American Express threw a party on Vicki Briggs’ first day in the travel business — and every day of the next 20 years has been an adventure.
It was Cinco de Mayo, 1999, when the former stay-at-home mom of a Marine family started her internship at the American Express agency in Manassas, Virginia. In 2010, she took the leap into her own business, signed on with Nexion, and was off-and-running.
“From day one, I treated my clients like they were family; we’d sit at my desk and talk, and then I’d follow up immediately. I got a lot of business from people who said the agency down the road never called them back,” Briggs said. “Initially, it was hard not to have clients sitting in front of me and having that camaraderie with other agents in the office, but it’s so much better working from home. You have control of everything.”
For Brenda Punchak, the first month as a travel agent was much more stressful. A star salesperson in direct sales of cosmetics, Punchak had won more than 30 incentive trips and cruises when, concerned that her husband might lose his job, she took a CLIA training course with him, and quickly was hooked.
“I always believed that God provides food for the birds, but he doesn’t drop it in their mouths,” she said. Within weeks of launching her business, she had three speaking engagements lined up; and in no time, “I had all these groups and I didn’t even know what I was doing as far as booking them. I just kept asking and asking until I got the answers I needed. It was right after Sept. 11, and the travel world was in chaos. I didn’t really know any of the reps in the travel business; I was so new, they didn’t really know who I was.”
But, determined to succeed, she “went to every travel meeting to learn as much as I could and just kept moving on. There is no secret to success; you just have to get out there and do it.”
Cheryl Scavron also credits just plain hard work for the success of the franchise she runs with her husband Ron, which in 2018, won her travel agency network’s first Lifetime Achievement Award. They left careers in the medical field, building on a love of cruising. When a local CruiseOne franchise (now she operates as Dream Vacations) became available, they “worked very hard at it,” and within four years, they were the company’s top producers.
“We started with what we knew, the Caribbean,” Scavron said. “That’s what I always tell new associates: Start with the easiest thing to learn, learn all the ships, and then expand out from there. Within the first year, our Celebrity rep put me on an Alaska cruise, so then I started selling Alaska also.”
Indeed, she said, “We’ve had a lot of good fortune in our sales reps believing in us and helping us grow our business. It helps when someone is next to you saying ‘Come on, you can do better.’”
Tips learned the hard way
Briggs also grew her business by focusing on a niche; for her, it was all-inclusives. But over the years, her clients have moved up — and so has she. “At this point, I want the trips I work on to be river cruises and escorted tours and luxury travel, and I’m focused more on groups. I don’t actively seek business; I don’t advertise; I don’t market. It just comes.”
It helps that she traveled herself. “You can’t underestimate how important it is to experience what you sell; I do a lot of fam trips and I also pay for my own trips,’” Briggs said. “When I post on Facebook or talk to my friends about going to Antarctica, people start to think in those terms. I talk about travel when I’m home, with friends, in my Christmas letter, everywhere. And I constantly let my clients know that I appreciate them. I send emails after they book, a little handwritten note, a calendar to hang on the fridge where I write something about their trip. And every year, even if I have less clients, my overall sales are higher.”
Her focus on groups has also been a key to growth. “Groups can be a headache to pull together, but once they are together, it’s great,” Briggs said. Hers are mostly prior clients that now have friends and family they want to travel with: a 25th wedding anniversary, a fraternity group, and bride whose destination wedding she booked now wants to travel with friends.
Punchak, meanwhile, expanded her business over time to include destination weddings “and whatever customers asked for.” She created a second company, HoneymoonsandDestinationWeddings.com, and lots of groups. Today, she has 10 independent contractors all over the country, mostly former customers; and her daughter, Alicia Kingston, who is her No. 1 agent.
Her advice? “Everyone thinks it’s so easy, but they don’t want to put the effort in to make it happen. When you hear ‘No,’ don’t be hurt — just learn what not to do next time. Get your personal feelings out of growing your business.”
And where once she gave out really nice gifts, “now I give you my service and my knowledge. My doctor doesn’t give me a gift, he gives me a bill.”
Every year has been better than the last. “I always had goals — to pay off my BMW (which I was thrilled to do in my very first year), to pay off the house,” Punchak said. “You have to have something to strive for when you wake up in the morning.”
The Scavrons, meanwhile, have followed a slightly different path. While Cheryl began by being very active in the Chamber of Commerce, building her customer base with local business people, she also cites her lucky positioning in a brick-and-mortar agency in a mall in Fort Lauderdale.
“It’s a great advantage being in South Florida, where I can take my clients to ship luncheons, and can easily get them last-minute deals. And I also learned a lot by getting on the ships myself. So, when a new ship came out, I had an opportunity to go walk around and really search out all the nooks and crannies to find the best cabins.”
A former nurse, she also was “very thorough about following through and making sure every detail was taken care of. I always want to go above-and-beyond and make sure I do more than what is expected, so they come back and say, ‘I was in the best cabin on that ship.’”
And while her location in the mall does often bring in walk-in clients — including one who has booked two round-the-world cruises! — “client referrals are what really make you jump from one level to the next; when they are out there spreading the word for you, there is nothing better than that.”
Her advice, too, is to start with the Caribbean and “learn everything you can about one area first.”
And always answer the phone. “When we first started, we called 15 or 20 travel agencies and most of them just didn’t answer the phone at all,” Scavron said. “Once in a while now, four lines will be ringing at once, but that happens very seldom, and when it does, I call them right back. Treat it like a business, not like a part-time thing where you are out shopping instead of calling them back. Make contacts — get out there, join networking groups, and present your knowledge to them. And use your own center of influence; have your family and your tennis partners talk about you; host a breakfast or cocktails. Always let everyone know what you do.”