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Travel Agent Connie Riker Talks Relaunching a Business in a Changing EconomyFebruary 16, 2016 By: Ana Figueroa
“Create the Moment” is a business name for Connie Riker. But it’s also something of a personal motto.
The original Create the Moment Travel was a brick and mortar agency in Rochester, WA owned by Riker’s mom, Judy. Connie learned the ropes working at the agency in the early 1990’s.
“It was a very generalized agency that didn’t have a strong emphasis on anything in particular. We sold lots of vacations and lots of airline tickets. This was back when airlines still paid commissions,” Riker tells Travel Agent.
After her mother retired, Riker moved out of the travel business. She worked a variety of jobs for Washington State. Most of them involved program management and human resources.
At the same time, she was running her family’s horse farm.
The horses were a labor of love; a therapy of sorts for Riker’s daughter with special needs.
“My daughter connected with horses at a young age. They drew her out in a way that nothing else could,” said Riker.
Ten years ago, Riker stopped working outside the home in order to home school her daughter full time.
“I took her from not being able to read to doing so well she passed her graduation requirements,” said Riker.
With her daughter thriving, Riker realized she needed to figure out her own future. The decision took on some urgency four years ago, when she became the sole provider for the family.
“I had dogs and six horses and was pretty concerned about how I was going to feed everyone,” said Riker.
She considered going back into government service. But the idea of owning a business beckoned as well.
“I had an excellent conversation with a gentleman I trust. He asked if I pictured myself simply working in five years, or building my own business? I decided that re-establishing Create the Moment Travel was the best match for my knowledge, skills and abilities,” said Riker.
It didn’t take long for Riker to realize how much the industry had changed.
“In the beginning, I would do anything. I didn’t care where clients wanted to go. I contacted everyone I knew to tell them what I was doing. I watched bulletin boards, and really farmed for business,” said Riker.
She tried putting together all types of groups, with interests ranging from horses to golf to religious travel. It didn’t help that her area of Washington was in an economic slump.
“At one point I realized that even when the economy is down, people still get married. Most of the time they go on honeymoons. So I saw romance travel as something that would work even in bad economic times,” she said.
To get up to speed in the specialty, she began attending a number of educational seminars. She joined the DWHSA as a charter member.
“They (DWHSA) provide an amazing amount of education. I was able to update my knowledge about what couples are looking for. It was an incredibly good fit for me,” said Riker.
Meeting with a local BDM for Palace Resorts also helped tremendously.
“The rep told me, ‘I know you can do this. You can feed your family. We can work together.’ We spent time in a restaurant outlining a plan. She sent me some leads and that got me started,” said Riker.
Buoyed by the encouragement, Riker began working 20-hour days. She focused all her energy on the business. Expecting to wait three years before showing a profit, she met that goal within nine months. The second year, she tripled the business.
She worked at first with a Vacation.com host agency, Dugan’s Travels.
“Once I had some experience under my belt, I got my own IATA number and went independent. I still have an affiliation with Dugan’s, though. I book cruises through them,” said Riker.
Riker maintains an office, which she uses to meet clients by appointment. She also works at home in Tumwater, WA, where she is in the process of moving.
It’s a horse farm with more extensive facilities than her previous home. Set on ten acres, it includes an indoor arena and a jumping course.
Her daughter, now 21, does all the work related to the farm. That work includes feeding, training the horses, giving riding lessons, breeding, birthing, and veterinary care management.
“We discovered she had an incredible talent for training the horses. She trains and gives riding lessons. She took on three jobs to help pay expenses before I started getting money in. Now, we’re in good shape,” said Riker.
Her daughter will start managing social media and some of the marketing for Riker.
Riker’s mom has come back to work as an agent. And Riker has tweaked her business focus a bit. Her emphasis now is on moderate to high-end couples looking for a little bit more specialized service in their destination wedding.
One of Riker’s specialized services is the ability to officiate.
“I can legally marry someone here in Washington State. I perform the ceremony here, and then preside over a symbolic ceremony in Mexico,” said Riker.
At the moment, Mexico ⎯ primarily Cancun and the Riviera Maya ⎯ constitutes the lion’s share of her business. She intends to expand to Jamaica.
She is certified by the Gay Wedding Institute and is also certified in South Asian weddings.
“I have a few of the South Asian weddings under my belt and hope to do a lot more. I really believe that doing one medium-size South Asian wedding is like doing six other weddings. Clients require a lot more personal attention,” said Riker.
That personalized attention is key to all of Riker’s destination weddings. She tries to pay particular attention to wedding guests.
“Guests don’t get to choose the location or when they travel. They feel somewhat boxed in. I talk to them, I don’t do it only online. I develop a relationship with them and help them realize they have choices,” said Riker
Last spring, Riker was one of the “Thai the Knot” wedding specialists invited to a romance travel FAM in Thailand. A few days into the trip, Riker needed some emergency root canal work. Within a day, she was back on the whirlwind schedule, riding elephants and climbing up temples.
Working with resorts she knows personally is crucial for Riker. Last June she spent over a month in Cancun and the Riviera Maya visiting 42 different properties, meeting with management and wedding staff.
A health issue Riker describes as “a small setback” came last fall. She was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“At the time, I had three weddings coming up in Cancun, one of which I was officiating. I had a site inspection for a large Hindu wedding. I also needed to attend the Love Mexico event. I told the doctors, ‘I don’t care what you do but I have to travel in December.’ I finished the treatments in time to go. The cancer was caught very early and I didn’t need chemo or radiation,“ said Riker.
So far, 2016 is going very well.
Referrals and inquiries are coming in at a steadily growing rate. Riker is still meeting her goal of answering emails within 10 minutes or so. She may need to take on additional employees soon, though. And she continues to refine her marketing plan.
“I don’t do bridal shows, because I don’t see enough return for the investment. I’m on Wedding Wire. I’ve started to do some South Asian wedding marketing. I do some advertising with Google AdWords. I’m budgeting $2,500 this year. And I also just got an 800 number,” said Riker.
In addition to an active presence on Facebook, Riker is using Pinterest, and Instagram. She isn’t convinced it’s worth her while to become an expert in the latter two.
“I follow certain principles very carefully. There’s a business book called 'Discovering Your Strengths.’ It advises you to figure out what you’re strong in and do more of it. I’m a strong salesperson. I used to sell timeshares. I can sell air. But the book also says that whatever you’re weak in; find someone else who can do it. I try to live by that advice,” said Riker.