Travel Innovations: Leading Independent Agencies Launch Alliance

The founders of Aspire Associates Group: Nancy Cutter, Amy McMurrey, Kathy Burns Lamphier, Patty Perry, Cristina Buaas, Helen Papa

The travel industry has a new "disruptor," if you will. In a time where many travel businesses are hurting, a small group of independently owned travel agencies has formed an alliance to create Aspire Associates Group, LLC with a “mission to make our agencies and our industry stronger.”

“Our founding concept, ‘Be Independent Together,’ allows each brand to retain its unique identity while collaborating to strengthen our position in the travel industry,” said Aspire partner Helen Papa of TBH Travel in New York in a press announcement.

To achieve its mission, Aspire Associates Group will “focus on shared resources, customized training opportunities, streamlined marketing, expanded geographical reach and utilizing collective expertise in travel and business.”

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Luxury Travel Advisor spoke with Papa, along with additional founding member Cristina Buaas of CSB Travel in Houston, TX, to get the latest on the initiative.

Aspire Associates Group was launched by six long-standing independent members of Virtuoso in order to help maintain each other’s businesses in a time where mergers and acquisitions have become the norm in the travel industry. Papa says that the group was founded on the concept of wanting larger collaboration but without having to sell their agencies—noting that many of them still wanted to be involved in the day-to-day operations of their businesses and enjoyed being the owners. This is why, while the group is working together and sharing resources, they are remaining independent of each other. Buaas tells us that all six agencies—which also includes Posh Travel on the New Hampshire Sea Coast; Court Travel, Ltd. in Charlotte, NC; Precision Travel in Dallas, TX; and Cruise Vacations International in the greater Washington DC area—have a unique opportunity to leverage their strengths.

Papa tells us, “We feel that using all of our expertise together, we're all better off.” Each of the agencies, she says, is willing to look out for another.

The group meets on a weekly basis to discuss plans for messaging, training with suppliers, cross-selling geographically and more. And, as each agency may do any given thing better than another, they can be relied on to share their expertise and take the lead in specific initiatives that will benefit Aspire as a whole. In time, the group would like to expand to include any agencies looking for the same sort of collaboration. Agencies looking to join the alliance will have to meet the criteria of “being independent together.” Papa and Buaas say they would be interested in agencies and advisors that are beneficial to Aspire, while Aspire would make them better, off as well.

“Everything is going to be very different going forward and we actually have a plan on how to be better, not [just] survive,” Papa says.

Buaas adds that, among suppliers they have spoken to, none have seen a similar concept (as in a group of agencies that’s working together to this degree and not under the same ownership). And it’s a benefit to them, too: Suppliers can now meet with a larger group of hand-picked advisors across all the agencies, so they can better create targeted webinars or sales pitches. Any custom marketing plans or materials created by the supplier can be further tailored by each agency to put their private labels on it, easing distribution for the supplier. “Suppliers love it because they’re creating one marketing plan and they’re hitting six agencies that all have different geographical areas,” Buaas tells us.

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