The short answer as to how to succeed as a luxury travel entrepreneur is that there is no short answer.
However, at Questex Travel Group’s inaugural ULTRA Trendsetters conference, held at The Driskill in Austin, TX, vice president of content and editorial director for Luxury Travel Advisor Ruthanne Terrero hosted a panel consisting of Michael Holtz, founder of SmartFlyer, Keith Waldon, founder and director of Departure Lounge, and Joshua Bush, CEO of Avenue Two Travel to discuss successful business models.
Different Models Work
The panel each has a different model and, thus, offered a wide range of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
SmartFlyer was founded on the strength of the internet and, eventually, social media. Holtz created The Smart Flyer in 1990 with the remnants of a compay after his previous bosses left to create Hotels.com. In 2009, he brought on 24-year-old Erina Pindar, who Holtz gave creative control of SmartFlyer to. And now, Holtz has a popular online presence, nicknamed Mr. Seat 2A, which is, of course, his preferred seat on planes.
“Don’t be a slave to your business plan,” Holtz says, acknowledging that putting his faith in Pindar and relinquishing some control to her has been one of the best things to happen to SmartFlyer. You may have a plan set in stone but “passion always wins,” according to Holtz.
Departure Lounge started only four years ago when Waldon found that travel agencies were disappearing from Main Street. He opened a licensed bar that sold food, coffee and, of course, travel—and it received critical acclaim in the industry. He has since opened a newer office located in the most affluent area of Austin and is seeing an increase in bookings and money spent. Waldon has, however, toned down the coffee shop/bar vibe, finding a sweet spot between his former office and a traditional travel agency.
Waldon went with the Main Street approach as he feels the “stickiness” of business increases with the right environment and face-to-face meetings. When clients come into the office (sandwiched between a top grocery store and dog grooming store), Waldon’s advisors will offer a drink of their choice, sit at leather couches, and plan vacations on large HDTVs hung on the wall. It’s a relaxing atmosphere; it’s also why Departure Lounge doesn’t charge fees.
And then there’s Avenue Two Travel, formally Park Avenue Travel—your traditional family travel agency located in the outskirts of town. Bush led a complete overhaul of the brand starting in 2013, which led to a move into a tech-centric office in a wealthier neighborhood just outside of Philadelphia and a new name.
When the Bush family opted to move closer to the city center, they decided to completely revamp the company. They wanted it known this would essentially be a “clean break” from Park Avenue Travel (on the name, Bush adds “we needed a name to defend and protect,” as multiple other Park Avenue Travels existed). In other words, your company name matters: it must stand out. But in the larger scope, Avenue Two would be a more powerful brand, creating an experience (starting from the moment a client walked in the doors) that their former brand couldn't match.
Perfect Your Brand
“The brand is critical,” Holtz says. Keeping clients informed of everything happening with the company is crucial. To do this, SmartFlyer uses a public relations company to keep its news circulating, as well as newsletters to get clients to come to them. With regards to charging fees, he’s all for it. “It’s the best way to ensure we aren’t wasting our time,” Holtz says.
As for how to create your brand, a good question to start with is “What are you the most of?” In other words—and not explicitly related to sales or destinations or the like—what is your agency better at than any other agency.
Waldon says Departure Lounge is “passionate,” which he related to having agents who have specializations. If the advisor really knows and cares about a destination, they can sell a very detailed itinerary easier. Waldon also offered the term “willing,” as in his willingness to keep his agency open late on weeknights and during the weekends. He felt you have to be available for your clients when they need you, not just when you want to be available.
Holtz says that SmartFlyer epitomizes “community.” Conversely to Departure Lounge (who opted for advisors to focus on specific destinations), Holtz wants SmartFlyer’s advisors to specialize in clients. He gave the example that when an advisor already knows the likes and dislikes of a client, it’s easier to put together a personalized itinerary, even if they may not know the destination as well as another advisor—which is where the community comes back into play as well; Holtz wants advisors helping each other.
Bush prefers his agency to be sentimental. The idea of “travel unity,” or making the world a better place by traveling, should be at the heart of each of his advisors. It’s almost a cliché, but it’s been said that travel is the only thing you pay for that makes you richer. Bush is a firm believer in this ideology.
To Stay or Not to Stay
An advisor in the audience asked the panel if they believe it’s better to go out on their own and develop and brand or to maintain with a host agency. Again, there was no clear cookie-cutter answer. The panel largely agreed that what’s right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another. “A host has buying power,” Bush says. “But if you hold back your entrepreneurial spirit, you’ll feel let down.”
Holtz argues that you can have your own brand within a host agency. His concept: your email address, with the host agency’s name, is your company, and who you work for, and who you receive benefits from; your Instagram, on the other hand, is your brand—it can be personalized how you like, and it can be used to differentiate yourself from other advisors with your host company.
Dos and Don'ts
Terrero then asked the panel to name one thing they absolutely should do when building their brand and one thing the absolutely should not do.
Do: Make sure you’re affiliated with a consortium – they offer buying power that you need.
Do Not: Be afraid to fail.
Do: Be kind, professional and respectful; this industry is all about relationships.
Do Not: Do something just because someone says that’s the way it’s always been done. Be confident in breaking the mold.
Do: Find the right agency. Community is important—go where you think you fit in.
Do Not: Avoid your gut.