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LK Cruises & Tours, LLC — The newbie recaps

Last year, I was the newbie. I came to the TRO shortly after making the decision to separate myself and my fledgling agency from YTB. When offered the opportunity to write a Diary segment, I felt it would be a great help in getting me on my feet. Looking back over my first year as a real agent I can see where I have made those newbie mistakes and where I have grown.

Initially I struggled with changing my marketing strategies and my business model. Most of my clients actually had no idea that there was any organization behind me. They saw me. They trusted me to take care of their travel needs and liked being able to make some of their arrangements on the booking engine YTB provided–particularly plane tickets and last minute travel deals. I liked being able to direct them to that booking engine for the things that didn’t really require my involvement. YTB’s model suggested marketing to friends and family. It turns out those same friends and family were perfectly happy to work with me without the tools YTB had to offer. In fact, they preferred being able to refer their friends to a real person instead of a website that looked like thousands of others which were popping up all over the Internet.

The drastic change in the economy forced me to postpone my plans to drop my full time corporate job and devote myself solely to my travel practice. That required me to completely re-think my day to day business plan for the short term. I had to teach myself to be a juggler. That required a whole new level of organization in my life as I dedicated myself to keeping as many balls in the air as possible. It worked for the most part. My clients were serviced and my follow up indicates they were pleased with the services they received. There are areas that still need improvement and I have created strategies for correcting those areas. My practice hasn’t yet grown to the extent that I will be able to retire from the corporate world in 2010 either, but I do see a light at the end of the tunnel.

When I was with YTB, someone else negotiated all my contracts and I had to work within their framework. Now I am the organization. As an owner the need for careful consideration of all contracts was driven home to me when an oversight on my part almost torpedoed my reserve funds. But I learned two very valuable lessons from that episode. First, check and re-check any agreement and understand what is and is not included—take nothing for granted. I know that should be elementary but I missed it. Second, never be afraid to negotiate. Businesspeople want your business, and many times are willing to negotiate to get it—even if it was you who screwed up.

Groups are still the bread and butter of my little agency and I imagine they always will. I like working with them and I can get a lot more mileage out of the work I do when it results in multiple clients. I have found that many people (at least my clients) prefer a group, especially if they are a  first time traveler. Despite the technology in our day to day existence, many people have not traveled and a group cruise or a group trip to a popular resort is likely just the key.  First time travelers are unique. Their concerns have to be addressed. Their fears alleviated. And yes many of them need more than their fair share of hand holding and baby sitting. But groups can really affect an agency’s bottom line and this was the year it really hit home for me .

That brings me to one of the latest additions to my business in 2009. This year I introduced a plan to go fee. I had read about them from other more experienced agents but hadn’t always seen the necessity. But the service we provide our clients’ is valuable. Professionals should be paid for the expertise and assistance even if the trip never comes to fruition. What finally brought it home to me was sitting in a salon and listening to one of the stylists explain to the customer in the next chair that the time and effort it takes for a stylist to consult on a cut or a coloring is valuable. For every client she takes the time out to consult with, is taking up time she could be spending on a client ready to be serviced. In my business, the time I spend researching a destination for one client who just wants to shop is time taken away from another who wants to buy. A haircut is a much less costly endeavor than the average vacation. Why should I value my time any less?

In the end, I learned a lot this year. My time wasn’t always used as wisely as it could have been and my juggling act didn’t always work. While my adjusted priorities freed up some time, space and resources; my plate is still much too full. I made some good decisions and I’m willing to admit to myself and to the TRO community that I also made some less than stellar ones. But I’m getting better and making better choices. But the best choice I made was the one that started this journey, the choice to walk away from YTB and focus on my dream of being a legitimate agency.

Nia Frieson is the owner of LK Cruises and Tours, LLC based in Washington, DC. For more information, you can contact Nia at lk@lkcruisetours.com.

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