Opinion: Independence still has its day

Opinion: Independence still has its day

By Alistair Rowland, group general manager for travel services at Midcounties Co-operative

It is a year ago this week that the independent agent market changed for good when The Co‑operative Travel created a joint venture with Thomas Cook.

The UK’s largest independent retailer had gone and the landscape for independent agents changed for ever.

Much has been written since about the sense of the venture and whether a business known for its values and independence could operate within a vertically integrated structure. A year on, the jury is still out.

Midcounties Co-operative Travel, which was the smallest member of the Co-operative Travel Trading Group, chose to go it alone and remain independent.

A number of the key players, myself included, had a view that a Co-operative Travel business could flourish independently and could be rebuilt with an appropriate cost base and strategy. Midcounties’ outlook was exactly that.

Many people said that it was too late and that the days of large agencies were numbered. I am pleased to say they were wrong.

Last Saturday we launched our 51st branch, in Shrewsbury, with a new design including a new Cooptravel.co.uk livery. This is the first of four sites opening before Christmas that will bring together the retail estate and online.

If the locations are successful, we will move to rebrand the retail estate and cease any remaining links with the Co-operative Travel brand. Exciting times.

Our URL is outstanding: Cooptravel.co.uk enjoys 75% natural traffic, is growing by 100% a year, with a 50% online booking penetration. When customers call, it provides very high-quality leads to our homeworker business, Co-op Personal Travel Agents.

That business, together with Kwik Travel, which we acquired in March has collectively taken us to 100 home-based agents. We launched our consortium model, the Co-op Consortium in May, and now have a significant number of great, focused agents working with us.

Our business now is 70% bigger than a year ago, supported by our partners, operating within an empowering culture, and on track to achieve a significant profit.

And for the future, more of the same. We will continue to focus on our target airports of Birmingham, East Midlands and Bristol. We will continue to acquire where great businesses present themselves, such as Travel Angels in the southwest, which joined us last week.

So, is the agency group model dead? Absolutely not. It just takes focus, cost control, a clear strategy and a brand underpinned by values. We aim to be here not for short-term returns for shareholders, but for long-term value for our colleagues and stakeholders.


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