You may have heard the story of the man with the hammer. A machine broke down at a manufacturing plant and a repair man was called. The managers were greatly concerned because production had ceased, resulting in delayed shipping. The repair man was an expert on this specific machine. He took out his hammer and slowly walked around, tapping the machine at certain spots. Eventually he pounded the hammer on one pully and the machine instantly started again. Everyone was thrilled!
The following week, the repair man sent an invoice for $10,000. The managers were shocked and, believing the amount unreasonable, asked for an explanation and itemization. The repair man replied, “Hammer: $10. Expertise: $9,990.”
I share this story because our expertise is often undervalued as travel specialists. How do we charge for information and what is a fair amount?
When I launched Sodha Travel in 2007, it was with not much more than a dream and $2000 – my severance check from a recent lay off. I had no investors, no host agency, and no consortia. I did have certain expertise on the Indian subcontinent, from both an academic perspective and personal interest, and an overwhelming passion for creating custom experiential itineraries. However, from business licensing to website design, it was all on me to research, create, brand, and execute.
12 years later, I have lived and learned an extraordinary journey of entrepreneurship. From the good (AFAR Special Correspondent, #2 partner in the Indian subcontinent by sales) to the bad (client complaints, mismanaged finances) to the ugly (lawsuits – though all won in my favor), owning and operating your own business goes beyond the logistics – it is an emotional commitment. Here are 10 virtues that I recommend to new travel consultants:
- Recognize Your Worth
The repair man knew what to charge for his expertise. Do you? The time you have spent researching destinations (not to mention money invested on FAM visits), site inspections, and specialized certifications all add value. Own your knowledge. Learn to be confident in your ability to communicate why its valuable.
Be cautious of the seekers: people who don’t really plan to book but keep asking you questions about accommodations, logistics, and experiences. To combat this, I launched a consultation service. For a fee, I provide information and guidance to travelers who prefer to reserve their own services. I receive compensation and the traveler receives expertise!
- Know Your Product
This is the counterpart to recognizing your worth. If you are going to be a Destination Specialist, it’s essential to understand the country. I believe that a minimum of three visits is required to claim the title of Specialist. Remember, your knowledge is just not centered around hotels and tours. A Destination Specialist creates intimate, local connections; they understand the cultural pulse. Be ready to converse with clients about regional cuisine, gratuity guidelines, medical services, currency exchange, and more.
- Invest in Yourself
Funds may be limited when launching your business. However, it is essential to invest in yourself though continuing education, certifications, and destination visits. Try to join a FAM or connect with local tourism boards, where you will often find discounted trips for travel consultants. Be savvy with your business money management and have your credit cards work for you. I can’t tell you how many trips have been fully funded by my reward or mileage points. If necessary, fund it all yourself. The investment will eventually pay off.
- Use Your Personal Life to Your Advantage
Look around and see how your lifestyle can attract new clients. My friend Stacy is an equestrian and a large portion of her business is leading horseback riding tours across South America. My friend John (a travel consultant) and his partner Gregg (a chef) successfully started a business specializing in LGBTQ culinary travel. My other friend Keri guided expeditions for 15+ years and eventually launched her own adventure company. Find your interests and use them to your advantage.
I launched my company shortly before I was married. Therefore, the years of growing my business were also the years of having children. Instead of taking time away from the office, I brought them with me on site visits and eventually formed a department that caters exclusively to family travel. Potential clients loved viewing my vlogs and blogs on family travel across South Asia, and my children had the opportunity to travel the world.
- Diversify Your Vendors
Don’t rely on one DMC or vendor in your destination. Discover their individual specialties and tailor your client files accordingly. For example, I partner with three DMC’s in India: one for luxury clients, one for adventure clients, and one for budget clients. Not every DMC is the same and you will learn which partner is the appropriate match for your clients.
- The Client is Not Always Right
Recognizing your worth also includes respecting your values. You will find clients who blame you for elements outside your control, question your motives, and who are simply difficult. It’s acceptable to have boundaries and disagree with unreasonable requests and accusations. Remain professional in the exchange, but never compromise your values to keep a client happy.
I once had a client who never read through an invoice and proceeded to lash out for a hotel change. She called me dishonest, unethical, and “the exact reason why people no longer want to work with travel agents.” In my reply, after pointing out that she had actually approved the hotel change, I made it very clear that I would not have my integrity questioned. I also emphasized that we are all on the same team and the hostile communication was unnecessary and unacceptable. She eventually calmed down and, after the trip, apologized for her actions and gave a 5* review.
- Say ‘No’
Yes, it’s really ok to turn down clients. Staying true to your specialty also means referring clients to others if the destinations are not under your umbrella. Connect with other Destination Specialists to arrange a referral fee!
- Be Mindful of Growth
Don’t be too concerned with becoming too big too fast. You won’t know everything at the start and that’s ok! Instead of rushing into significant branding or financial decisions, take the time to evaluate the cost vs. benefit. You don’t need everything right away, and the slower pace is an excellent opportunity to lay a solid foundation. In my first six months of business, I made less than $10k in sales ($1800 profit). However, I still remember my first client and that energy sustained me for weeks!
- Social Media Savvy
It may go without saying, but… be smart on social media. You don’t need to accept personal friend requests from clients. (Yes, it’s ok to ignore or decline!) I have had clients ask me, but I politely decline and send them to my business page instead.
Keep your business page informative, vibrant, and fun! No political or controversial posts. Share travel tips, destination updates, client testimonials, new products, and traveler stories. Remember that you are creating a brand. What do you want to represent?
- Don’t Take It Personally
This can be incredibly challenging since our business IS personal. However, remember that to others, business is business. What your clients say and do is a projection of their experience, and it is (often) not because of you. Something that has worked well for me through the years is to remind clients you are a team. If they seem anxious or upset, don’t become defensive. Instead, ask, “Is there something that is causing anxiety or concern? We are all working together as a team and I would like to help if I can.” This usually starts a more neutral conversation where both parties will feel respected. As my colleague humorously says, “Don’t take it personally. Unless it is a compliment.”
Allison Sodha is the President of Sodha Travel, a company specializing in custom and immersive travel to South Asia. For the past 20 years she has researched India’s socioeconomic and cultural development and penned features for Little India, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Travel Mamas, and others. She is also the Delhi Destination Expert and Special Correspondent for AFAR.