You’d think that with a team of full-time employees, plus 52 independent contractors and 11 years of experience in the industry, Jenene Mealey could easily answer any question that comes up. But it’s lonely at the top of any organization, she says—and Travel ALLIES Society, a new support group for agency principals, gives her a level of support she never had before.
As director of outside sales at Canary Travel, a brick-and-mortar agency in Cleveland, Mealey is responsible for growing, educating and mentoring the team, as well as building relationships with suppliers and handling her own multi-million-dollar book of business. But no matter your expertise, she says, it’s just not possible to know everything a travel professional in a high-level management position needs to know these days.
Travel ALLIES was born at the Female Leaders Conference organized in January by Jennifer Doncsecz, president of VIP Vacations Inc. in Bethlehem, PA, where a group of female agency executives met to network and brainstorm. “Jennifer was on this thing about queens—how historically the strongest queens were the ones who had the strongest allies,” Mealey recalls. “And my expectations are high any time Jennifer is in charge of something. But I had no idea how fabulous this would be—not just the conference but the constant collaboration on a daily basis that followed.”
When just days later the CDC released the regulations requiring Covid testing prior to returning to the United States—upending the travel industry once again—the group’s value became especially clear. “While others were scrambling, the different resort brands called upon us. We had up-to-date information before anyone else. We compiled a list of every brand and what it required; our member portal filled with resources,” Mealey says.
Like many professional executives, travel-agency leaders are experts in product knowledge, sales techniques, and marketing. But most have no training at all in the kinds of management issues and legal complexities they face as they rise through the ranks of leadership. Talking with others in ALLIES has given Mealey insights into contracts she should have in place, interview questions she should ask, “how many desks you need in a storefront, how much business you need to justify a certain salary, how to avoid chargebacks—priceless information that would have taken me hours to find.”
And the level of trust is such that, when a sudden surge of business was more than one agent could handle, she would hand a customer—or even a destination wedding—over to another in a competing agency, confident that her clients would be well taken care of and not stolen from her, and that the favor would one day be returned.
Mealey credits ALLIES in general, and Doncsecz’s mentorship in particular, with a personal as well as a professional renewal. Her agency was growing and she was providing great education, “but under Jennifer’s influence I’ve watched a transformation in my business. Yesterday, I told our owners we were going to make some changes and they said okay without questions, because they have seen the change in me. In our industry there are so many small businesses, and we wear so many hats; but just because you are selling millions doesn’t mean you are leading anything. To be able to collaborate with people in the same role is fantastic, and to collaborate with others who are in a different role, in a different stage, is extremely beneficial as well.”
While Mealey just completed her CTIE and found the training there helpful, Travel ALLIES digs deeper. One important thing she has learned, for example, is to clearly define every role in its job description, and to fill each with the right person.
Canary Travel was one of several Travel ALLIES agencies that figured out how to survive COVID without letting anyone go and without compromising service, as owners Angie McClure and Karen Abbott moved the storefront to Cleveland’s premier lifestyle mall. Rather than the day-to-day management of the education program and ICs, Mealey now focuses on setting agency sales goals, building stronger supplier relationships, negotiating contracts, and operations.
“I don’t feel like I have to put out every fire and show up to everything,” she says. “COVID gave us time to pause and reset, and the insight and leadership training I’ve received from Travel ALLIES has contributed to an overall stronger leadership team at Canary Travel. We are better communicators and very optimistic about our future.”
Joining Up and Joining In
Julie Lanham, owner of Vacations to Remember in Evans, GA, is chair of the membership committee. “My biggest frustration has always been that anyone can wake up one day and decide they are a travel agent without training or certifications—but that’s not really the same thing as working full-time, or managing a team, or running a brick-and-mortar agency for 25+ years,” she says. “I wanted a way to separate those who do this as a profession from those who do it as a hobby. When I started my agency in 1997, I had to figure everything out for myself but, with Travel ALLIES, we are inspiring each other, educating each other, and leaning on each other for support. I wish I had this organization 10 or 20 years ago!”
Membership is no longer restricted to women, but you must manage a travel agency with a team of three or more, and be in the industry for at least five years. Lanham herself, the daughter of a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines, started in the industry as a 15-year-old stapling tickets for Diana’s Travel Service in New York. At one point she had 25 ICs, “but I don’t love being a host, so I cut back and now I have six independent agents, plus five salaried team members,” she says. “The travel industry has given me an amazing life, and I want to see it flourish.”
So far, more than 200 travel advisors have applied for membership, which costs $379 a year. Every member is carefully vetted and must be approved by a unanimous vote of the committee so that, “once you are in, you know you are part of an organization with only top-level, rock star travel professionals.”
For Sandy Anderson, meanwhile, the launch of ALLIES was perfect timing; just as she retired from running her own agency, she stepped into the role of ALLIES president. “I’m inspired by people’s stories, and what they have tried and what they have done for the common good,” she says. “How do you manage people to the next level? How do you lead? We all have our journeys, but to be a leader is a whole different thing.”
She is putting together 23 programs that include three in-person events: a ladies-only event in June, symposiums that include men and young leaders and vendor partners, and a Young Leaders Council. “I’ve been working full-time on this; it keeps me in it and connected, and I’m creating something,” she says. “Right now, it’s a great project for me personally.”
One takeaway for Anderson is that when someone on your team has an idea they believe in 100%, even if you are not sure about it, you have to just sit back and support them. “You need to be an organic leader, instead of thinking that it’s all about the business plan. You have to let it happen and trust in your team, and give them the resources they need. The number-one thing is to always have their back.”
Beyond that, working with a volunteer organization like ALLIES has taught her that, “you have to have a vision of what you are going to put out there, what’s your messaging, and how to motivate people and get them to do the work.”
She emphasizes that ALLIES is not a host or a consortium, but rather a supplement to them. “We want people who love their consortium, but just want to have conversations at a different level with different people.”
ALLIES founding member Vanessa McGovern, owner of host agency Gifted Travel Network, also regretted the fact that “there was no path for us to raise our hand and move forward, not enough seats for females at the leadership tables. I feel like, as a female-dominated industry, it’s our duty to advocate for what young female workers need. What I want is for women to bond, collaborate, and use our voice to help change the conversation.”
Like everyone with whom we spoke for this article, McGovern noted ALLIES’ remarkable “never-ending flow of resources that has been critical for navigating the uncertain waters—the endless camaraderie, the endless sharing.”
And of course, everyone credited Doncsecz with being the driving force and role model for the group. Even as she battled her own health demons, it was Doncsecz who had the vision for the Female Leaders Conference—and then to keep it going.
“When you let go of the scarcity mindset a lot of possibilities arise. Especially after the CDC requirements [for return testing], we all banded together. Almost every lady in the group is on an advisory board of one of the resort brands and, by noon the day after the CDC announcement, we knew more about what the resorts were doing than the consortia or the top operators,” she says. “During a crisis your team comes to you, and that’s a heavy burden; so I learned to really lean on the others in this group and it was empowering. We went through something very traumatic together—and we were there to pull each other up and hug each other. And that helps you carry on.”
There’s way more than hugs involved, though. There are resources on conflict resolution, hiring practices, interview questions, performance improvement plans, and onboarding policies. Following the example of P.A.T.H., she says, “we created a vetting process unlike any other organization for individual members. We are not about just collecting a membership fee and turning a blind eye. We adore ASTA, but they are not vetting their members based on a code of ethics, and many of the consortia also don’t have a code of ethics in place to prohibit poaching of agents.”
And of course, being a leader means dreaming of growth. “In five years, I can see different chapters, perhaps a chapter for host agencies. But that will all depend on how people mesh and feel safe with each other in sharing and collaborating,” she says.
Suppliers, meanwhile, also are yearning for leadership education; they cannot be members, but they can attend events and join in the conversation. The Young Leaders group, for example, will be learning about influence from a professor at Pepperdine University; “if you think of one word for leadership, it is influence—but I don’t know if people in leadership roles really know what that means. Are you transforming others around you and having an impact?”
And indeed, being a member seems to be worthwhile. Not one member closed during Covid, while in Pennsylvania alone 120 of the 150 travel stores that existed before Covid have disappeared, Doncsesz says.
In the end, she believes, “out of crisis, a lot of really interesting things can happen. Covid was a volcano and I’m hoping Travel ALLIES Society is one of the flowers that blooms out of it. I’m excited, I eat this stuff up.”
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.