Rising Travel Advisors Share Their Secrets to Success

“I often get calls from aspiring travel advisors who find me on Instagram or Google to ask me questions about my career choice ... I always take the time to answer their questions and encourage them to continue down that path if they’re passionate about travel and are looking for a rewarding career.” —Callie Mae Ritsema of Ritz World Travel, Grand Rapids, MI

We asked our 2018 class of 30Under30 how they’re generating revenue to their bottom line. Responses harkened back to using the best practices of Sales 101, to putting social media to good use. What did they all have in common? Consistent engagement with their clients, whether the customer is new or tried and true.

Ryan Barks, of Travel Haus of St. Louis, says that his business model revolves around customer service and attention to detail. A specialist in honeymoons, destination weddings, cruises and Europe, he has focused heavily on working as many bridal shows and events as possible to be sure he’s meeting new clients and keeping current on offerings for those clients he’s already working with. “This gives me a great opportunity to continually hone the proper ‘elevator pitch’ for reasons to work with a travel agent as well as to broaden my client base,” he tells us.

Callie Mae Ritsema of Ritz World Travel in Grand Rapids, MI also focuses on destination weddings, as well as other types of group travel and this year she’s focusing her sales and marketing efforts on that category. “I quickly learned that I can make a greater amount of money if I focus my time and energy on group sales. I have proven to myself that groups take much less of my time, and I receive a greater return on investment.”

You get what you pay for is Leah Bilquist’s credo. This travel advisor with TravelSmiths in Point Pleasant, NJ doesn’t hesitate to tell her clients which room category they need to reserve to get the most beautiful views. The same goes for experiences.

“If you want to zip line through the rainforest, you got it, but I will only book you on the luxury tour, which may be a $100 more, but you will get more of an experience out of it,” she says, noting that her honeys is what keeps her clients coming back to her.

“At the end of the day, people will go over their budget if it means getting what their vacation goals are,” says Bilquist. “You need to be honest with them and present multiple options. In the end, they will respect you and most likely take the highest one.”

Sarah Ann Van Elsen of Adelman Discoveries in Springfield, MO, has been offering trips closer to home for those clients concerned about safety. “We have trips going to the Southwest Canyonlands, Alaska, and the Canadian Rockies this year and next year,” she says.

“Keep in Touch” are the three little words that Amber Koll of The Travel Advantage in Sioux City, IA lives by. 

“We have leisure travelers that will enquire about vacations periodically throughout the year and sometimes it’s just not within their budget to go right away, so we make sure to keep checking in with them,” she says. She learned that lesson last year in particular when a couple that wanted to take a multigenerational family trip over Christmas. The vacation didn’t pan out because it was a little late in the booking season and pricing was quite high. 

Koll made it a point early on this year to circle back to them when she saw some decent rates for Festive Season. Within a couple weeks she had the family confirmed for a fun Christmas getaway. 

“We always keep an eye out on travel deals and make sure to get in touch with clients when we see something they might be interested in,” she notes.

Certified credentials go a long way with Andrea Espinosa of Harmon Travel in Boise, ID. That’s why she’s currently wrapping up her CTA studies with the Travel Institute. She’s also “old school” in the best possible manner. “I handwrite personal invitations to my top clients to attend our monthly Luxury Travel Series events at our country club,” says Espinosa. She also handwrites welcome-home notes and messages to commemorate successes, birthdays, milestones and anniversaries. She fully recommends the career of travel advisor to people her age. “It’s such a fulfilling and rewarding career with possibilities of growth, constant change and never ending learning,” says Espinosa. “I feel proud to say I’m a private travel designer when people ask me what I do for a living.”

Taryn Deschaine of Camelback Odyssey Travel in Phoenix consistently communicates the value she is providing to her clients’ trips, which encourages them to recommend her to friends. “Referrals are the lifeblood of our business and keep us growing every day through our client’s social networks. It is also extremely gratifying and validating for us, knowing we are doing right by our clients.”

Jordan Glanda of Touraid Travel Inc. in Plattsburgh, NY says her agency sends out weekly handwritten notes to their clients. She participates to grow her own client base and to build up existing client relationships, she says. “This added level of personal touch has made an exponential difference with my level of service and return clients.” Glanda says she is also working on focusing on existing clients to bring her referrals.

Jacquelyn Santo of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative in Chicago, has also gone back to the basics by investing marketing dollars in local ads, as well as getting involved in high profile events where she can promote her business. “Networking has been a big part of my success, so I am continuing to put in the time and effort to make connections and win new business,” she says.

Jacquelyn Santo

People have busy lives and can’t always conduct business from 9 to 5, which is why Christabela Pierre of Atlas Cruises & Tours in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, makes herself available at all times. This includes by cell phone and by Facebook Messenger; in fact, Pierre has become much more active on Facebook and on Snapchat this year. She shares images of cruise ship inspections and hotel visits that portray a variety room types. “This has encouraged clients to reach out to me and book the places I have shared on social media,” she says. Pierre is also all about the personal touch. When clients were headed to Paris earlier this year, she sent them French-themed gifts before they left, including a backpack, a travel guide and a bottle of wine. 

All in all, she finds that these touches pay off. “Flowers in a cabin, a hotel upgrade or dinner for two goes a long way in earning clients’ loyalty and referrals,” says Pierre. “In such a competitive industry such as online travel, I continually strive to find ways to make clients happy.” 

Allison Law of Smartflyer in New York would absolutely recommend the career of travel advisor to those her age. “I believe that the travel industry is going through a revitalization. There’s a new generation of travel influencers — from agents to hoteliers, and now even bloggers — using new techniques and technology to inspire and assist clients. Additionally, a younger generation of travel industry employees brings a younger clientele.” 

Elizabeth Hoover of Travelink Incorporated in Nashville, TN, has found it makes a lot of business sense to pay attention to those companies she does business with. “To make more money this year, I’ve taken it upon myself to register with each and every hotel group that I do business with, to not only make an incentive off my commissions with my company but also to receive bonuses and perks from the hotels and the management companies directly,” she says. Her clients are often rewarded as well when they arrive at a hotel by being gifted with an extra amenity, she adds.

Hoover has also implemented a one-to-one marketing strategy with her clients by reaching out to past customers to discuss their next trip or experience. “This allows me to get to know my clients personally and also to generate sales that will continue to grow as our relationship grows,” she says.

Kaitlyn Kubitskey of My World Travel LLC in Louisville, KY, also makes it a point to log in and register for all of the commission opportunities with each travel supplying company. “It is time-consuming and hard to navigate, but it really does pay off in the end,” she says. Kubitskey has also learned more about how to “work the system” with points and rewards programs, especially with credit cards. “I share this knowledge with my clients constantly. Your money should always be working for you!” she notes. Lastly, Kubitskey says she has clenched her teeth and raised her prices a bit. “I’m trusting myself that I have value and my services are worth it.”

Trevarus Martin of Book and Bag Travel, LLC in Katy, TX, plans group trips for his friends and the size of those groups keeps growing as anticipation about them spreads. “People love to travel, but they don’t want to travel alone. By picking different destinations to travel as a group, it allows for people to travel more, learn and visit new places while meeting new friends.”

Charging travel planning fees has been a keen focus for Samantha Collum of West University Travel in Houston, TX; in fact, she says that’s the smartest thing she’s done this year. “With my focus on custom travel, I really do spend a lot of time creating each and every itinerary,” she says. “I look for the best flight schedules, quote multiple hotel options, and try to design tours that match my clients’ budget and personal travel style.” 

Being compensated for her time makes sense, she says, even if clients decide not to book or need to cancel their travels. 

“Think of it this way — interior designers or business consultants charge for their time, so why should a professional travel advisor be any different?” says Collum.

Kristiana Choquet

Kristiana Choquet of Artisanal Experiences by Ovation Vacations in New York says her team has forged closer relationships with hoteliers to increase their commission percentages based on volume of production. “Programs such as Rosewood Elite and Oetker Pearl have increased our commission percentages,” she tells us. Her team has also developed an ambassador program that rewards current clients who refer the agency to other top clients. “The success of this program has significantly increased our client base,” says Choquet, who says an increased exposure in the press has delivered “a plethora of new referrals.”

Jonathan Garcia of First in Service Travel in New York City is also very customer focused this year and is making it a point to meet in person with his most senior clients, most of whom tend to be corporate. “It was finally time to put a face to their names after emailing them all these years,” he said. The strategy has strengthened his relationships with them and he’s even spurred some friendships, which has led to more requests for leisure trips. Garcia doesn’t take these relationships for granted.

Samantha Hartman of Protravel International in Roseland, NJ, cautions that it takes hard work to build your business as an independent advisor. “Yes we’re enjoying all these beautiful trips, but we’re answering e-mails and getting on calls at 4 a.m. with the time difference. It’s an amazing career with wonderful perks, provided you are able to be flexible and above all else, service oriented.”

“It’s the little details and how far and beyond you are willing to go in order to ‘wow’ them and make sure I make that lasting impression,” he says. 

Stephanie LeGrow of Lovely Lotus Travel in Las Vegas has also forged friendships by trying to grow her relationships with suppliers within her community. “I’ve met with many business and wedding vendors in Las Vegas in hopes of becoming a preferred honeymoon provider for them. These meetings have begun to pay off, as I have a steady stream of leads coming from within the community now,” she says. 

“My younger clients ... need someone who understands where they are in life and how to meet them where they are. Having more agents our age would benefit our clients and our industry,” says Stephanie LeGrow of Lovely Lotus Travel in Las Vegas. 

Frances Sarrett of McCabe World Travel in McLean, VA, designs luxury leisure vacations with a focus on cruises and European travel. She says that her best reward is when she hears back from clients after they return from a trip about the positive impact she’s made on their vacation. 

“It is truly gratifying,” says Sarrett. Her success comes from listening to a client’s requests and then filling in the blanks with suppliers she’s savvy about. “Clients don’t know what’s out there and what they could have with so many choices. I’ve realized that a new hotel, cruise line, or a land/tour operator could be the missing link to make their itinerary echo for years to come.” Thinking outside of the box is another strategy; for example, if a client wants to go to the Greek Isles, Sarrett is apt to suggest a cruise to help them save travel time. 

“This raises my yield, sometimes by as much as 70 percent, but more importantly, improves the client’s experience. We can then focus on pre- and post-hotels to round off the trip,” she says.

“Brentwood Travel has taken notice of the Millennial generation and hired quite a few agents. Millennials in the work force are typically very resourceful and quick to learn,” says Stacey Hoehne of Brentwood Travel in St. Louis. 

Jordan Michelle Lapetz of AAA Travel Michigan has made a keen effort to focus on her clients’ experiences, rather than on revenue and profits coming in. “Chasing sales will never provide you with a full book of business and desperation does not look good on travel agents!” she says. She complements this relaxed mindset with a drive to put her all into trip research and planning for her clients, who in turn don’t hesitate to send her referral business when she asks for it.

Jordan Michelle Lapetz

Knowing When to Grow

Marielle Kabin of Travelwise International in Fort Washington, MD, owns her agency, and recently realized she had to stop booking travel so she could focus on growing the company’s revenue. The decision was a tough one as she was a senior travel consultant contributing a high level of sales to the bottom line. She knew, however, that that wasn’t enough.

“As an owner it can be very hard to let go and trust that someone can take better care of your business without your involvement,” she tells us. “I stopped booking and taking requests from clients so that I could help and encourage others in the agency to break out of their shells and sell new destinations and travel experiences.”

Kabin focused on training to provide her advisors with intel on the different experiences each cruise line provides. She educated them on travel insurance and how to improve sales calls. She also sat with each staff member quarterly to perform evaluations and to set goals. 

“By focusing on the company’s biggest assets, the employees, accountability went up, our agents gained confidence, which boosted morale within the office and gave our agents greater job satisfaction. Happy agents equal happy sales,” says Kabin.

Her time has also been freed up to create a vision for her agency. She joined associations and worked on public relations strategies to expand her agency’s network. 

“This switch in gears has helped position our business with people who have opened new doors that were beyond our agency,” says Kabin.

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