FCI General Manager, Lee Zanello
FCI General Manager, Lee Zanello

“Our agents make more money”: newly re-branded Flight Centre Independent talks about its value proposition for new recruits

Now with 227 home-based agents, Flight Centre Independent (formerly Flight Centre Associates) is aiming for 1,000 agents in Canada by 2020.

The move ramps up the competition in an already crowded host agency field here, long dominated by legacy players like TPI and TravelOnly and shaken up in recent years by newcomers like The Travel Agent Next Door.

Retail travel agents, either new to the industry or with years of experience, are in high demand as host agencies intensify their efforts to woo travel counsellors looking to make the leap from bricks-and-mortar agencies.

Meanwhile the home-based trend shows no signs of slowing down. By some estimates 25% of Canadian travel agents are now home-based (in the U.S. the percentage is even higher, at around 40% and climbing).

Flight Centre Independent’s General Manager, Lee Zanello, says that while Flight Centre’s host agency business in Canada has been growing for the past 9 years, the company is now moving into a phase of “intense growth, improvement and change.”

Anyone who was in the travel industry in the mid-1990s remembers when the Flight Centre retail travel brand arrived on the scene, red signs blazing.

By 2012, 30 years after its first storefront opened in Australia, the brand was seemingly everywhere, from the U.S. (Flight Centre bought Liberty Travel and GOGO in 2008 in a US$135 million deal), to the UK, to Canada where it had more than 190 storefronts.

With its high-octane growth and aggressive rhetoric – “If the competition was scared before, they should really look out now,” said a rep for the company in 2003 – Flight Centre made few friends on the retail side, even in an industry accustomed to intense competition.

Now that Flight Centre Independent is in major recruitment mode, does it get push back from travel agents who want nothing to do with the brand?

“There are many agents out there who never lost that initial perception of us when we first entered the marketplace,” acknowledges Zanello.

“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.”

Zanello says he sees 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.”

He adds that, “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.”

Asked how FCI attracts new agents, Zanello says that as with any host agency, flexibility and autonomy are key. “There are no targets or oversight of your business.”

Also, he says, “our agents make more money.” FCI’s 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.”

New agents should consider not only the split but also 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) … our agents are making more money than agents anywhere else.”

Flight Centre has long been thought as having a ‘department’ that deals with its Independent Contractors (ICs), when in fact FCI accesses the same support and infrastructure that supports Flight Centre’s 150+ shops in Canada. “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.”

Flight Centre has three Independent offerings: Independent, Agency and Partner.

Zanello notes that FCI’s newest systems “give complete access and control of your business from wherever you are”, including GDS access through a web browser. FCI agents can hire sub-contractors, and can access the new FC Group Centre and Cruise Centre.

Flight Centre’s national marketing campaigns are also available to its 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, says Zanello, “no other host agency can compete with our brand name recognition.”

With so many host agencies in recruitment mode there’s been an uptick in movement of established agents between hosts. Zanello says that in FCI’s recruitment process, the top reasons he hears from travel agents leaving their current host agency (or wanting to leave) are commission levels, access to product and the need for a sense of community and support. Home-based agents know their business well and have strong entrepreneurial skills but no one wants to feel isolated, a common pitfall for home-based agents. “People want to feel a part of something bigger than themselves, that they don’t want to just be trained and then left on their own.”

Agents should also insist on transparency, he adds. Any host agency that makes prospective members “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 (eg. clients). 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.”

And for any travel agent looking to make the leap to home-based, or switching host agencies, what are three things to watch out for? “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 time frame 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.”

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