Focusing on a very narrow niche can be very successful, and Sharon Little has proven it with her strict focus on romance travel in Jamaica. We recently sat down with Sharon to ask about her business model and experiences in the travel industry.
Travel Research Online (TRO): How long have you been in the travel industry?
Sharon Little (SL): Here in the United States it has been approximately six years. Prior to that I worked in the UK for Thomas Cook for approximately 15 years.
TRO: Have you always been in the travel industry?
SL: Yes. I studied travel tourism in college. After college I got into business travel after college but switched to leisure travel pretty quickly.
TRO: Before coming to the U.S. and starting your own agency, did you have a niche that you focused on at Thomas Cook?
SL: Not particularly. Just prior to immigrating to the United States as an employee of Thomas Cook, I was booking a lot of sports travel, but it wasn’t necessarily a niche.
TRO: How did you decide on a niche once you started your own agency in the United States?
SL: When I first got to the United States in 2009, I wasn’t sure about how the travel industry worked here so I had to do some research when I arrived. I looked at sports travel, cruising, and destination weddings, and I eventually decided to settle on destination weddings and romance travel. After additional research specifically on destination weddings, I felt that Jamaica was the biggest destination that wedding groups traveled to from the United States. I decided to visit Jamaica for the fist time in 2011, and fell in love with it. That’s when I decided I would focus strictly on romance travel to Jamaica.
TRO: How has focusing on such a specific niche helped your agency?
SL: It has proven to be very successful and lucrative for my business. My agency is the number one seller of Jamaica in the world. In 2013 we were third in the world, moving up to second in 2014 and becoming number one in 2015.
TRO: What do you do to keep yourself that focused on a single country and niche?
SL: I knew when I decided to specialize that I had to be the best at it. I keep myself educated about the travel industry, about romance travel, and about Jamaica. And I keep visiting Jamaica as often as I can to nurture the relationships that I have built there.
TRO: How do you work with clients that come to you with a different destination in mind for their wedding or honeymoon?
SL: I have been very successful in changing many people over to Jamaica from the Dominican Republic or Mexico. On those rare occasions when I can’t get them to switch, I refer them to one of my independent contractors that specializes in the destination they want. I truly only focus on booking Jamaica.
TRO: You mentioned independent contractors (ICs); have you always had ICs?
SL: No. For approximately the first three years I operated pretty much on my own. For the past three years I have had ICs working with me.
TRO: Do you work through a host agency, or on your own?
SL: For the past four years I have been with Travel Planners International (TPI), but I do have some of my own contracts directly with some properties and brands in Jamaica simply due to the volume of business that I do with them. Where I don’t have a direct contract I do book through a small handful of tour operators.
TRO: Having been in the industry in two different countries, what differences have you noticed?
SL: There is more regulation in UK to become a travel agent. You don’t officially need a certification but you can’t just go to a host to start the next day. You need some training first before you are allowed to start selling, and consumers are educated to only book through certified agencies (bonded, etc.).
Also in the UK and Europe, most travel professionals are younger. Being a travel agent is known as being a glamorous and sexy job. I was surprised when I came to the United States and there was such a different demographic of agents, with many on their second or third career, or being a travel agent as a supplementary job. Also, there are not too many millennials in the industry compared to UK.
TRO: Based on your experience, what tips would you share with other travel agents?
SL: You simply cannot be all things to all people – most travel agents that are generalists seem to struggle a lot more than those agents that specialize. Find your niche, and become THE expert in it, whether it’s a brand, a destination, or a type of travel. That is what will make you stand out from the rest and be successful.
Also, it’s a continuous education. No matter how long you’ve been in the industry or what you specialize in, keep educated — in the business side as well as product side.
TRO: How do you deal with competition from big box stores or online websites?
SL: I really have no concerns about the Internet, online agencies, Costco Travel, etc. Yes, it can be frustrating at times, but it’s a perfect opportunity to demonstrate your value to potential clients. If they’re buying on price alone, it’s not a great message to promote; and I don’t believe you will be successful when hyper-price focused. I will ask clients, “You’re going to trust your most precious day to an anonymous website?!” I always educate clients about what I can do for them, that they can’t get from the Internet or Costco. Usually peace of mind wins over any minimal savings.
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.