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Down in the Boondocks – Operating a rural travel business

Lisa Green is a group travel specialist located in the small town of Elkins, WV.  She holds destination specialist certifications in the Caribbean, Mexico and Disney as well as many others.  She has been in the travel industry for 15 + years while living in West Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina (her favorite) and Colorado.  Lisa’s dream destinations are Australia and Italy.

After 15 plus years in the travel industry, I am back to my roots in the middle of nowhere. Operating a rural travel business. I say “travel business” instead of “travel agency” because I had intended to go strictly “group travel” when I returned to the business after a well-deserved hiatus. I had no intentions of becoming a full-service travel agency. The community had other plans. Herein lies the main challenge: saying “no” to a client. Especially a client with no internet access. “Are there really such people out there?” you ask. The answer, unbelievably, is yes. The rural client. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are some very computer savvy clients in my area who simply don’t want to book their own travel. There are also some very well educated folks who think it is always less expensive on the internet and that booking with an agent automatically means you are paying more. We all know these clients. They need no introduction.

If any of you live in a rural area, you know the “good ole boy” philosophy. If you are new to the area, you can’t be trusted. This seems to be a relatively unique quality when it comes to small towns. Travel is a shady business. Price is key and low price is king. That is the general consensus in a rural area where every penny counts. Low cost, high volume seems to be the key to success in these rural areas. Is there a luxury market? Perhaps. Is there enough of a luxury market to stay afloat? Not that I have found. Perhaps it is there, waiting to be tapped. (I speak only of the local market and not the online market).

In a small town, the cost of advertising in the local newspaper is minimal. There are free sections in the local newspaper if you need to advertise an event. Your entire community reads the “Events” section because everyone is looking for “The Next Free Thing”. Costly advertising in the Sunday Paper? Non-existent. We don’t have a Sunday Paper! Word-of-mouth advertising goes a long way in a rural community.

The Up Side: When you do a great job, you have 1 happy customer.

The Down Side: When there is a problem, the whole town knows. Everybody knows everybody. Just the other day, a client said, “You know how it is here, there are no secrets.”

Another unique benefit of being in a rural community, is being able to speak face to face with your local mayor at business networking meetings and have him be completely supportive of your endeavor. “Well, I definitely want to keep business in our community instead of giving it to the internet.” he said. Just imagine if every agent lived in that same type of community.  Yes, I am booking air only reservations and charging him a fee, which he willingly pays. 

The daily struggles of being a rural travel provider, as all rural providers know and city agents deal with every day, is doing enough marketing to let consumers know that the “cheapest” is not always the “best” price. Letting potential clients know the true value of working with an agent. In this age of the online “mega agency”, the agency with seemingly unlimited marketing funds, it is very challenging to try and dispel the myth that online is best. We all see it daily, book with “so and so” for the best deal. We know better. The client, however, sees it again and again and starts to believe it. If they see it so much on television, it must be true! This seems to be especially true in a rural community.

I suppose my challenges are the same as most. Getting the word out to the community. I have heard others say that they would starve if they counted on their own community to keep their business alive. I feel the same way but hope to make things different. When living in a community where lack of access is a problem for the residents, someone has to be willing to try something new to allow others to have opportunities that may not readily be available. Opportunities that people may not even know they want until they have the chance to take advantage of them. Travel agents have that power. The power to change peoples lives.

There are many rural clients who have never flown (my closest airport is 1 ½ hours away; the closest major airport is 2 ½ hours away), never left the state (we have no train or bus service), and some have never been out of the county (not every client has a reliable automobile). My goal as a rural agent is to be able to change some of that. I want to offer residents the ability to see a Major League Baseball Game or go to a zoo, to see the “Big City” or a spectacular display of Holiday Lights. To many, it will seem trivial. Others will say “there’s no money in it”. I believe, however, if you can make people happy when you are selling them a travel experience, they will always remember that feeling. A feeling that comes from an experience made possible by you, the travel provider.  That leads to lifetime clients.

I recently organized a motorcoach, red-eye, to New York City. I had 30 passengers on the motorcoach. There were only 5 passengers who had been to New York previously. The main comment, “I am so happy you organized this trip. I have always wanted to go to New York City and was never able to afford it. I am so excited!” The cost of the trip, $125.00 per person. The feeling you get from providing that experience, priceless.

So, the next time you get a call from a potential client who only wants to go to a ball-game or an amusement park, book their hotel and car rental and be happy that you are part of making a memory that they will cherish.

And remember, those $10.00 commission checks do add up!

  4 thoughts on “Down in the Boondocks – Operating a rural travel business

  1. Kathleen Henderson says:

    Thanks Lisa for a great article! As an agent in rural Texas, I too know the challenges a rural agent faces. For five years I have worked to build my business and many times have booked things I thought might not be worth my time. But the one call from that client thanking you for planning a trip they would never have attempted on their own and hearing of their great travel experience, makes it all worthwhile. Thank you for sharing your terrific attitude on the situation!

  2. Kasey says:

    Lisa,
    Nice article. Best wishes on your endeavors. Fulfillment is when the client returns and says, ” We had the time of our lives!” And shows you their pictures!

  3. Kevin says:

    Lisa,

    Great article! Since I have a lot of family in Elkins, WV, I know exactly what you are talking about. Also being in the travel industry, I know the challenges we face. Thanks for the insite!

  4. Rossann says:

    Great article! I owned and then worked for an agency in rural Illinois where agents convinced themselves there was no one in our area that would be interested in anything that wasn’t the cheapest price or the best deal. And the general concensus is “price is key and low price is king”! We can accept this or stand above the crowd and succees. I go for the latter.

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