It took a village to survive in the travel industry in 2021, and I am amazed by the smart and generous travel advisors who shared their stories with me throughout the year. In the final weeks of the year, I came across some amazing stories of teamwork and perseverance during the Dream Vacations/Cruise One conference.
Julie Vowell, Jodi Denney, Lisa Merutka and Barbara Linebarger, for example, have been pooling their resources since they met in 2016. They were brought together in their pj’s as a fire alarm went off in the hotel where they were staying during a training program, and have supported one another ever since.
“We started talking on a regular basis, planning together and supporting each other on business models,” says Linebarger—and soon they were river cruising together and forming “our own little consortium.” When Merutka moved to Arkansas and was feeling the stress of rebuilding her business among strangers, “they just pumped me up and told me I was awesome.” And when they travel, they tend to have three of them go together and one stay home as a backup to handle any customer emergencies that come up.
“Our backgrounds are all different; Lisa comes from military, Julie from sales, Jodi had a home business, and I was in media and business,” says Linebarger. “But it doesn’t matter where you come from in the travel business. What matters is how you present yourself and how you care for your clients.”
I met David Johnson, meanwhile, sailing his eighth cruise in the 18 months since he opened his Dream vacations franchise. After 20 years in Corporate America leading support organizations for software companies—and managing a team of 12,000 at one point—the pandemic was an opportunity to define his biggest passion and then follow it. (He’d already been to all 50 states, and 60 countries on six of the seven continents.) So he bought his franchise in July 2020; with in-person training canceled due to Covid, he completed his courses online and waited for the world to reopen. Sales were “a bit anemic at first,” he acknowledges, but now he is at 1300% over last year—thanks to the travel industry’s “support and the ecosystem and the community, which is better than my wildest dreams. In the end you are responsible for growing your franchise, but boy do I have a lot of help—and that surprised me. There’s more than enough business for everybody, so just concentrate on doing the best you can for your customers and the rest will follow.”
Former attorney Melissa Cohn, the top-selling independent contractor at Cruises Inc. for the fifth year in a row, with close to $1.5 million in sales even in 2021, got into the travel business in 2014. “I’ve always helped friends and family and even my law school professors book their vacations,” she says. “I often had to put people in jail for not paying child support—and it always made me so happy to give people happy memories instead.” Her secret to success? “I’m always available,” she says. “My clients message me on Facebook and I try to respond within an hour. I let them know they are valued and supported. And I have a very good memory, so I can say things like, ‘Oh, does your mom need a scooter?’”
A lot of business come from word of mouth and referrals, new promotions and quarterly contests, like a Virgin Voyages cruise she is giving away. Anyone who signs up is added to the mailing list for her marketing materials. “I’ve gotten a lot of clients that way,” she says.
And of course she is active in the community, a vice president of the PTA and always there to offer a prize basket for a neighborhood event. “I go to every soccer game, take my son to Hebrew school, active at the Early Childhood Center at the Dix Hill Jewish Center. It’s important to be present. And while it can be a struggle sometimes, the great thing about my job is that I can be a mom, a wife and a successful travel advisor.”
Heading into 2022, Cohn is planning a focus on past customers who haven’t traveled yet since Covid hit, with a Travel Safely Verified program to help mitigate the risks.
Linnore Gonzales, on the other hand, is what you might call a serial franchisor. After owning “multiple businesses,” she sold her last franchise, a kitchen and bath company, in 2019. But soon after, she “didn’t know what to do with herself”—and, at age 59, started thinking about a business she could run as she approached retirement age.
When she returned from a river cruise in January 2021, she immediately began researching travel franchises. By March she had signed on the dotted line.
The best thing about a travel business, beyond the beauty of the product, is the ease of entry, Gonzales says. “I didn’t really want the stress of a business tied into large overhead. This is a low-cost franchise; the start-up fee is low and you don’t need a storefront or samples to show or inventory. And you have a good quality product to sell.”
“Travel is the perfect business for when you are slowing down,” she says. “Why not do something you also have a passion for?”
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.