Starting a travel business during a pandemic that grounded most travel isn’t easy. But it’s not impossible, as several advisors Travel Market Report spoke to learned after starting their own agencies in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lessons they learned are truths some established travel advisors might recognize but may have forgotten. When clients are plentiful, as they were prior to the pandemic, it’s easy to forget the basics.
Here are a few key lessons these new agency owners learned that allowed them to be successful in what many would call a crazy time to own a travel business.
Remember Your Why
Starting a travel business at a time when few people are traveling can be frustrating. But when things get difficult remembering why you started the business and finding ways to stay positive are critical to getting through the hard times.
“It was time for me to go into business for myself and I had such a great passion for travel,” said Dawn Nowlan, a former retail executive and owner of a Dream Vacations franchise in Charlotte, Michigan. Nowlan opened up for business in February 2020, while news of COVID-19 was just starting to spread.
“When the floor kind of fell out from underneath us, I still felt like it was the right decision. It was just horrifyingly scary timing,” she told Travel Market Report.
Despite the uphill battle, Nowlan said she kept returning to her why whenever she felt discouraged. As a reminder, she keeps a post-it on her desk with a quote she heard from Royal Caribbean’s Vicki Freed, “Every red light turns green eventually” with the words “remember your why” underneath it.
“It’s important for me to stay focused and not become a victim of the situation. I think mindset is everything,” she said.
Focus on the Positive
When it comes to mindset, new travel advisor JoAnne Michaud agreed a positive attitude is critical. Michaud bought her Phoenix-based Dream Vacations franchise in November 2020, right smack in the middle of the pandemic.
Like Nowlan, Michaud has focused on staying positive rather than dwelling on the difficulties.
“I believe we all have a choice in life. We can choose to focus on the positive or the negative,” she said. “Instead of focusing on those instances [cancellations], I focus on the positive of the new bookings coming in. And the ones that cancel, I know they’ll be back when the situation stabilizes.”
Michaud added that having realistic expectations when she first opened up helped. “I told myself if I make any sales my first years, that’ll just be a bonus.”
Sam Yaffe, co-owner of Long Island, NY-based Crafty Getaways, a TRAVELSAVERS agency that he launched with his partners in November 2020 (their brick-and-mortar location opened in April 2021), calls it believing in yourself.
“When you want to build a business, you can’t be afraid to take chances, as long as you believe in yourself.”
Sharing Is the Best Marketing
With the exception of Yaffe and his partners, all of whom had worked for other travel agencies before, the advisors TMR spoke with started their agencies with no customer base. They had to find clients, gain their trust and convince them to travel, all amidst a backdrop in which travel was deemed dangerous.
Several turned to social media as a way of connecting with potential clients. More importantly, they used social media to share their own travel experiences.
“I think sharing information and my experiences made them feel comfortable,” Michaud told TMR. She has traveled every month since July 2021 and has documented each trip on social media.
“When people see you do that, some people think it’s risky. Whereas others, there’s a lot of curiosity. ‘How are you doing it?’ ‘Is it safe?’ It instills confidence. It shows I know how to navigate the entry requirements and what you need to do to travel successfully in various countries.”
Nowlan did much the same. “I went on a few FAM trips and recorded the whole thing. I showed how safe it was in the airports. What the sanitation protocols at the resorts are to keep everybody safe. The testing… I felt like that helped a lot of people to see, ‘oh, she’s out there. Maybe we can do this.’ And my business really started to grow from there.”
For Nowlan, social media has become one of her primary drivers of business and she doesn’t expect that to end any time soon. She’s created several weekly “events” on social media including a Travel Reel Sunday, where she posts a 15-second video of somewhere in the world people want to go, and Travel Talk Thursday, during which she talks about what has happened in the travel universe during the past week.
“Things like that keep them engaged and informed, and build that know, like and trust environment,” she said.
Michaud credits social media for helping build her business as well, but says most of that comes from others recommending her on social media. Others that she’s met through networking.
“I joined every networking group I could. I literally do one networking theme group per day. It’s a lot of work but it has been tremendous,” she said.
At every networking meeting she goes to she has the opportunity to talk about her latest trip. Not as an official presentation, but simply because her networking peers know, invariably she has just returned from somewhere.
“They love being able to follow along that way… They ask questions. It’s not like information is being forced on people. It’s just generating curiosity,” she said. And it keeps her front of mind, when people in the groups – or their friends and family – start thinking about travel.
“Not only do people in my networking groups ask for themselves, but they refer friends and acquaintances, saying ‘oh my gosh, get in touch with her, she knows international travel. She’s always doing it.’”
For Yaffe and his partners, who already have a client base, networking with travel partners has been key to their success.
“For me, it’s all about building relationships, whether it’s a customer or a vendor. Those relationships go a long way… Relationship building can last a lifetime. When we decided to open up our own business, I started reaching out to all of my contacts to say, here’s what we’re doing, can you help us out. And every single one gave us pretty much the highest commission level because of my relationships with them.”