Robbert van Bloemendaal bought his first travel agency in 1995 – just weeks before airline commission caps forever altered the retail industry's bread-and-butter formula.
He purchased Garland Travel, a Carlson Wagonlit agency in Garland, Texas. The agency morphed into All About Travel and then became a Travel Leaders franchise when Carlson sold its network in 2008.
He owned and operated the Travel Leaders Rowlett franchise, now in Rowlett, Texas, until last year, when van Bloemendaal sold the agency to Vince Ashwill. But van Bloemendaal has stayed on with the storefront agency. Today he works as its business development manager.
Getting out there
“I don't sit behind a desk anymore,” he says. “I go out and hunt for new business, meeting with local groups, attending chamber of commerce networking events – any sort of place where I can get my face out there and tell anyone who's interested in travel that they should come and see me.
“I'm an easygoing guy and I like to talk to people.”
The Australian-born retailer hails from Sydney originally. “I met my Texan wife in Hawaii, moved to the U.S. and became a citizen.”
Not only did he survive the airline compensation cuts that started in 1995, van Bloemendaal learned to innovate by embracing niche markets such as adoption travel and missionary travel.
“At the height of our adoption travel business it wasn't unusual for us to book 10 couples a month to places like China, Russia, Africa and elsewhere,” he says.
But when the economy tanked in 2008, the adoption business went with it.
To adopt a child from a foreign country can cost between $20,000 and $30,000, he notes. In many cases prospective parents received financial help from churches. When the economy slowed down, “that money wasn't coming through anymore.”
Missionary travel grows
A newer niche for the agent is missionary travel. “Missionary travel is a big part of the business today,” he says.
“We typically only handle the air, since missionaries usually have places to stay once they've arrived at their destination, either a missionary station or a church.
“It's a lot different from other kinds of travel because missionaries qualify for special air rates, cancellation penalties and payment plans, for example. It's not like selling a trip to someone who wants to go on safari. It's a different process.”
Expanding & contracting
Van Bloemendaal branched out over the years. Between 1995 and 2009 he acquired five agencies, began hosting independent contractors and launched www.superhostagency.com.
Those five agencies eventually were rolled into his original agency business.
“I ended up with two additional branch offices, which I closed and amalgamated into the head office just as the economic slowdown began, so I ended up with only one office, which I sold to (Ashwill),” says Bloemendaal.
And now he's onto another new niche.
Selling Facebook content
Last year van Bloemendaal began providing Facebook content to other Travel Leaders agencies.
“We were putting content on our Facebook page and it seemed to me that other agencies would be interested in this content. We supply 12 agencies right now. It's pretty much all the same content we put on our own page,” he says.
The Facebook content includes photos and information about destinations and hotels, special deals from suppliers, plus fun stuff.
Really fun stuff
“One thing we post every Saturday morning is called Totally Useless Travel Trivia, and people really like it,” he says.
One recent Saturday, the trivia posts informed visitors that there are “more plastic flamingos in the U.S, than real ones,” that “in the White House there are 13,092 knives, forks and spoons” and that “in the Philippine jungle, the yo-yo was first used as a weapon.”
Van Bloemendaal says he hopes to line up lots more agencies that want to subscribe to his Facebook content this year.
“I've found that agency owners don't have the time to do this. It requires research, and some of them don't have the social media skills. They don't know where to find content and they don't have contacts with vendors to get it. This way, they can keep selling. It's a big time saver for them.”