Cathy Chapman talks to workingwise.co.uk about how she moved from teaching to running her own travel business through the Travel Counsellors franchise.
Cathy Chapman spent nearly two decades as a teacher and loved it, but a few years ago she made the hugely difficult decision to leave, hankering after her former career in the travel industry and the freedom to be her own boss. She has no regrets, although she misses her students. Here she tells workingwise.co.uk about her working life story and how she came to be a Travel Counsellors franchisee.
Cathy started her working life in a French bank and then moved into underwriting, but it wasn’t for her. So she decided to move to Paris and worked there for Thomson Holidays as a city rep. She loved her job. “I met lovely people and got to know Paris inside out. We had to walk the length and breadth of the city, meeting clients and taking them around town, to dinner and to places like the Moulin Rouge,” she says. It was an exciting place to be for a young person. After two years she faced a choice between moving to Morocco with Thomson or to Birmingham to work in the ticketing department. She chose Birmingham for sentimental reasons – her boyfriend – then husband – was there.
Her next job was with Air France in London where she got to use her French degree and she started on check-in before being put in charge of a small team involved in VIP meet and greets. There she learned lots of people skills. “It was a brilliant experience,” she says. She stayed at Air France for seven years before getting married and having a baby and, when her marriage broke down, she moved home to the North East in 1990 and did a PGCE qualification.
Cathy started her first day as a secondary school teacher on her son’s first day in reception. Coincidentally, her last day of teaching was his last at university.
She taught French and German in one school and moved to her old secondary school as head of department after seven years. She spent 23 years in teaching in total, only leaving in 2016 and says it was a massive decision and that she still misses working with teenagers. “It was a big step to leave,” she says. “I adored teaching.”
She had had a medical problem in her last years of teaching and was going to leave in 2015, but stayed on while her son finished university. By then she was really keen to get back into the world of travel, having had a reunion with her Thomson colleagues where one of her ex-colleagues told her about Travel Counsellors. Cathy was intrigued, but felt that what the woman said sounded too good to be true. So she did some research, going to Manchester to check it out. “I was blown away after a day in head office and it takes a lot to impress me,” she says.
She became a franchisee and launched her business in September 2016. It was a leap of faith, but she had a small cushion of early retirement money to ease her in. She reckons it took around two years to really get the business on an even keel. There are two main routes in – one for those returning to the travel industry and the other is the academy route. The different routes in have different costs. The Return to Travel route is £995 +VAT, while the Travel Academy is more expensive, but flexible depending on experience. After joining, the monthly fee is £40 +VAT.
Since she had been out of the industry for so long Cathy chose the academy route and says the support was “phenomenal”. Now she is a mentor for the academy route and says she is still learning every day. The support Travel Counsellors offers also includes regular business development sessions, software support, training, access to a platform with the latest travel industry information, tutorials with bags of ideas and the Travel Counsellors forum where agents swap advice.
Even so, Cathy says it was hard work at first and took years of networking with local organisations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, gyms, hairdressers and golf clubs to build her regular client base. At first she relied on family and friends, word of mouth and social media, but she needed to reach beyond that.
Then in 2020 Covid happened and the travel industry was thrown into turmoil. Cathy was working round the clock, cancelling holiday packages and refunding money. “It was heart-breaking and soul-destroying,” she says. What helped was the support structure that the franchise offered. Cathy says the CEO and management team were amazing and calmly guided franchisees through every day via daily tv broadcasts on the franchise’s in-house tv station. “Without the management team I would have just cried into my gin,” says Cathy.
As she was not a limited company she didn’t get any government money and had to badger the council to get a £2K discretionary grant. She says many agents took second jobs. And then it all switched. After some of the restrictions on travel were lifted, there was a huge demand to get away, says Cathy. That’s when her business came into its own. It offers a very personalised service and Cathy held people’s hands through all the complexities of travelling in a global pandemic. She relies on referrals and on people knowing that they are getting a great service. That means she makes it her business to know all her clients well and keeps in touch with them regularly. She is also a keen advocate of making travel more accessible for those with physical or learning disabilities. On the familiarisation trips she does to new holiday destinations, she checks on things like wheelchair access.
Cathy says that people have reduced the time they are going away due to the cost of living crisis, but she hasn’t seen any fall-off in clients. Part of that is due to that personal approach and to Travel Counsellors’ reputation and buying power. They are one of the fastest growing travel companies, says Cathy, and that means they can get very good rates on different aspects of holiday packages.
Cathy loves her new job and, aged 62, she has no plans to retire. She gets to travel – in June she was in the Arctic. She’s her own boss and Travel Counsellors has a buddy system that means if she is sick or on holiday someone can be on stand-by to cover for her. “The franchise is worth every penny,” she says. “It’s the best decision I ever made.”