In 1994, David Speakman turned his ordinary Lancashire travel agency into a yuppie dream. Inspired by American trend spotter Faith Popcorn — who predicted more people would shop and work from home in the future — he armed his travel agents with laptops and mobile phones, enabling them to visit mostly baby-boomers in their own homes. At the company’s headquarters 15 employees handle billing, deal with suppliers, and do marketing. 50 home-based travelling counsellors build clientele and book trips. Some itineraries are mapped out in clients’ homes, while others are done over the phone. 30 online counsellors also work from home, fielding teletext requests and booking trips. Speakman recognises that working from home can be lonely. To “create a bit of bonding”, he says, Travel Counsellors holds regular seminars and organises four meetings for all staff each year. It uses its intranet to celebrate birthdays, share hobbies, and send a joke of the day. To monitor the decentralised operation, software tracks incoming calls and costs for the online staff – even counting the number of rings before employees pick up their phones. No stranger to entrepreneurship, Speakman has owned an off-license shop, an incentive company, two theme restaurants inspired by his Florida vacation home near Disney World, and two travel agencies. Only one business bombed. He closed his second restaurant, losing nearly half a million pounds. Afterwards, he sat down with a clean sheet of paper. Taking into account that he still owned a travel agency and was no longer flush with cash, he listed the prime attributes of an ideal business. He wrote “no fixed labour costs, commission-only sales, large volume, and low overhead.” Then he rejigged his travel agency to meet these criteria. Since the make-over, sales have grown from £548,000 in 1994 to £8.3m in 1997. Still, Speakman knew he’d arrived when reading Popcorn’s second book, in which she refers to the travel agency of the future. He says it describes Travel Counsellors to a tee.
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