Making the Luxury Leap: Donovan Travel's Tom Mieczynski

Tom Mieczynski, here seen at Ocean House in Watch Hill, RI, believes this affluent coastal village represents truly authentic Rhode Island away from the bustle of Newport.//Photo by Rick Catallozzi Jr.

When Tom Mieczynski joined his family’s business, Donovan Travel in East Greenwich, RI, in 2011, the agency was already well regarded within Travel Leaders Group. It was in the midst of earning 20 straight Agency of Excellence awards (which “recognizes the greatest heights of leadership, business success and engagement”) and it was also a part of the network’s Leaders Group, which requires a minimum of $20 million in sales annually to maintain membership.

However, Mieczynski saw room for improvement and that was to create a brand-new strategy to serve affluent travelers.

“When I came on, the first thing I did was develop a luxury business plan for the company and take that forward,” says Mieczynski, who is Donovan Travel’s executive vice president / owner.

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Tom Mieczynski says New Zealand (above) and Jordan are two of his favorite destinations. 

Around that same time, Travel Leaders launched its Luxury Center of Excellence and Mieczynski wanted to take advantage of it. He also saw the luxury leisure market as a more stable segment than corporate, which, until then, was about half of Donovan Travel’s business. (Luxury leisure made up roughly 30 percent of their business at this time.) Mieczynski says that the fluidity of corporate accounts (i.e. mergers or buyouts) makes it more difficult to maintain with a mid-size agency. “Once that company gets bought out, there’s nothing you could do to keep it, but you just lost $10 million of business, just like that,” he says.

“With the corporate landscape always changing, the luxury segment was the best way to replace lost revenue,” Mieczynski adds.

“We still keep corporate accounts — it’s a big part of the agency — but, in my mind, it’s not something I want to solely focus on because these accounts come and go like the wind,” he says, noting that he actually just brought on some new corporate business.

So, with that in mind, Mieczynski set out to train his team in selling luxury. The Luxury Center of Excellence certainly helped with the education aspect; the advisors enrolled in a luxury specialist program where they had the chance to travel and network with luxury suppliers. However, Mieczynski made some changes around the office in order to empower his advisors. For one, he brought more suppliers into the office to do trainings with the staff (of which Donovan Travel has 10 full-time advisors and 17 independent contractors). Mieczynski also urged his advisors to get out of the office more and experience the properties and brands they could be selling firsthand. To facilitate this, Donovan Travel offers its advisors the ability to earn FAM time and travel spend to use for personal trips.

“Education and experience are the only ways to truly become an expert,” Mieczynski says. “Being able to travel to destinations also instills the confidence in the advisor about the product or destination they are selling.” 

The move to luxury was not met with resistance, Mieczynski tells us. “It was something everybody was excited for. It was something they all wanted.”

After training his team on the possibilities, he then had to shift his focus to identifying the right customers to pitch luxury travel to. He targeted the highest spenders on the agency’s client roster first. Then, it simply came down to educating the clients on what was possible in luxury travel.

For instance, his advisors would look at clients who booked contemporary cruises and, instead, showed them options such as Seabourn Cruise Line or Regent Seven Seas Cruises. With everything that’s included with a cruise like these, “there’s actually much more value there and it’s a better luxury experience,” Mieczynski says.

The other part came down to simple sales. He would inform his advisors to “start with a little bit higher price point with what you’re presenting, because you can always go down if it’s something they’re not interested in. But if you start at the bottom, you can never work somebody up.” 

Within two years of pushing luxury, Donovan Travel’s revenue jumped 20 percent. In 2015, the agency earned the Travel Leaders Associate of the Year award, its third such award.

As the focus on luxury increased, so did Donovan Travel’s fees; advisors were able to set their own price, and some are now charging upward of $500. 

Today, luxury sales comprise nearly 70 percent of the agency’s leisure business. 

In New Zealand, Mieczynski and his wife, Natalia, explore the scenic Waiheke Island.

Loving the Challenge

“Initially, I did not want to be a travel advisor and it took a long time to change my mind,” Mieczynski tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

He grew up around the industry: His mother, Judy Clappin, president of Donovan Travel, and stepfather purchased the agency in the 1990s from its original owners who started it in 1972. Mieczynski says he remembers the “horror stories” of his parents working on select trips but adds, “I also saw all the perks and we lived a pretty good life, so I knew it couldn’t be all bad.”

Nonetheless, he didn’t follow in their footsteps. He started his own business when he was 19, doing high-end home theater work, as well as holding installation contracts for various broadband and satellite providers. Mieczynski says he stuck with this and grew that business pretty significantly. Even this wasn’t his original plan: He wanted to be a physical therapist or strength and conditioning coach, and started going to school for the latter, but the money was too good with the home theater business and so he stuck with it. However, by the time his first son was born in 2010, he was burned out.

“I sold that business and took about a year off to figure out ‘what I wanted to be when I grew up,’” he says, adding his mother, Judy Clappin, prodded him repeatedly to join the company but it wasn’t what he wanted despite a curiosity of the industry and a love for travel. 

Eventually, Mieczynski was convinced when he realized the opportunity presented a “best-of-both-worlds” scenario. By joining the family business, he would get to travel but would still be able to take on the challenge of running a business, “which is what I thrived off of.”

When he joined Donovan Travel, Mieczynski held a management role but also sold travel to clients because he needed to learn the industry. (He still sells travel, he tells us, when it comes to certain clients, but he’s almost entirely shifted to running the business now.) It took a load off his mother’s plate, as she was running the business by herself since 2005 when Mieczynski’s stepfather passed away. “At the time he had passed away, she had one foot out the door and was in semi-retirement, so she had to step back in — and not only did she just keep it going, she really grew it to where it is,” he says.

Currently, Clappin works only two days a week. Mieczynski says although working together has been “an adventure,” they have a great relationship. She definitely has more of that “old-school” mentality that clashed with his desire to take the business forward. “There’s been so many little battles I’ve had to fight one at a time,” Mieczynski tells us. One such opportunity he saw was to offer his advisors more time out of the office to travel for FAM trips and industry conferences like ILTM to help boost their sales and experience.

Another of his strategies was to make all of Donovan Travel’s advisors destination specialists. Mieczynski says, “It is so important now to be a true specialist and not a jack of all trades, especially in the luxury segment. Clients are too well educated on what they want for that.”

He adds that the move to specialists also partially stemmed from Travel Leaders’ Agent Profiler tool. Potential clients on the site are going to be looking for a true expert; “they’re not going to pick your bio if it says Hawaii, Caribbean, Europe, Canada,” Mieczynski says. So, the advisors at Donovan Travel have been identifying “what they love to do and what they want to do and [are incorporating] that into their specialty.”

One challenge that came with this was multiple advisors vying for the same specialty. Having a team of 27 that specializes in the same five or six destinations is not going to drive luxury business, he says. “[The client’s] time is valuable, so they’re looking for somebody who can handle what they want.”

So, specializing works on multiple levels: It helps advisors better service their well-traveled and well-educated clients; it helps them attract new clients via the Agent Profiler tool; and it helps create a more collaborative office. “I think that’s one thing our advisors are really good at — sharing their information,” Mieczynski says. 

Should an advisor have a client interested in a trip to a destination that they’re not a specialist in, more often than not, the corresponding specialist will come and assist with the bookings; on occasion, Mieczynski says, the specialist may take the entire booking, if the original advisor and client don’t mind. “Ultimately, it’s about helping the client. It doesn’t matter whose client it is, because it’s a Donovan Travel client,” he tells us. “Whatever our advisors have to do to make sure that client is well taken care of, that’s what they’ll do.”

But sharing information goes beyond assisting a client with an active booking. Mieczynski says that when an advisor returns from a trip, they have to write a “full-blown report” and present it to the agency. While the format is open-ended, the report must include all the “little details,” including information about the hotel, its distance to the attractions and the level of service — “all the good and the bad.” Even airport and airline information need to be included: What is the airport like, what were the wait times? 

Mieczynski also urges his clients to attend tradeshows, including anything arranged by Travel Leaders and ILTM. He adds that he will try to bring two to three to each conference. These events are great opportunities to meet new suppliers, although he says he prefers to work with a limited number of suppliers exclusively (“I feel that is better for the relationship,” he says). Regarding Travel Leaders’ EDGE conference, Mieczynski says, “You always come back to the office and you’re excited to move forward and put things into place. It’s motivating.” It’s no wonder why he is a member of Travel Leaders’ Franchise Advisory Board. 

Most of the advisors at Donovan Travel have been with the agency at least 15 years, including one who recently retired after 36 years. Mieczynski adds that he’s looking to bring on two or three more this year. Fortunately, he tells us he’s finding it easier to find committed applicants than ever before. “Millennials want to get into the business one way or another,” he says, adding most understand the profession better than ever before. “A few years ago, we would go to do interviews, and they thought they just had to come in and travel, and now there is little more of a realistic expectation.”

With new-to-industry hires, Mieczynski says he relies on Travel Leaders’ training combined with a mentorship-type relationship to educate the neophytes. “Ideally, it would be nice to get a new advisor — somebody that’s really just passionate and excited to go for-ward,” he says. “We can train everything else.”

Some industry experience is also great with Mieczynski, but he doesn’t quite see himself taking on someone who’s maybe been in the industry for a couple of decades and is set in their ways. Although, it’s not your experience in the industry that matters most. “If they can produce and they’re a good team player, then we’d have a spot for them,” Mieczynski tells us. 

Donovan Travel’s search for new advisors has much bigger implications than small growth. Mieczynski tells us they are nearing the acquisition of a local, non-Travel Leaders agency, which should be complete by Thanksgiving. He adds Donovan Travel is also in talks with an out-of-state Travel Leaders agency to acquire them, as well — but these talks only began a couple weeks ago. “As far as making acquisitions, the reality is, in this business, if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” Mieczynski says. “There’s really only so much marketing and so much organic growth that you can have in such a small state. So, the key to growth has to be through acquisition.”

With the growth from the acquisitions, Donovan Travel will need new advisors to keep up. He says that several of the advisors in the targeted agencies are nearing retirement, and he wants a plan in place for when those days come. 

Adventure Lover: Mieczynski participates in a plank walk on Mount Huashan in China. 

How Travel Is Changing

Donovan Travel’s clients are mostly located in Rhode Island — roughly 75 to 80 percent of them — and the majority of new, local clients come via referral. Many of these, we’re told, will stop by Donovan Travel’s office to share their post-trip experience with the staff. The remaining 20 to 25 percent of clients are located throughout the U.S. and most often find Donovan Travel through Travel Leaders’ Agent Profiler tool. Because the advisors at Donovan Travel have niches, specifically designed to attract clients through Agent Profiler, they usually find a match pretty easily. Mieczynski tells us a potential client reached out to one of his advisors through the tool with a request for an $80,000 trip. What’s even better: This isn’t uncommon. He says Donovan Travel gets a lot of mid-five-figure enquiries through the website. One such client reached out after losing someone close to him; he took a year to travel around the world, visiting the South Pacific, Australia, Asia and Africa.

Mieczynski says that each advisor can vet their clients how they see fit, “but we try to go in a little bit deeper and find out, is it an anniversary trip? Is it a birthday trip? We try to get a little more personal and find out a little more about their personal life: What’s going on and what we can do to really make [the trip] special.” 

FIT travel is also on the increase among Donovan Travel clients. Each client wants a far more customized vacation than when Mieczynski first got into the business, but he says that’s great. 

“The traveler has changed,” he says. “I think, now, it’s changed more towards the destination, and I think the traveler’s purpose has changed a bit to where it used to just be about the name of the hotel you were staying at.” 

Flying In Style: Mieczynski, who recently visited Myanmar with ICS Travel Group, flew aboard Singapore Airlines and stayed in one of its new First Class Suites.

When previously people might travel “to keep up with the Joneses,” now “they want to do things, see thing that are different and just feel something when they travel.” Donovan Travel’s clients are interested in “doing more with the locals and just wandering through that village or that town, and eating in that local restaurant,” Mieczynski adds. 

He also tells us he’s seeing more solo travelers, “which has been pretty cool to see” because it means stepping outside of your comfort zone. 

“You’re all alone, you’re in a foreign land and you have to put your trust in a lot of other people,” Mieczynski adds. “I think it shows you the best side of humanity when you can do that.”

What hasn’t changed with the traveler? They still love Italy, Mieczynski says. “Italy is our number-one destination by far.” 

It can be a challenge booking so many trips to the same destination, but that’s when advisors can really shine, Mieczynski says. Donovan Travel has two advisors with family in Italy and they travel throughout the country several times a year to scope out “the little restaurants, the little out-of-the-way vineyards or smaller hotels.”

Finding these spots make all the difference, especially when a client has already been to Rome, Venice or any of the other “touristy” destinations. 

Mieczynski tells us he, along with his clients, are very excited to see the Caribbean come back on line. “Being here on the East Coast, the Caribbean was always a big destination for us,” he says. Many clients were excited to revisit because many of the properties were “basically rebuilt from the ground up” and they were excited to support the local people. “It’s great that we can get tourism dollars back to these islands that so desperately need it.”

Mieczynski says that one of his oldest travel memories is when he visited Jamaica with his family at the age of seven or eight. They stayed in a fully staffed villa and “to this day, I still remember Ms. Joyce’s huge smile and her cooking,” he tells us. 

Other destinations that Donovan Travel is getting a lot of enquiries for are Thailand and Vietnam. Mieczynski himself just visited Myanmar with ICS Travel Group at the end of September, showing that Southeast Asia is certainly popular among luxury travelers. Mieczynski flew aboard Singapore Airlines and stayed in one of the First Class Suites; he visited Yangon, Baran and Inle Lake. About the new suites, he says they are “just awesome.”

“With only six enclosed suites, it’s very private and extremely comfortable,” he tells us. “The flight attendants and purser are genuinely friendly and go above and beyond without feeling overbearing or stuffy. Unfortunately, with the bar now set so high, all future flights may be a disappointment.”

As for Myanmar, it’s a destination that’s been on Mieczynski’s list for some time. He tells us he’s interested in “the less-traveled destinations and anything adventure-related.” Some of his favorite destinations include Jordan and New Zealand. In China, outside of Xi’an, he participated in the Plank Walk, where you walk along a six-inch plank built into the side of a cliff. 

“The adventure market has definitely become more of a luxury market,” he says, noting that trekking for snow leopards in the Himalayas and working with animals on African safaris are also trip types he’s seeing. 

Tom Mieczynski in Petra

Tom Mieczynski, here seen at the Monastery in Petra, says there is a rise in solo travel.

Mieczynski tells Luxury Travel Advisor that he’s currently working on a family trip to Africa. His uncle, who’s a big executive at a Fortune 500 company, is retiring and he wants to go to Africa to celebrate. While it’s still about a year and a half away, Mieczynski has a lot of details to nail down. The 15 to 17 family members range from age seven to 60 and different people want to visit different countries (although Mieczynski is trying to solidify these as South Africa, Tanzania and Botswana). Some people don’t want to visit for the full amount of time, while others are looking to tack on additional destinations, such as the Seychelles. Essentially, there are a lot of opinions and a lot of moving parts. The only detail that’s settled is the time of year. 

“I am really looking forward to it, though, and being able to bring my two boys will be truly special,” Mieczynski says. “And I can finally go cage diving with great whites.”

He says he’s excited for the future of luxury travel because it’s projected to keep growing with little to no end in sight. But it’s not just that: Thinking about — and discovering — the next popular destination keeps Mieczynski on his toes. His prediction? Eastern Europe. 

It’s a business he didn’t want to join, in an industry he never really planned to be in. But things seemed to have fallen in place. 

“I couldn’t even imagine doing anything else now,” Mieczynski tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “What I’ve been able to experience and do, it’s been awesome. It really has been life-changing. I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone many times. And it’s just a fun business. 

“Where else can you do and experience the things we get to do?” 

Donovan Travel

Location: East Greenwich, RI
President/Owner: Judy Clappin
EVP/Owner: Thomas Mieczynski
Number of advisors: 27 total (10 full-time advisors and 17 independent contractors)
Annual volume of business: $20 million-plus
Affiliations: Travel Leaders Group
Advisory board positions: Travel Leaders Franchise Advisory Board
Agency website: www.donovantravel.com

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