I was honored and humbled recently when my agency, Montrose Travel, selected me to be the subject of this month’s Agent Spotlight on their agent website. Below is the full interview:
I’ve always loved traveling, geography, learning about different cultures, and world history. I think that the most pivotal moment in my life was after I graduated college and backpacked across Europe for three months, Eurail Pass in hand. My former career in TV production allowed me to take frequent trips around the world whenever I was “on hiatus” – what we called it when we were between jobs. However, after almost 20 years, I decided that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in that industry any longer. A few years ago I started a travel blog just for fun, and in time, a lot of people were turning to me as an authority on travel. I was giving out lots of “free” advice (which I enjoyed doing) but I thought maybe there was a way to capitalize on it and make some extra money, too.
- What attracted you to Montrose Travel as your host?
About a year after I started my blog I decided to take some online and weekend travel-industry classes at the local community college (West Los Angeles College). One day, we took a field trip to Montrose Travel where Andi [Mysza, the president of the home-based agent division of Montrose Travel] gave a terrific presentation about host agencies and why Montrose is one of the industry leaders. Everything she said made perfect sense so I thought I’d take the plunge.
- Were you with another host prior to joining us? If so, what was your experience there?
No, Montrose was actually the first host agency I even heard of. After Andi’s presentation, I went home and did a little research and I think I signed up the next day.
- Tell us about your business – current volume, leisure/corporate/group mix.
I’d say I’m about 95% leisure and about 5% corporate. I still do some bookings for the TV/film industry from time to time, when my contacts have international shoots and need flights or hotels. I’d like to get into groups, but haven’t really focused on them yet. My business has been growing exponentially year after year, and after the “how to be a million-dollar selling agent” workshop at last year’s conference, I’ve set some lofty goals for myself!
- Do you have a specialty? If so, please tell us about it.
I started out doing mostly FITs [custom-made, fully independent trips] to Europe since that’s the region I was most familiar with, but over time I’ve had clients want to travel to pretty much every corner of the globe. I sell a fair share of Mexico, the Caribbean, the Pacific and Australia too. This year I’ve sold a handful of exotic destinations – India, Indonesia, Brazil, Morocco, and I have a Cuba trip booked for this fall, too.
- How did you build your client list when you first started? Did you capitalize on people you already knew?
Like most people, when I started out my clients were exclusively friends and family. In time, it’s built up to be mostly referrals and repeat business. I don’t get random calls from people who don’t somehow have a connection to me. When I first started my business, I sent out an announcement letter to everyone I knew and then when I switched to full-time, I sent another one out. In addition to my regular marketing, I plan on doing this annually to remind people of what I do and to give them an update on my latest certifications, where I’ve traveled to that year, etc.
- Why do your clients love you?
I think my clients love me because of the level of service and attention I give them. I treat everyone like they’re my #1 client, no matter how big or small their trip is. I respond to everyone in a very timely manner and I’m available at almost any time.
- How do you differentiate your business from other agencies?
Mostly I try to differentiate myself from OTAs [online travel agencies] so people know the value of working with me as opposed to booking on their own with Expedia, Travelocity, etc. I do my best to show that I’m there for them from beginning to end and and am happy to help every step of the way. I also let them know that I have first-hand knowledge of many destinations and have many experienced colleagues who can help out as well. I remind my clients that if anything goes wrong, I can solve problems much better and faster than a random person at an 800 number and oftentimes I can get them special amenities that they otherwise wouldn’t get if they booked at Costco or with one of the OTAs.
- What was your first year like?
I was basically moonlighting for the first couple of years since I already had a successful day job with very long hours. During this time I was mostly just trying to build my client base, create my brand, and educate myself about the various suppliers and destinations. I think it’s important to lay the groundwork in order to build a profitable business.
- What’s on your list of “must do’s” for new agents?
It is imperative that you educate yourself. Do all of the Montrose training, take the certification programs by the various cruise lines, attend the webinars that our suppliers put on, etc. If you think you are going to sell a particular region, become a destination specialist. You need to know what you’re talking about when clients come to you since you are supposed to be the travel expert.
- What were your sales expectations for your first year? Did you achieve them? If so, how/why?
I don’t think I actually set sales expectations that first year since being a travel agent was sort of a side job that I did for fun and any money I earned was a bonus to my regular salary. In time I realized that selling travel was much more rewarding so I started to think of ways to make it a new career for myself. Once I made this my full-time job, I have definitely put goals in place for where I want to be this year, next year, and beyond.
- What training has been the most valuable for you? What training would you recommend to others? Why?
In the beginning, all of the Montrose Jump Start webinars were very important to learn the basics of how to operate my business. I definitely recommend that all new agents take part in them once (or even twice) before they attempt to start selling too much. After that, every week try to do some of the webinars that various suppliers and DMOs [destination marketing organizations] offer so you can learn about destinations, properties, current promotions, etc. Also, I highly recommend going to the Montrose educational conference, especially for new agents. Besides what you’ll learn in the workshops, getting to know our BDMs [business development managers] and networking with other agents is priceless.
- What’s your most effective marketing? How important is marketing to your success?
Marketing is probably the most important thing you can do to build your business. For me, I try my best to be “top of mind” to everyone I know so that when they think of traveling, they think of me and my brand. I am pretty active with social media; I primarily use Facebook (I have a personal page and a business page) and Instagram, but I am on Twitter and LinkedIn as well. I am constantly posting travel-related news and whatever sales and promotions our suppliers are currently offering. When I travel, I post lots of photos to share where I’ve been. I also take part in the Ensemble marketing program so everyone in my client base gets targeted emails and direct mail frequently throughout the year.
- What’s your best source for new clients?
Now it is close to 100% referrals, but my Facebook posts generate a lot of leads too. People always think I’m traveling to some exotic place, which inspires them to travel too. Of course, my goal is to be the one who books their dream vacation.
- Do you have a good prospect/client list and are you using it for marketing purposes?
I have a few hundred people in Client Base and am continually adding people to the list. It’s important to code everyone’s demographics and psychographics, add birthdays, anniversaries, etc. I’ve had very few opt-outs (probably only 5 a year, if that) so it appears that most people like receiving the mailings. If they’re coded properly, people only get emails for things that are suited to them.
- How have you grown your business & generated client referrals?
I think my business has grown organically over time mostly since I treat it as a career now and not a hobby. I work regular hours and have a home office without distractions. If I’m not putting together a proposal for a client, I’m doing training or marketing. I think I get referrals by providing exceptional service to my clients and most importantly, asking for them when they return from their trips. At first I was shy about it, but it’s amazing how just asking people to refer me to their friends and family actually works!
- How much of your business is repeat?
I have a core group of repeat clients who travel more than once a year and they come back to me every time. A lot of people only travel every couple of years so I try to reach out to them from time to time to see if they’re in need of a getaway. My goal is to make their trip so memorable that they wouldn’t think of looking anywhere else when they’re ready to travel again.
- Any secrets to your success that you’d like to share with others?
I think you just need to be patient and diligent and learn from your mistakes. It takes time to start seeing money. Know your stuff. Get out there and travel, whether it’s on your own for a vacation or as part of a FAM [familiarization] trip. And when you’re out on your own – set up a couple of site inspections at nearby hotels/resorts. Properties love showing you around and when you get home you can drum up business by posting photos of your tours on Facebook.
- If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you do and not do with your business, decisions you made, etc.?
I don’t think I’d do much differently. I should have started the CLIA [Cruise Line International Association] training sooner since so many of the bookings I made didn’t count for anything. I also would have made use of “plan to go” or consulting fees earlier on to help weed out clients who were going to waste my time. However, I think when you’re starting out it’s a balancing act – you can’t turn away clients asking you to plan trips that won’t earn you much money because you’re trying to build your business and they might come back and book a better trip with you in the future. I tell myself it took almost 20 years in the entertainment industry to get where I was when I left it so being a huge success as a travel agent won’t happen overnight.
And there you have it! I’d love to help plan your next big vacation too. You can reach me by clicking the “Contact” tab at the top of this page. I also welcome any questions about the travel industry, too. Thanks for taking the time to read my interview!