Carmen Schaffer doesn’t like to be compared to other agents. That’s understandable. She’s passionate about the power of travel to transform lives. The problem is, it keeps transforming hers. And that can get in the way of a healthy balance sheet.
“I have more of an unconventional approach to how I do things,” Schaffer tells Travel Agent.
After a group trip to Peru, Schaffer form a charity to help a family she met there. She’s befriended small inn owners in the Magic Towns of Mexico; Nicaraguan women promoting educational homestays and Costa Rican surfers who own tent camps on the beach.
Schaffer’s unconventional approach has roots in her college years.
Raised in North Dakota, she studied social work at Minnesota State University Moorhead. During her senior year, Schaffer studied Spanish in Costa Rica, living and traveling with a family. After graduation, she spent years in social work in in North Dakota, Minnesota and Arizona.
One common denominator was that she always worked with Latino families.
“I worked in schools as a case manager. I taught English at a refugee school in Minneapolis. I met migrant families from places like El Salvador. I’d do home visits and make an immediate connection. I wanted to know more about where they came from. I’m from North Dakota. Hearing their stories always fueled a passion in me,” said Schaffer.
In 1998, Schaffer moved to Minnesota. Five years ago, she found herself laid off from a nonprofit. At the same time, she was in contact with a friend who had started a successful travel business.
Feeling burned out by her own career path, Schaffer decided to follow suit. She launched Viva La Vida Travel in Lakeville, Minnesota.
“The name ‘Viva la Vida” is based on the life and artwork of Frida Kahlo. She’s always been an inspiration to me in my life and career,” said Schaffer.
She now goes by the title of Travel Ambassador. Her host agency is Travel Quest in Albertville, MN, an affiliate of Travel Leaders Franchise Group.
Shaffer launched Viva la Vida without a master plan. Though she did have an idea that she wanted to specialize in Mexico and the Caribbean.
“It sounds cliché. But I just wanted to book travel. I started traveling, doing hotel visits and fam trips. I spent about two years doing that. The focus of my business was all inclusives at first,” said Schaffer.
Eventually, her area of concentration evolved.
Inspiration came after attending a trade show in Michoacán, Mexico; Tianguis Turistico in Cancun; Expotour in Costa Rica and an Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) show in San Cristobel de las Casas, Mexico. All opened doors to the world beyond all inclusives.
“After I first went to Morelia in 2013, I decided to focus on a more purposeful type of travel. I learned more about the impact travel has on people. I decided to promote experiences that will make a difference,” said Schaffer.
Admittedly, it hasn’t been easy.
“Just like in social work, you can preach about how good something is for somebody. But until they’re willing to accept your advice, you don’t make any progress,” said Schaffer.
Mexico is a special passion that’s become a niche for her.
“I’ve been all over. But when I put my feet on Mexican soil, I feel like I’m at home. And, I’m a big, tall gringa,” said Schaffer.
To build up her client base, Schaffer has completed the Travel Leaders Adventure Travel specialist program. She’s joined the ATTA and keeps up-to-date with webinars. She also uses social media rather adeptly. Her personal and business Facebook pages are filled with inspirational quotes (often from Kahlo), updates and vignettes about her life and travels. She takes lots of photos and posts on Instagram, as well.
“Some agents keep the personal side out of it. But to me, travel is a personal thing. It’s important for people to understand who I am, what I promote and have to offer. I don’t like the word ‘sell.’ If all I do is inspire people so that they come to me when they’re ready, I consider that a success,” said Schaffer.
Most of her business comes from repeat customers and referrals, with a handful from social media.
“My focus is on adventure, but I also like the idea of transformative or experiential travel. Sometimes clients freak out when they hear the word ‘adventure.’ If it’s their first trip to Mexico, they want something more familiar. I don’t turn down the all-inclusive bookings to Cancun or the Riviera Maya. I see it as a gateway drug to something more,” said Schaffer.
The “something more” often means hidden gems she’s discovered on her own journeys to Latin America.
She gravitates to places with “good energy and high vibration,” and is accumulating a list of holistic spas and retreats to recommend to clients.
“My goal is to make a living doing what I love. I’m always looking for mentors in the industry and it’s a little disillusioning. Some people don’t want to share. I’m learning as I go how to market more successfully and who to partner with. If you compare me to other agents, I don’t have a lot of volume. But I believe in quality over quantity. I’m not about the almighty dollar. Nor do I want to try a lot of different things and fail miserably,” she added.
This October Schaffer plans to attend the ATTA Summit in Salta, Argentina. She’s taking a pre-conference fam to Bolivia. No doubt, she’ll share her experiences widely on social media, where they may spark interest in a potential client. Or, at the very least, spark a conversation with fellow agents, travel enthusiasts and daydreamers.
She’ll also post her signature photograph.
“Whenever I go anywhere, I always do my ‘Viva La Vida’ pose. That’s where I hold my arms open in a big ‘V.’ I’ve taken a lot of those pictures," said Schaffer.