Life abroad gave Yvette Shaqir a taste of the travel business. She’s parlayed it into success back home, as the co-owner of The Travel Boutique, LLC. The 10-agent business is based in Columbia, MD, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
“When my babies were still little, my husband’s job took him overseas. We traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. When we were in the Middle East I was introduced to agents selling travel for expats living abroad, and was excited to learn about the industry,” says Shaqir.
When the family returned stateside, Shaqir connected with an acquaintance, Bonnie Wecker, who had a small travel business.
“She was doing a lot of Caribbean sales and she would ask me for itineraries for Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. I would type them up and send them to her. I knew a lot of tour directors and could speak Arabic. I had fun doing that. And, Bonnie eventually said, ‘We need to work together,’” says Shaqir.
Wecker closed her business, and she and Shaqir opened The Travel Boutique in 2007.
“The old timers were telling us it was the end of the industry. They were all upset that they didn’t get free flights anymore. We had never gotten that, so it was ok with us,” says Shaqir.
It was also early days for social media in the travel business.
“We jumped in right away with social media and it gave us an advantage. Older agencies were still using fax machines. But, we really utilized social media and had a lot of success from it. We had clients looking for tech-savvy agents, who could do business by text and email. It was something that distinguished us in the beginning,” says Shaqir.
It also caught the attention of other agents looking for something new.
“Agents who had been in the business for awhile began to contact us. They were looking for something more exciting and tech savvy,” says Shaqir.
Gradually, The Travel Boutique added eight independent contractors.
“I love hearing stories from our agents about the days when their desks were piled high with airline tickets. Some of them, like our agent Karen Lynch, have knowledge in areas that I am still learning about. I’m happy to have their expertise and proud to be working with them. In Princeton, we have a destination wedding specialist, Danielle Alford. She does very high-end honeymoons and romance travel itineraries. She often finds niche and boutique properties that are new to the client and our agency,” says Shaqir.
The business model for The Travel Boutique has also evolved over the years.
The agency’s original office space was in a retail mall. But, it was difficult to maintain the right flow of business.
“We had to tell people that we could give them a few minutes. But after that, they’d have to make an appointment. We have an exciting new business model now. It’s still considered retail by industry standards. But, our office is in a bank building and we meet clients by appointment,” says Shaqir.
Four agents work out of the office on a “come and go” basis. Everyone handles their own clients and schedules their own appointments. There’s a receptionist and brochures set up for the occasional walk-in.
“We use the building conference room for supplier events. We have the ability to do happy hours in the building, which makes it fun to do Italian nights or champagne parties,” says Shaqir.
The Travel Boutique handles all types of business.
“We do a lot of Caribbean because we’re on the East Coast. Clients may start out with an all inclusive and branch out from there. I’ve been to a lot of places. That’s an advantage selling a destination such as Dubai or the Middle East. I feel very comfortable in the Middle East and that comfort and confidence helps me excel at selling exotic destinations. I do miss the experiences I had in Israel, Jordan and Cairo and I enjoy sending clients to these adventurous locations. We’ve also done safaris in Africa and recently, lots of China,” says Shaqir.
The agency also does a lot of private tours in France and Italy. Journeys by Central Holidays is a favorite supplier.
“Individualized European itineraries are time intensive and don’t always deliver the bang for the buck that Caribbean sales do. But, it is what I love the most. Clients come back and say, ‘You’ve helped me complete my bucket list! Thank you so much.’ That makes it so worthwhile,” says Shaqir.
Interestingly, when the geopolitical situation heats up, it often brings in more business.
“Adventurous clients start to call asking if the destination has gotten cheaper,” says Shaqir.
Formerly part of the Ensemble Travel Network, The Travel Boutique is now a member of Vacation.com.
“We changed because Funjet is so huge in the area. Funjet is not a preferred supplier with Ensemble,” said Shaqir.
Speaking of the area, Shaqir is especially proud of the camaraderie that exists there.
“I was born in D.C. and went to the University of Maryland. One thing I’m proud of is that we work well with other top agencies in the area. We have each other’s backs. If something good happens to one agency, it helps all of us. I have had many tour suppliers and business development managers remark to me about the supportive travel community we have in Maryland,” says Shaqir.
The Travel Boutique continues to excel in the social media sphere.
“In the beginning, you think you’re cutting edge. But you do have to make it a priority to keep up with trends and technology,” says Shaqir.
They’ve been having a good time using Snapchat.
“It’s a great medium to use when you are traveling. It is in real time and the geo-tags validate the authenticity of your experience. It’s nice to get a lot of comments and often the comments or questions will drive our next posts to make sure we are getting out relevant information. People will screenshot you when you are in an exotic and beautiful location. I was in Petra, Jordan, in August. Those were my most screenshotted photos. There are lots of travel bloggers on Snapchat. I’ve had them offer to do a blogger take-over of our account, but they want money for our sponsorship and that does not fit our business model at this time,” says Shaqir.
The Travel Boutique also has Pinterest and Instagram accounts. But up until recently, Facebook provided the most feedback.
“I was in Paris not long ago. I walked around for a few days when I didn’t have any meetings. I took all these photos and posted them on Instagram to see if people were interested. By the next week, I had 100 new followers,” said Shaqir.
About sixty percent of The Travel Boutique’s business comes from social media.
“Social media business is free, which is nice. We also try advertising. But, the typical image of a lounge chair on the beach is so cliché. You need something with more flair. And advertising is a necessity for some niches. For example, you must be on ‘Wedding Wire’ to be legitimate in the eyes of future brides,” says Shaqir.
The remainder of The Travel Boutique’s business comes from shows: bridal shows in the winter, and food and wine festivals in the summer.
“The food and wine shows are great. Everyone loves you there and they’re drunk,” says Shaqir.
Ten years in, she’s excited about the company’s year-over-year growth.
“We’re working with our team members to help them build their own brand-within-our brand. Traveling is a huge part of it. It gives them the confidence to step out of their Caribbean comfort zone,” says Shaqir.
And, she’s excited about the new faces coming into the industry.
“For a long time, we were the youngest agents around. But for the past five to seven years, the industry has tried to bring in younger agents. That’s encouraging,” says Shaqir.
She’s even cultivated some young talent under her own roof. Her children are now 16 and 14. The family travels together quite a bit internationally and domestically.
“When my kids were little, people saw pictures of them in our social media posts. Carpool moms would ask them about our trips. Eventually they would message me. Now my son Ubers to a lot of places. He’s a big talker. So, I give him some of my cards to hand out. He’s already brought me a couple of bookings to the Dominican Republic from Uber drivers. I give him a little commission out of it,” says Shaqir.
Looking back, other family influences inspired her career path.
“My mom was a flight attendant back in day when travel was glamourous. My grandparents retired and went everywhere. I feel like I have it in my blood,” says Shaqir.