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Building the Perfect AgentMarch 17, 2011 By: Meagan Drillinger Travel Agent
Brownell Travel’s unique mentoring program pays off.
The issue is no longer whether or not the travel agent is a dying breed. We have all welcomed the mantra, “you can’t call an online travel agent when there is a problem.” What has become the issue now is bringing fresh faces into the business and training them to deliver the highest standards in selling luxury travel. Enter Brownell Travel, a member of Virtuoso.
Brownell Travel has started its own Mentoring Program, designed to find new professional talent and recruit it into the industry. We spoke with Troy Haas, CEO of Brownell, as well as Hasley Smith, director of marketing, and Rebecca Willson, senior advisor, hosting programs, and godmother to the mentoring program.
“We started the program because we saw that there was no fresh talent in the industry, and hadn’t been for years,” Haas tells Travel Agent. After discussions within the company, it was decided that Brownell would extend a branch from its already existing and successful Hosting Program and create a program for new candidates. “Rebecca jumped on it. She came back with a plan designed to find people with a passion for travel, with an understanding of how to build a business and who could commit themselves to building one,” adds Haas.
“Like many things in life, this business came from a frustration,” says Willson. “I would be frustrated because sometimes I saw people with great potential, but they had no industry experience and I thought, ‘If only I had a way to train them.’” It was from this that the Brownell Mentoring Program was born.
The program follows a 12-month curriculum. Upon acceptance, the new mentees visit Birmingham and spend two to four days going over the Brownell handbook—learning about the company, the culture and the rules of the road. We were told that the Brownell handbook is at least 2.5 to 3 inches thick. “If these independent contractors use that handbook, they almost can’t make a mistake,” says Willson. From there, prospective agents head home to begin the nitty-gritty work.
This involves monthly conference calls, monthly homework assignments on the industry, putting together a one-year marketing plan, vendor trainings and more.
“We cherry-pick what we think it takes to run a successful business. Mentees have to do monthly homework, web classes, vendor training, etc.,” says Willson. “We want students to learn the industry and we teach them Basic Business 101. Mentees attend travel marts and meet all preferred suppliers. They come to the Brownell annual company meeting as well.”
With such an intense curriculum, Brownell is highly selective in choosing who would be the best fit for the program. Willson tells us that last year she received over 200 inquiries and only accepted four. With odds like that, passion for travel has to run through your veins.
“Most in the program have been planning their own travel for years and are generally well-connected. They are already involved in a community of likely clients and most of them have very expensive travel histories,” says Willson. While Brownell looks for a maturity in understanding what it takes to create a business, previous business experience is not required. For example, one graduate spent time as a minister before signing up for the program. “He had a determination that I could hear in his voice,” Willson says. It’s all about the gut feeling for her—does this person have “it”?
The exclusivity of the selection process has certainly paid off. The program currently has 10 graduates, all of whom are averaging over $800,000 in sales annually, according to Haas.
One of the many benefits of the program is becoming part of the Brownell family of advisors. All agents who complete the program are independent contractors, but they acquire access to all of Brownell’s resources and preferred suppliers.
David Ourisman, a 2007 graduate of the Mentoring Program, recalls: “After doing some research, I found Virtuoso and that led me to Brownell, which was the only agency with a mentor program.
This was a terrific opportunity. The great appeal of the program for me was that it provided an opportunity for someone with desire and talent but very little experience to get started.” Ourisman displayed the drive that Willson was looking for and was ushered into the program.
For Ourisman, a key part of the training was the monthly conference calls. These always included an industry executive who would provide leadership on each call. “I remember we had sessions on cruises, hotels, travel insurance, putting together FITs, etc. If I had not had this mentoring program, I probably would have just gotten up to a certain level in the industry and then been stuck on a plateau.”
It was through the program that Ourisman discovered his passion for hotels and he has now been deemed a hotel specialist. “Eighty percent of my sales are straight hotel bookings,” he says. His first big booking was for a family that wanted five rooms for six nights at One&Only Ocean Club in the Bahamas—a $27,000 booking. “It was the Virtuoso value-added amenities that made it possible to sell, and it is the name Brownell that gives me access to Virtuoso,” he says. Willson tells Travel Agent that last year Ourisman brought close to $2 million in sales.
“It’s really an honor to be accepted into this very competitive program,” she adds. “Mentees strive to finish successfully. They are not order takers and they are growing their businesses unbelievably.”