Kristen Wile Meckem has no doubt what inspired her interest in travel.
“When I was a little girl in the early seventies, my parents took us on a tour of South America in a VW pop top camper. It was so much fun, we repeated the trip through Europe. In those days, my parents had a poster that said, ‘Happy are those who dream dreams and are willing to pay the price to make them come true.’ Our family was always close, and those years together really added to it,” she tells Travel Agent.
Ten years ago, Meckem reprised the Europe trip with her own family.
“We visited 22 countries in Europe in a camper. Our kids felt very fortunate to spend that time together,” she said.
A few years ago, the Bend, Oregon, native decided to segue formally into travel.
“I had a background in design, and had never been in the industry. It was important to find a good fit. I wanted to have a family feel, as well as extensive training and mentoring. I looked around for several months,” said Meckem.
She applied — and was accepted to — Brownell Travel’s agent training program.
The program began with a week at Brownell headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama. Phone and online training followed, together with one-on-one mentoring. Meckem attended Virtuoso Travel Week and the Brownell Academy company meeting in Atlanta.
“It’s a full-year program that provides the tools to be in the industry. They give you what you need to set up your business,” said Meckem.
She quickly gravitated to a luxury niche, which she describes as a “pretty natural” move with Brownell.
But, like any successful home-based travel professional, Meckem was eager to carve her own identity. Her design instincts, plus a strong desire to build a boutique business, came together perfectly.
“You know the feeling you get when you walk into a beautiful boutique? You feel special and cared for in a personal way. That’s how I want my clients to feel and that’s how I market myself,” said Meckem.
Her marketing efforts began with her Christmas card list.
“I’m old fashioned. I like paper and snail mail. I did a paper announcement to everyone on my Christmas list. I described my new business and affiliation with Brownell. Since then, I’ve designed pieces that are very visual and speak from the heart. I have a marketing plan that I follow very closely and that was big part of my first year in industry,” said Meckem.
The Brownell marketing team has helped keep clients engaged.
“I was recently in Australia and had a lot of client response to my social media postings. The Brownell marketing department made a beautiful color postcard for me to send to my mailing list,” said Meckem.
Social media is also a big part of her marketing plan. She’s active on Facebook (a personal account and a business page) as well as Instagram.
“There’s probably a lot of other social media I could be on. But, Facebook, Instagram and my mailings represent my brand the best,” said Meckem.
Thus far, she’s already achieved three degrees of social media success.
“I started by sharing things with my friends. Then it went to friends of friends. Now, I get contacted by people I had no prior connection with. My posts get shared across social media. Or, clients write something nice about me. Someone sees it and it goes to the next tier,” said Meckem.
She uses Instagram a little differently, focusing on visually-pleasing photos that will pique the interest of potential clients.
“I enjoy using Instagram to see what my friends are doing. Both Facebook and Instagram help me to get to know my clients better. If they’re a referral and I’m working with them for the first time, I can learn lots about them from their postings,” said Meckem.
She also incorporates what she learns.
“I noticed from social media that my client’s little girls were into dance. So, I put a package together for them with dance stickers on it. I appreciate the fact that social media makes it easier to get to know clients,” she said.
Meckem maintains a website and blog, designed by graphic artists she found on the Etsy website.
And the Etsy connection doesn’t end there. She’s hired artists from Etsy to create custom trip accessories for clients. Travel documents, for example, go out in handy travel shoe bags. She sends out zippered pouches and lavender sachets that clients can put in their suitcases. All bear her business name, “Meckem Travel,” in a delicate script providing brand recognition long after the trip.
Meckem also uses the business card website Moo.com to craft customized notecards for clients. The gifts are her way of personalizing the travel experience.
“I try to bring my own creativity into the process as much as possible. I have three generations of women traveling to Paris to celebrate the granddaughter’s graduation. I’m having some macarons delivered to them. I want the whole process to be personal and special for my clients, whether they’re traveling, packing or in the planning stages,” said Meckem.
Her clients run the gamut from families to couples, retirees and millennials. Most are referrals, with Europe and Australia her big sellers.
Though she’s been to 57 countries, Meckem doesn’t consider herself a destination expert. Rather, she sees herself as a client expert.
“I’m very happy with the itinerary builder and all the other tools from Brownell. The hosting, marketing and accounting team are the best in the business. Their mentoring program was invaluable to me. And they’re all a phone call away, even the partners or the president. I consider them my travel family,” said Meckem.
As for her actual family, Meckem still has one son at home in high school. She tries to space out business travel so that it makes sense for her family. And she makes the most of time away from home. On a recent trip to the Australia marketplace in Los Angeles, she squeezed in visits to some luxury properties in Beverly Hills.
Later this year, she’ll participate in a fam with Tourism Australia.
“I probably should set goals more than I do. But I’m happy with where my business is after two years. I feel that if you work hard and treat people well, the business will come. One thing I’ve learned is when you speak from your heart, you attract clients who are wonderful fit for you,” said Meckem.