Stacey Robertson Ray is poised for a great 2016. The owner/CEO and travel specialist with Groupit Travel is a veteran traveler, having been to over 50 countries.
But she’s relatively new to the travel agent business.
She had a career as a certified case manager at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, NC, and spent a total of 25 years in health care.
In October 2014, Ray fulfilled a lifelong dream by launching a travel agency. It was her first foray into the profession. A short 15 months later, she’s the first to admit that her success is “pretty astonishing.”
“When I started it was only me. Now there are seven of us. I have six agents. One doubles as a business manager, one doubles as an executive assistant and one doubles as my lawyer,” Ray tells Travel Agent.
While Ray is based in Cary, NC, her agents are spread out across the country.
As the name implies, Groupit Travel specializes in groups. The name and a new company website are part of a recent rebranding for Ray’s Vacation.com agency.
“We really are group specialists, so the new name made sense. One of my goals was to make sure I had a group traveling every month. We’re pretty close to that for 2016,” said Ray.
Client groups run the gamut from destination weddings (primarily to Mexico) to deluxe motor coach trips for the active 55 plus crowd.
Women’s groups are another big client segment.
Ray recently signed an exclusive travel agent contract with Campowerment. The trendy sleepaway camp for grownups can accommodate specialized groups.
“We are finalizing a co-ed camp just for nurses in October 2016 in Napa Valley. Nurses will be able to enjoy camp and get all of their continuing education credits. This is an exclusive with our agency,” said Ray.
Cruise groups, corporate meetings and conferences also make up a fair share of Groupit’s business. Exotic adventures are taking off as well.
“For 2016-2017 we are already booking small-group adventures such as a Mount Everest Base Camp Trek from Kathmandu in Nepal and a luxury safari in December 2016 to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana,” said Ray.
One big change Ray made in the past year was to implement a new client relations management system, VacationCRM.
“I went to other agents I respect and asked what they were using. I looked at different systems. What I really loved about VCRM is that agents designed it, not some IT guys who think they know what agents need,” said Ray.
With client communication, invoices and payments fully automated, Ray has more time to work on team building.
“All seven of us have different specialties, certifications and niches. We’re putting together an internal referral system. My goal is to build up my team with more niche and destination experts,” said Ray.
She also uses social media diligently to keep in touch with her team, suppliers and other agents.
“I have a personal Facebook page and we have a Facebook page for Groupit travel. I also run a private Facebook page for the office. We do a lot there. We also use Gotomeetings for video conferences. We’ve decided to meet the second Wednesday of every month for the next year. We review everything that’s taken place, share strategies and bring in supplier webinars,” said Ray.
Facebook groups are an invaluable tool for Ray.
“I belong to ten or twelve different travel agent groups; a FAM group and supplier groups such as Europe Express. There are destination-specific groups. When I feel I need that extra help, I join those. There are home-based agent groups, even one for agents here in North Carolina. I’m also a Certified Destination Wedding and Honeymoon Specialist with the DWHSA, which has a big social media presence,” said Ray.
She varies her postings on personal and office social media sites to attract would-be clients.
“A lot of what I post is informational about places to see, like the 20 most beautiful beaches in the world. Or we’ll do a post about how to pack your luggage, or even why you need a passport. We also post about our current specials or group space available. We get a lot of likes on our posts which we’ve seen increase substantially since we’ve been using hashtags. We currently have 1487 ‘likes’ on our page,” said Ray.
The attention from social media has paid off in sales.
“My favorite was when I posted about the NFL International Series in London and got a booking within 48 hours. I sent some die-hard Jets fans to the Jets/Dolphins game at Wembley Stadium in London,” said Ray.
If there’s an additional key to Ray’s success, it’s a willingness to ask for help.
“I don’t know everything. But I have the confidence to say to a client, ‘I’m not familiar with that destination or resort. Let me check with one of my contacts and get back to you.’ I will never lie to a client. There’s no need to do that. Agents are willing to help each other,” she said.
For the coming year, Ray expects to see continued high interest in luxury and adventure travel as well as river cruising. Destinations in demand at the moment include Costa Rica.
“We’re getting a lot of requests, but we don’t really have a Costa Rica expert. We’re all working on becoming certified and I’ll be visiting soon,” said Ray.
Other destinations Ray has visited have so impressed her that she’s eager to share the experience with fellow agents. This spring, she’ll lead a sold-out agent FAM to Iceland. And she’s in the initial planning stages for a FAM to Romania and Bulgaria.
Another trend Groupit Travel is well equipped to handle is special needs travel.
“We’ve just certified as an accessible travel advocate agency. Four of us have over 25 years in the health care field, so it’s a great fit,” she added.
Though Ray attributes most of her success to relationship building and networking, that health care background deserves credit as well. Among other things, she has worked as a respiratory therapist. Helping patients with something as vital as breathing takes concentration, confidence and determination. No doubt, those qualities have played a part in her current success.