FROM A FORMER CAR SALESMAN who traded that job in to become a travel agent on pace to make close to $2 million in gross profits this year, and from a surgical weight loss patient who used his experience battling health issues to tap into a steadily growing niche market, there are some wonderful success stories in the world of host agencies.
If you're a home-based agent toying with becoming a member of a host agency, here are some reasons to make the commitment.
Home-Based Travel Agent recently spoke with some of the most successful host agencies in the market, and picked the brains of their top-producing agents and their most- improved agents from 2005 and 2006, to help you find the host agency that is best for you and figure out how to be a success once you've decided on one.
Drew Tate, senior cruise specialist and owner of Drew's Cruise Corner based in Orlando, describes his host agency, Joystar, as the "eight-hundred-pound gorilla when it comes to host agencies." It's a fitting description in Tate's case, since the 31-year-old travel agent made $980,000 from 2005 to 2006 and has already earned $250,000 in 2007, putting him on pace to make between $1.5 and $2 million in gross sales for the year.
As of late, the California-based host agency has grossed nearly $140 million in total sales and includes 1,368 professional agents and 58 enterprise members with 1,682 of their own agents.
Tate gave up his job as a car salesman in the mid '90s when an old friend told him there was money to be made in the travel industry. His career, however, started out a bit rocky. Although he was able to get his foot in the door quickly with some major brick-and-mortar agencies, he wasn't able to effectively get his own business off and running before becoming a Joystar member, he says.
Now, he is the most improved Joystar agent in the past year. "I tried a couple of different host companies out there," Tate says. "Let me tell you, they nickel-and-dimed me for everything. Most did not even offer me my own web site. None had a lead program. I could not book into their group space. Then the splits were 50/50 and more extra fees. Not one offered me 100 percent commission."
Tate says Joystar offered everything he was looking for, including its new VacationCompare.com web site, which offers member agencies leads and only charges them a fee if the vacation gets booked. Through that feature, Tate has already booked more than 115 cruise cabins since January 1.
But even with the tools, an agent must know how to sell. For Tate, the trick is painting the scene for a client. "Selling is an art form," he says. "You want the client to kind of go off on a journey with you through the process. You want to make a client visualize themselves on a cruise."
Dan "The Travel Man" Schmier, owner of the All-Star Travel Companies in Flint, Michigan, is also a major advocate of Joystar. As the host agency's top producer, Schmier continues to capitalize on niche markets and finished 2006 with total gross sales of $7.2 million, up from $6.3 million in 2005.
Schmier currently specializes in Renaissance festivals, booking more than 400 for clients a year. The key in finding the right niche market, Schmier says, is to be in the right place at the right time and to keep your ears open for the next big thing. That doesn't always come at the happiest times of one's life, as Schmier knows. Schmier, who had to have surgical weight loss surgery, began attending focus groups for people who have had the same procedure and who were now looking to live healthy lifestyles. He began booking cruises and other vacations for this market, setting up itineraries that included meals that catered to their needs.
"If I was a bowler and I was at a bowling alley, I probably would have thought of a way to come up with a niche market for travelers who like to bowl," he says. "But that wasn't the case. I learned that people like me who had surgical weight loss procedures had certain dietary needs when they were on vacations, so, I started catering to these people. It could have been anything, but it has to be something you know about and can identify with."
Schmier says the two niche markets that you have to get into if you haven't already are religious travel and gay travel. He says Joystar has been a great asset because of the amount of advertising dollars the host agency has.
"If I was a brick-and-mortar agency, there is no way I would have the liquid money for some of the things that Joystar does for me," he says. "As a top producer, I am able to compete dollar for dollar with any big-time agency."
Travel Counsellors PLC
Travel Counsellors opened its United States headquarters in Florida less than a year ago, and if its sales overseas are any indication of how well the company will fare in the U.S., its $350 million sales figure should make people take notice. Top Host Agencies By Sales Volume
The host agency's top-producing agent, Edward Pearson, based on the Island of Man, got involved with the travel industry when he was just 17. His plans of pursuing the industry as a part-time job didn't exactly go as planned—lucky for him, because now, at the age of 34, his turnover is about $4.3 million a year in gross sales.
As a 24-year-old working his way up the ranks in the industry, he was looking to set up his own brick-and mortar-agency, "But I was still young and all the licenses of ABTA, IATA confused me," he says.
By chance, he happened to come across an old travel paper at home in which he saw an advertisement for Travel Counsellors. "I phoned them immediately and that was that," he says. "I had a quick interview in Manchester and I was on my way home with a laptop and printer and a huge smile, as I already had a few cruises up my sleeve from my old job." And soon after, "I was hearing stories around that I was getting on my old bosses' nerves, as no high street agent likes a Travel Counsellor, as they know we can undercut them since we have no overheads," Pearson says.
Pearson remains heavily involved in booking cruises, but doesn't rely on them. He boasts that 30 percent of his business is one business travel account.
"My advice to anyone wanting to create a business with such a turnover is simple: Anyone can do it, but they have to understand the responsibility that goes with it is enormous," Pearson says.
Dawn Gascoigne, based in the U.K., is Travel Counsellors' most improved agent, as she went from a total sales volume of about $890,000 in 2005 to about $1.1 million in gross sales in 2006. So far in 2007, she has sold more than $300,000.
Gascoigne describes herself as an "all-arounder," specializing in everything from honeymoons and weddings to cruises, flights, business vacations and both short- and long-term vacations.
Besides her success in numbers, Gascoigne says she also gains great pleasure in hearing positive feedback from clients. "There is no amount of money that can beat the feeling you get when you have a commendation letter, or a call from the client whilst on holiday to tell you it is fantastic," she says. "It gets me every time and I have been in the industry for approximately 17 years. In all that time I have never lost that feeling, and I love it."
This Montrose, CA-based agency has about 170 independent contractors and currently has sales of about $110 million. Cathy Nilsen, the company's top-producing agent, owns Direct Access, in Simi Valley, CA. Her total sales volume for 2006 was $5 million, mostly in the niche travel market of entertainment.
"Aligning yourself with the right host agency can make all the difference," she says. "The support that a competitive host agency can provide from sales to automation will make you as competitive as any of the mega-agencies. That's difficult to do on your own."
Nilsen says Montrose's "team of experts" gives her the same resources as a brick-and-mortar agency without the cost. "Montrose Travel has a team of experts that I can pull from that puts me and my business in the major leagues," she says.
"When I am selling myself and my services, I know I have the backing of one of the top 50 agencies in the United States. It is difficult to quantify the value of state-of-the-art automation, sales and marketing teams who are willing to pitch in when needed—some of the brightest, most capable minds in the industry—and an agency that is dedicated to the advancement of home-based agents."
Travel Planners International, Inc.
This host agency has grown so much recently that it was scheduled to expand its headquarters to Maitland, FL, at the end of February. The company has sales totaling upwards of $100 million, and offers agents 75-to-100 percent of commissions, depending on the plan chosen.
Based in Florida, Sue Johnson, the host agency's top-producing agent with about $1 million in gross sales, says the greatest part about being a member of a host agency, particularly TPI, is the attention you get from consumers.
"Being a member of TPI is a great asset," Johnson says. "I am recognized right away and that alone opens many doors and provides many opportunities for a one-woman show. TPI offers great support and they have a great and very knowledgeable help desk."
Johnson has been a travel agent since 1982 and says the one thing that still hasn't changed about the industry since then, despite the influx of web-related tools and other technology, is the need to identify with your client.
"I always put myself in my clients' shoes, and make sure that I cover every detail and make them aware of all the details that they may be too busy to think of, i.e., rush hour, weather that may delay early morning flights, et cetera," she says. "My main driving force is I still love what I do, and that is the bottom line."
Toby Byrd, based in Callahan, FL, was TPI's most improved agent in 2006. Like most home-based agents to whom Home-Based Travel Agent spoke, Byrd says one of the major benefits of being a member of a host agency is saving advertising dollars.
If you can avoid spending serious money on advertising and instead rely on your host agency and/or the spreading of word-of-mouth recommendations, you stand to make much more money. "Since I have not invested in any form of advertising, I feel word of mouth has been my best marketing tool," Byrd says. "Prompt response time, personalization and follow-up always prove to be successful. I don't think I'll change my method, as I believe that a referral from a satisfied customer has greater value than advertising in the newspaper."
Byrd earned $406,394 in gross sales in 2006 and has bookings totaling $25,680 so far in 2007.
"Through [TPI's] marketing department, I have received some excellent suggestions on business planning and growth. Just to put this in perspective, in 2005, I was operating with only a two-drawer file cabinet. By the end of 2006, I now have two, four-drawer file cabinets. And this, I call success."