As we prepare to introduce our eighth annual 30Under30 class — the next wave of rising stars in the travel agency business — in our August 24 issue, Travel Agent has reached out to some of the past winners to see how they have been faring. We’re happy to announce that this sampling of alumni has only good news to report, being some of the most successful agents to win the award since it was first introduced. From two agency owners to a 28-year-old manager and others promoted to high-profile positions, we highlight some travel industry representatives who best demonstrate just how far this prestigious honor can take an agent. These agents, as you will discover in the pages ahead, also have insights and observations to share that neophytes and industry veterans alike may find beneficial.
VIP Vacations Inc.
Class of 2012
When Ryan Doncsecz looks at the 30Under30 recognition he earned back in 2012, he doesn’t see an award, but rather validation.
“It is always nice to have a bargaining chip when working with new clients, and the 30Under30 [award] is one of the first accolades I promote,” he says.
Since earning this distinction, Doncsecz’s position has changed from a Disney Agent/Groups Coordinator to his company’s Wedding/Group Travel Manager, overseeing all of VIP Vacations’ groups of five rooms or more. He also credits the award with helping him to get accepted into notable travel industry programs such as Thailand’s “Thai the Knot” specialist program.
Doncsecz was also a past member of the Young Travel Leaders Conference (YTLC) Steering Committee. (YTLC is an annual conference hosted by Questex Media Group, Inc. for agents and operators under 40 years old.)
While he enjoyed the work he did in frontline sales, he is justifiably proud to be “more of an operations manager at this point,” he says. “I love this position. I like to think of myself as, ‘the guy who gets stuff done.’ When weather issues, hotel closures, etc., occur, it is up to me to make sure everyone travels at an operations standpoint. I’ve learned that my brain works a little differently from other agents, and working more operations-based tasks on a day-to-day basis helps keep me focused, but I am also good at it.”
Class of 2010
Lindsey Epperly used the 30Under30 award she earned in 2010 to combat anyone who equated her age with a lack of experience.
Since winning the award, Epperly became an owner, opening up Epperly Travel in Atlanta and building her own team of independent contractors.
“Not only was it an honor to receive the recognition ... but the credibility that it has lent to me as an agent and to my brand overall has been invaluable,” she says. “People don’t often trust someone as young as me to plan their trip, but when they hear that I received this honor because of my age, it’s often a game changer in their decision to work with a young agent.”
So what has she learned the most since winning as a first-year travel agent?
“I can’t tell young people enough to really make sure you’re protected going into an agreement with a company,” she says. “I got burned from a situation where I was not in a written contract and the company owners took advantage of it. Not everyone in the business has your best interest in mind, so you’ve got to be the one to watch out for yourself.”
VIP Vacations Inc.
Class of 2012
Three years after being spotlighted as one of Travel Agent's 30Under30 rising stars, Emily Fisher of VIP Vacations still includes the accomplishment in the signature of every work e-mail she sends out.
And why not?
After all, she says the award helped her rise through the ranks of her company, elevating her from frontline travel consultant to the head of her company’s office sales.
“Winning 30Under30 is a great accomplishment and really helps new agents get recognition in the industry,” says Fisher. “Also, I think it helps clients with trusting a new agent when they see [such] recognition.”
Besides the promotion, Fisher’s other accomplishments since winning the award include passing her CTA exam and becoming one of the top selling agents for the Karisma Hotels & Resorts brand.
So what is the main difference in the industry today compared to the state of travel in 2012?
“We are finally seeing people become more comfortable with travel to Mexico,” she says. “I no longer get the question, ‘is it safe?’ Mexico is still my number-one seller, but I see a lot more young people trying to go somewhere more exotic and farther south in the Caribbean. They don’t want the typical honeymoon and want to do something different from what their friends have done.”
Global Institute for Travel Entrepreneurs
Class of 2009
Since being selected as one of our earliest honorees in the second annual 30Under30 class, Vanessa McGovern’s career path took a turn from travel business owner to travel industry educator, speaker and business coach.
“I applied for the [award] after only a short time of starting my Cruise Planner/American Express franchise,” she says. “Submitting myself for the 30Under30 helped me gain exposure with the CEO of Cruise Planners, Michelle Fee. Michelle graciously wrote my recommendation and before I was even announced as a recipient, I was offered a job as the manager of training and business development at Cruise Planners’ headquarters.”
Since her time at Cruise Planners, she also worked as the director of sales for the Special Needs Group and then settled into her current role as the executive vice president of business development and strategic partnerships at the Global Institute for Travel Entrepreneurs (GIFTE). She is also a co-owner and EVP at Gifted Travel Network, a new breed of host agency that focuses on supporting the entrepreneur.
“I want travel professionals to sink into the fact that there are unlimited opportunities in travel,” says McGovern. “There are multiple business models that exist to monetize your passion for travel and there is not one specific path to follow. The path to follow is your own.”
Jen Mitchell Travel
Class of 2010
It seems as though Jen Mitchell would make the perfect fit in just about any business that requires high-quality customer service. Luckily for the hospitality industry, she chose travel.
Since being named one of Travel Agent’s 30Under30 agents in 2010, Mitchell has grown her business in luxury travel exponentially. In 2013, she decided it was time to start her own business and thus opened a concierge agency in Naples, FL.
Mitchell tells us that this concept of customer-focused business has been met with great enthusiasm. There is a real demand for this kind of service in Naples, she says, as clients crave that extra time and attention. Jen Mitchell Travel is a member of Virtuoso.
“By starting my own business I now see the travel industry from so many different angles,” she says. “As the head of a growing company I wear several hats handling marketing, website updates, event planning, relationship building with vendors and, of course, booking travel. This multi-faceted world is new to me — but it’s so much more exciting.”
And why was 30Under30 recognition so instrumental to her career?
“I think it’s great for the self-esteem especially for young agents in the business,” says Mitchell, noting that her sales volume has doubled since winning the award. “The hardest part of this business is getting up and running. To be recognized early on not only makes you feel good, but it gives you visibility in the industry.”
Holiday Cruises & Tours
Class of 2014
What a difference a year makes. Rebecca Norrbom was featured in our 2014 30Under30 cover story and has been crushing it ever since.
Shortly after winning the award, her boss used her profile from that story as the lead for Holiday Cruises & Tours’ newsletter. It was then distributed to the company’s database of roughly 9,000 agents. Soon after, some of her agency owners turned over some managerial responsibilities they had been handling and Norrbom immediately saw her overall sales volume double.
“Winning 30Under30 gave me national recognition and really put my career in the fast lane,” she says. “It has yet to slow down a bit. [The award] helped legitimize my career and passion for the industry in the eyes of my agency owners, suppliers, peers and my clients.”
She now sits on the board for Signature Travel Network’s Young Advisor Community and was recently invited to attend the Global Travel Marketplace-West, which included a thorough vetting process.
“Being able to have the 30under30 recognition when you fill out these applications helps legitimize me as a serious travel professional, even though I have only been doing this for a few years,” she says.
Harmon Travel Service
Class of 2014
Danielle Stephens is another of our most recent honorees who hasn’t looked back after gracing our cover story just a year ago. In fact, Stephens, who says the award gave her credibility amongst her peers and clients, has tripled her sales volume since the story came out.
“I went from being a relatively new agent to top sales in our agency so far for 2015,” says Stephens, a member of the Signature Travel Network Young Advisor Board. “Credibility is a huge obstacle as a new agent with little experience and having this award under your belt automatically gives you a leg up.”
And it’s also helped recruit other agents to her company. Stephens tells Travel Agent that as a result of her 30Under30 award, Harmon Travel Service decided to hire another millennial agent who applied to the agency after seeing Stephens win the honor.
“This award is one of the most valuable tools for new agents,” she says. “As I mentioned, it takes you from 0 to 60 as far as credibility in the industry and with clientele [is concerned].”
Delray Beach, FL
Class of 2014
Promoted to one of the managers of his company’s client services department just one year after being named to the list, it’s safe to say the 30Under30 recognition has helped Paul Stroncek’s travel career cruise right along.
Working only three years as a travel agent, Stroncek took home last year’s award at the age of 27 and has had a busier travel schedule ever since.
“Since the award, I’ve been on many more cruise ship inspections, a half-dozen cruises and was recently at the Signature Travel Network Convention in Las Vegas,” he says. “After three years, my career has progressed in the best way possible.”
He said his new management position provides him with the necessary comprehension, problem-solving skills and assessment skills to effectively take his team to the next level.
“The great thing about the promotion is that it provides the challenges anyone would look for in my career,” he says. “There’s never a dull day and I am constantly learning from the ever-changing industry.”
|Sarah Nelson Wandrey|
Sarah Nelson Wandrey
A World of Travel, Ltd.
Class of 2013
Since winning the 30Under30 honor two years ago, Sarah Nelson Wandrey has become a part owner of A World of Travel, Ltd., manages the company’s leisure branch and was also named to the Travel Leaders Franchise Advisory Board in 2014.
“I think 30Under30 is important for young agents because it gives them a boost of self-confidence and helps them validate their career plans,” she says. “It’s also great because it brings them together with agents with similar demographics that they might have otherwise not been able to meet and it strengthens their networks.”
Wandrey started with her agency in 2007. She is an Aussie specialist and is currently pursuing her Active and Adventure Travel Certification.
“I love to see agents becoming specialists in a niche or destination,” she says. “For so long, agents were generalists, and while we need to know quite a bit about the world, specializing in a particular product is showcasing that we are experts and that we have added value to our clients.”
|Carole-Anne Hughs Wood|
Carole-Anne Hughs Wood
Valerie Wilson Travel
New York City
Class of 2013
When Carole-Anne Hughs Wood stood in the 30Under30 spotlight in 2013, it was not the last time she graced the cover of Travel Agent that year.
That December, Wood, one of the founders of the popular Young Travel Professionals (YTP) networking group, was featured in our magazine with her co-founders in a story titled, “Young Leaders: Fostering the Future!”
“Also amongst my proudest accomplishments since winning the award is my growth and evolution within Valerie Wilson Travel,” she says. “I feel very fortunate to be with a company that embraces new ideas and technology. I was empowered to help mold the model we use in-house for attracting and on-boarding new clients, as well as to expand my role within the company’s marketing and social media department.”
In fact, in 2013, Valerie Wilson Travel won Virtuoso Travel Week’s “Tag and Tweet Contest.” The agency was also honored with a Gold Magellan Award in 2014. It also designed and released a Facebook game app for its clients to share destinations ideas and stories, named “Paint The World Peach,” and built a new, fluid website that debuted earlier this year.
“The award has influenced my career in such a positive way,” says Hughs Wood. “Not only am I proud to display an annotation of the award in my e-mail signature, numerous new clients have told me that after Googling my name, they reviewed the article highlighting the award and were even more assured that they were in great hands.”