Wendy Goodenow is a second-generation travel agent who knows the business inside and out. A 30-year veteran, she’s currently the owner of HNL Travel Associates, the only Virtuoso agency in Hawaii.
“In 1995, there was only one Virtuoso agency in Hawaii,” remembers Goodenow. “When it was sold, Virtuoso rules required that the sold agency had to reapply to become a member. At the same time, our Seabourn sales manager invited us to join Virtuoso. A few months later another agency applied, so in six months we had three Virtuoso agencies within two miles of each other.” Long story short, one agency closed and HNL Travel Associates bought the original Virtuoso agency, Carl Erdman Travel, in 2000.
Goodenow was born and raised in Honolulu. After high school, she left the islands to attend Linfield College in Oregon. This led to stints in banking and the restaurant business. “When my father died in 1981, I was the only member of the family that was free to go home to Honolulu and help my mom in her travel agency, Four Seasons Travel,” says Goodenow. She credits her mother as being her mentor.
Travel agents may remember Goodenow’s mother, Marney Guy. Goodenow is the immediate past president of the American Society of Travel Agents, Hawaii Chapter, the same position her mother held back in the mid 1980s.
“I can usually raise a few eyebrows when I tell people I was a Guy before I was married,” jokes Goodenow.
Goodenow worked at Four Seasons Travel for 10 years. “My mother wanted to give me the agency,” she says. “But I wasn’t comfortable running it by myself, so we closed it.” Four years later, Goodenow was offered the opportunity to buy into HNL Travel Associates, partnering with Mary Lou Lewis. Goodenow took the offer and never looked back, eventually becoming majority stockholder in HNL Travel Associates, and successfully growing the business by buying additional agencies. Last month, Goodenow bought the last remaining agency in the Oahu town of Kailua and merged it into HNL Travel Associates.
“When I came to HNL, I had a 10-year plan to buy out Mary Lou,” says Goodenow. “I bought an additional 10 percent of the company each year and at the end of 1999 I owned 80 percent of the company.
“We have over 400 years of travel experience,” she adds. “My mother is 85 and she still works with me. She alone has over 48 years in the business.” Goodenow describes her business as having a “been there, done that” level of experience.
Hearing the name HNL Travel, and realizing it’s based in Honolulu, it would be natural to think the agency was named after the HNL airport code for Honolulu International Airport. Not so. The original owners were Merry Herb and Mary Lou Lewis—thus, HNL stands for “Herb & Lewis.”
“After 9/11, we blended the agents from both of our offices into one office, moving Carl Erdman Travel into HNL,” says Goodenow. She remembers the months after 9/11 as being a particularly scary time for sellers of travel. “People stopped traveling. We had to offset the negativity in the media and emphasize that one of the great things about being an American is our freedom to travel. Being Hawaiians, we live on islands—we have to fly to get anywhere.”
Hawaii has been rocked by recent airline bankruptcies and closings. “Inter-island flights are pretty full since Aloha closed, and of course the prices went up,” says Goodenow.
Goodenow’s agency does lots of cruises and lots of FIT custom trips. “Outbound travel from Hawaii is pretty much anything except the Caribbean and Mexico,” says Goodenow. “People in Hawaii are looking for a different setting when they travel.”
Wendy Goodenow and her husband Steve (right) pose with a local in Giza
Making It Work
HNL Travel Associates has six full-time agents and 35 independent contractors. “In the office, we’re like one big happy family,” says Goodenow. “People come in to work to share their experiences and pitch in to help each other. We have a very friendly atmosphere in the office, although I expect the work to be done when it has to be done. With my independent contractors, I don’t have as much control over them.”
Goodenow is firm when she says HNL Travel Associates is not a host agency. “We’re actively involved with all of our agents,” she says.
When it comes to the term “home-based agents,” Goodenow has some strong opinions. “I don’t like the term,” she says. “I prefer ‘independent contractor.’ When a person refers to themselves as a home-based agent, to me it connotes a part-time agent.” Goodenow feels it’s important for independent contractors to have some kind of affiliation with a consortia or a brick-and-mortar agency. “Of all the consortia out there, Virtuoso has been the leader all along,” says Goodenow. “The network they’ve created is extraordinary.”
She’s also not fond of the term “host agency.” “I’m so hooked on professionalism,” says Goodenow. “Our business has seen too many card mills and too much multilevel marketing.” Goodenow relates a cloak-and-dagger game she played with the help of her husband. “Steve is a private investigator and we dropped into one of the seminars that World Class Travel was giving in Honolulu,” says Goodenow. “This company came to Hawaii and set up an office downtown and began putting out the word, ‘How would you like to travel like a travel agent?’” Goodenow remembers the company’s spiel as one outlining how potential travel agents can sign up for a fee and then rope their friends into paying for travel. “World Class Travel eventually bit the dust,” says Goodenow.
Goodenow compares the multilevel marketers to Amway. “They’re not set up for the purpose of travel,” she says. “Instead, they hook people in to sell travel to their friends and relatives. There’s no customer relationship.”
Goodenow notes that whether you’re running a bank, restaurant or travel agency, it all comes down to service. Instead of discounting, Goodenow prefers to offer added value to her clients. “I tend to put in a little added-value surprise in a client’s trip,” she says. “For example, I sent a young couple to Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand on a honeymoon. When they were visiting one of the temples in Angkor Wat, I’d prearranged for them to have a special blessing. It was totally unexpected and they were really touched by the experience.”
Goodenow says that the ability to orchestrate these surprises is due directly to the agency’s relationship with Virtuoso and their suppliers. “It gives me the power to create these added-value experiences,” says Goodenow. “You’re not going to find relationships like these on the Internet.”
Goodenow’s relationships with her clients kept her agency above water even during troublesome times. When the travel agency world was set on its heels in 1995 by the loss of airlines’ commissions, HNL Travel didn’t waste any time in making the transition into charging fees. “The early days of charging fees was all about educating your clients,” says Goodenow. “We sent out a letter explaining the situation.” HNL Travel’s proactive response ensured the company was relatively unruffled by the major changes in the travel agency business climate.
Goodenow poses in a British phone booth in Dover the day she boarded a Crystal Cruise
The People Factor
From her early days in the restaurant business, Goodenow learned that you never give a new customer their first drink for free. “If you do, they’ll expect a free drink the next time they come in,” she reveals. “I feel the same way about fams—my employees have to earn the privilege to go on a fam.” Although Goodenow doesn’t hand out fams like pretzels, she’s is a big believer in fams for herself and her employees. “If I don’t see it myself, I can’t sell it,” she says.
The HNL Travel Associates office gives employees vacation time, sick time and fam time. If an employee is going on vacation to a new destination, Goodenow will allow them to allot some of that time for a fam. For example, if an employee is going away for five days, Goodenow will give them credit for two of the days as fam days instead of vacation time. “I believe in that kind of flexibility,” she says. “This industry is one of the poorest-paying industries, so I’ll look for things that can benefit my employees.”
Goodenow observes that the travel agent profession is not one to attract today’s young people. “Most of my employees are older than me, which is a sad comment on the travel agency business,” says Goodenow. “When I visit Virtuoso, I’m thrilled to see young people working there.”
Goodenow has some advice to young people who buck the trend and decide to become travel agents: “Selling travel isn’t a business you can just pick up and learn overnight,” she says. “In order to put yourself in your clients’ shoes, you need travel experience. You need the passion for travel. You have to communicate. You have to feel. You can’t just be an order-taker. I’m selling you an experience, a lifestyle. Being a travel agent is more than just selling online.”
Goodenow clearly has that passion for travel. “I travel a lot for business, and going to London and New York is wonderful, but I like to go to exotic places and experience something totally different,” she says. “I’ve been to Borneo, Russia, Egypt and China.” Goodenow and her husband, Steve, have some very different ideas of what their dream trip should be. “My husband wants to go to the Amazon and I want to go to Antarctica,” says Goodenow. The solution? “We’ll do both,” she says, laughing.
Goodenow is also a believer in giving back to the community you live in. “I’ve been on several boards in the past, most recently MADD and the American Cancer Society,” she says. Goodenow also participates in Coaches vs. Cancer, and The Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunrise.
In Praise of Virtuoso
Reps from the bigger tour companies and cruise companies regularly call on HNL Travel Associates. But in Goodenow’s opinion, not enough companies realize the value of having their sales manager call on travel agencies.
Goodenow is a big fan of the annual Virtuoso Travel Mart, having attended 13 of them.
“I really recommend them, although they’re grueling,” says Goodenow. “For 4½ days, I have a different vendor in front of me, one after another.” She describes these vendors as being a blur of cruise line presidents, tour company reps and general managers and concierges from hotels and resorts. “Over the years, I’ve gotten to know most of them,” she says. “The value of these face-to-face meetings is priceless.”
Goodenow has also gotten mileage out of a pair of Virtuoso’s magazines, Virtuoso Life and Virtuoso Insights. “These come out on alternate months and they have articles that really make you want to travel—they kick-start travelers into making a decision,” she says. “We have clients who actually come through the door with these magazines in their hands, intent on booking travel they’ve read about.”
Goodenow observes that agents today have to be one step ahead of their clients. “If we don’t have an answer right away, we have to know where to find it,” she says. “We have to be smarter than the client who comes in armed with research and knowledge. Sometimes these clients have been falsely informed by books and websites, and we have to be able to set them straight.”
She draws an interesting parallel between the Internet and direct bookings of yesteryear. “The people who now book over the Internet are the same types of people who used to call the airlines direct,” says Goodenow. “It’s a personality thing.”
Today, HNL Travel Associates sells a lot of cruise vacations and FIT travel. “We handle all levels of business, not just high-end,” says Goodenow. “There’s a cruise ship for everyone out there. It’s our job to figure out what’s best for each client.”
But Goodenow isn’t adverse to moving guests out of a rut. “If you’re booking Celebrity, and only suites on Celebrity, why not try Regent or Crystal?” she asks. “It comes down to how well you know your clients. I have clients who have been booking travel with me for over 20 years.”