Damian McCabe: How McCabe World Travel's CEO Fosters Talent

Damian McCabe, CEO of McCabe World Travel in McLean, VA, might be the most under-the-radar rock star agency owner in the travel industry. If you know McCabe World Travel, you might best associate the agency with its president, Anne Morgan Scully but, behind the scenes, it was McCabe herself who was turning the agency into a dynamic workplace that’s bringing in plenty of young and new-to-industry advisors and fostering them into all-stars in their own right.

The biggest change for the agency came just over a decade ago when McCabe decided to stop working with a large book of clients daily and focused on running the business. It’s how the agency, which had been in business for almost 20 years at the time, has since doubled in size — both in terms of revenue and number of staff. Today, McCabe World Travel has 63 total staff members (that’s 25 employees and 38 independent affiliates), who all do their part in helping the agency reach annual volume of business of $55 million. 

“I spend most of my day advising my team; my 63 people are my clients,” McCabe tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

That’s not to say McCabe doesn’t work with clients anymore — she does — she instead primarily focuses on supporting her staff and developing tools and programs that will help them grow, as well as liaising with the agency’s supplier partners. “I realized that my time was better spent supporting my advisors,” she says.

Since the change, numerous McCabe World Travel advisors have received accolades for their work. Jessica Griscavage was the recipient of the first Virtuoso Network Rising Star in 2009; she was followed by Beth Jenkins Washington, who won the award in 2013 and Frances Sarrett, who was named the Virtuoso Rising Star – Cruise in 2019. So, what’s the secret sauce? “We are all about education and training,” McCabe says.

The training program began about 10 years ago in an unofficial capacity. When a new team member was brought on board, McCabe would pair them with an existing advisor who could use the support for their business. Over the years, McCabe, Scully and several of their top advisors polished and improved the training program to the point where it’s much more structured now. 

Check out our conversation with Anne Scully as part of our Selling Luxury podcast, where we discuss ways to maintain great client relationships, here:​​​

When a new-to-industry advisor joins McCabe World Travel (which they’re doing in droves), they enter as an associate. They are, most often, paired with one advisor to work with where they learn the ins and outs of the industry. (In some cases, due to the numbers, one associate may work with two advisors, but this is the outlier, not the norm.) The associates will start with Virtuoso’s training, since it’s so integral to the way McCabe World Travel runs its business, we’re told. They will then learn about the systems that McCabe World Travel uses (such as Client Base, Virtuoso.com and Unmapped) and will follow advisors in their footsteps. The associates will even take over the advisor’s desk and files, working with clients, if that person is traveling (as many of them sit on different advisory boards and committees). 

“The young people come on and quickly find out whether they have an interest in selling,” McCabe says. While some may prefer to remain an associate (and that’s fine, according to McCabe), by shadowing an advisor and learning what the job is about, they will have all the tools they need to succeed should they make the progression to becoming an advisor. Most associates make the jump in a couple years. 

When you have a program and support system in place like this, it allows you to target the personalities and work ethic that you feel will lead to a successful career in travel, rather than searching for people who have the experience but might clash with the agency culture. 

“I’m looking for somebody who is nice, is kind, is a team-player, and knows how to listen both to the team and to the client,” McCabe tells us. “Writing skills are very, very important, as is a strong work ethic. I’ve been very lucky — very, very lucky — we have very little turnover here.”

Raising a toast to Virtuoso’s newest Washington D.C. hotel, The Dupont Circle Hotel, a member of the Doyle Collection. From left: Jessica Griscavage; Anne Scully; Joel Freyberg, general manager at The Dupont Circle; Damian McCabe and Beth Jenkins Washington. // Photo by Tony Powell

Despite all the young blood at McCabe World Travel, many of the advisors have been with the agency for 12 to 18 years. Several others have been with the agency for over 20 years; one has even been with McCabe for 27 years. All in all, the advisors’ books of business range from $1.5 million to $6 million each. 

One reason why advisors stick around so long is that McCabe has an open-door policy and is very receptive to new ideas. In fact, this is how the current version of the mentorship program came to be. About four years ago, two advisors — Griscavage and Jenkins Washington — approached McCabe about expanding their roles at the agency. Now, in addition to working as travel advisors, where they each have over $5 million in annual sales, they serve as director of marketing and director of development, respectively. In their new roles, Griscavage and Jenkins Washington developed the associate program and built an intranet for the company that connects all employees and independent contractor affiliates. They also create monthly newsletters and incentives. 

“We are all about being sure that everybody succeeds,” McCabe says. “Jess [Griscavage] and Beth [Jenkins Washington] are just incredible resources within the company.” 

She adds, “We absolutely work as a team environment here. It’s really important that everybody helps everybody else. We very much feel [that] helping somebody make a sale just makes the whole team better.”

Perhaps this is why independent affiliates are calling McCabe weekly about working with her agency. They “recognize that, really, luxury is what they’re selling” and see that McCabe World Travel can help them flourish. “It’s happening more and more than I’ve ever seen it before, and that’s a good thing,” McCabe says.

Another reason why independent contractors seek McCabe World Travel? She’s the point of contact for all of her advisors, including the independents.

“I don’t have somebody who runs the independent contractor program — I run that myself,” she tells us. “I’m available by e-mail seven days a week to the independent contractors, and the newer ones will run many sales opportunities per week by me. I am all about efficiency and making sure that they don’t waste time going in the wrong direction. I don’t tell them what supplier to sell but I will suggest a number of suppliers for a particular destination and let them make a choice.”

She’s not just saying that. Jenkins Washington tells us of a time when she was in the middle of a site inspection on a familiarization trip when her client called with an air issue. She then called McCabe, who handled the issue. Oh, this was on a Saturday.

Maria Diego of Diego Travel, one of McCabe World Travel’s newest independent affiliates, tells us it was a video shared at Virtuoso Travel Week of McCabe, Scully and Jenkins Washington that sold her on the agency. 

“My husband and I attended Virtuoso Difference last year with the intention of finding a host agency that would adequately fit our needs to grow our business,” Diego says. “Of the attending host agencies, none of them felt like quite the right fit, but we still felt very strongly that Virtuoso was a vital part of the equation for our clients.”

On the road: McCabe, who travels for about one-third of the year, visits the Taj Mahal  with daughters, Amanda Halacy and Clare Halacy. 

When she saw the video on the mentorship between the women, she says, “I knew immediately that this was the type of guidance that I wanted, and I admired the fact that all three are strong, leading women in the industry.”

The following week, Diego reached out to McCabe and knew on the spot that she needed to be a part of McCabe World Travel. “Within a few days I was part of their team and on my way to reaching my goals,” Diego says. “The mentorship that she has provided has been invaluable, and her style of working and vision aligns very much with my own.”

McCabe is also all about incentivizing her advisors. She takes her top-producing independent affiliates on an incentive trip each year. This year, the group will be going to Ireland; in years past, she has rewarded them with trips to Anguilla and Los Cabos. 

“The purpose of this trip is to say, ‘Thank you,’ but it’s also to focus on a destination they might not already know well,” McCabe says. After a trip, she will run an incentive for at least a full quarter for the entire company once the trip report is released. To say the strategy works would be an understatement. The year they went to Los Cabos, McCabe World Travel increased its business to the destination by 400 percent. 

McCabe also likes to run incentives during the holidays. At last year’s holiday party, McCabe World Travel had 80 people in attendance and many supplier partners donated two-night stays at their properties. The agency then runs a first quarter incentive showcasing the partners that offered stays. 

A Sea of Change

In April 2019, McCabe World Travel celebrated its 30th anniversary with a “beautiful boat cruise on the Potomac River.” With both advisors and top supplier partners in attendance, and Washington, D.C.’s cherry blossoms in full bloom, it was a fantastic event, we’re told. Following the celebration, McCabe World Travel hosted supplier trainings over the weekend. 

“There’s been a sea of change in the last 30 years,” McCabe tells Luxury Travel Advisor — and not just among the consumers. Today, McCabe’s business is just about 100 percent leisure (and has been for 20 years). Originally, McCabe World Travel started as a corporate agency in 1989 with “a lot of high-end corporate accounts” in the D.C. area. In fact, before moving out to the suburbs in 1999, the agency was on the ninth floor of an office building in downtown D.C. Ultimately, McCabe came to the realization that selling corporate travel just wasn’t where her heart was. 

The move to McLean, Virginia started a new era for McCabe World Travel. The community is centrally located in the D.C. metropolitan area and is one of the top three zip codes — both of which would help the agency make the transition into a leisure-based business. Now, the agency’s business is split pretty evenly among air, cruise, tours and FIT hotels, McCabe says. “I keep a very balanced portfolio. If something should change overnight in the industry commission-wise, I’m prepared for that.”

When it comes to clients, McCabe still works with a few directly. She is also very involved with almost every Africa sale. 

“African safaris are my passion,” she tells us. In fact, she’s been to the continent over 20 times since her visit in 1990. It’s her specialty, you might say. “My team knows how much experience I have in Africa and they’re always willing to pull me in on a phone call with a client because I know the right questions to ask,” she notes.

While “the wildlife experiences are so much more different than what you could find anywhere else in the world,” McCabe says, “it’s not just the animals; it’s the people who are, of course, different in every African nation. It’s the cultures, which are so different in every country. The scenery is just magnificent, and I have never had a client come home unhappy from Africa.”

Just as McCabe has a niche, many advisors at the agency have one of their own. “Almost every advisor at McCabe World Travel sells the world,” we’re told. “However, there are a few that really have developed a very specialized niche, whether it’s adventure, or wellness, or river cruising.” Other focuses among McCabe’s advisors include Europe, Central and South America and family travel.

The specialties are beneficial on multiple levels. First: McCabe says, “I really believe that advisors are going to be more successful if they start out selling products and destinations that they have a passion for.” Second: The specialties help create a collaborative atmosphere. “Our culture is all about the team,” she tells us. “Everybody helps everybody else — it doesn’t matter whether they’re independent affiliates or a staff member.”

An Expert on Safaris: Damian McCabe at Camp Jabulani in South Africa.

Advisors at McCabe World Travel are afforded every opportunity to learn about destinations and products firsthand. “I really believe in training through travel,” McCabe says. Each employee in the company — advisors and associates alike — receives educational days (in addition to their standard vacation days), along with a small budget to spend on trips. 

Training is crucial to the role of a luxury travel advisor, according to McCabe. “It’s really challenging [staying up to date on all new products]. I read everything I can get my hands on,” she tells us. She also spends close to one-third of the year on the road, either on educationals or attending conferences. “I am big on longer trips to new destinations, places that I don’t know well or that my advisors haven’t had a chance to explore yet.” 

As for McCabe’s clients, they’ve also changed quite a bit — even since she made the switch to leisure travel. Among the biggest changes? “Family time together in a travel setting became really, really important after 9/11,” she says. “Then, we started seeing multi-generational groups as early as 2008, 2009 where grandparents recognized that they could write their grandkids a check or they could build memories.” 

Given that the Washington, D.C. suburbs have one of the largest and best school systems in the country, according to McCabe, it should come as no surprise to hear that families are a huge part of the agency’s business. “The parents in our school systems value travel as part of the education for their kids,” she tells us. Tip: One of McCabe’s favorite destinations to send clients is the Galapagos. 

“We’re fortunate in this city that people value spending money on experiences,” she says. “We never have to argue with a client about spending money on special access to something.”

Roughly 50 percent of McCabe World Travel’s clients are local, but since most new customers come via referral, they are becoming more and more spread out across the U.S. McCabe says she’s willing to take on anyone who’s willing to engage with the agency. “It’s impossible to plan the perfect trip for somebody who won’t tell us a little bit about themselves and about their family,” she says. “Our best client wants to work with a knowledgeable advisor. They know that we have the resources to have access to more experiences than they can ever find online.”

She continues, “We need to know what their interests are. We need to know what their history is: Have they been before; have they been anywhere else that offers something similar? Is food important? Is religion important? Is architecture important? Is history important?”

McCabe adds that she will communicate with clients “however they want to be communicated with.” While she would prefer to meet in person, she adds that’s not always possible. With that said, if an advisor is in or even flying through Los Angeles, for instance, McCabe will have them take a number of clients out to lunch. Perhaps it’s this approach that led McCabe World Travel to being crowned Virtuoso’s Most Hospitable Agency in 2014. 

Regarding the luxury travel network, McCabe says, “Virtuoso is the right consortium for my business. We’re lucky in this industry that we have a number of good consortia, and Virtuoso’s right for us.” In fact, McCabe sat on the Member Advisory Board and was chairman for six years. “Virtuoso is all about the relationships, and McCabe World Travel is all about the relationships,” she adds.

Maintaining these relationships is one of the key reasons she and upwards of 20 of her advisors each year attend Virtuoso Travel Week. “I work hard to make sure that all of my advisors, whether they’re employees or independent contractors, have an opportunity to dine with certain brands throughout the week,” she says. “I actively lobby for that.”

A Very Fortunate Partnership

When McCabe wanted to expand her leisure business, she knew just the person to bring onboard: Anne Morgan Scully. 

The two had worked together previously with another agency; McCabe managed the corporate account and Scully was in charge of leisure. Soon after, McCabe left to start her own venture, while Scully stayed behind. When Scully made it known that she, too, was looking to head in a different direction, McCabe brought her on board. And, with her, came Scully’s clients.

“I’m very fortunate to work with Anne Scully,” McCabe tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “She’s godmother to my youngest daughter. She and I are very close.”

She adds, “We have complimentary skills. I’m a businessperson — I run this business; she sells and she trains — those are her passions. Training in particular is her passion, and she’s been integral in vetting the new people we’ve brought on board and making sure that they have the proper amount of training.”

Much of the new business comes through the two of them and they then pass the new clients onto their advisors.

When considering what agency to join, Scully tells us she didn’t have to think too hard about joining McCabe World Travel. “I thought she was one of the brightest people I ever worked with,” Scully says of McCabe.

In fact, when speaking about McCabe, Scully only had sparkling things to say, particularly noting her willingness to listen to her advisors and doing what was right for the agency. “She has built this incredible company, and she’s done it by listening to all of us,” she tells us. “She’s never not supported anybody who had a good idea.”

Scully was even on board with being the “face” of the business while McCabe ran the business. “We’re very different in that I wanted to grow a business, and I never wanted to own a business,” Scully tells us. “It’s why we’re such good partners.” To note: When McCabe offered Scully a stake in the business, she declined, noting that owning the business was a strength of McCabe’s, not hers. 

“She’s a brilliant owner that made my life wonderful, because I was able to become who I was and it didn’t bother her,” Scully tells us. “I can’t imagine another owner allowing me to become who I became.”

Damian McCabe (left) and Anne Scully with Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch at a recent Virtuoso Forum owner/manager meeting.

That line of thinking seems to be a common theme among the advisors we spoke with at McCabe World Travel. “I see her as this female entrepreneur and inspiration for me,” Jenkins Washington says. “I want to work for her. I don’t want to leave and go start my own company.” When people ask her about running her own business, Jenkins Washington replies, “I want to be part of this team and I think Damian has absolutely fostered that.”

Scully adds, “I’m just really lucky I’m here. I’ve found my right home a long time ago. I’ve never strayed. It’s my home.”

Going forward, McCabe says she plans to keep doing what she’s been doing. It’s been working, so why change? 

“Right now, I’m really happy running this company the way I’m running it — it’s proving to be very successful for everybody who works here in many different ways,” McCabe tells us. “I’m going to keep doing exactly what I’m doing.”

She adds, “I love coming to work every day. I think most of the people who sit in this building love coming to work every day.” From what we can tell, definitely most — if not all — of the people working both in the office and remotely love coming into work each day.

It also helps that it’s simply an exciting time to be in the industry. “The future of luxury travel, I think, is limitless,” McCabe says. Between the new product coming online, from luxury hotels and lodges in Africa, Peru, Bhutan and other remote destinations to the boom in expedition cruising and destinations that are developing or coming back, McCabe tells us there is a lot to look forward to. “I just love the fact that every day is different,” she says.

Dynamic Duo: Jessica Griscavage and Beth Jenkins Washington

Meet Jessica Griscavage and Beth Jenkins Washington, two of the top advisors at McCabe World Travel; the former has been with the agency going on 16 years, while the latter is in her 10th year.

Before it was a focus of McCabe’s, both joined the agency at a young age — and neither had been in the industry before. Griscavage says she replied to an ad in The Washington Post. (“I figured if I’m going to do sales it should be something I’m passionate about,” she says). Jenkins Washington, on the other hand, was interested in a career in travel but didn’t know much about the jobs available in the industry; she cold-called Damian McCabe after finding her in a Google search to learn about the possibilities. Both were hired the day they came into the office to speak with McCabe. 

“We just kind of hit it off. It was not what I was expecting,” Jenkins Washington tells us. “I literally quit my job and became a travel agent and people thought I was crazy, but I’m glad I took that chance.” She adds that McCabe and Anne Scully, the agency’s president, “took a chance on the two of us coming from different industries, but we had the personality and the passion, and they could tell we could succeed in this.”

When Griscavage came on board, she was hired as an advisor as the mentorship program was not in place yet. However, she tells us that McCabe and Scully taught her everything they knew. Jenkins Washington joined as an unofficial assistant. Griscavage adds that she and a colleague pioneered the program. When she and Katie McCormack Krinkie needed help managing their business, each brought on an associate. The format caught on with other advisors and it’s only grown.

“We have a much more developed mentorship and associate program now, where I really do feel that that’s one of the strongest suits that our company has — letting younger people come into the industry that might not have a background in this, that are just passionate about it and have the personality to be really good sales people or really good support people, and fostering those careers,” Jenkins Washington says.

In Antarctica: McCabe poses with husband John Halacy. 

Four years ago, the duo approached McCabe about expanding their roles; she didn’t bat an eye when it came to letting them take on new responsibilities. As director of development, Jenkins Washington works with a lot of the new hires. Griscavage, as director of marketing, works as a liaison between the employees, independent affiliates and suppliers. 

Did we mention they still sell travel? Jenkins Washington specializes in Central and South America; Griscavage focuses on family travel. As is common in the agency, they will hop on the phone with each other’s clients when they’re working on a trip that may be out of their specialty. “I really do feel like the collaboration of our office has allowed everybody to flourish in that way,” Jenkins Washington says. Griscavage adds that there’s no competition for clients, either. “We collaborate so much in this office — we really do. And nobody’s jumping on each other’s toes.”

The pair had no shortage of praise for McCabe. “She’s very intuitive,” Jenkins Washington says. “She’s a really good businesswoman.”

Griscavage adds, “She knows every aspect of this business and she is willing to dive in. She will talk on the phone to clients, help on the weekends — I can text her anytime and she will answer me. I think that’s an amazing example that she sets for her team.”

Mccabe World Travel

Location: McLean, Virgina
Chief Executive Officer: Damian McCabe
President: Anne Scully
Number of Staff: 25 employees and 38 independent affiliates
Annual Volume of Business: $55 million
Affiliations: Virtuoso
Advisory Boards: Marriott International Luxury Brands, Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, Lindblad Expeditions, Tauck and Taj Hotels

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