Many travel professionals come from a variety of walks of life, and have made travel their second career. This holds true for Tom Varghese as well. Before he opened his agency, Travel Tom, he was a Vice President for a major Wall Street corporation. We recently sat down with Tom and talked about his transition from Corporate America to travel agency owner, as well as his unique perspective on the travel industry.
Travel Research Online: How did you go from working on Wall Street to working in the travel industry?
Tom Varghese: Travel has been in my blood since my college days. Travel planning came naturally to me as I have researched and helped friends plan their trips for years. I also traveled quite a bit for my previous jobs. When I decided I wanted to start working in travel I interviewed various agencies before picking American Express Travel. I worked part-time for them for several years as an outside agent, before eventually working for them full-time. Two years ago, I got my own IATA number and opened my own agency, Travel Tom.
TRO: Do you work with a host agency now?
TV: No. I am a host to three independent contractors and we’re affiliated with Ensemble Travel.
TRO: What types of marketing do you engage in?
TV: I really don’t spend any money on marketing, really. I don’t even have a website, although I do have a Facebook page for the agency. Most of my business is from repeats and referrals.
TRO: What do you know now that you wish someone had told you when you first entered the travel industry?
TV: How important it is to build relationships with your local Business Development Managers, and how that can be a distinct disadvantage of working with a host agency that’s not in your area. When you’re with a host, the BDMs often don’t know you exist, or your personal booking volume. When you are independent and booking direct, you are visible and can build those important key relationships.
TRO: What are some important tips that you’ve learned, and would like to share with other agents?
TV: Get out and experience as many products/properties as you can. Educating yourself overall is key. You need to find your own educational opportunities, including site visits, and don’t wait for them to come to you. Investing in yourself is important; both time and money (i.e. attending FAMs, going to conferences, etc.).
TRO: You mentioned earlier that you don’t really spend money on marketing, instead focusing on repeats and referrals. How do you do that?
TV: You need to provide an extraordinary level of personalized service. You need to present a compelling story about how working with you is different than working with anyone else. If you do that, your client doesn’t want to go anywhere else, and they will naturally tell their friends about you.
It costs ten times more to bring in new clients versus retaining existing clients. For me, it just makes sense to focus on keeping the clients I have, and expanding my client base through referrals from those clients.
TRO: What do you think the keys are to success?
TV: Three things: persistence, passion, and relevance. You have to be persistent in telling everyone what you do. My doctor, dentist, etc., all book with me because I’ve told them what I do. I buy their services, so I want them to buy my service. And you have to be passionate about what you do. Your clients can tell when you are passionate, and they can definitely tell when you are not!
TRO: What tips would you share with other agents in the business?
TV: Ask for the business! You need to educate your clients about what you do and why they should book with you, and then ASK for their business. I hate selling. Instead I approach this as a consultative and education process. When you consult, educate, and tell a compelling story, they’ll be ready to work with you, if you ask.
Also, I would emphasize that there is enough business out there for all of us; we don’t need to compete with each other. The online travel agencies might be our only competition, but they can’t tell a compelling story or provide superior personalized service. We don’t need to compete with them on price when we have so much more that we can offer to our clients.
Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel located in Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations, she focuses on travel for 18 to 23-year-olds. Susan can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (888) 221-1209.