly, I am not good at letting things go.
The fact this was allowed to happen really bothered me, I was not someone that felt comfortable about stealing someone else’s hard work, doing not much at all, and reaping in all the rewards.
The expectations our customers had were very high, these were not your average package holidays to Benidorm, these were tailor-made holidays and often once in a lifetime holidays for people. Because of this, we had to tread carefully and be sensitive to the customer’s wants and needs. I can honestly say, the whole time I was at the company, I never really had any issues with customers, except one man who made me cry down the phone.
The importance of keeping your customers happy was managing their expectations, you couldn’t promise them the world in the hope of making a sale. You couldn’t sell them a holiday that wasn’t 100% right for them, or you would feel their wrath on their return.
I did have many customers that were high maintenance, some almost drove me mad. It’s important to remember that what may not seem like an issue to you, or important, might be make or break for someone else. It was our job to make the customer feel important and special, it was the ethos of the brand, after all, we would offer them champagne, speciality teas, and fancy coffee, so we had to expect the fact our customers felt like they were our only customers! I will never forget the lady who left her kindle on a plane and told me I needed to find it…
Salary & Targets
Most, if not all, travel consultancy jobs offer a base salary and targets, meaning you can earn a commission on top of what you are paid. This is the same for travel agents and tour operators, the difference being in some companies, the commission is capped.
My starting base salary in 2015 was £18,000 ($23,500 USD). For where I live, that is definitely on the lower end of the salary scale, the cost of living in Hertfordshire is massive, housing is expensive and so is transport, so it wasn’t great. However, along with my commission, I ended up earning £26,000 in my first year ($34,000 USD) which I was happy with.
When working in travel, the salary tends to be low. Companies think they are doing YOU a favour by giving you a job, most people love to travel and there are perks, the jobs can at times be great, so therefore people are all too willing to accept a lower salary, which I think is totally wrong. The job caused me a lot of stress, Alex always told me I didn’t get paid enough to stress that much, and to be honest he was right. But when you are there in that job, it’s easy to feel like a small issue is the end of the world.
Now onto targets, I have no issue with target based commission, at the end of the day it is what drives you to always do a better job, which is better for your own work ethic, and better for the company’s sales results.
However, the targets in the company where I worked were not uniform across the company. Every store had a different target based on it’s previous sales, and the targets changed monthly, your commission would also differ each month depending on how much discount you gave, or how you were rated in customer satisfaction surveys.
This is where some of my issues began. We worked in the smallest store in the country, in one of the smallest towns, our footfall was extremely low and we had to fight for every customer and booking. It was extremely rare to have someone walk through the door and want to book a holiday, after all, you don’t just pop into John Lewis to buy a holiday to match your sofa. I am very hardworking, I love to please, so I do everything I can to succeed in a job, I am very scared of failure and always strive to do better. I would come into work early, leave late, check emails on my days off, all because I wanted to do well, I wanted to earn a good amount of money, and I wanted my manager to be happy with me. Because of this, I actually ended up being one of the top sellers for the company all within my first year, I was one of 30 out of over 300 to hit £1 million in sales for the year. I was doing very well, and I was proud of myself. But I had to hunt for these customers, I would spend all day on web chat waiting for them to talk to me, I would always be checking the enquiries coming into the mailbox, I would pick up every phone call I could. I was burning out, completely stressed, but I was selling. The issue? Every month my target would increase, it just kept going up and up… all because I was doing well. This left me constantly feeling like I wasn’t doing enough for the company, I was working my arse off and never getting a break. Yet there were stores with three times our footfall, getting triple the enquiries, but their target was half of mine. There were stores in affluent areas such as Kensington, Oxford Street, Cambridge and Bluewater, all with lower targets than mine.
The major problem with that, is someone who was doing half the sales I was, was hitting their lower target and earning a good amount of commission. For me, I could sell double the holidays, make double the amount of money for the company, miss out on my target (which was at times £180,000 a month – thanks January!) by just £1 and not get paid a single bit of commission. I struggled with this throughout my entire career at the company, and whilst my manager empathised with the situation, no one else gave a hoot about the discrepancy in pay across the board. This was one of my major reasons for leaving.
After being negative about the commission, I thought I would move onto a major perk, the fam trips! Fam trips are short for ‘familiarisation trips’ and are put together by tourist boards or hotel groups and offered to travel industry employees. These trips are so employees can learn more about their products which will, in turn, increase sales in that area, and it worked.
I took two trips during my 18 months of work, my first was to Mexico, and the second was to Antigua. Even better, because I was working for a company specialising in luxury travel, the hotels were always incredible and more than I could ever afford, yet I didn’t have to pay a penny. So for a week would enjoy the luxury life before coming back and turning that new knowledge into sales.
If you are looking to see the world but can’t afford to, this is one of the best ways to complete your goal. Not only can you enjoy the fam trips, but many hotels you work with will offer heavy discounts on your personal trips too.
This one is important to me. Whilst working in travel I saw a high turnover in staff, this meant I worked alongside a lot of people, all with their own individual personalities. I could see a clear correlation between personality type and how long the employee stayed in the business.
Working in sales, as anyone knows, is ruthless, selling holidays is no different. There were people who did amazingly, these were the people who were able to sell ice to Eskimos. Ethics were an important part of the job, or often lack of.
I worked alongside someone who could sell to anyone, they hit their target every month, every year they went on the ‘top sellers trips’ and were earning thousands in commission. But what I also noticed was that this person was a compulsive liar, dismissive and patronising. I would often hear him have conversations with clients that I would have to step into because he was outright lying to them. He would sell products to customers he had been speaking bad of 5 minutes before the customer walked through the door. He didn’t care what he had to say (or lie about) in order to get the sale, therefore, being a successful travel consultant seemed like the perfect match for him!
My problem is I couldn’t lie to customers, I wanted them to experience their dream holiday and if that wasn’t with me, then it wasn’t with me. I wasn’t going to shove a product in front of their face that wasn’t right for them, I wasn’t going to upsell them on something useless because I wanted to earn more commission, I just couldn’t do it. I often had clients come in with a limited budget and sometimes I felt like they would be able to book a better suited holiday with a competitor, instead of selling myself to them I would rather be honest and tell them they could get more for their money elsewhere. If I saw a customer really struggling with the price but really wanting my product, I would often discount and therefore earn less commission. The irony is that I genuinely wanted what was best for the customer, which is part of the ethos of the company, but that’s not how you make sale after sale. The employees that were rewarded were the employees that sold the highest value holidays, the company didn’t truly care if the customer was getting screwed over in the meantime.
So, if you, like me, act on feeling and emotion more than anything else, I would honestly say this is an environment you would struggle in.
Travel is not a Monday-Friday 9-5 job. Nearly all travel consultants are required to work shifts and to work weekends. I naively assumed when I accepted the job that I would only work one weekend a month. Turned out I was working two full weekends and one half weekend. I would have one weekend off a month (if I was lucky).
For some of my colleagues, this was great, as their partners also worked similar shifts and they would still be able to spend quality time with each other. For me, it just didn’t work. Alex worked Monday-Friday 9-6, and I was working sporadic days during the week and most weekends. We were planning our wedding at the time and it made it almost impossible to get anything done. What should have been an incredible year for us turned out to be one where we just didn’t see each other all that much.
Tailormade vs Package Holidays
Another major difference between companies is whether you are tailor making the holiday for your customer or just selling a package. In my job, all holidays were tailormade, down to every last detail. This was the most fun part of the job, actually putting the holidays together, learning about travel logistics, and finding a solution when you think someone’s dream trip will be impossible.
Whilst being able to sell a package holiday would be much less work, I think I would have found it relatively boring.
Making Mistakes and Problem Solving
When booking someone’s holiday, it’s easy to make a mistake. Just mistyping a name on a flight booking can result in having to book (and pay for) completely new tickets.
Everytime someone called me to confirm their holiday I would go into a blind panic, checking details over and over again to make sure they were always correct. But because I developed such bad anxiety over the job, my heart would race and even though I was checking through everything on the screen, it was really hard to take it all in. I was also aware that there was someone on the end of the phone and I didn’t want to leave them on hold for hours on end making sure everything was okay. This led to me making mistakes, not overly often, but I did make them.
My most costly mistake was booking someone flights to and from Marrakesh when they were supposed to be flying to Agadir. Don’t ask me how I managed that, I really don’t know, I even booked them with my clients looking at my screen. The problem wasn’t picked up until a few days before the client was travelling. I was on my own in the store because it was Christmas time and a quiet time for holiday bookings. My client called me to tell me his tickets were showing Marrakesh and not Agadir, my stomach sank as I told him I would look into it and call him back.
Turns out it was my mistake, I booked the wrong flights. My customer lived locally so was travelling from Stansted airport, about 35-40 minutes away. When I looked at flights to Agadir, there were no flights from Stansted, or Luton, or even Heathrow, the only ones I could book for him were from Gatwick Airport which is at least an hour and a half by car, and the likelihood of getting stuck in Christmas traffic on the M25 was all too high. I just sat in my chair and sobbed for a while, too scared to call the customer and too scared to call my area manager (my manager wasn’t in that day).
In the end, I had to rebook flights from Gatwick to Agadir, at a loss of around £1000 to the company (fortunately this wasn’t the sort of company that would take it out my wages). My area manager at the time was really nice about it, the customer, however, was fuming that he would have to travel to Gatwick, there was nothing I could do but apologise and I felt sick about it for days.
It was the risk of these mistakes that made me feel sick every time I clicked ‘confirm’ on a booking. I know the above was my fault, but there are other things that can happen during the booking process that are completely out of your control. Flight prices are quoted live and therefore cannot be guaranteed, if I explained to you the way in which flight pricing works it would blow your mind. I had times where I had quoted a customer for a holiday, they would call up the next day to book, I would go to confirm it and the price would have increased by £500. There were times the IT guys would input prices wrong on the system, I would then have to call the customer and tell them a mistake had been made on the price. Sometimes hotels would sell out during the enquiry process and holidays I had worked so hard on would no longer be available to customers.
Reading this back now, I know it doesn’t sound like the end of the world to me or the customer, but quite often that customer had been saving for months for their holiday for it all to come crashing down in the booking process.
I don’t think I could ever be a travel consultant again, I got so screwed over and belittled whilst in the job I just don’t think I could put myself through it again. However, there is some advice I would like to give before you find yourself in that position.
Put yourself first – I was very bad at speaking up for myself, even my manager would tell me I need to be more vocal about things. Don’t get me wrong, I am a very chatty person and often quite loud, but when it comes to confrontation, it’s just not for me. If I found myself working 8 days in a row I would keep quiet and not say anything, if I had an important event on a weekend and was told I couldn’t get the day off, I wouldn’t argue it, if I found something unfair, I just wouldn’t say anything. This meant I put myself in the position of ‘doormat’, people knew I wouldn’t say anything so I always drew the short straw. I wish I had stood up for myself from day one, I realise now to be successful in life you have to be assertive, you can’t become a pushover.
You don’t get paid enough to stress – These were Alex’s magic words and I realise now he was 100% right. Getting paid £18k a year to lose sleep every night is just ridiculous. Put things into perspective. When I was feeling stressed and under pressure, I would remind myself ‘atleast you’re not a doctor and have someone’s life in your hands’. It’s true, holidays are important to people but losing sleep over a flight delay is just crazy, that person will get annoyed for an hour maybe but 1) flight delays are not your responsibility and 2) you haven’t killed the customer’s wife.
Don’t take on too much – I was always told I needed to be taking calls, even when I was snowed in by enquiries. It is better to take 5 enquiries and work through them effectively, rather than take 10 enquiries and rush them. I always thought taking 50% more enquiries would mean 50% more bookings, but you cannot convert a customer into a sale if you are not putting enough quality time into their requests.
Don’t check your emails from home – This is the WORST thing you can do! There was nothing I hated more than checking my work emails on a day off and seeing a million things going wrong at work. A day off is a day off and you should not be interrupted under any circumstances. You are not getting paid to have your day completely ruined.
Don’t forget to enjoy the job – I absolutely loved the actual job, the creation of people’s once in a lifetime holidays. I loved putting together all the details, researching the hotels and bringing a dream to life to people. It is so fun and extremely rewarded, you also learn so much about new destinations. I forgot to enjoy it after a few months and that is a big regret of mine.
Not much of a conclusion as my advice was my conclusion, I just wanted to apologise for this being so long and possibly uninteresting. I realise now why people start Youtube channels. It would have taken half the time to say all this if I had done it verbally!