If what goes around comes around, 29-year-old Heather Christopher deserves to be a success. When she left the travel agency where she worked to open her very own brick-and-mortar shop, she just didn’t feel right taking her customers with her. Taking the high road meant starting virtually from scratch — but she had an unusual, and decidedly young, business plan. Eighteen months later, she is closing out her first full year in business with sales of almost $700,000.
“Everything has been going really well; business has been really good and I’ve exceeded all the goals I set for myself,” Christopher said. “And what I’d like to share with other travel advisors is that the success I’ve had is largely due to working with two great customers in the social influencer market.”
An enthusiast of social media herself, Christopher borrowed the idea of befriending social media influencers, those popular personalities with thousands of dedicated followers, from the cruise companies and hotels and tour operators. She noticed how travel suppliers like Princess and Carnival “have really picked up on the idea of marketing through social influencers,” she said.
“I think people are realizing that everyone wants an authentic person — a person they know and like, who is doing things they’d like to do and are curious about, who provides the validation that that’s what they want, too, because everything she likes, I like also.”
Indeed, by following and then befriending and the arranging travel for just two Instagram bloggers, Christopher has seen her business grow by one new customer every two days.
Finding the ideal fit
Even she is amazed at the return on her investment of time in the Instagram channel. She started slowly, following two Instagrammers because she was genuinely interested in their blogs; over time, she replied to several of their posts and eventually built a rapport with them. When they posted that they had honeymoons coming up, Christopher posted back about her own wedding and honeymoon.
“I reached out and basically sold myself,” she said. “I said, ‘I saw you mentioned your honeymoon; my role is to take the stress out of planning honeymoons.’ Then I walked them through the whole process, and said that in exchange for some posts about me, I’d be willing to comp my fee for them.”
Having clearly set their expectations, the next step was to make sure to deliver the kind of customer service that would win over any bride. With one influencer planning a European tour involving multiple hotels and one headed to Saint Lucia, Christopher got on the phone and called every property to say, “Here’s who you are dealing with; I know they will be actively posting so please take good care of them.”
It all worked, in part because the fit was so good, and the match so authentic, Christopher said. “They were my ideal clients, people I’d be friends with in real life.”
And apparently, many others feel the same way. She has been getting a new request from followers of the two blogs every other day; “it has literally kept my business flowing, and 90 percent of the clients have been an ideal fit,” she said.
“They are not surprised by the fee I charge; they have a budget; they are exactly the clients I would want. It’s the perfect thing, where customers just walk in because you did one thing right. And then hopefully they will refer their friends and the cycle will keep going. It’s the number-one best thing I’ve done since opening my door.”
How to find a social influencer
So how does one go about finding an influencer to follow? Look to the people you already are following, whose lifestyle is similar to yours and to the potential customers you are looking to attract.
“Find people who like what you like,” Christopher says. “If you are into cars, find the people who are buying expensive cars and say, ‘I’d love to work with you. Would you be willing to give me some social media tags when you go on a trip?' ”
Neither of her Influencers is a movie star; their numbers of followers are “not the highest of the high.” But Christopher figures just 100 new customers a year will put her business in just the right place.
Once having won these new customers, you have to deliver the service that will keep them and bring them back, of course. To that end, she has affiliated with Perfect Honeymoons, a Signature agency, so she can offer their benefits and amenities to her customers.
Still, she is thankful to have come so far. Before going off on her own, she spoke to many travel professionals and researched how much they earned their first few years, how long it took them to make a living. “I know I’m good at what I do; I’m confident it’s the one thing in life I do well,” she said. “I used to sell $1.2 million a year and I hoped to make half that my first year on my own. Now I feel very solid that I can get back to a million-plus on my own.”
Still some things have been more difficult than she expected. The hardest part, the part even the customers do not understand, is the cashflow crunch of any small business. “What I didn’t expect is that I billed $700,000, but I will only see half of the commission on that this year,” she said.
“I charge fees because we don’t get paid until our customers travel; we don’t even get a portion of deposit. Of course, I knew that in theory, but I wasn’t really aware of how difficult it makes things. Why does our industry work that way? Maybe that will change eventually, especially since the cruise lines are moving toward higher deposits made earlier in the process.”
In the meantime, though, she is looking forward to 2018, when she will finally see the rest of the commissions she earned over the past year.
For more on Heather Christopher, see our original story.