30Under30: Where Are They Now?

Katie Blackstone

As we prepare to introduce our 10th annual 30Under30 class — the next wave of rising stars in the travel agency business — in our August 21 issue, Travel Agent reached out to some of the past winners to see what they are up to and how they are faring today. 

We’re happy to announce that this sampling of alumni has only good news to report, being among the more successful agents to win the award since it was introduced in 2008. Some have exciting new ventures that complement their work as travel advisors. Others have greatly expanded the scope of their expertise. All have wonderful stories about their success in selling travel and how earning 30Under30 honors has boosted their confidence and credibility and contributed to their good fortune. These agents, as you will discover in the pages ahead, also have insights and observations to share that neophytes and industry veterans alike may find beneficial.

Katie Blackstone
Travel Beyond
Wayzata, MN
Class of ’14

You won’t get any hemming and hawing when you ask Katie Blackstone what her favorite destination is. Simply put, the 2014 30Under30 winner lives, breathes and aggressively sells all things Africa.

“In the three years since I won the award, I have returned to Africa three times, spending about 10 weeks exploring Southern and East Africa,” says Blackstone. “I have been able to add new experiences to my list that I can now teach my clients about, including cultural visits with the Maasai and Samburu in Kenya, mobile safaris in Botswana, and chimpanzee trekking in Tanzania.”

Aside from the opportunity to immerse herself deeply in Africa travel, Blackstone says the 30Under30 recognition gave her the boost she needed to succeed as an advisor.

“The award helped to increase my confidence in my abilities and knowledge in these destinations,” notes Blackstone. “Being so young in the industry, I would sometimes lack the confidence of my peers who had more experience under their belt. The award taught me that I am capable of being a positive force for my clients and my company.”

Blackstone has also learned a clever way to retain business.

“Besides this new destination knowledge, I’ve also developed new ways to enhance clients’ overall experience, such as sending gifts to honeymooners and reaching out to properties directly to ‘VIP’ the guests,” she says. “I’ve learned over the past few years how important it is to gain country- specific knowledge on the ground, as well as through my team of colleagues.”

And Blackstone’s success is quite apparent. 

“Overall, 2017 has been a great year,” she tells us. “It seems that a safari in Africa continues to get higher and higher on people’s bucket lists each year, and experiences like primate safaris and cultural encounters are also becoming more popular.”

Her advice for the next wave of young travel agents?

“Figure out what type of travel you’re interested in selling,” she says. “Luxury or budget? Customized or scheduled group departures? Specialize in specific areas or sell it all? I learned that customized luxury trips to Africa are where my passion lies. Once you know what you’re interested in, you can then reach out to companies in line with your interests and jump on any educational opportunities they offer.” 

Marisa Costa
Amiko / Protravel
New York City
Class of ’15

Since earning the award in 2015, Marisa Costa has been training the next generation of potential 30Under30 winners through NEXT, a program run by Protravel International and the Tzell Travel Group. But it was the networking with other agents and suppliers since winning that has led to her latest and perhaps most important venture to date.

“The 30Under30 award enabled me to attend roundtables and other events geared toward studying trends in Millennial travel,” she says. “These forums helped enhance my knowledge in this field, as well as foster my relationships with other young advisors. I am pleased to announce my new venture, Amiko, which was born as a result of my research and connections in this field.”

Costa describes Amiko as a community of travel insiders out to share the travel world with inspiring people — and change it for the better. 

Amiko aims to tackle the huge disconnect between Millennials and the luxury travel industry by introducing this independent consumer to the new wave of advisors or, as Costa calls them, “specialist advisor / influencer hybrids.”

“Combining the service and client relationship of a travel agent, the in-depth knowledge and niche expertise of a tour operator, and the marketing tactics and digital nomad lifestyle of a social media influencer, we’re creating a unique model for the next generation, resulting in a win-win,” explains Costa. “The advisors get to follow their passions, and the client ultimately gets better service.” 

But Costa’s success didn’t come without a learning curve.

“As someone who came from the tour operator side, I have always felt strongly about specialization and I didn’t understand why most advisors were generalists,” she says. “I learned that while most advisors would love to focus on the type of travel they personally enjoy, as independent business owners, they generally have to take whatever they can get when starting off. 

“Another issue was that trying to advocate for the Millennial advisor as a whole was extremely difficult when we all operate differently and are not sending out one cohesive message or driving traffic to one place — until now.”

And what advice would she give to someone who’s flirting with becoming an advisor?

“When people ask me about getting into the travel industry, I always stress that you have to love working with people just as much as you love traveling,” says Costa. “Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, but the people of this industry will help you every step of the way if you take the time to make personal connections.”

Caitlyn Gambino
AAA
Taylor, MI
Class of ’14

Caitlyn Gambino’s career has been moving at a rapid pace sever since she garnered 30Under30 accolades.

“It was very early in my career, so to be recognized in that way made me very excited for my future in the industry and I think it also told others who had been in the industry a lot longer than I had that I was a force to be reckoned with,” she says. “I was very flattered to have been recognized as a ‘game changer’ and I think since then I have upheld the expectation for blazing a trail in the industry.”

Since she won the award, she moved to a different AAA office and has also had a greater role with the company, networking with a wide range of travel professionals.

“The 30Under30 award generated leads as well as opportunities for me to interview with different people and get my name out there in the industry, which I think is the biggest positive,” says Gambino. “It helped to boost my confidence so that I could go out there and become one of the top sellers in my company. In 2015, I actually received ACG’s Rookie of the Year Award, which is the top-selling agent in the company with under 18 months experience.”

Of all of the tips she’s learned so far, she says nothing is more important than knowing that honesty is the best policy.

“Don’t be afraid to be honest with clients,” she emphasizes. “Rather than trying to gloss over something or pretending like you know the answer when you don’t, tell them you will research it. Rather than trying to hide the truth about a bad airline schedule change, or a charge from a tour company, tell them the truth and give them their options. People will appreciate your honesty and will be grateful that they had someone to explain the differences to them that they wouldn’t have had [if they had] booked on their own.”

And thanks to rising stars like herself, Gambino is optimistic about the future of the travel advisor. 

“Rather than the travel agency dying out like so many people assumed, Millennial agents are changing the way it’s done and packing so much more value into the interaction than there ever has been in the past,” observes Gambino. “We are now acting as advisors, counselors and managers. We are no longer order-takers, but rather experience-designers. Instead of seeing the Internet as our competition, we are using it as a tool, but it only complements our own experience and imagination when creating a trip for someone, rather than controlling the direction of the interaction.”

Dane Steele Green
Steele Luxury Travel
New York City
Class of ‘14

Dane Steele Green was in Lake Como, Italy, celebrating his friend’s 30th birthday when he got his first glance of the 2014 30Under30 issue of Travel Agent. When he didn’t see his photo on the cover, Steele’s heart sank as it was his last year of eligibility for the award. So he strolled over to the minibar, did a shot of tequila and took another look at the cover, this time noticing someone familiar.

“Then I saw a photo of a good looking guy. He had the same jacket as me. And was on the same mountain as I was in New Zealand,” recalls Steele. “Then I realized it was me and I went back to the minibar.”

And it’s been all celebratory cocktails ever since for Steele Luxury Travel.

“Aside from the countless e-mails and congratulatory messages I received, it really put Steele on the stage,” he says. “This past December, we were welcomed into the Virtuoso Travel Network and were truly honored as it was a goal of mine. Not many agencies pass the high-level bar that Virtuoso sets for new membership.”

Since then his business has grown exponentially. Steele Luxury Travel is currently producing multimillion-dollar destination events around the globe and working with clients and corporations on some of the most interesting travel projects. 

“I have also launched Steele Rewards with my sister and business partner, Hayley Corwick,” he says. “Steele Rewards is the industry’s first affiliate marketing platform connecting global influencers with the world’s top hotels and resorts. With our smart technology, bloggers and influencers can now write about our participating hotel partners in their digital articles. If a reader clicks on a hotel link, they are directed to the hotel’s website. If that user makes a booking with that hotel within 90 days, the travel agent commission is automatically paid to Steele Travel and we generously split the commission with that influencer.”

So, what’s the biggest piece of advice Steele would give someone looking to be a travel agent or simply looking to get into the travel industry in general?

“Education. Read. Learn. Find a mentor who loves to teach the industry and work in an environment that works for you,” Steele adds. “Find the angle that works for you and your clients will respect you and come back.” 

Alexis Lee
Avenues of the World Travel
Flagstaff, AZ
Class of ’1

While on a fam trip to Australia in 2015, Alexis Lee woke up one morning to find roughly 100 notifications on her social media account. 

“When I finally figured out what they were congratulating me for, I was pleasantly surprised and honored to have been selected,” she tells Travel Agent about when she first realized she has earned 30Under30 honors. “It wasn’t until later that day when others on the trip started congratulating me that it actually set in.” 

And just like that Lee says she went from “just another travel consultant in the masses” to a rising star in the industry.

“It opened doors to meeting people that I never had [before], and being considered for larger projects such as helping Switzerland Tourism with their reservations and coordination of their ‘Road to Switzerland’ show last April,” says Lee. “I was also honored at our annual Signature Travel Network Sales Meeting in Las Vegas where my picture rotated on the screens for all to see.”

But is there perhaps anything different that Lee would have done if she had a chance to restart her career?

“The only thing that I may not have known at the time is that with enough research, you really can figure out anything,” she shares. “Having been faced with something nearly impossible, it’s really amazing to find the wealth of information out there, and figuring out the ways you can overcome the seemingly impossible.”

Having other Millennials working in the industry sure helps as well. 

“It is incredibly important to have Millennials around your office in addition to the seasoned consultants,” she says. “Yes, having someone there that has been there and done everything is important, but it’s also equally necessary to have people with fresh ideas, [who] understand how other Millennials think and what they want, and just overall have a different way of doing things. This business is ever-changing, and with more and more Millennial travelers out there, it’s going to continue to shift to tailor to what they want.”

Anna Thelen 
Dream Come True Vacations
Sicklerville, NJ
Class of ’14

Anna Thelen, who was Anna Yott when Travel Agent named her one of its top 30Under30 agents three years ago, says the top benefit of winning such recognition was that it gave instant credibility to a young agent just scratching the surface of the travel industry.

“I was so new and inexperienced; there was so much I needed to learn,” she says. “Winning 30Under30 gave me so much more credibility as a somewhat newer agent. It was an amazing networking opportunity and allowed me to meet industry professionals and friends that I still am in contact with today.” 

And the networking hasn’t stopped since.

“One huge takeaway I think I’ve learned over the past few years is the importance of industry events and networking,” she observes. “Going on fams or to events such as CruiseWorld or the Travel Industry Exchange helps you to learn so much about new products and destinations, but more importantly allows you to foster relationships with suppliers, and also make some new friends in the industry too.”

It didn’t hurt that Thelen found herself networking more and more with people around her age.

“When I first started in the industry years ago, it seemed that young faces were harder to find in the crowd at events and trade shows, whereas in more recent years I think the number of Millennial agents is growing exponentially,” says Thelen. 

“I think having more Millennials on board is giving the industry a shot of life and fresh perspective and ideas,” she adds. “While you can’t replace, nor want to, the years of experience and wisdom a more senior agent may have, I think the unique insight a Millennial agent can bring to the table is beneficial to any agency.” 

So what’s the best advice she can give to those younger agents just entering the industry?

“Follow your gut,” she says. “I received a lot of advice on who to work with, or what to specialize in when starting out, and some of that was helpful, but you need to listen to your own voice to see where your passion really lies.”

Alexandra Totokotsopoulos Scipione
Alex’s Adventures
Newtown Square, PA
Class of ’13

Four years removed from winning the prestigious 30Under30 award, Alexandra “Alex” Totokotsopoulos Scipione says she now knows the key to success is recognizing the worth of what agents do for their clients.

“Don’t underestimate the value of your work,” she tells Travel Agent. “Your time is valuable. Your time is money. Not every person that comes to you is a client. That is a hard concept to fathom when you are first starting out. You are valuable and so is your work.”

Since winning, Scipione has earned her Hawaii Destination Specialist Certification and has been quoted in several Hawaii-related pieces in Travel Agent and on Travel Agent Central. She has also traveled to the Dominican Republic, Greece and Italy on custom itineraries that she designed and was able to experience the countries first hand. 

“Educate yourself,” she urges young agents. “Take the time to attend industry conferences, supplier trainings and webinars. Try to find a trusted mentor that can help answer questions when you have them or steer you in the right direction. Join online travel agent groups on Facebook, read industry publications. Talk to people and [get exposure for] yourself as much as you can.”

As far as Scipione’s education goes, it was her travel agent aunt who inspired her love of travel at a very young age. And in that vein she would like to see more such mentoring today. 

“She was an agent in the heyday before computers and the Internet. The industry has changed immensely since that time. Supplier-agent relationships are not what they used to be,” she says. “People do not travel or spend the same. Times are certainly different. I think it is important that these all-star agents need to be mindful of the Millennials and think about taking newbies under their wing. Both parties would benefit from this relationship.”

Katherine Vallera
The Travel Connection Group
Los Angeles
Class of ’15

From a blogger to an advisor to 30Under30 recognition in 2015, Katherine “Kat” Vallera’s career may have evolved, but it’s always been about travel. 

“After I was named one of the 30Under30 [winners] by Travel Agent, I followed my heart by continuing to travel,” says Vallera. “Within a year’s time, I’d covered major ground, traveling extensively throughout six of the world’s seven continents. I now have over 50 countries under my belt.”

And Vallera is keeping the karma gods happy by giving back.

Shortly after winning the honor, she had the privilege of joining the Signature Travel Network in delivering food to Rose’s Community Kitchen, which provides meals for children in a township outside Cape Town, South Africa.

“Volunteerism is something I still value, as well,” she says. “More recently, I signed up to volunteer with Care International, an NGO that empowers women and provides hygiene education in Tanna, Vanuatu. Unfortunately, I grew seriously ill a few days after arrival and had to be air-evacuated back to Australia for emergency care. I hope to return to Tanna one day so I can complete my service to the people of this beautiful community. Meanwhile, I can’t say the experience was a total loss because it taught me the value of travel insurance.”

Formerly an advisor with Foremost Travel & Tours, Vallera says her decision to go independent provided her with the freedom to travel more to the places she was selling. 

“I saw my departure from this company as an opportunity to participate in Australia’s working holiday program,” she tells us. “It was a chance to learn more about this destination while working for a tour company called Adventures North Australia.”

Since attaining 30Under30 honors, she moved from Chicago to Los Angeles in pursuit of new opportunities. Aside from travel consulting, she is also a part-time travel journalist. 

“I’m delighted to have the ability to allocate my expertise between both travel media and sales,” she says.

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