Flight Centre Independent got its start in the Canadian market, back in 2008 when Flight Centre Associates – the original name for Flight Centre’s host agency – launched here in Canada before taking off globally. Now with 227 agents in Canada, FCI is aiming for 1,000 by 2020, says FCI General Manager, Lee Zanello.
1. Flight Centre Associates is now Flight Centre Independent. How does the new Independent name better reflect the membership proposition?
“What we are seeing with the Independent name is definitely a more substantial commitment by Flight Centre to the agents looking to work as Independent agents in Canada. We were the only ones using the term ‘Associates’ and, while the business has been growing for nine years, we are about to enter into a period of intense growth, improvement and change. I think when you’re on the threshold of such a commitment you start to evaluate your brand, what it represents, and we wanted to make a statement. We feel ‘Independent’ here in Canada stakes a claim that we have the best Independent business model in the country. You, as an agent, run your own business how you like, with the branding you like, but you are backed by a huge company with amazing resources and the strongest consumer brand recognition out of any host agency in the marketplace.”
2. There’s been a lot of activity in the host agency side of the industry in the past few years. Did FCI see this as an opportune time to make a big push into the Canadian host agency market?
“It’s a bit of a perfect storm for our growth and the timing of this push as we’ve spent the last few years listening to our agents and crafting a program that meets their needs and that we are confident gives the best support and payment in the Canadian marketplace. We’ve also spent this time building such a supportive network of agents from coast to coast; you’ll read this everywhere but it’s not true everywhere like it is within Flight Centre – we really are a family. I never thought I could know so much about 227 different agents. So here we have a product ready for market, a family giving it the support it needs and a huge amount of interest in the idea of working independently.
“We will be at 1,000 agents by 2020 and the best thing is we are replicating a lot of Flight Centre’s inherent systems to ensure that our growth is scalable, sustainable and that support never wavers. The infrastructure underneath our agents has the flexibility to grow as we grow.”
3. What’s the FCI difference?
“Like every agency, we offer that flexibility and autonomy – there are no targets or oversight of your business.
“FCI rises above the rest when it comes to a three key areas. First, our agents make more money – our programs pay up to a 90% commission split and we have the largest network of preferred partners paying top tier commissions out of any host agency in the country. It’s important for new agents to not only consider the split but the gross commissions being received when looking at host agencies. When you include the fact that unlike other host agencies, we don’t penalize you for booking non-preferred (you earn the same split no matter who you book) and our agents are making more money than agents anywhere else.
“Secondly, our systems and support for our agents is the best in Canada. This is because we can leverage the over 100 support staff and 1,200 agents nationwide who support and work in our retail stores and who are all on board with seeing the Independent business model succeed. On the support side we have direct access teams to help with group and cruise bookings, assisting agents right from the enquiry and qualifying stage right through to post-travel.
“On the retail side we have incredibly strong internal communications at Flight Centre where Independent agents can speak freely and regularly with those in store and get product or systems help within minutes.
“Our newest systems give complete access and control of your business from wherever you are – I’ve never before seen a GDS accessible through a web browser and we have that.
“Our national marketing campaigns are completely available to Independent agents; when you see a Flight Centre sale offering clients $100 off their flights, our agents can sell that sale and the money does not come out of their business, it is funded by FCI. It does not take long for those kinds of client-direct savings to add up and give a huge value to our offering.
“Lastly, no other host agency can compete with our brand name recognition. Clients know Flight Centre and it is a trusted retail travel brand in Canada. Whether you decide to paint your business red and white and fully adopt our branding, or just use a little logo to let your clients know who you are with, our brand name gives consumers confidence to book with our agents.”
4. For any bricks-and-mortar agents looking to go home-based, what are 3 things an agent should look for in a host agency, and 3 things they should avoid?
“I would say three things to look for are transparency, transparency and transparency. I joke, but any host agency that makes you join a WebEx or jump through hoops in an interview process to find out their program details is hiding something. Generally, they are hiding the fact that they will make special deals and exemptions depending on where an agent is coming from and their book of business. If an agency is not transparent from the get-go, I think that is a red flag and a comment on how they communicate with the agents in their business. At FCI we have our full program out for anyone to view, it’s a fair program that does give benefits and privileges to more experienced and successful agents but is out in the open so that other agents have something to strive for in order to achieve that same level of recognition.
“Three things to avoid? Avoid a host who will not support your marketing initiatives or put money into helping you get the sale. You are on your own but you should not ever feel alone when it comes to trying to get clients to pick up the phone and call you.
“Avoid a host where you cannot pick up the phone and get one to one direct support; this business can be overwhelming and to have another human voice on the other end of the phone as a coach championing you is invaluable.
“Lastly, avoid a host who ties you into any sort of timeframe on your contract. People’s needs change and with FCI we require only 60 days notice to ensure your clients and commissions are looked after properly should you want to leave. Not only does this sort of approach give you more flexibility in your business but it makes US be a better host for you as we know there is competition out there and it makes us do everything we can to continue to earn the privilege of hosting you.”
5. Flight Centre encountered a lot of resistance from traditional bricks-and-mortar agencies when it first came to Canada. Has there been a perception problem with the Flight Centre brand in the retail travel trade, and how does FCI leverage the Flight Centre brand’s powerful resources and high consumer profile?
“This is a great question and there are many agents out there who never lost that initial perception of us when we first entered the marketplace. The biggest problem we have is getting agents to give us that first phone call. Once an agent talks to us and learns about how Flight Centre works, they find it hard to keep any negative impression of us.
“I see it all the time at trade shows and events, people generally enjoy talking to me at first and when I say I’m from Flight Centre there is a subtle shift – a guard goes up; however, it doesn’t take them long to see how genuine we are about putting our agents first, about how much we care about our people and how we truly feel that our people are the cornerstone of our success. Once they have that first conversation with us they get a glimpse into how their business can benefit from everything we put in to ensure our agents’ success and profitability.
“As for the brand and consume profile, that usually speaks for itself by the time agents are talking to us, but what often goes unsaid is that if you don’t want to paint yourself red and white and you want to keep your own branding and identity, we are totally fine with that.
“There is a huge benefit to maintaining consistency with your clients, especially in small town environments with loyal clientele. We can work with you behind the scenes so that you still get the benefits of working with Flight Centre – systems, product, pricing, support – without having to change your identity in the eyes of your clients.
“At the end of the day it’s important for people to know that we always try to find a way to say ‘yes’. If it’s a marketing initiative, a system you’d like to see implemented, a branding blend you’d like to work out – we try to find ways to say yes, and I think this surprises most agents.
“We are not a cookie-cutter agency and we don’t want every agent running exactly the same way – we celebrate individuality, we celebrate our people and once agents get to talking to us about this we find a lot of those 1994 impressions head exactly where they belong: in the past.”