Buying a travel agency at the tender age of 21 is courageous. Doing it without having ever actually worked in a retail travel store is crazy brave... or perhaps just crazy.
Brian Bennett recalls the decision as a purely pragmatic one.
“It was around 1980 in Sydney and at the time it wasn’t easy to get into travel,” he says. “But I had studied at Ryde Technical College for two or three years and was quite passionate about it. So I bit the bullet, quit my job with Customs and Immigration, took out a loan and bought a small but established operation with my business partner Brian Bebbington.”
It’s worth noting that his business partner’s role was primarily to look after the company’s accounting, which meant 21-year-old Brian was pretty much flying solo.
The agency was Harvey World Travel Chesterhill, in Sydney’s west. At the time Harvey’s was a nascent brand, and Brian recalls the entire franchise network could still sit around a single table. Nevertheless, the store quickly became one of the group’s most successful, and Chesterhill even took out the top spot for P&O Cruises in New South Wales.
Despite the success, after just three years of battling Sydney’s traffic and the city’s hectic lifestyle Brian decided it was time for a change. He sold up, moved to Adelaide and started all over again, this time establishing a new business from scratch in the inner southern suburb of Parkside.
He did it once again with the help of Brian Bebbington, who eventually decided to relocate to Adelaide himself.
More than 30 years later the pair’s store, Travel and Cruise Professionals, remains a quiet achiever.
The company joined Travellers Choice in July 2014, and although staffed only by Brian and consultant Kimberley Rohrsheim, it earned a Bronze Choice Award at the 2015 Annual Shareholders’ Conference – belying the claim that only larger members can win such accolades.
So how does the small agency – located “on the main road to Melbourne and in the middle of nothing” – punch above its weight?
For a start its clientele is strongly skewed towards the high-end of the market, with strong sales to Europe and North America. A significant number of customers are also referrals and they are based across South Australia and even internationally. In addition, the company has an unusually high percentage of repeat business.
“Probably 80% of the people we work with would be repeat clients,” says Brian. “I’m a bit hopeless with the digital marketing, so I rely on Travellers Choice for a lot of that. But we do have a genuine understanding of our clients and we are very passionate about looking after them.”
Travel and Cruise Professionals also focuses intensely on the cruise sector, which currently accounts for around 40% of its overall business.
“We made a concerted effort to concentrate on high-end, and in particular upmarket cruising, during the global financial crisis. I knew it was going to be tough so we decided to maximise the returns on what we could get.”
Undoubtedly one of the keys to the agency’s success, says Brian, is its support for The Cruise Team.
“I think it’s important for small agencies like ours to focus their cruise market into one avenue, which in this case means channelling all our business through The Cruise Team rather than dealing directly with six or seven cruise lines.
“The reason is that by going through one operator you can actually make impact because you have a bigger turnover, which means you gain greater recognition and earn more rewards.
“We see it as preferred selling with a particular operator and it applies to not just cruise. We are, for example, also big with Qantas Holidays and a few other operators.”
Ultimately, he says, the secret to the agency’s success is simply good service.
“If you can deliver that, they’ll keep coming back.”