Up Close With the Departure Lounge

Keith Waldon, founder of Departure Lounge, is a luxury marketing expert who launched a wine bar/travel agency in Austin, Texas.

 

This has been a move-forward kind of a year, so it’s been nice.” That’s Keith Waldon, the founder of Departure Lounge in Austin, TX. But don’t let that mellow attitude fool you. The year 2016 has been mighty fine so far for this former Virtuoso executive. The travel agency concept Waldon launched in late 2013 is earning more than $10 million in revenue annually. There are plans to open two new locations in Austin and he’s developing a Departure Lounge prototype so he can franchise the concept. And what a concept. Just three years ago, Waldon opened a brick-and-mortar agency that operates as a “coffee/wine bar and innovative travel agency.” So, it’s kind of a lovely café by day and a posh wine-and-beer bar by night. Within its walls is great meeting space (think club chairs, cozy booths and big screens to show travel videos) and then there’s the travel agency with advisors on hand for consultations in booths, on couches, or in a private room.

“Our bar staff is trained to explain how our travel services work, then it’s all by appointment,” says Waldon, who was previously a marketing guru, primarily for the luxury travel advisor network Virtuoso. After getting as much information possible from the prospective client, they’re scheduled to return to meet with a hand-selected advisor.

The rest falls into place; planning travel in a comfortable lounge with drinks or coffee is a bit of a no-brainer in terms of getting the client to relax and really talk through their vacation desires. “Most want to meet in the evening or on Saturdays when most travel agencies are closed,” says Waldon.

 

The Departure Lounge concept was born of Waldon’s concerns that the travel advisor business had become invisible to consumers because many agencies had left their main street offices to work from home or in remote offices. He’d particularly seen it in Austin, a city that doubled in size in 20 years.

Anecdotal research conducted throughout the country proved him right. “Anyone under the age of 45 didn’t know what a travel advisor was and they couldn’t tell you where to find one in their city if their life depended on it,” says Waldon, who at the time was vice president of business development for Virtuoso. He approached Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch, saying, “We’ve got to figure out how to get travel back on the street, but in a way that makes sense for today and tomorrow, not based on what it was in the past,” recalls Waldon. He and Upchurch brainstormed about what that agency should look like and in less than a year, Departure Lounge opened in downtown Austin with Upchurch as a personal investor in the venture.

The Human Factor

The face-to-face meetings in the lounge setting are a vital part of the agency’s success and have an 83 percent closure rate, notes Waldon, who did extensive research to determine that planning travel in a relaxed setting, preferably with wine on hand, was what consumers desired.

“Body language and proximity are important. People don’t want to sit on the other side of a desk and a computer like they’re being interviewed by a banker. They want it to be collaborative, sitting in a lounge-like environment and sharing a glass of wine or a cheese plate. That makes it more equal and relaxed and everybody’s got a seat at the table,” he says.

Meetings tend to run for 60 to 90 minutes and for big trips, advisors and clients might meet two or three times to finalize plans.

It’s nice to note that Departure Lounge has earned some good reviews on Yelp, a few  simply for its bar offering. Said one happy visitor: “It’s a really great concept allowing you to enjoy some great wine in a bar setting, purchase delicious wine from their retail store, and also, get great advice from their travel coordinators. The staff is great and the setting is relaxed and casual. I highly recommend going during Happy Hours, which runs from 4 to 7 p.m. every day offering 20 percent off wine flights and $1 off Wines By The Glass. Plus cheese plates are 20 percent during Happy Hour.”

Another Yelp user wrote, “This place is really cool. It’s travel-themed, so it looks like an airport lounge. They have a ton of wine, as well as coffee and pastries available. Saw some people having a meeting here, and I would definitely do the same if I had the chance.”

Local Success

Austinites were the initial players in Departure Lounge’s burgeoning black book of business. Friends of the Texas-based clients soon came calling. Leads also come through alliances and business development skills that Waldon honed from his Virtuoso days. He’s just finalized agreement with the University of Texas for Departure Lounge to exclusively handle a travel program for the school’s alumni association (see sidebar).

Departure Lounge advisors range in age from their late 20s to their 70s. All are independent contractors; 15 are in the Austin area, the rest spread from Anchorage, Alaska to Miami to New York. “We cover the spectrum of destinations and modes of travel, including cruise specialists [river, ocean and expedition], family travel, wine travel, fishing expeditions, biking adventures, vegetarian travel...you name it,” says Waldon. Advisors are showcased in-depth at www.departurelounge.com, with multiple photos and detailed bios.

Waldon didn’t come out of the gate expecting to become a national host agency. “People kept hearing about what we were doing and how we were doing it differently, and then contacting me and saying, ‘Hey, I live in so and so, but I really want to be part of your team,’” says Waldon.

He personally works with several friends, neighbors and blue-chip clients to plan their travel and his specialty is, you guessed it, epicurean trips based around wine. He recently worked on “a very high-end yacht charter, which included a complicated mid-trip repositioning of the yacht from French waters to Spanish waters, combined with some spectacular land experiences in both countries,” says Waldon, who has been listed on the Travel+Leisure A-List.

The drive to innovate continues at Departure Lounge, which is launching a brand extension this fall for affluent families with young children seeking travel experiences that will provide cultural enrichment. The program will include off-the-shelf options that can be easily explained; it’s called “Global CommUnity” and has the deftly selected URL www.nooneisforeign.com.

The program’s purpose, besides selling travel? “To help families create global citizens out of their kids and out of themselves, and doing it in a way that’s easy,” says Waldon. Departure Lounge advisors will conduct long-term family planning with their clients, interviewing the parents and the kids on their interests, ancestry and the cultures they find interesting. Logistics, such as how frequently they can take vacations and what their typical travel budget is, are then added to the mix. A deep-dive analysis is conducted on all the data to create an interactive digital world map that plots out potential travel for the family. For example, a “2018” icon on the map might hover over the Galapagos, click on it and a message will pop up saying, “Suzie will be eight years old this year, and this is the perfect age for her to experience the Galapagos. Here’s a link to the itinerary that we recommend.”

Waldon and his team worked with key suppliers to craft three different types of seven-night itineraries, one for families with children 12 and under; one for families with teenagers; and one for adults only. Two price points are offered — four-star and five-star.

“For example, in St. Petersburg, the family goes and sees the collection of Faberge eggs,” says Waldon. “If they’ve got a young child, they’re taken into a workshop where that child gets to paint a replica of a Faberge egg and keep it. On that same trip, when they’re in Moscow, the teenagers in the family would get access to underground tunnels and have a paintball fight underneath the city.”

Engagement with the children prior to the trip is vital, he says. For that reason kids 10 and under get hand-made dolls that look like a child at the destination, along with a storybook describing what life would be like for those children. Teenagers will get social media apps that include fun facts about where they’re going to go, “so they’ll accidentally learn some things without feeling like they’re learning,” says Waldon. The entire family gets digital downloads of movies, novels, music and recipes to help them get to know the destination before they depart.

This new endeavor will also help it attract new advisors who are in family travel mode themselves, says Waldon.

A Luxury Travel Career

Waldon grew up in a tiny town in northeast Texas; early travel memories are wrapped around trips to California, Florida and Washington, D.C. As a freshman at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he landed a part-time job with Hilton Reservations. In his sophomore year he scored a coveted marketing internship with Rosewood Hotels for the opening of the Crescent Court in Dallas. His Rosewood tenure included international travel, and he fell in love with destinations such as Italy, Egypt and Cambodia.

Three years in, Waldon met Matthew Upchurch of API Travel Consultants and the two became friends. “One of us convinced the other that I should take over public relations for API, which I managed from my hill country farm house west of Austin for many years,” recalls Waldon. “I have memories of stuffing press releases at my dinner table while my toddler danced in the kitchen and miniature donkeys brayed outside.”

During that time he helped evolve API into the global Virtuoso brand, which to this day is regarded as one of the most successful branding initiatives in the industry.

Waldon is still deeply involved with Virtuoso; Departure Lounge is a member. “There’s no other family I’d want to be a part of. The client benefits, supplier relationships, marketing programs and operational support are fantastic,” says Waldon. “Plus everyone who makes those things happen is a long-term friend of mine. Matthew Upchurch is like my brother.” Waldon is also grateful for the advice he’s gotten from Virtuoso travel advisors. “I have a long history in the travel industry, but I had never owned and managed a travel agency and I certainly had never owned and managed a bar, and there was a learning curve for both.”

Growth Mode Continues

More alliances in play: he’s launched a partnership with Facet, a travel app, and Play Studios, for their MyVegas.com travel redemptions and other online games.

Watch out for more growth. Plans are to open a Departure Lounge in May at the Austin airport, known for using only local brands and retail outlets. “One of those major partners came to us and said they wanted to franchise Departure Lounge to put it into the airport as a coffee and wine bar that’s all about travel,” says Waldon. “We won’t be doing travel consulting in that space, but it will be focused on lead generation.”

Waldon plans to open another Departure Lounge in Austin in an area with high-end retail. This one will have a more streamlined design and a stronger focus on travel and serve as a prototype for future Departure Lounges. In fact, plans are to franchise the concept; there’s been interest in that from the onset, says Waldon, revealing that there could be 12 to 15 locations around the country in the next five years. Waldon’s operation would handle the back office for franchisees, who could be successful travel advisors but don’t yet own their agency; entrepreneurs breaking into travel; or wealthy retirees launching their next life chapter.

As a self-acclaimed “branding guy,” Waldon says he will be protective about expanding too quickly, but he has had early talks for locations on the East and West coasts. Other Texas markets are attractive simply because it would be easier to keep tabs on the fledgling businesses.

“I want the client experience to be very similar at each location, wherever it is,” he says.

True to his original goal, Waldon is doing his part to bring travel agencies back out in the open and he’s doing it with pizzazz, thanks to his food and wine angle and the emphasis on human engagement. And although traditional travel agencies may have largely disappeared from the public eye, that’s enabled him and other industry innovators to “take it back to the street” in a new format.

“We can re-create this however we want it to be,” he says. “That’s an opportunity that many industries don’t ever have.”

It’s clear he’s savoring this new chapter in his travel career. “I enjoy the process of helping people with travel,” Waldon tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “This industry has been so good to me, I feel a level of responsibility to help to define what it’s going to be for the future.”

Departure Lounge

Headquarters: Austin, TX

Founder: Keith Waldon

Number of advisors: 35 independent contractors

Annual volume of business:
$10 million+

Affiliation: Virtuoso

Advisory board positions: Travel+Leisure A-List; Destination Hotels Leisure Advisory Council; Virtuoso Marketing Committee; British Virgin Islands Travel Advisory Board

Website: www.departurelounge.com

Keith Waldon’s Brand Development Tips

Since Keith Waldon’s repositioning of API to Virtuoso was such a successful endeavor, we asked the expert for some branding tips to share with our readers. Here’s what he generously offered.

1. Make sure all the decision makers have the same vision for the brand. If one sees a BMW and the other sees a Volvo, you will never get the decision makers to agree on a new brand and support it.

2. If you want to build an asset to someday sell, resist the urge to put your last name in the brand. A brand should remain relevant and meaningful long after you’ve left the business...or sold it for top dollar.

3. If you’re creating an international brand, make sure the brand works well in other languages and cultures...and there are no national trademarks in key markets that would be stumbling blocks as you expand globally.

4. Test your top two brand options against a placebo option that you don’t like. Test them on 200+ of your target market using an unbiased survey mechanism. It’s always best to make sure your brand is communicating what you intend. Names and logos are like art...you can fall in love with something that may not be perceived as you wish.

5. Establishing one brand is hard enough. Don’t splinter your efforts by launching lots of sub-brands. Keep the spotlight steady on your key brand.

“Regarding the brand development of Departure Lounge,” says Waldon, “We needed a memorable brand that communicated both travel and the lounge-like atmosphere where our travel advisors meet with clients. The icons reflect how we use flat screens throughout the lounge to visually transport our clients to top destinations around the world. And we were fortunate to be able to purchase the URL www.departurelounge.com for a reasonable price. The color scheme was inspired by the colors of The University of Texas, and those are beloved in Austin. That decision has paid dividends with our recent agreement to partner with Texas Exes to provide the alumni association members with travel planning services and benefits. And the brand has also been well-liked by our independent contractors based outside of Texas...they like the contemporary and evocative nature of the brand, which helps position them with their clients.”

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