We recently reached out to Toni Lanotte-Day, owner of Toni Tours Inc., and spoke with her about her thirty-plus years in the travel industry, from part-time outside agent in the 1980’s to agency owner and active member of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and the National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA).
Travel Research Online (TRO): How did you first enter the travel industry?
Toni Lanotte-Day (TLD): In 1984 I took a six-week travel course with the Pan American School of Travel in Manhattan, and then became a part-time outside agent for a local family owned brick-and-mortar travel agency. That agency closed after 9/11 and I eventually joined Nexion.
TRO: When did you strike out with your own agency?
TLD: In 2005 I incorporated Toni Tours Inc. We are still associated with Nexion for cruises, airfare, etc., but I book FIT itineraries directly with my own IATA number.
TRO: When you were a part-time outside agent, what was the focus of your business?
TLD: When I first started my passion was skiing. I had organized a lot of ski trips to Vermont from New York City, and eventually I started taking 40 passenger groups on annual ski trips to Italy. I was also a paramedic with the New York City Fire Department until I retired in 2005 when I took my travel business full time. I organized group cruises for paramedics that needed to get their continuing education medical credits. I worked with an emergency doctor that led the necessary educational training on days at sea.
TRO: What is your involvement with ASTA and NACTA?
TLD: I am member of both organizations, as well as sitting on ASTA’s Board of Directors and being the Northeast Regional Director for NACTA. I am also on the advisory committee for Nexion. I am passionate about teaching travel agents how to be professional. Just one bad apple in the industry can hurt us all professionally.
TRO: What type of marketing do you use to promote your business?
TLD: A lot of my business is repeats and referrals; I use Facebook a lot. I have a business page where I post supplier information, group specials, and more. On my personal page I post my travel pictures, blog posts, etc. Facebook should be for building relationships, not for selling. You should never advertise prices, ever. In one instance I posted about group space I was holding, something along the lines of “come join me this time next year if you’d rather sip a tropical drink instead of shoveling snow.” I got 31 people in 16 rooms booked into the group space as a result.
TRO: In your business model, do you charge fees?
TLD: Yes. I charge fees for booking airfare, as well as for hotel-only, rail-only, and things of that nature. I also charge fees for extensive itinerary planning for FIT trips. Travel agents need to seriously evaluate the value of their time. Personally, I think travel agents should make at least $50 an hour, either by charging fees or focusing on products that meet your financial needs. We should not be afraid to turn away business that takes your time away from high paying customers.
TRO: Based on your experience in the travel industry, what tips would you share with other travel agents?
TLD: Don’t underestimate the value of the people that you already know – not necessarily family or friends – but the broader group of people in your network. An example I gave earlier was the continuing education cruises I organized for fellow paramedics.
I would also suggest tapping into your passion and be the expert. When I first got into travel I had a passion for ski trips, became an expert, and successfully focused on that as a specialty. There is too much to learn about everything. Travel agents should narrow their focus, and focus on that education to start.
TRO: What would you recommend specifically for new agents just entering into the industry?
TLD: When first entering the travel industry, new agents should work with someone like a host agency or seasoned mentor for the first couple of years. Have someone that you can go to for support and knowledge. Also, they should consider affiliating with an association like NACTA or ASTA so that they can keep up with what’s going on in the industry, and have access to conferences and networking opportunities.
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 email@example.com or by phone at (888) 221-1209.