It pays to advertise — but it pays even more to send a press release to the local paper and have them write about you for free. Especially when you are launching a brand new travel agency.
That’s a lesson Chuck Miller understands from his former life as an advertising and PR executive in Corporate America. That life ended three months ago, when after 17 years, the company he worked for moved his position to New York, and he opted to stay in Minnesota and become a travel agent instead.
Just back from a week on MSC Seaside with his wife and two teenaged kids, Miller is finding his MBA degree and business background increasingly helpful in a job that’s harder than he expected. He has immersed himself in researching the industry and the players; chosen to specialize in cruises because he loves them and foresees a huge growth potential; drawn up a business plan; signed on with KHM Travel; begun several online training programs; and started networking with suppliers.
The biggest surprise, he said, was the sheer volume of information he must absorb, despite his many years of cruising as a guest rather than as a professional.
He spent the month of February navigating the basics. He chose KHM Travel as a host because “they did a good job explaining the benefits, the educational and support tools they have.” By mid-March, he had his website up. He took the online courses offered by KHM, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, MSC, Disney and CLIA. (“Hard — you really need to pay attention,” he said.)
In late March, he officially considered himself open for business — and for his first step, he acted like the PR professional he used to be. “I was proactive; I reached out to the local paper and asked if they do business stories, and they told me to send a press release.” So, he sat down and wrote one, and sent it to them the same day. They modeled a story from that — and then a weekly paper picked up the story, too. Within days, he had four customers.
This week, his plan is to create rich content for his website, beginning with his MSC cruise, along with pictures and video he took recently when he sailed on Carnival Vista.
He’s excited about his prospects, as the cruise industry adds new ships and itineraries over the next few years. “Going on cruises has been a passion for our family, and all these new ships are coming out. Cruises are a small segment of the travel industry, but it seems it’s going to explode in terms of growth,” he said.
Four of the five trips he is working on are cruises; the fifth is a group of 12 headed for Europe. That’s not his specialty, so, knowing enough to know what he doesn’t know, he called KHM for support. Where the KHM website “had 100 suppliers and I didn’t know where to start,” they quickly gave him three suppliers to work with.
“I knew travel agents are well-trained professionals, but it’s more work than I thought. I didn’t expect the overwhelming amount of information that’s out there,” he acknowledges. “I get hammered with deals from all the cruise lines, often daily; it’s a lot to digest.”
Still, his MBA background and corporate experience have helped him navigate. “You have to focus and prioritize; you have to start each day focusing on what you need to do next and prioritize what you need to get done each day,” he said. “Otherwise, you can get stuck in email and Instagram paralysis, instead of doing what you need to do to grow your business.”
It’s important to remember, too, that the marketing side and the business side are equally important, that you need a solid business plan and also a solid marketing plan. Rather than just “pushing things out there willy-nilly, you need to have a greater plan.”
Miller already has discovered that cruising as a professional is a whole different experience than being a guest. On seaside, he prowled the ship armed with a new Surface Book and a video camera, posting on Facebook and Instagram; he paid for the high-speed Internet plan for the first time, so he could check email and share pictures; he took notes and critiqued things and looked at the ship “through the eyes of not just my family, but a couple or a single person — until my wife looked at me and said, ‘You are going to relax sometime this week, right?’”