When money is scarce, people are less willing to part with hard-earned cash for a travel experience that is anything less than extraordinary. How do home-based travel agents provide such an experience? The answer seems to be niche travel.
“My decision to become a cruise niche provider was not as much a decision as it was a natural progression of what I have done in the past,” says Ron Getman, a CLIA-certified MCC and home-based agent with All Aboard Vacations in Bradenton, FL. “I started doing group cruises as a group leader 30 years ago. We all enjoyed it so much, the passengers in my group asked me to do another cruise. I have a comfort level with the cruise lines and the different ships, having been on a large number of them with my groups over the years. Knowing what you sell is instrumental to being successful.” A cruise specialist since 2006, Getman says that his first-year income as an independent agent was “good,” the second year his income doubled and in this, his third year, income has increased “about 40 percent over the previous year.”
Specialization has also worked well for Bob Shaffer, a Hickory, NC home-based agent and SeaMaster Cruises franchise owner. Within weeks of returning from a group cruise for a senior center, Shaffer started getting calls from other senior centers wanting to do the same. “It seems that senior groups (and senior center directors) talk with each other, so the word got out that I specialize in senior cruises. Since my first senior cruise, I have escorted two other senior groups and have three more booked to sail within the next five months,” he explains. “I really did not choose senior travel as a niche…it chose me!”
Many agents note that specialization has become central to their business. “I realized I needed to specialize in groups in order to survive and be successful,” says Ron Hermanson, a home-based SeaMaster Cruises franchise owner in Walnut Creek, CA. As a self-described “lifetime volunteer” of church leadership service, Hermanson’s business focuses on affinity groups of churches and faith-based organizations. “I know clergy, I know congregations and I enjoy working with lay leaders,” he says. “It has almost become a ‘calling.’” After approximately 18 months of specializing in this niche, Hermanson expects that 90 percent of the business he will do in 2009 and 2010 will be with these faith-based affinity groups.
Barbara King, an agent of 16 years and co-president of Great Getaways Travel in Leawood, KS, says that choosing her luxury niche has had a “huge” impact on her company’s overall business. “Many travel companies have disappeared because they were competing with the Internet or tried to serve all needs,” she explains. “We collaborate with our clients to design life-changing journeys.” This year has been their most successful to date in terms of gross volume. And Jan Barash, a home-based agent for Great Getaways, notes that through her 13 years of travel planning, “even though 75 percent of my business is cruising, I have developed a loyal clientele for all types of luxury tours and vacations.”
Noreen Price, who focuses on travel to the Caribbean and Mexico through her home-based Lighthouse Travel agency in Camanche, IA, has had her “best year ever” by specializing in destination weddings. Price has booked three weddings for bridesmaids from destination weddings her company planned last year, and has five weddings scheduled in the span of one week in Jamaica next February. Not one to sit on the sidelines, Price hopes to be present for most of those weddings, schedule permitting. “I truly feel you need to see it to sell it,” she says. As destination weddings become a staple of her business, Price finds that her advertising outlets have grown to include area bridal fairs and trade shows.
Marketing is key in any business, of course. “I live in a retirement community, so we have a fertile area to market our product,” says Getman, who adds that he takes every opportunity to discuss or advertise his specialty by furnishing refreshments at senior gatherings, advertising in community newsletters and offering fundraiser cruises for local organizations. “The fundraiser-cruise method of group booking works great, as the members of the organization become your salespeople and actually market the cruise for you. Once you get your name known by doing something well, it seems to spread,” he says.
Niche travel advisors say their specialties also have an impact on the destinations their clients choose. “There is a lot of interest in the Eastern Mediterranean,” says Hermanson of his faith-based groups. “I recently had a group in Alaska using the grandeur of the landscape as a backdrop for onboard workshops on holistic spirituality. These groups may or may not have a religious agenda during the cruise, but they have a common experience in their association with the church and participants can further deepen their personal relationships with people within the church. And, by doing so, they strengthen their relationship with the church/synagogue itself.”
Niche travel appears to be a defining factor for both agent and client, as travel advisors seek to establish expertise above and beyond their competitors and as clients carefully plan their getaway. Shaffer, a 30-year veteran of the corporate world, used his experience with business travel (40 countries on four continents) to his advantage when choosing a second career, and his clients certainly benefit from his travel proficiency. And as a niche provider, Hermanson delights in the fact that his “expertise and background get to shine.”