Everyone tells travel agents to specialize, that when you “find your niche, you find your riches.” But narrowing your focus from booking a wide array of clients to a wide array of places, to a specific market or market segment, can be a hazardous and lonely road.
Building the marketing engine that attracts more potential clients from a smaller prospect pool requires planning, perseverance, and a hyperfocus on your ideal client.
This is the journey Isabelle Williams, owner and travel consultant at RNI Travel, in Overland Park, Kansas, is on today. In November 2018, Williams relaunched her website and social media platforms, focusing on higher-end, older travelers looking to experience France and French wines.
Specializing in France has narrowed her client and prospect pool to a highly competitive market. A Google search for “France Travel Agent,” returns 211 million results, with four prominent companies appearing on the first Google Search Engines Result Page (SERP).
Several large agencies and tour companies were running Google Ads when Travel Market Report researched this story. At that time, Travel Leaders Group owned the first two unpaid search engine results. On the smaller, independent agent end of the market, Fox World Travel was the first to appear, the seventh organic result.
Searching for “French wine tours Bordeaux” still returns about 5.3 million results, dominated by independent operators based in France.
To cut through the clutter and attract her market, Williams knows she will need to rely on her many years of living in the Bordeaux region and her degree in tourism, to develop web and social media content specific to her niche.
Through word of mouth, RNI currently attracts a healthy clientele, mostly couples older than 50, with the time and discretionary income for extended stays in France, as well as at least one additional European city, Williams said.
To keep the flow of new prospects coming into her agency, Williams knows that she needs to step up her game, and she is determined to get there.
Falling in love with France
Born and raised in Mons, Belgium, just over the border from France, Williams, her two siblings, and her parents vacationed in France extensively when she was young. One year, when Williams was still a teenager, her father, a contractor, purchased an old farm in Bordeaux to renovate.
He eventually moved the family there, and when Williams finished high school, she enrolled at university in Clermont-Ferrand, in Central France, to earn an associate’s degree in tourism. She spent a summer in Missouri as a Girl Scouts camp counselor, befriending an American family that offered her the opportunity to live with them if she ever returned.
As it turned out, Williams was granted a U.S. green card lottery spot, and after earning her degree in tourism, and spending a year in England to improve her English, Williams packed her bags, and with $100 in her pocket, moved to Missouri.
With no credit history, Williams needed a friend to cosign for her first car, and she could not rent an apartment either, “so a friend was kind enough to let me stay at her apartment and share the rent,” she said.
Still, it was the mid-1990s, and the job market was good. Williams was hired by a corporate travel agency, where she worked for about six years. Then 9/11 happened. Business travel came to a halt, and her employer laid off a good portion of its employees.
With a livable severance and some part-time work, Williams went back to school for accounting, and when she earned her degree, entered the corporate finance world.
“But I never really felt the enjoyment as I feel when I sell travel,” she said. “It didn’t make me very happy, and after a few years, I knew I was tired of working for companies. I wanted to go back to travel. I knew that I wanted to open my own business.”
Around 2016, that is what she did, starting with a host agency. She absorbed every morsel of information she could by attending conferences, and availing herself of her agency’s training.
“Every time I brought friends or family from the U.S. to Normandy or Bordeaux, they always came back asking, ‘When are we doing the next trip to France?’” she said. That made her realize that she should consider focusing her business around consumers looking to visit France.
Rebrand and relaunch
To specialize and attract Francophiles, Williams knew she would have to completely reconfigure her website. In 2017, she talked to the web design team at her then host agency, “but they pretty much blew me off.” She took a step back and worked on what she wanted to do.
“The hardest point for me was to organize the ideas I had in my head, and how they would translate to website content. I was not sure how to organize my site, as it was my first time having a website designed from scratch,” she said. “Also, I did not know how much itinerary information I should put on there. Is it too much or not enough? I wanted clients to think ‘a la carte travel.’ But at the same time, I wanted my clients to find some of their own ideas when they browse my website.”
When she pulled her thoughts together, Williams hired an outside web design team, and dug in, establishing new content focused on France, and loading descriptions of customized tours. She relaunched RNI Travel in November 2018.
“I am still changing things around with the verbiage, so I learned to use WordPress, which was a little challenging for me,” Williams said.
The look-and-feel of RNI’s website is distinctly French, with scenes from Paris, Monaco, and small villages running across the top of its home page.
“Let us curate your vacation to France,” RNI says, greeting visitors, by providing “personalized, self-guided tours and itineraries for travel to France, always built to maximize your enjoyment of a trip by minimizing your need to plan it – we take care of everything for you, based on your travel vision, so that all that’s left for you is to pack and go.”
Constantly creating content
Williams offers a lead magnet for her ideal clients, an eight-page eBook for wine aficionados, offering tips for transporting wine back to the U.S. And she tries to blog once a week to create new content, and increase her SEO.
For new blogs, Williams reads several specialized French magazines written in English by French writers, like “France Today.” She also partners with a few French DMCs, who keep her in the loop with new trends.
So far, Williams has covered topics from European rail tickets and the history of French castles, to how to make travel a romantic Valentine’s Day gift. “I am still learning about what content to add,” she said.
She also has listed her curated itineraries, including an eight-day river cruise through Bordeaux, visiting vineyards, farms and the forests of Aquitaine. As her website states, RNI’s clients will see “Bordeaux’s fountains and cellars. Hunt for truffles in Périgord, then taste them in a home-cooked meal,” and create their own personal blend of Cognac at the Camus distillery.
On social media, you can see the November date when Williams relaunched. Her final generic travel post is a picture of an alpaca in Peru. The next day, Williams posted a picture of Reims, France. She currently has a part-time social media person helping her accumulate fun facts and information about France, and posting for her.
A post Williams did of a short video of pictures of France created some of her best engagement so far. Williams also has found pictures of food are popular, as well as old sites with history, such as Rocamadour or Lascaux.
Creating fresh content that attracts web visitors isn’t easy for a busy agent, Williams concedes, but she remains persistent and is prepared to make the investment, in time and money, to keep up her efforts.
“To have good content is to experience the destinations and show them to my clients,” Williams said. So, she is planning a trip home to visit her parents, with time to revisit different parts of France where she will take new photos, video, and speak to the locals about what she has heard her clients say they are looking for.
“You have to constantly update” to attract new prospects, Williams said.