Creativity Keeps Business Strong

When speaking with Heinke McDade, one gets the impression she'd be well traveled even if she hadn't become a travel agent. The German-born, tri-lingual president of McDade Travel has lived in Canada, Paris, London and Belgium and now resides with her husband in Roanoke, VA, where her agency also is located. For 22 years, her agency has weathered the often-tumultuous travel trade, surviving on a potent combination of creativity and love for travel. Heinke McDade

It was McDade's nomadic nature that led her to becoming an agent when she moved to the United States in 1978. McDade started as a receptionist at an agency, and within six months, she was working as an agent. In 1985, she opened her own agency.

"I had a very good following, and most of our customers are with us from that time," McDade says.

How has she prospered for so long? "Our business is mostly word of mouth and repeat customers," she says, adding that her agency specializes in golf trips to Scotland, most notably for a renowned group of golfers called the World 100 Club.

Creative Itineraries

However, for McDade, being successful is less about specializing in a niche and more about being creative.

"I don't think we're order takers," she says. "Instead, we help our customers find the best trip and the best trip for them."

This philosophy especially came in handy after the devastating effects of September 11, 2001 on the travel industry.

"It was very tough," she recalls. "I had a son living in Manhattan, and so many customers came to us and were in shock. They asked, 'Heinke, what would you do?' and I said I wouldn't go. A trip should not feel like a chore."

McDade says it was her honest attitude that helped McDade Travel stay in business.

"People felt like we were telling the truth and advising them, and not just thinking of the commissions," she says.

Building Trust

Until business rebounded, the agency shifted its focus to such destinations as Alaska, the Canadian Rockies and South America, as well as long weekends in the states of New York, Washington and Arizona.

"We were pretty creative," she says. "We introduced people to something they hadn't done before."

From this experience, McDade says she also discovered which suppliers she preferred to do business with.

"There were vendors who immediately wrote refund checks," she says of the days post-September 11. That trust led her to work with a small list of vendors that include Carnival Cruises, Globus Journeys, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Tauck World Discovery and Travelbound.

Now that the industry has recovered, McDade Travel continues to build creative, oftentimes customized, itineraries for clients.

"When people come to us and want to do a FIT trip, I always recommend London and Paris, simply for the theater and the architecture," she says. "So many people don't want to do tours anymore."

This surge in FITs also has allowed her agency to be more proficient in selling up. For example, more and more of McDade's clients are renting houses and villas to authenticate their vacation experiences. It's something McDade and her family also has taken part in, renting such properties in Ireland and Jamaica.

"I love selling up because you almost give permission to some customers to live a little," McDade says. "Very often it isn't about money, it's instead matching the client with the right product. Spend a little more and you can have the trip of a lifetime."

And as a self-professed kid in a candy store when it comes to travel, McDade knows the benefit of a well-crafted vacation.

"The argument I always like to use is, if you only have two weeks of vacation a year, you don't want to waste that time," she says, "because you don't get it back."

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