Success, for many, is often about overcoming obstacles. But for Beth Foss, success has not only meant overcoming obstacles, but finding ways to harness adversity and apply it to her growth as a travel agent, all the while remaining refreshingly optimistic and upbeat.
Her first brush with adversity occurred early on in her career as a travel agent when she gave birth to her daughter, Emily, prematurely. “I had to work at home with her,” Foss tells Travel Agent. “This was before it was fashionable to work from home. I just happened to hook up with a great agency, CI Travel, which was looking for outside agents. It worked perfectly for me.” It was through this that Foss found her niche as a home-based agent and she has never looked back.
Foss fell in love with travel in high school when she had the opportunity to travel to Europe with a study group for three weeks. After returning to Europe two more times in college, she decided that her computer information systems major was not for her. “The idea of sitting in a cubicle all day didn’t interest me so I wasn’t very motivated to interview for jobs,” says Foss. What solidified her future in travel was a graduation cruise she took from Memphis to New Orleans with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. “I hung out with the crew the whole time and by the time the cruise was over I had put my application in and began calling Human Resources twice a week until they gave me a job to make me stop calling,” she says with a laugh.
She stayed with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company for five years before moving on to work for Comair. Eventually she ended up with CI Travel before beginning her own home-based agency, My Travel ELF (mytravelelf.com) in Naples, FL.
As a home-based agent, Foss found it difficult to get the ball rolling in terms of acquiring clients. “I didn’t know where they were going to come from,” she notes. “The first 1099 I received was for about $45. That’s all I made the first few months.” Being a self-proclaimed Disney fanatic, Foss ended up stumbling upon a fam site, affordabledisney.com, which was posting negative feedback on travel agents. “The site was saying that [agents] always put their own commission before their own wallets,” she adds. Enraged, Foss fired an e-mail off to the owner of the website, explaining to him how just that day she sacrificed her own commission to help a client secure a lower hotel fee. “He wrote me back with a very apologetic e-mail. I thought nothing would come of it, but I ended up getting tons of business from his site,” she says. “He would print all of these referrals, and many people were joining his site because of what they were reading about me. I went from being a non-specialist, floundering and desperately looking for clients, to an overnight Disney expert with tons of customers.” Today, Foss’ business is predominantly Disney- and cruise-based. “I’ve cross-marketed to the clients I received from affordabledisney.com,” she notes. “I’m a total cruiseaholic, so I started including cruise information to my clients when I would send them their Disney documents. I wanted to remind them that I could book other things for them, as well.”
But the most challenging obstacle Foss had to face was her battle with breast cancer. Foss, who had a history of breast cancer in the family, has always been diligent about checking up on her health. However in September 2010, she was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer that would require surgery, radiation and heavy-duty chemotherapy. “This form of breast cancer only affects 15 percent of those diagnosed. It has such a high rate of recurrence,” Foss says. Her treatment regimen included chemotherapy every three weeks for eight rounds, followed by radiation Mondays through Fridays for 35 treatments.
After hearing daunting news such as that, running a successful travel agency would plummet to the bottom of anyone’s list of priorities. Not for Foss. “Fortunately, the hospital had Wi-Fi, and I would take my laptop to book clients and answer e-mails,” she says. “I’m not in a position where I can take days off, so my doctors timed my treatments for me so the worst days would be over the weekend.”
She took her treatment like a champion. She worked as a travel agent all the way through. While she never got sick from treatments, she described the feeling as “like being hit by a bus.” “But the worst part,” she admits, “is when all of your hair falls out. It never occurred to me that all of your hair falls out—even eyebrows and eye lashes.” “But the good part is that I could take a shower in about five minutes,” she adds, demonstrating her sense of humor and overall positive attitude.
In fact, her own diagnosis inspired her to kick-start a program she had developed seven years prior, but had let fall to the wayside. “Years ago, I had started a project called the Pink Ribbon Cruises Project, which donates a portion of agency commission to breast cancer charities,” she notes. “The first one was in 2003 and we raised about $1,500 to send to the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade.” But after her first few attempts, the project sat on the back burner for a while. It was during her own chemotherapy that Foss decided was the perfect time to restart the program.
“I really dived into it headfirst,” says Foss. “I used to be very conservative. If I didn’t know for sure that something was going to pay off big time, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t worry about that now. I figure, what’s the worst that can happen? So now I do whatever I need to do to get the word out and it’s starting to pay off. You’ve got to stop being afraid and just go for it. And if you fail, who cares.”
The relaunch of Pink Ribbon Cruises fell on September 30, 2011, exactly a year after Foss’ diagnosis, and on the eve of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It was the perfect time to kick it off, and since then, Foss has used the donations to send to organizations that were so important to her during her own fight with cancer.
As an independent contractor, Foss cannot afford really fantastic health insurance, and when faced with medical bills that climbed upwards of half a million dollars, she was not left with a lot of options. “Fortunately, there were a couple of local resources that I was able to use to negotiate with the doctors’ offices and radiation facilities to help lower the prices,” remembers Foss. These organizations are in place to assist with patients whose working hours have been cut back and therefore are struggling to make ends meet. “Some organizations give you gas cards, others pay your electric bills and drive you to treatments. One organization actually pays the medical bills for you,” explains Foss. “I need to pay these places back not only for what they put out for me, but for what they can do for other people, too.” This is where Pink Ribbon Cruises plays its part. “I figure if you can book a cruise through me for the same price as through an online agency, why wouldn’t you? It costs you nothing extra and it offers this donation.”
It is interesting to note that many of the clients sailing on Pink Ribbon Cruises are survivors themselves. It is a great opportunity for them to get together with their loved ones. Everyone knows someone that has had breast cancer, so even if a cruiser hasn’t personally been involved with the disease, they get comfort out of the fact that their vacation is helping to contribute to the survival of others.
Since her diagnosis, Foss has completely changed the way she operates on a day-to-day basis. “I definitely put aside more time for myself now,” she says. “I used to work until 9 or 10 every night. I worked all weekend. I don’t do that anymore.” Now Foss is sure to spend much more time with her daughter and has worked to reevaluate her priorities. “I’m not afraid to try things. I’m not afraid to fail. One way of making sure that you’re never going to make it is not to try. It took a while to get that through my head.”
Foss attributes much of her success to her supportive family, who do not live far. “I’m a single mom so I lucked out that my father and stepmom live only a couple of hours away,” she says. Her family would help to put dinner on the table and take her daughter to school so that Foss could attend treatment, work when she needed and rest in between.
Today Foss’ agency is a member of Nexion, a consortium dedicated to home-based travel agents. Her company specializes in both cruises and Disney vacations. “Working with Nexion makes me competitive with the big guys,” she asserts. “Even though I’m just one person sitting at home I have all of this group space to pull from and all of these great deals,” she adds.
As a Nexion agent, Foss has access to Vacation.com’s portfolio of tools for agents, like Vacation Vignettes and Amenity Departure Dates, which help to increase her sales tremendously. In fact, her work with Nexion has increased her sales internationally. About 15 percent to 20 percent of her business comes from people outside of the U.S., most notably in South Africa and Europe.
No doubt Foss’ dedication to her business throughout her battle with cancer demonstrates her unwavering passion for travel, which is what keeps her going in the game today. “I still love to travel and I’ve always been the kind of person that researches where I’m going. I love hotels and cruise ships,” maintains Foss. “I love seeing new things and going new places, and if I can’t always be the one doing it, at least I get to help other people plan their own trips.”
Her No. 1 rule is to stay true to the areas that interest her. “I don’t get into the aspects of travel that don’t appeal to me. If someone calls me about an African safari or if they want to go to China, I will find them an agent with a passion for that travel, which is another great thing about Nexion,” says Foss. Nexion offers its agents access to Nexion Town, which is a social media site where agents can connect to each other. “A client needs to be with an agent that has a passion for the travel he is selling. So find things that you love and be the best at those things. That’s what makes the difference,” she suggests. “And you can’t be afraid to try.”
Success has not come easily to Foss and life has not been without its extreme challenges, but through it all she has remained true to what she loves and what has been important to her, and it is these challenges that have shaped the type of person and agent she has become.