Headquarters Happenings: Canada’s TravelOnly Sees ‘Micro-Niching’ as Key to ICs’ Growth

by Marilee Crocker
Headquarters Happenings: Canada’s TravelOnly Sees ‘Micro-Niching’ as Key to ICs’ Growth

TravelOnly celebrated its top producers and suppliers at its annual Distinction Awards in January. From left, Patrick Luciani, TravelOnly chair; Ann Luciani, CFO; Ensemble co-president Lindsay Pearlman, and Gregory Luciani, president and CEO.

Editor's Note: Headquarters Happenings is a regular feature that keeps you updated on the marketing and technology programs of major travel agencies, host agencies, travel agency consortia, cooperatives, travel networks and franchise groups. Top executives detail how their groups grow their businesses and how their initiatives can help travel agents succeed.

If you want to talk numbers with Gregory Luciani, president and CEO of Canadian host agency TravelOnly, be prepared to talk about revenues.

“I’m always about the revenue. I don’t care how many agents you have. I don’t care about your sales volume. I only care how much revenue you’ve generated. I preach it from the rooftops,” Luciani said.

At TravelOnly, revenues have grown by double digits every year since its launch in 2000. The privately held host agency, headquartered in Brantford, Ontario, aims to drive similar results for the 625 Canadian agents it hosts.

Micro-niche strategy
Together, TravelOnly agents ring up about CA$100 million (US$74.17 million) in annual sales, according to Luciani. Average volume for its affiliate agents ranges from CA$500,000 to CA$1 million; the largest TravelOnly agents sell between CA$5 million and $10 million.

To help its agents drive up revenues, TravelOnly encourages them to become “micro-niche specialists,” creating and promoting agent-led tours that their customers can’t get anywhere else.

“The most successful agents today are escorting their own tours, physically going on adventures or excursions in niche areas; for example, quilting––we have a million-dollar seller who just promotes quilting tours,” Luciani said.

For independent travel consultants, the path to bottom line growth lies in “putting the tours together, hosting the events, promoting the products, being with your people and making sure they’re getting excellent attention,” Luciani said. “That’s what builds a clientele faster than any marketing campaign, and it brings loyalty. That micro-niching, niching within a niche, is the next level for travel professionals who want to grow their margin.”

The strategy is also key to TravelOnly’s continuing its own double-digit revenue growth. “We know we can’t keep recruiting forever,” Luciani said.

‘Old-fashioned handholding’
About 75% of TravelOnly’s current affiliates were new to retail travel when they joined the host agency.

Industry newbies who sign on can expect to be supported by a combination of state of the art technology, extensive online training and “good old-fashioned handholding,” Luciani said.

There are live training events every month throughout the country, and it’s mandatory that they attend to meet personally with their trainers, mentors and peers. “Ultimately no agent is a number here,” he said. “We know that philosophy goes right through to the consumer, in terms of agents establishing better relationships with their customers.”

Getting started
TravelOnly works closely with new affiliates to help them figure out their passions, identify target markets where they already have a foothold, and find preferred partners to support their micro-niche initiatives.

Initially, the work for new entrants is establishing a database. Once that’s accomplished––and it can take years––the focus shifts to “communicating with that market base,” Luciani said.

Agents usually find their sweet spot after three to five years with TravelOnly.

Digital marketing, local events
On the technology side, TravelOnly offers a proprietary digital marketing solution, TAP2.0, whose data segmentation allows affiliates to target customers with the products and offers best suited to their tastes.

TravelOnly also encourages its affiliates to host local events.

“After a time with TravelOnly we start gearing you toward event planning––wine and cheeses, cruise nights, consumer nights, theme nights, participation with other gala events. We really start driving that side of the business, [which can generate] exponential growth,” Luciani said.

That’s in line with TravelOnly’s goal of driving consumers off the Internet and back into the arms of local travel experts. The message is simple: “‘We’re here for you. We’re doing tours that fit your family needs. We know the community.’ That’s really the driver for our model,” Luciani said.

In a way that’s a return to TravelOnly’s roots.

Family-owned agency
TravelOnly’s forerunner is Luciani World Travel, a storefront agency founded in 1974 by Luciani’s parents, Patrick and Ann Luciani. His parents built the business by catering to the surrounding Italian community, said Gregory Luciani. In the mid 1990s, around the time Gregory went off to university, the agency, like so many others, found its business model being disrupted by technology, new competition from online travel agencies and escalating overhead.

Gregory made it a business class project to develop a model for hosting home-based travel agents in Canada, not unlike the hosting model that had emerged in the United States. But even as he and his father were recruiting agency owners and new entrants, they were fighting on another front––lobbying the provincial governments to strike down laws that made operating a travel agency at home illegal.

Their battle was won, (although outside agents are still heavily regulated in Canada), and today all but a few of TravelOnly’s affiliates work from their homes.

At TravelOnly, new corporate offices have long since replaced the original storefront agency. Its founders have stayed on—Patrick Luciani serves as chair of TravelOnly and Ann Luciani as chief financial officer—and many TravelOnly staff members have been with the firm for 10 or 20 years.

Canada pride
TravelOnly is 100% Canadian-owned and -operated, and that’s something its affiliate agents love, Luciani said. “Canadians like doing business with Canadians.”

But in 2011 it took steps to expand into the U.S. market, then put the plan on hold. “We didn’t think it was the time,” Luciani explained. The complexities of navigating U.S. tax laws are a big deterrent. “It’s more accounting, more legal, and that eats into and erodes our margins, and margins are thin to begin with.”

For now, TravelOnly will stay focused on continuing its double-digit revenue growth in Canada. As Luciani said, “We have a good model up here in Canada. It’s profitable. We know the terrain. We understand the marketplace.”

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