WhirlAway Travel's Jamie Jones Revamps for Future Success

The slowdown in travel demand as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 “was a blessing in disguise,” according to WhirlAway Travel president Jamie Jones. It allowed Jones the time to look at her West Chester, Pennsylvania-based agency as a whole and dig into “the whos, the whats, the wheres, the hows and, most importantly, our why.”

In the end, the agency underwent a top-to-bottom revamp in its look and operations. “We did a rebrand, introduced our annual membership program, and identified how we work together, with our suppliers and with our clients,” Jones tells Luxury Travel Advisor. While the name remained the same, Jones identified her business’ core values (“passion,” “integrity,” “knowledge,” “excellence,” “personal” and “unlimited”) and how she wanted it to interact with WhirlAway’s clients and supplier partners. WhirlAway Travel’s logo, website and marketing all received refreshes to best match “who we are as professional luxury travel advisors for our targeted demographic.”

Jones tells us that WhirlAway Travel was one of the first agencies to charge fees when airlines cut commissions and that the agency has always been on the forefront of adaptation. As part of the rebrand, Jones made a concerted effort to shift the perception of WhirlAway from its fees to “the service that we provide and what we’re doing for our clients and the magical trips that we’re planning.” 

Jamie Jones WhirlAway Travel

The Jones Family at Grand Teton National Park with Tauck Bridges. Jones says exposing children to travel is vital to their growth and curiosity.

To one-up its service offerings, the agency developed and debuted its annual membership program. This service level is available for existing WhirlAway Travel clients and covers any sort of travel the client may wish to engage in, even if it normally wouldn’t be handled by a travel agency. For instance, an annual membership client this year was planning on renting a house on the Jersey Shore this summer. Typically, Jones tells us, a trip like this would require going through a realtor and might not even be handled by WhirlAway Travel. That said, no realtors had anything available that fit the needs of the client but with WhirlAway’s connections, they were able to source a house that was not on the market (it was actually owned by a friend of another client who was willing to rent their house for the week). It ended up being a “perfect fit.”

“It’s really for those membership clients that we’re going above and beyond what anybody would consider doing to accommodate their travel and to get them what they’re looking for,” Jones says.

Since it’s a year-long commitment on both ends (advisor and client), Jones prefers that the client isn’t new to the agency, so that she or her advisors know what working with the client will be like. Beyond the initial lengthy consultation that takes place when a prospective client reaches out to WhirlAway, another in-depth conversation takes place when they’re interested in joining the annual membership program “to understand not just about the trip that they are wanting to take here and now, but what their plan is for the next three to five years.”

Examples of the specific questions Jones likes to ask include: Do they prefer to explore deep or wide (all day in a museum with an expert guide or a quick run through)? If you were to walk into a hotel room, what will make your say “Wow,” and what will make you turn around and walk out? Why do you travel?

“I want to understand what makes them tick and what is going to blow their socks off,” Jones tells us. She adds that these clients are also “on my to-do list every single week,” making sure to stay on top of any plans they might have or be dreaming of.

Overall, Jones says “it’s been really successful so far.”

The membership program, along with the company rebrand, all had their roots set before the pandemic — roughly coming together in October / November 2019. “It was something that I knew needed to happen, but we were so busy before it just kept getting put on the back corner,” she tells us. Then in late-June / early-July 2020, “I really started working on it because I had the time to focus on outlining who I wanted [WhirlAway Travel] to be and who I wanted the company to represent.” 

Jones adds, “COVID has been a tremendous challenge but also an opportunity to get crystal-clear on who we are as a company.”

WhirlAway Travel

Teamwork Makes the Dream work. Jamie Jones, center, is pictured here with her colleagues at WhirlAway Travel.

WhirlAway Travel Then and Now

WhirlAway Travel was purchased in 1985 by Jones’ mother, Patty Jefferis. The agency was run by her parents with no involvement from Jones or any of her three brothers when they got older (Jones was five when her mom bought the business) as they all had careers outside of the travel industry. That was, until 2010.

“While I traveled extensively as a child, I never had a desire to enter the industry,” Jones tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “Fast-forward 25 years, a marriage, a child and seven years in social services, and I was ready for a change.”

Jones approached her mother about joining the family business and she was told, no. Her father then convinced her mom to rethink it and give Jones a shot. “They had me evaluated to see if my personality and skillset would be a good match for the travel industry and found out that, in fact, I would be great at running a business,” she says, adding, “I was going to be, basically, the missing piece of what [my mom] needed.”

Jones met with a business coach to facilitate the transition and was put under contract. With her brothers staying out of the business, Jones and her parents wanted to make sure everything was “very clean” when it came to joining the family’s travel agency. “It was all about the business, which was good because it protected them and it protected me,” she says.

And even when Jones joined the agency, she still had little interest in the travel industry or selling travel itself. “I was focused on policy, procedure and profitability,” she explains. “I wanted to build a team, I wanted to manage — that’s what I came in to do.”

Perhaps making matters worse, she recalls driving into work on Day 1 and hearing on the radio a list of careers and occupations that would be dead “when our kids are our age.” “Travel agent” was near the top, Jones says. “I remember the exact stoplight I was at, the exact street, when that came on the radio and I was like, ‘Oh, what did I get myself into?’”

The first major change Jones made when she came on board was joining Signature Travel Network. She calls it “the best decision I made.” Jones touts the network’s robust marketing and training but says, “It is really the people that make it special.” She adds that she’s fond of its ownership model and that all agencies, no matter how big or small, own just a single share, putting them on a level playing field. This is important because, while Jones wants to see WhirlAway Travel grow strategically, she doesn’t want it to become one of the “mega-agencies.”

Jamie Jones WhirlAway Travel

On Safari: Jones poses with an elephant (named Sebakwe) at Jabulani in South Africa during the 2019 African Travel President’s Circle.

Signature, according to Jones, also lets everyone be their own brand. The previous network that WhirlAway Travel was a part of tried to confine the agency to a box. “I think that’s the magic of Signature — it’s not one-size-fits-all and you can learn from one another,” she says. 

A second early change Jones made when she joined the business was raising the agency’s fees. Although they had gotten on the ‘fees’ bandwagon early, Jones says it didn’t make sense how little they were charging. “When I first was there, I thought, ‘You guys do so much work and this is all you’re paid? Why are you doing all this work? And why are you doing all this work ahead of time? And you’re not getting paid until after they travel, and when they cancel you’re not getting anything?’”

Jones also implemented new training to get all the employees on the same page and create a more consistent message that was going out to the public about how the agency worked. Soon after, the agency’s business started picking up, she tells us, with many of the bookings coming from client referrals. 

And it was only when the agency started bringing in more clients did Jones get a taste of selling travel for the first time. She recalls her first booking was to Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun, which no one could take because they were all too busy. “As the business grew, I started helping out with a few new enquiries and found that I loved working with clients to create amazing travel experiences,” Jones says. 

So far in 2021, Jones’ book of business is at $1.9 million, with the agency as a whole pulling in $3.1 million in sales from January through August. Pre-COVID, Jones tells us that WhirlAway’s gross sales were $4.7 million, with 2019 being its best year in business — recording a 25 percent revenue increase over 2018. The good news? “We are well on our way to get back to 2019,” Jones notes.

WhirlAway, Jones says, sells “100 percent leisure luxury.” She adds, “While our expertise is grounded in the traditional luxury (hotels, private guides, exclusive access, etc.), luxury to WhirlAway is much more about anticipatory service and exceeding expectations.” Jones tells us that the agency “excels at FITs and custom travel,” noting that her own specialty is East and Southern Africa safaris. 

Currently, the agency has five client-facing advisors, two assistants and a bookkeeper. WhirlAway Travel’s sole independent contractor recently converted into a part-time employee.

Jones has her own clients and focuses on the agency’s membership clients. Her mother is ready to retire, although Jones still uses her as a mentor. Sara Samuel manages the remainder of the team. Samuel was hired six years ago as an administrative assistant but meshed very well with Jones and very quickly became her right-hand woman. Now, Jones calls Samuel “the ‘how’ to my ‘why.’”

She continues, “What I love about Sara is I’ve got these cockamamie ideas of where I want to go [as a business] and she helps with the logistics of getting there. She’s very much organized in her thoughts, and she wants to build a business … It’s hard to say she’s [just] a manager because she’s also my other half when it comes to the business.”

Samuel, unlike Jones, doesn’t work with clients directly — and that’s by design. Her job is to focus on management “because the only way that we’re going to grow is if we have the operations side, as well.” Jones adds, “I truly believe that you have to look at people and figure out where their skillsets are and maximize that — utilize them for what they’re strong at.” 

WhirlAway Travel’s target demographic “is affluent 30- to 50-year-olds with school-aged children, followed by affluent pre-retirees with young adult children and, finally, affluent retirees — in that order,” Jones says. “As WhirlAway grows, we want to work with clients that grow with us through their life cycle. We believe it is important to build a legacy with travel and to plant the travel seed in children, so that they continue as they get older.” She adds that most clients are from the Philadelphia Main Line, but there are others scattered across the U.S. 

Although the agency has an office in West Chester, most initial consultations with clients are conducted over the phone or Zoom “to make sure they will be a good fit for our company and to better understand what luxury means to them. For some travelers, this is traditional luxury; for others, it may be access to a world-renowned expert in a remote locale with no running water for a few nights.” Jones adds, “It’s about asking the right questions and understanding more than just what, where and when, but understanding more about the why and who they are as people outside of just travel.”

This information doesn’t just help WhirlAway plan trips for its clients; the advisors will relay this information to its supplier partners, so they can also better service the travelers. 

Another change in WhirlAway’s business launched during COVID is how it worked with clients. Previously, advisors and clients worked with each other one-on-one; now, the agency uses a “pod” approach. “At the level of service and attention we provide for each of our clients, it is limiting to have just one or two people working on a trip,” Jones says. “We have gone through our process with a fine-tooth comb and identified where each member of the team is strongest to maximize productivity.” 

Jones considers it “a more holistic approach to planning travel.” In the new format, once a client is under deposit, any number of advisors or employees might be reaching out to collect information or to introduce themselves should the client need anything. Each client will still have a main point of contact, but if they are out of the office, the client is already familiar with other members of the team, who are able to assist more easily because they’re also involved with the booking.  

To make this work, Jones says internal communication is vital, “so that we all know what’s going on and can answer [any] questions.” She adds that 95 percent of the agency’s clients have loved the new approach. 

Jamie Jones WhirlAway Travel

Atop the Skydeck Chicago: Even a road trip offers the opportunity to explore, says Jones.

And it seems to be working. To note: Jones tells us about a new client that reached out to them last July, just four weeks prior to travel for a two-week trip to Italy for their family of five. The family had already booked air (using their miles) through Heathrow Airport, which would have forced them to quarantine upon their arrival — and the kids didn’t have passports. 

Jones had the family turn everything over to WhirlAway Travel, where she was able to rework the entire itinerary (twice), booking only hotels because she was unsure if the kids were going to get their passports in time (they did). The family wanted mornings to be booked with tours (with personal guides that matched well with their kids), while afternoons were to be kept open for shopping and exploring on their own; they also wanted lunch and dinner reservations set for each day. And the planning didn’t stop once the family landed in Italy; every day the mother or father would reach out with different requests (and often on completely separate pages from one another — such as the Mrs. wanting to arrange for more time for shopping and the Mr. wanting to leave town sooner than planned because of their spending). Other last-minute requests included a tour of Giotto’s Bell Tower in Florence or to move around dinner reservations. 

“It was a six-week process of super, super high-touch service,” Jones tells us. That said, she admits “they were a ton of fun to work with.” 

On their trip, the family enjoyed a private cooking class outside of Florence, a yacht charter along the Amalfi Coast and a key master tour in the Vatican to open the doors to the Sistine Chapel at 6 a.m. “Was it a challenging trip? Absolutely. But they were incredible to work with and were a great reminder of not only the value we bring as travel advisors, but also how important our job is to get people out there to experience all that our world has to offer,” Jones adds.

She also was appreciative of when the clients reached out to her, they explained they were interviewing a few other advisors, as well. “We entered the relationship with mutual trust, which made the whole process that much more enjoyable and fulfilling for both parties.” And now that family is in talks to join WhirlAway Travel’s annual membership program. 

Her mindset when dealing with clients such as these? “Planning luxury travel is a challenge. It is like putting a puzzle together, securing it to backing and finding the perfect frame to display it in,” Jones says. “Every day I wake up excited to tackle whatever is thrown at me.”

Changing Industry Dynamics

Travel, according to Jones, “seems to be more meaningful and fulfilling now than it was in the past.” She even likened the way people traveled to the fashion industry: “You had fast fashion and I felt like we were getting into a little bit of ‘fast travel.’” 

Going forward, people will still have their bucket list items to check off, but she tells us, “It is much less about seeing every city and tourist site and more about longer stays and slower travel to truly embrace and soak in a culture and the people. Luxury travelers have been inspired to travel differently, more thoughtfully and I believe it will ultimately benefit our world as a whole.”

And even better, Jones adds, is that destinations are leading the charge when it comes to more sustainable practices. She notes Venice’s closing off its lagoon to large cruise ships and Southern and Eastern Africa halting tourism so that its wildlife could flourish. 

“When we were all forced to see the effects of not traveling, I think that it gave everyone pause to figure out next steps in reopening. Tourism is an essential part of the world economy and harmony amongst people and cultures, but as we saw the world heal, suppliers, destinations and travelers are making more thoughtful decisions to protect our planet,” Jones tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

A big trend among WhirlAway Travel’s clients is they are taking the big trips that they were putting off. Many clients also took off to discover their own backyard throughout COVID. “We have so much to offer in our own country and I think it is great that travelers are seeking to explore their own stomping grounds. Australians and Europeans would spend weeks on holiday in the U.S. and before this past year, those that vacationed here probably saw a lot more of our country than most Americans.”

Travelers are also eager to connect with each other again as a result of a “remote” world since the start of the pandemic. “Our travelers have a desire, now more than ever, to connect with other people in different cultures, connect with loved ones that they have not been able to travel with in almost two years and build a relationship with a trusted advisor to curate spectacular trips no matter how big or small,” she adds.

Another request WhirlAway Travel is receiving plenty often is for highly specialized guides. Some clients — like the family who went to Italy — are asking for guides who work well with children, while others are seeking guides who are experts in their field. In one such instance, the agency booked one of the top experts in leopards and the elephant-human conflict in Sri Lanka to take a client with them on a few research projects.  

How agencies work with their supplier partners have changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think the past 20 months have shown us how important connections and relationships are,” Jones says, adding that she took a “hard look at our partnerships to decide who we want to work with moving forward.”

Even prior to the pandemic, she tells us that she was “super selective” in who WhirlAway Travel worked with on the supplier side. “Relationships and partnerships are paramount to our business model.”

That said, the supplier was always chosen based off the needs of the client. Sometimes this meant working with a wholesaler like Classic Vacations; other times it meant using a destination specialist like IC Bellagio or TransAfrica. 

Throughout the pandemic, WhirlAway Travel stepped up bigtime for its clients — in some instances even paying out of pocket to cover a client’s refunds when they were unable to secure them from the supplier, understanding they likely weren’t going to get that money back. “It was an expense last year and it hurt. But I think at the end of the day, it garnered some trust and faith in us — and I think it was good karma,” Jones tells us. 

The agency was upfront with its clients about the refunds. In some other instances instead of paying back the refund personally, they offered the client a credit with the agency to use for another trip. Then, when WhirlAway secured the refund from the supplier, it would hold that credit to use for the same or different client as needed. “We were trying to be really creative, still following terms and conditions as they were laid out, but also looking out in the best interest of our clients,” she adds.

Jamie Jones Whirlaway Travel

Jones arranges an early morning photoshoot to capture the sunrise by London’s Tower Bridge.

Making the World a Better Place

Beyond the rebrand and re-evaluation of its business practices, during the pandemic, Jones and Samuel took the time to identify WhirlAway’s five- and 10-year goals. “I wanted growth for great buying power and leverage in the industry, but I have never had the desire to be a large company,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor

Jones believes the moves she has made in the past year-plus will help her agency to achieve her goals — which she has made crystal-clear. Starting this year and over the next five years, WhirlAway Travel is aiming to triple the size of its team. In the next two years, the agency will continue to evolve its business model to be fiduciary to its clients with limited reliability on commissions from suppliers. And the 10-year goal is $30 million in sales and 50 clients in its annual membership program, while still providing travel planning on a per-trip basis to its target demographic.  

Right now, Jones says their challenge is finding the best people to add to the team. “They really have to be the right people for our company,” she adds. “And the big thing is we hire for culture, we hire for core values … It’s not just about planning travel for people: It’s about creating these amazing life experiences and the way that we’re going about doing business.”

Overall, though, Jones is “wildly” optimistic for the future of luxury travel. In her view, travel in important to the health of the world. “Getting out there and understanding different cultures and meeting new people and tasting different foods and seeing the world outside of the bubble that we live in is essential,” she says.

On the immediate horizon, Jones expects to see a big increase in travel in 2022 — but she’s a bit hesitant to say if it will be the banner year 2019 was, only because of the uncertainty that remains with COVID variants, travel restrictions and even the limited availability in the luxury market. A ‘full’ rebound might not happen until 2024 or 2025.

As for whether WhirlAway Travel can reach its lofty goals if there isn’t an industry-wide rebound for another three-plus years, Jones tells us, “I like to shoot high.” 

“I don’t want to limit myself, and I honestly think anything’s possible. It just takes some grit and some planning.” She adds, “I just say it’s going to happen and we’re going to work our butts off to get there. And if we don’t reach those goals, then we’re going to continue to try and work towards them.”

But these business-oriented goals aren’t the only measure of success. Jones tells Luxury Travel Advisor, “I believe that travel is essential for the future of our world and if WhirlAway Travel can have a small part of that we have succeeded.”

WhirlAway Travel

Top Executives: Jamie Jones, President; Sara Samuel, Manager; Patty Jefferis, Founder
Number of Employees: Five travel advisors, two assistants, plus one bookkeeper
Annual volume of business: $3.1 million ($4.7 million pre-COVID)
Affiliations: Signature Travel Network
Agency Website: www.whirlawaytravel.com

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