If given the chance to take the road more or less traveled, Helen Papa, owner and travel advisor at TBH Travel on Long Island, NY, will opt for the latter. In late 2006 once she had decided to give the travel industry a shot, she started her own home-based agency instead of taking the “classic route” and joining one. With no one to show her the ropes, Papa had to learn everything about the industry on her own.
“This was not very popular at the time and had some challenges. I focused on learning the industry, created a business plan and gave myself two years to see if this would be a success,” Papa tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
She got a Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) number and began inviting herself on ship tours; she would call companies asking how she could work with them. Despite the start at ground zero, Papa began to take a liking to it and even became successful early on, possibly, she says, because of her self-imposed deadline of making it work within two years. Just about a year later, the Great Recession hit, but Papa still found people looking to travel and kept her business open.
Would it have been easier to join an agency which would assist with creating contacts and building relationships? Papa admits the answer is “yes,” but because she had to figure everything out on her own, it taught her all the ins and outs of the industry, of running a travel agency.
Seventeen years later, the agency comprises seven full-time advisors as well as two support staff—all of whom work virtually and are mostly located on the East Coast. In all, the agency will total about$8.5 million in sales in 2023. We’d call that a success.
In recent years, TBH Travel has really hit its stride all thanks to Papa’s business acumen and sleeves-rolled-up mentality. Among the latest projects she’s working on is an official mentorship guide.
On a recent flight she jotted down the question, “What is everything you would need to know to be successful in selling luxury travel?” Papa wrote down how she would, based on her own experience, build a travel business for someone new to the industry. Pulling from her own insight and Virtuoso’s Travel Academy, she created a one-stop-shop for new advisors.
Then she asked herself, “If you’re already selling travel, how do you become better?” Papa reports that, based on conversations she’s had with other advisors at industry events, once advisors start to build a book of business, they don’t always know what the next step is. “They don’t know how to either hire assistants or hire sub-independent contractors. They don’t know how to get out and be recognized in the industry. They don’t know how to get on committees,” she tells us. “How do they elevate their game? They don’t know how to do accounting. They don’t know how to do back-office things.”
Enter Papa and the experience she gained through building her agency from the ground up and from her previous career in finance.
Going a little further back, prior to opening TBH Travel, Papa worked as a CPA for Price Waterhouse and then as the chief financial officer for one of those clients. Like many others in the industry, she retired when her kids were born but when they had entered school full-time, she began looking for her next career path. “I always planned my own travel, as I am very detail-oriented and like to be in control. These personality characteristics resulted in requests to plan trips for friends. This sparked an idea to get into the travel business and to see if I could make this a second career,” says Papa.
Equipped with her mentorship guide, Papa is looking to build TBH Travel in terms of the number of advisors it employs and the services/specialties it offers. “I’d like to add advisors so that we can also add the types of services we provide [and new] areas of expertise. I’m looking for people who have different passions,” Papa says.
As for that guide, Papa isn’t simply handing new hires a document, wishing them ‘good luck.’ It’s a hands-on approach. People “learn from doing,” she says, and by personally working with all her advisors, it helps them both. “For the training and mentorship, until I have it where I feel it can run itself, it has to be me because I’m also learning from them in terms of what do people need; how do I make this a viable program going forward?” she says. Plus, “people are surprisingly appreciative when you walk them through things that they have no way to Google,” Papa adds.
The approach works. Papa tells us one of her advisors, who was previously with another agency for almost 12 years, has almost quadrupled her sales in the nearly three years she has been with TBH Travel. Part of that, Papa admits, is that “the market’s good” but she adds, “she texts me when she has questions; I introduce her to people, I help her network and with client events. This level of support has given her the confidence to be her best.”
As far as new hires, Papa would like to bring on someone who specializes in Asia or South America, or even destination weddings and honeymoons. “We can book these trips; we know the suppliers who would do a good job, but it would be nice to have somebody who has that focus,” she says. But no matter who she brings on, “you have to be excited about it or you’re not going to be good at it.”
In addition to that excitement for what they’re selling, new hires need the right team-focused mentality. A recent interviewee said she wanted to work for Papa, who, in return, told her: “You’re not going to work for me…we’re going to work together.” The advisor’s response? “She couldn’t believe it,” Papa reports. “If you work for me, it means I tell you what to do. If we work together, it means you make the agency and me better and I make you better,” she told them.
New hires would also help Papa, who is currently TBH Travel’s top producer, shift a bit more into a managerial role, compared to the split role she currently occupies. “I’d like to bring in stronger people or make people stronger, so that I can develop the business more,” she says, adding, however, that she does not want to grow for the sake of growing. The growth will be with intent and the plan will always remain flexible.
“It’s hard to say what I want to do in five years because five years ago I wouldn’t think I was doing what I’m doing now,” Papa tells us. “So, I feel like if I just keep finding the right people—whether it be suppliers that we’re working with, advisors that I’m working with, people that I meet in the industry that I learn from—there are always going to be new opportunities.”
Putting Trust in Advisors
Suppliers and clients alike are increasingly appreciative of the knowledge and insight provided by travel advisors, Papa tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
Clients are going to Papa and her team and instead of telling them where they would like to go, they are now asking where the advisors think they should go and why. To help keep her clients in the loop, Papa has recently built up her Instagram presence. Prior to this year, she had maybe posted 10 times over a two-year span. Now, she uploads multiple posts from each trip she goes on to inspire her clients.
Travelers are also looking for different things when they vacation. In general, Papa reports that clients “definitely want more experiences. They want special things.” Whereas many clients used to stay only in top suites, “more people are saying, ‘get me something nice and then make the whole trip crazy experiences.’”
A perfect example is a trip Papa planned for a VIP client who wanted to take his management team of 12 on a trip to Greece. “I planned every detail, including the best hotels, dinners with the owners of the hotels, private yacht transfers, sailings around the Greek islands, day trips to experience the destination, and VIP tables at the best beach clubs, night clubs and restaurants,” she says.
Everyone had very high expectations for the trip but, more than that, it was originally supposed to happen during COVID, which elongated that anticipation and excitement. To ensure it was everything the client had been hoping for those years, Papa says she was in touch “with every hotelier, the artists, the restaurants, everything.” She told them the group’s expectations and how everything needed to be. She called concierges and owners and asked what they would do, what’s really special and off the beaten path, and made it happen. In one instance, she took the group to meet an acclaimed local artist and facilitated the purchase of an original piece, which she had shipped back to the U.S. The group was greeted everywhere they went, had the best tables and good pricing on everything (because “it’s not just spending people’s money. I want them to be like, ‘Wow, I got my money’s worth. That was great.’”).
Oh, and did we mention the client asked Papa to join them for every step of the trip to personally make sure everything ran smoothly?
“I put so much into it that it would’ve taken a lot for it to go wrong,” Papa says. “But when you’re traveling with your top client and you’re with them for 12 days, that’s a lot of pressure.” The result? “At the end of the 12 days, my client told me that there was not a day nor a detail that could have been better. I got to see them all enjoy every step of the way and was genuinely proud.”
It’s not just about the VIP clients, either. Recently, Papa took on a client who wanted to go to Italy for her honeymoon but did not have a typical “luxury” budget.
“I said to her, ‘OK, if you can raise your budget just a little, I can get you twice as much as you think, but you have to stick with me and you have to listen to what I tell you to do because I want you to come back and say, ‘That was the best trip ever’… Just trust me.’”
The couple ended up visiting multiple destinations across Italy, including the Amalfi Coast, where they stayed just outside of Sorento because it’s the most affordable destination in the area. Instead of private tours, they were booked in small-group tours except for one day where Papa booked them a private tour to Capri. “She was like a rockstar on a three-star budget,” Papa tells us.
Of course, the client reported “it was the best trip she could ever imagine.”
Why take on a client like that? On one hand, it’s simply a great thing to do, helping someone put together a dream trip when you have the ability to do so; but also “you don’t know who they’re related to or who they’re going to refer you to, or who they’re going to be in five years and all of a sudden they can be one of your best clients.”
Regardless of which client you’re working with, Papa says the most crucial element is to learn the “why” of their trip. “Having perspective on what will make each trip special and personal is our version of luxury travel,” she tells us, adding “the more you get involved and the more you customize and personalize for people, that’s your client for life.”
Building Connections and Collaborating
It’s this mentality that has driven business for TBH Travel for the last 17 years. “Since inception, we have prided ourselves on meeting high expectations for service, quality and attention to detail. This has created client loyalty, repeat business and an important source for word-of-mouth referrals,” Papa tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
In fact, nearly all new clients come from referrals—and that’s just how Papa prefers it to be. While not guaranteed that a new client will work out, when they come at the recommendation of an existing client, Papa says there’s a level of prequalification that speeds up the vetting process.
TBH Travel typically won’t ask clients for a review or referral, either. From its membership with Virtuoso, following a trip, the luxury travel network will automatically send a follow-up email to the client asking them to leave a review on the Virtuoso website. TBH’s advisors will simply let their clients know the email is coming but won’t press them to leave a review. (Not surprisingly, however, Papa has a 100 percent approval rating.)
Much of that rating come from the types of experiences TBH Travel can book—like those enjoyed by the clients in Greece. But you can’t just make those experiences happen; you need rockstar supplier partners who have the ability to make the exceptional happen, and you need to have a strong relationship with them, so they go the extra mile for you and your clients.
“The relationship between a travel advisor and a supplier is crucial for the success of both parties and for ensuring that clients receive the best possible travel experiences,” says Papa, emphasizing that this relationship “is more important, I think, than a lot of advisors realize.”
As Papa explains: “Our (travel advisors’) relationships in the industry, our expertise and reputation matter. Our partners value our knowledge of their product and the other options in the marketplace. They appreciate the time we take to develop expertise and a bond with them to be a strong extension of their brand and to support each other for mutual success.”
To build these types of relationships, Papa says it’s important to maintain “ongoing communication” with them “to be kept aware of any changes in product portfolios or ways of doing business together.” She also notes that “attendance at key travel industry events, including Virtuoso’s conferences, ILTM Cannes and Luxury Travel Advisor’s Ultra Summit,” provide opportunities to meet new suppliers they might not already work with.
But, sometimes, being a boutique agency can make it difficult to get the same treatment from suppliers when compared to the larger agencies. Enter Aspire Associates Group.
Papa and other agency owners saw the need to come together and create more bargaining power with suppliers so that their agencies could offer their advisors the same benefits as a larger agency. For instance, if one agency only gets 10 percent commissions with a supplier, but another receives a 16 percent commission despite booking the exact same suite with the exact same supplier, it’s likely an advisor would prefer to be associated with the latter. That could make it a challenge to grow your business.
Said Papa to several colleagues: “We have to stop complaining and do something. We need to do this ourselves. We need buying power.” From here, she found one supplier who told her that if she could put together a group of agencies that were like-minded to TBH Travel that he would give them one year to prove they could compete with the bigger agencies and if they could, they could have whatever they wanted (in terms of client benefits).
She brought together six agencies who, in a little over a year, doubled their collective sales with that supplier “by getting more attention, more training, some perks to offer clients and having an increase in commission.” It proved the model could work and they began expanding their network to other suppliers.
“If you want to stay small and you don’t want to become part of one of the big agencies, you have to be able to give your clients the same attention, and you have to be able to give your team the same income and the same exposure,” explains Papa.
Aspire Associates Group, as the group is called, allows its members to maintain their independence/boutique status while collectively offering them more bargaining power, training and exposure with suppliers than if they remained unaffiliated with each other. Beyond that, the agencies share best practices to continue to build their expertise beyond the ways they work with suppliers.
As Papa explains: “Aspire is an alliance of independent agencies comprised of accomplished luxury travel advisors. Together, we form a strong community of like-minded professionals, focused on strengthening our position in the travel industry through shared resources, broad destination experience and expanded geographical areas. Membership in Aspire provides our team with connections and access beyond what a single agency can have on their own.”
She continues: “We also have agencies now in different states with different clientele, with different ways of doing things. But we share information, we share introductions and we share buying power. And it’s great for our clients because now we can give them what other people can give them.”
While owners still have sole responsibility for running their agency, they have meetings with the other Aspire agency owners monthly to quarterly to keep in touch regarding the big picture. To keep communication lines open 24/7, however, they have a closed chat group so all the teams can stay in touch.
Aspire also has its own annual conference, where members can network with its supplier partners. At the conference, they will recognize their top performing advisors, too. According to Papa, “the biggest benefit for our advisors has been our Aspire Conference because, although it’s once a year, our teams are in person and they feel like they’re part of a family, they get to know each other, and then they are broken into their own little groups where they’ve made friends and they share resources and they give each other advice.” Between 40 and 50 partners will be attending the 2024 conference at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes.
In fact, whether its within Aspire Associates Group, her team, her supplier partners or anyone within Virtuoso, Papa says collaboration is key. “Collaborating with colleagues in the industry is always sparking new ideas. Travel offers so many areas of expertise and niches; there are new workflow systems to enhance the client experience, as well as to streamline back-office systems to be more efficient and have more time to focus on the aspects of the business that one thrives on.”
In just over three years since launching Aspire, the association has grown from six agencies to 18, accounting for about 150 advisors in total, with a plenty of interest among outside agencies.
To become a member, an agency owner will have to fill out a questionnaire to share more about their business, what products they sell and their philosophy. Aspire owners wants to know why this agency will not only be made better by Aspire but why it, in turn, will also make the alliance better. “We want people who have different ideas from different backgrounds and come to us saying, ‘These are the things I want from you, and this is why we think we’re an asset.’”
When a new agency applies, the six founding members will determine if they should receive an interview and, if the answer is yes, two of them (based on availability) will have a long discussion with the potential member agency owner. Currently, all 18 belong to Virtuoso but it doesn’t have to remain that way.
Regarding Virtuoso, TBH Travel has been a member since 2015, which Papa finds invaluable to running her agency. The luxury travel agency network offers her agency and its clients amenities that it wouldn’t have been able to offer on its own, a chance to meet a variety of prequalified suppliers at events like Virtuoso Travel Week, and, simply, a network of people to bounce ideas off of “because, otherwise, you’re living in your own little vacuum.”
“Our access to Virtuoso’s extensive portfolio of preferred suppliers with special amenities, upgrades and privileges; the global connections we have made through Virtuoso networking events; and the recognition the agency receives through the Virtuoso ‘stamp of approval’ have all added to our offerings in the luxury travel sector to better serve our clients,” she tells us.
A Roadmap to Success
Papa is almost always on the road. She is in Europe, which she considers her specialty, nearly every other month and if she hasn’t traveled anywhere in “a couple weeks,” it’s a seemingly long time.
Visiting destinations, Papa says, gives advisors valuable intel that can’t be learned from attending conferences or webinars. Similarly, she adds, “since I consider the agency an extension of myself, it is important that I visit destinations that the agency specializes in to keep up with what is new, to meet the people and see the places we are selling. This is key to being able to make personal, authentic recommendations. Using our own experiences provides insight into the destination, the people, the culture, local cuisine and logistics of the destination beyond what you can Google.”
To that end, Papa designs several FAM trips each year for TBH Travel. She will take a handful of advisors to a select destination where everything on the trip is custom-built by Papa and her supplier partners. “I work with the hotels, DMCs, tour companies, whoever I have in that destination that I’m building a relationship with or have one with, and I put the itinerary together and I choose who goes,” Papa explains.
In 2023, the agency has gone to Italy, Greece, Sweden, Norway and Iceland across three trips. Advisors with TBH Travel can expect about three more educational trips in 2024 to new destinations. “This has been a great experience for me and is also benefiting my clients,” says Papa. “They are excited to know where I am visiting so that they can add that place to their bucket list.”
As for her “personal” travel”—and by that, we mean non-FAM trips—Papa tries to make the most of her time abroad. While traveling for ILTM Cannes this year, she added pre- and post-conference extensions through Madrid, the Canary Islands, Southern France and Amsterdam, all in the course of about two weeks. It was “not a vacation that you would plan for someone but, to me, it’s like ‘Where can I go to learn something new while I’m at a conference?’”
Need we remind you that while traveling, she’s also managing her own book of VIP clients and running her business. We asked if this can be a challenge. Papa’s response? “It used to be, but I’m used to it now and I realized that if I want to be really good at this and I want to be a good role model, I have to be out there.”
One tip for the traveling advisor: “I don’t tell people I’m going away because then everybody wants to talk to you right before you leave and then they think they can’t bother you (while you’re away).” It creates a logjam before and after your trip. Simply, keep communication open with your clients and, if needed, let them know you’re traveling and working on the issue.
Looking forward, Papa tells Luxury Travel Advisor that she’s very optimistic about the future of the industry. “The more we understand the market and the role we can play as professionals, the more I believe that a career in travel will continue to be rewarding and profitable,” she says.
As far as TBH Travel goes, she wants to continue to both manage clients and the business, although to which degree she manages either will likely depend on which new employees she brings onboard—but these will be the real key to the agency’s growth.
TBH Travel has been virtual since its inception, which has its challenges—especially when hiring new employees—but Papa prefers to give her team the freedom to work in the ways that’s most beneficial to them. To that point, advisors can set their own schedules, depending on what works best for them and their clients. And anytime anyone needs something, Papa is available to them. “People are happy to have their own schedules and do things their own ways as long as they know they have support when they need it,” she says.
Noting she did not have this opportunity when she started, Papa tells Luxury Travel Advisor, “Looking forward, I see opportunities to mentor and be an asset to new-to-the-industry and career-changing advisors. By sharing my knowledge acquired over years in travel, advising from a financial point of view how best to run a business, and the contacts the agency has, I can provide a road map to success.”