What do you do when your low-paying, nonprofit job lays you off due to budget cuts? If you are Carmen Schaffer, Viva La Vida Travel, you assess your passions and end up in the travel industry. We recently caught up with Carmen and talked to her about her transition into the travel industry and what the past five years have been like for her.
Travel Research Online (TRO): What was the impetus for your entrance into the travel industry?
Carmen Shaffer (CS): I had been doing social work since I graduated college, primarily working for nonprofit organizations, but about 5 years ago I was the victim of budget cuts. I have always been intrigued by travel and other cultures. I went to France when I was 15 years old, and I also studied abroad in Costa Rica.
As a social worker I had a lot of clients that were immigrants and refugees, and that helped propel me into specializing in travel that focuses on authentic and experiential excursions. I was intrigued by their culture and felt compelled to learn more about them first-hand.
TRO: Has your focus always been geared towards education and cultural travel?
CS: No; when I first started, I worked with all-inclusive resorts because they were easy to book. But they didn’t light my fire. I still book all-inclusive resorts, but it’s not my primary focus any more.
For some clients, all-inclusive resorts are like a gateway drug. These clients may have never traveled outside of the United States before, and going to an all-inclusive is “safe”; it’s something they are comfortable with trying. But once they’ve been there, they might be more adventurous on a future trip. They might be more willing to leave the confines of the resort, and have a more culturally-rich experience.
TRO: Do you work independently or do you work with a host?
CS: I joined a host agency when I first started five years ago, and am with them still to this day.
TRO: What type of education would you advocate?
CS: For travel professionals, get to know your niche destinations and suppliers personally whenever you can. I typically travel every 4-5 months, although over the past 12 months it’s been closer to every 2-3 months. I get to know the destinations I sell intimately, and I make a point of meeting suppliers in those destinations personally. It all helps me sell the destination better, and also to better serve my clients because of the relationships that I have built.
I also make a point of throwing myself into everything that comes my way: webinars, trade shows, conferences, etc.
For clients it is a process, teaching them about all of the experiential travel opportunities out there. If we don’t educate them, they may never know what they are missing.
TRO: Although you have been in the industry a relatively short period of time, what advice would you share with others entering the travel industry today?
CS: First, take the time to really figure out what you want to do with your business. Figure out what you are passionate about and what you can offer that is unique from everyone else out there.
Also, from the beginning you have to work diligently at protecting your agency’s reputation. That means focusing on suppliers you are comfortable with selling. For example, there are a lot of all-inclusive resorts out there, and not are all created equal, but I won’t sell them all because I don’t want to associate my agency’s reputation with some of them.
TRO: Is there anything that you know now that you wish you’d known when you first entered the business 5 years ago?
CS: I wish I had a better, clearer focus on what I wanted to do with my business from the beginning. I guess we all start out booking travel in general before we really identify what lights up our passion. I just wish I had figured it out sooner.
I have also learned that collaboration is key to business success, as are personal relationships. It is important to develop and nurture those personal relationships, not just with clients, but with suppliers and other travel professionals. Networking and brainstorming with other travel professionals is invaluable!
TRO: What associations or organizations do you belong to?
TRO: Any last words?
CS: Everybody wants a unique travel experience yet some aren’t sure just what that looks like or “feels” like. Travel, in essence, is experiential in nature if it’s done correctly.
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.