When a travel-disrupting event occurs -- think anything from bad weather to airline system outages -- it's Working Solutions' time to shine on behalf of its clients by augmenting their workforce, sometimes in excess of 200%, to deal with peak customer demands.

Working Solutions was founded in 1996 by president and CEO Kim Houlne. The company specializes in outsourcing, using 110,000 agents, all independent contractors (ICs), who work in a number of industries. More than 1,000 of those ICs are travel agents and service Working Solutions' customers in the travel industry. (The company also has clients in industries like retail, financial services and health care).

All of Working Solutions' ICs work remotely. They are activated when clients need to bolster their own workforce. In travel, those clients are "high-volume entities," Houlne said, such as hotel companies and large agencies. Working Solutions' ICs are trained, experienced travel agents.

"Our team actually provides year-round assistance to many of these travel companies," Houlne said. "Then, in the time of need, we are able to ramp up -- sometimes upward of 200% -- during an unexpected hurdle that they have to face."

According to Houlne, the most major of those hurdles was, not surprisingly, the attacks of Sept. 11. Hurricane Katrina was another that Houlne readily recalled, as were system glitches that occurred after United Airlines' merger with Continental.

But more common occurrences, like nor'easters and hurricanes (especially last year), also caused Working Solutions' agents to kick into gear.

The company matches travel agents with work based on the skills clients need. For example, a client could request only agents who can work effectively in a specific GDS or who can speak certain languages. They are also activated based on their location; if a hurricane was headed for Florida, for example, Working Solutions would activate ICs that were physically located elsewhere and unlikely to be disconnected because of the storm.

Chief marketing officer Gail Rigler said Working Solutions' talent pool spans North America, making it fairly easy to match most requests with qualified agents. 

Many were agency owners who decided to get out of the business, or who no longer wanted to work full time. Some are still actively booking on separate systems, but were looking for additional work.

Rigler said the company recruits through social media and travel sites and will target regional sites if there is a geographic need. 

Word of mouth is also important to Working Solutions' recruitment efforts in the travel industry.

"The travel agent community is incredibly tight-knit," Houlne said, which has helped spread the word about her company.

When she founded Working Solutions, it was one of the first "on-demand, remote customer care and sales models" in the country, Houlne said. The technology enabling ICs to work remotely was fairly new. The travel industry, in particular, was interested in the company's offerings.

"It started off with just basically hotel bookings and has blossomed all the way up to probably one of the most complicated, which is corporate travel booking," she said.

Houlne said Working Solutions is expanding further into Canada, where there has been demand, and is also focused more on automation to respond to clients' requests faster.

"What we like to emphasize to our clients is you need a backup plan to the backup plan," Houlne said. "For many years, I don't think companies realized how important this was until the consumer became more vocal. What we're trying to do is encourage our clients to make sure that they have a plan in place for whatever may happen, and then plan over it. I think, for the past couple of years, we're seeing more and more really start to become a little more proactive than they have been."


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