It’s a new year; it’s a new world; it’s a new job altogether for travel advisors in January 2021. And as always, while the world waits for travel to come back, travel advisors are adapting to the new reality.
While a lucky few are proceeding with business as usual, most are on the hunt for alternatives to the tried and true. They are working with new partners. Teaching and mentoring. Taking on new positions. Finding new niches and new destinations to sell. And, even just plain retiring to the ranch.
What can you do, after all, when you have a $16 million business and 33 employees—and then your niche disappears overnight? That’s what happened to Suri Pillai, a Canadian travel advisor who specialized in coach tours and river cruises in Europe. Until Covid hit.
His answer? Go where the business is. “I’ve wanted to do destination weddings in the Caribbean for a couple of years, but never got around to it,” Pillai says. “So now I have the time, and the resort companies in Mexico and the Dominican Republic and Jamaica told me this piece of business really has never stopped. So I said ‘OK, I’m on the right track.’”
Pillai launched his new business, wedindestination.com, online, and advertised on Google. So far, he has booked 10 groups in the range of 600 passengers total, mainly to Cancun and Jamaica, and hired a company that specializes in this market to handle fulfillment for him.
“We could have had more, but I’m starting on a very small scale,” he says.
Typically, Pillai notes, destination wedding companies generate business by going to bridal shows—”but I’m an online player; that’s how I grew my coach business. It’s not cheap, but this is an opportunity.”
In February, he will expand into the US market and, once the destination business is set up, expand into cruises, where he will partner with another agency to handle the fulfillment.
“The future for river cruise and coach tours will be enormous, but those opportunities will be in 2022,” he says, and by then he will be ready. “I am optimistic about the future.”
In Chicago, meanwhile, Susie Chau is counting not on the Internet but on a new human partner, a financial planner, to bring in new customers. And she didn’t have to do anything at all to find him. He found her.
With a background in corporate management consulting, Chau took several sabbaticals to avoid burnout—and then started Carpe Diem Traveler to help stressed-out professionals take meaningful and restorative vacations and sabbaticals. The financial planner, Jake Northrup, has a specialty in helping people who don’t want to defer their dreams until retirement. Their shared interest in sabbatical travel brought them together over sabbatical-related posts on LinkedIn, where her comments caught his eye.
“We were working on the same demographics and have the same goals in mind,” she says.
Now Northrup will be offering Chau’s services to his customers and paying her directly for her travel consulting services. “It’s an amazing fit because the people he attracts enjoy travel and want to make that part of their financial plan,” she says. “We hammered out the details of an annual service we will be partnering on, offering a tiered service that goes from a 60-minute consultation to a full Wanderlist long-term travel portfolio that includes trip planning.”
Making the Most of What You’ve Got
For some, new business models have taken root from the negative effects of the coronavirus itself.
Jessica and Shane Gray, for example, are Covid-19 long-haulers. Shane has no recollection at all of six full days back in March, during which Jessica feared she would lose him to the virus several times. Seven months later, they were recuperating in Mexico when they felt the call to share their travel experience and invite other long-haulers to share a therapeutic retreat a Secrets Akumal in Riviera Maya in 2021.
Where before groups were about half of the business of their Dream Vacations franchise in Battle Creek, MI, now they are focusing on them.
“First we were looking at just Covid long-haulers like ourselves, and then we thought, we are all long-haulers. So we decided to open it up to anyone,” Jessica says.
In Hernando, MS, meanwhile, Randy and Jane Burkhardt are reopening their brick-and-mortar office to address the ongoing need of their small community. “We have been in the same location for 24 years, until we were forced to close by the State of Mississippi when the pandemic hit. We had a soft opening about a month ago, and clients have gradually started coming back; so, we made the decision to open up again on a daily basis,” he says.
The area of North Mississippi where the Burkhardts live is extremely conservative, and many clients still prefer to pay with check and cash. “That just doesn’t work over the internet, and clients won’t hand over cash and checks in a coffee shop, either,” he says.
And in New Hampshire, Dillon Guyer of Guyer Travel International is focusing on a new destination that’s offering once-in-a-lifetime trips at rock-bottom prices due to the coronavirus. So far, highlighting the Maldives (where “$20,000 packages are selling for $10k or less”) to his bucket-list clients and Facebook followers has brought in $120,000 in sales—much of it from a client base that usually spends much less.
“My favorite deal is a family of four, two water villas, all inclusive, whale shark tour, shipwreck tour, private seaplane, nine nights with flights, $9500. People who’ve never spent more than $2,000 on a trip with me are spending $8,000 on FIT packages that include water villas, whale sharks, etc.,” he says.
Cheryl Weldon, on the other hand, was giving up on trying to keep her agency afloat—and ended up with a new career.
A former head of multinational accounts at Worldspan and then a consultant, she caught the bug and opened her own agency in Marietta, GA.
“It was an interesting learning experience, for someone who’d been on the supplier side and supposedly knew everything about retail travel agencies, to get into the real world of what owning an agency was about,” she says. She signed up with VWT to be her host, and eventually also took on an official role mentoring new agents in their training program.
Her agency was “on track to have our best year ever in 2019, it was fabulous” But when covid hit, “I said okay, this is not going to get pretty quickly.”
When she approached VWT about selling outright, they countered with a different idea: a new full-time position training new-to-the-industry advisors, mostly more senior people looking for a career change, just as she was.
“I recall my own experience, how I was just so unrealistic about what it takes to run a travel agency, how the back office just eats you alive and gets your focus off strategy. I could not believe how much I had to learn and how I made such sweeping assumptions. It was a very humbling experience,” she says.
The training program she is developing and leading includes six months of training and six months of mentoring. Agency owners produce a business plan that touches on how they will get their name out and position themselves, their value proposition, and what they bring to the table.
At Fun and Leisure Travels in Duluth, MN, meanwhile, Nicole Schaub on January 31 also rolled out a new side business in training new travel advisors in “all the things I wish I had known when I started,” playing off her expertise and training in business and accounting. While the curriculum may include some virtual events, it will be mainly pre-recorded videos available on Teachable. Priced at $997, the course already has two students enrolled from a Facebook ad Schaub is running to promote it. She is listed on Teachable and Premier Travel Agent.
As travel tanked in the spring, Adam Ballard and Kelly English went hiking together to brainstorm ideas to save their agency, Explore California Travel—and came up with the idea of selling detailed and customized hiking itineraries in the Bay Area. “We think it serves a need to go outside and get some fresh air for their physical and emotional health—but it also serves their travel need, and that’s just as important,” Ballard says.
As for any trip a travel advisor might sell, customers of their new HikeFix business tell them what they like to do, how they like to do it, and whether they hike with dogs or kids or elderly parents. The company builds an itinerary that includes maps to follow, as well as things to do nearby—from boutique coffee shops that serve great cappuccino to geologic formations and beer gardens. Four itineraries cost $24.99.
While hikefix.com’s customers now are locals in the Bay Area, they hope to sell to tourists, to add daytrips to Yosemite or Wine Country—and perhaps even to market through partnerships with other travel advisors when travel returns.
Meanwhile, Jamie Jones, long an advocate of charging professional fees, is celebrating her agency’s 35th anniversary with an annual membership program for a select group of clients.
In a Covid world with fewer customers, “we’re focusing on quality over quantity; we want more from the ones we have. We have to be compensated for what we do. And for clients where we do a lot, it’s actually easier when there’s just one fee.”
If a good client is headed to New York for the weekend, for example, they are not likely to call a travel advisor and pay a fee, “and we are missing out on being able to create more memorable experiences. But an annual program lets them know we’re working on their behalf for the year.”
Time to Retire… Sort of
Sandy Anderson, though, is hanging up her saddle and heading for her ranch in Montana.
She sold her agency, Riverdale Travel, in 2018 and stayed on as president—but “now that there is a vaccine, and I can see financially how we can keep our team together,” it’s time to let go.
Looking back, she says, “my life is full because of my agency,” which she started with her mom when she was just 23.
“We liked to travel and we thought it would be fun—so we each put in $10,000. I think I got a good return on my investment,” she says. “When your own your own business, it takes so many hours—but what a joy it was to do it with my mom.”
Anderson credits her mom’s insistence on “saving so we would always be in control of our own destiny” with helping her survive the pandemic; “we owned almost everything and with the help of PPP were able to keep everyone.”
For the next year, she will be giving back through the new ALLIES Travel Society and Female Leaders Conclave, mentoring other women leaders in the industry. And while she is done with the 9-to-5 of it, travel will always be part of her life.
“I’m open to other opportunities,” she says. Because pandemic or not, once you are bitten by the travel bug, there really is no vaccine.
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.