My journey into travel is a little ironic as I had a near-death incident in a plane back in the early 90s while traveling to Spain. Fast forward to 2002, I had to overcome my fear of flying, and fly to Cambodia to adopt our youngest daughter. When I was there, I had an epiphany that if I had not overcome my fear of flying I would have never seen my daughter’s birth country. And at that time, I fell in love with….TRAVEL!
In 2006, I began working for a startup host travel agency, KHM Travel Group, in their training department. At the time, this host agency was very small and their office was actually in their home. I grew with them over the years, and today they have over 4,000 travel agents. Over the eight years that I worked there as the national training director, I learned the ins and outs of everything travel. My job was basically to train travel agents on how to grow their own travel agency. The most common question I would receive from agents was, “Is this really a six figure business?” And although I was never a travel agent, I knew what it would take to be successful.
There is a saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. It was frustrating to see so many agents be given all the tools to succeed, but many would not implement these tools or be willing to work hard to achieve success. Why get in this business if you are not prepared to work? Eventually, I resigned from KHM and opened my own travel agency, Red Travel, because I believed this was a lucrative career.
My first year in travel sales was hard, and I only booked about $150,000 in travel sales. But I kept plugging away, and today, six years later, Red Travel is a multi-million-dollar travel agency with a storefront office, two staffed travel agents and five outside agents.
I get asked all the time for advice from many of my travel agent friends. And I share with them my “dos and don’ts” in building a successful travel agent business, which I would like to share with all of you.
Not to start out negative, but quite frankly, one has to address what they should not do to avoid the trap that many agents fall into and cannot overcome.
- Don’t get into the business because you like to travel. Yes, you will have the opportunity to travel. But it won’t take the travel suppliers long to determine if you are serious about making travel your career. The invitations to visit destinations and resorts will eventually stop. This business isn’t for everyone. It is a lot of hard work, education and training. You need to be willing to put in the time and effort.
- Don’t get into this business because you think you can sell to family, co-workers and close friends. It doesn’t take long to determine that friends and family will actually be your worst clients. They are the ones who will think this is your hobby and not your career. Of course, if it is your hobby, you are not going to make much money anyway, and it will be very difficult to build a brand (we will talk about that later). Friends and family also have a perception that they will somehow get free or seriously discounted travel. And if you give away these discounts, you won’t make any money.
- Don’t think you are going to make money right away! Sure you may book a trip or two here and there, but the big money will come year two and three if you are working your travel as a business and working it full time!
- Don’t try to be something you’re not. The first year or two, you are in “training,” learning to be a travel agent. Being a travel advisor is all-encompassing, and it takes time to learn the industry, the travel products, the options and specializations. Learning what it takes to manage a trip from the planning stages until they arrive safely home takes time. Think of it as you are in travel school. When you finish travel school, make the big announcement!
- Don’t get in over your head. In other words, taking on a group or a destination wedding before you really learn the business is like diving in the deep end with no water. You will crash and burn. You will get overwhelmed and discouraged, and most likely at the end of the day, it will not be in your client’s best interest. You can also open yourself up to liability as well.
- The most important element in your growth will come down to BRANDING. Branding is so much more than a name and logo. Branding is the foundation on how you grow your agency. I believe your branding can make or break you. Branding should also include your core values. And sharing your agency’s core values should roll off your tongue like you live, eat and breathe your brand. I could talk for an hour on branding because it is so involved. My recommendation would be to consult with someone that has succeeded in branding themselves and learn more about the power of branding!
- Invest in yourself. If you want this to be a six-figure income career for you, then you need to invest in yourself. This may include things like education, FAM trips, marketing, websites, associated costs to branding, a CRM or a travel agent portal to manage your business. Many host agencies will even provide some of these tools for you. Remember, “you need to spend money to make money.” A turning point for me was when I opened the travel office. This was my opportunity to show clients that this is what I do all day every day. And I am a professional and an expert in my field.
- If you want a six-figure business, you need to embrace social media. Sorry folks, it is a fact! Social media is not going away, and it is the number one tool travelers use to gain information about travel. If you are not good at social media, take a class, watch how-to videos, hire an intern to help you, etc. Social media is here to stay and it is a great way to showcase your brand through Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Once I stopped looking at social media as “social,” but more as a tool to grow my business, my online presence grew! Today we achieve more than 50% of our clientele through these social networks.
- NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK. Some of my best clients have resulted through face-to-face networking. Face-to-face networking is a way to build relationships that will turn into business for you. It only took me about a year of belonging to a good networking group, BNI, that I became so busy I could open up a storefront travel office. For many travel agents, though, it can be one of the hardest things to overcome. Walking into a room, making conversation with strangers, getting up and talking about what you do, can be difficult for many people, but the good news is it can be very easy to overcome. I highly recommend reading the book “The Uncanny Power of the Networking Pencil” by Bob Arnold. It is an easy read that offers some great tools to overcome this fear.
- Work smart…not hard! The best way to do this is to get away from “booking everything.” It is okay to say no or to walk away from the type of travel that does not earn much commission. Stay focused with the travel products or specializations that earn the high commission. Keep in mind, as an average, your commission will be approximately 10% of the sale price. For example, if you book a $3,000 trip, you should earn no less than $300. If you book a trip for $10,000, your average commission should be no less than $1,000. However, set goals to increase your average commission to 11, 12, even 15%. Planning fees and the “increase commission” options will help you get there. And working smart by booking the high-commission products will also help get you there. Remember, your time is valuable. You are educated, trained, knowledgeable and an invaluable resource for your clients. You deserve to be compensated accordingly.
In summary, travel is such a rewarding career as we get to help families create memories to last a lifetime. What a great feeling it is when you contact your clients after travel and they are thanking you over and over again for all the guidance. So, travel advisors, this is a six-figure business if you are willing to work hard and invest the time into building your presence in the travel industry. Learn, brand yourself and network, and before you know it, you will be there.