Lissa Caltrider was in the middle of planning a scuba trip to Costa Rica and a weekend in Santa Monica—and thinking, “Boy, I wish I could make money doing this!”—when the Instagram ad from Fora popped up. And suddenly, it seemed, there was an easy and inexpensive way to make that happen.
“I’ve always loved traveling, and I was down the rabbit hole doing all the research when I saw the ad,” Caltrider says. “It seemed like a no-risk opportunity; it seemed too good to be true. But I have a business background, and I did a lot of research. I read up on MLMs and knew I didn’t want that. So I signed up with Fora. I did the onboarding and got an IATA number. And then I first really started to learn about this business.”
That’s a story Fora cofounder Henley Vazquez has heard many times since starting Fora with two partners in 2021. After more than 15 years as a travel advisor, she closed her Virtuoso agency during the pandemic and spent lots of time thinking about the changing nature of the travel distribution channel.
While the industry traditionally didn’t encourage new travel advisors or part-timers working from home, independent contractors suddenly were in vogue. “We looked at the shift, how people are working freelance and want something a little more passion-driven. And we asked, what will the industry look like over the next 40 years and how do we incorporate technology and new faces in a way that’s scalable? So we sunk deep into thoughts about what we can do to train people who have a passion but not really a background.”
Unlike most hosts and training programs, the three started by raising money, closing a Seed-round for $5 million in 2021, and a Series A round this last summer for $13.5 million more. They focused first on building two sites for advisors. One is a website optimized for SEO, where every advisor has a profile with content creation tools. And the other is a separate portal with a personalized dashboard, where they can see all their bookings and track their commissions, as well as find customizable marketing assets.
Next, they understood that a company built on new advisors needs to offer lots of training. Every new advisor enters a month-long certification program that focuses on the fundamentals of being an advisor. Then, they can enter our advanced training program (which is 60 days) and focus on taking your business to the next level. Both are a combination of live and asynchronous training. In addition to the cohort training programs, we also have weekly destination & supplier training sessions.
“We think group learning is the right way to go. You need to be in a group, and in a live app where you can chat with each other about everything from the best DMCs to great restaurants in Paris,” Vazquez says. Each cohort has its own chat room, where “rising tides lift all boats. We do not withhold information or look down on anyone; we are here to support each other.”
Already there are about 400 active advisors, plus others in training. Only 3% have ever sold travel before, Vazquez acknowledges: “I realize this is an unpopular thing to say but, I believe with our training and support, we can help people quickly find jobs in the travel industry. It’s not about unleashing untrained people; it’s about watching people bloom into incredible agents.”
The first tiny group of three, clients of Vazquez, started in October 2021. “One was in marketing, one in politics, and both had been home with kids. They were done Zoom-schooling and eager to get back to work. So I said, ‘You know so much about travel, why don’t I teach you this job?’”
Indeed, like many agencies with independent contractors, Fora makes it hard to fail. There is a quarterly fee of $149 (currently discounted to $49) to make sure everyone has some skin in the game. But there are no sales minimums to be active. “If you want to sell $120,000 a year or a million—and some do sell a million—there’s a place for you here,” Vazquez says. “We want to create a home for people who are not ready to quit their jobs.”
Still, she notes, “it’s not a community for people who want to talk about travel, it’s for people who want to sell travel.”
The model appears to be working for many would-be travel advisors. Caltrider, for example, is starting relatively slowly. With four kids at home, fam trips are out of the question for now. But she is tackling the steep learning curve for travel advisors with the help of her cohort and the always-accessible headquarters team, she says.
But what started as a side hustle in April turned into full-time in August. “It’s been life-changing for me,” she says. Already in the advanced cohort, she is learning how to define her target audience, hone her sales pitch, understand seasonalities in booking, and define her business goals. She’s been on site visits to hotels around Baltimore and already has met her first goal, which was to sell $120K by April 2023.
What surprised her most about being a travel advisor? “How much time it takes to plan a quick trip,” she says.
But things are going “way better than what I expected,” she adds. “I did not anticipate the community aspect and the help I got from other people.”
Right now she is working on two trips that came through referrals, a hunting trip to Argentina and a 60th birthday safari for a family of 4, plus a couple going.
Copenhagen that came through the website, a scuba trip to Costa Rica, a couple of Viking cruises, and a Croatia cruise.
But she already has come to realize that “if you want to support yourself in this job, you have to figure out quickly how to sell to groups and wealthy travelers.” Her first meeting with a client taking a dozen people to Korea and Japan already is scheduled.
Shooting for $100 million
While Vazquez would not share an exact total sales figure for Fora, she said the goal is to surpass $100 million. “Without volume, you don’t have access to suppliers. To change the industry you have to be ambitious, and we are,” she says.
“But it’s not about being the biggest seller; it’s about having advisors who make commissions and are well trained. When we talk about numbers, it’s not so we have bragging rights. It’s so we have great jobs.”
Vazquez says Fora has booked 12,000 trips and is “in most preferred partner program, including Belmond, Dorchester and Four Seasons, and is a member of Virtuoso. These are bookings that otherwise would have gone to OTAs; we put them in the hands of humans. We really think it’s a win-win-win for clients, advisors, and suppliers.”
The new advanced training program, which began in January, includes figuring out your target client, working with suppliers, quality control, and how to truly build your business. Every advisor in the program must build a portfolio of bookings with reviews from clients, written site tour reports of hotels and examples of their social media, which the executive team will review before they graduate.
Editor’s Note: This article was edited after publication to correct information regarding Fora.
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.