After 15 years in the ministry and several more in academia, David Ourisman took a leap of faith and launched a successful travel agency.
Ourisman, owner of Ourisman Travel in Berkeley, Calif., spoke with Travel Market Report about his unusual career path and the mentorship program that helped make the transition work.
What was your background prior to becoming a travel agent?
Ourisman: I was in the ministry from 1978 to 1992 and then was an adjunct professor for a few years at a theological seminary. I was bored in academia and had always loved traveling and helping friends with travel plans. My 55th birthday present to myself was to start a travel business.
How did you get started?
Ourisman: At first I was with a big vanilla agency where I found myself hitting a plateau that I couldn’t move beyond. I decided to join a Virtuosos agency and discovered Brownell Travel. Then I found out Brownell was starting a mentorship program. I was a guinea pig in its first group. (See Agency’s Mentoring Program for ICs Yields Sales Stars)
How did you benefit from Brownell’s mentorship program?
Ourisman: What the mentorship does is accelerate your professional growth. You are put in touch with top experts. We had monthly conference calls and talked about the different kinds of travel products and how to sell them. It was a guided learning process.
One of the interesting things that came out of it was my decision to be a luxury hotel specialist. Rebecca Willson, who runs Brownell’s mentorship program, told me that hotels are my strength. Part of mentoring is helping somebody see things about themselves that they might not recognize.
Has your experience as a minister influenced your work as an agent?
Ourisman: In both cases you are counseling people and helping them get more out of their lives. The ministry requires sometimes dealing in unhappy situations but, like travel, it does have its aspirational side. They both are service areas where relationships are important.
The big difference is that in the ministry you can’t fire clients.
How is your agency structured?
Ourisman: Ourisman Travel is an independent affiliate of Brownell, which serves as our host agency. I’m home-based in Berkeley, Calif., and there are three part-time travel counselors who work in my home office with me. Also with the agency is my daughter-in-law Jessica Ourisman. She specializes in safaris and destination weddings and works out of her home in Baltimore.
Has being a hotel specialist worked out for you?
Ourisman: Not many agents are specializing in hotels, so I’m in a niche that is rare.
I’ve become a luxury hotel specialist, with 80% of my bookings with Virtuoso hotels. Specialization is the key to succeeding in today’s Internet-drive environment. My typical client is pretty Internet savvy, so they book their own air and know what they want. What I can get them are the Virtuoso partner amenities – the added value that a Brownell agency brings.
Do you handle other types of travel besides hotels?
Ourisman: One of my assistants is a cruise specialist, so I pass all that business her way. I like to stay with hotels. I’ve never been on a cruise and don’t feel comfortable handling them. It’s important to follow what you’re interested in.
People can tell if you have expertise and it takes time to develop one. I’ve been selling hotels for 17 years and I know what I’m talking about.
What is your annual sales volume?
Ourisman: We had over $5 million in sales during the last fiscal year and are seeing steady growth every year.
What’s the key to your success?
Ourisman: The mentorship program taught me marketing. We had to put together a marketing plan. This was back in 1996 when social media as we know it today did not exist. But I got active on Internet travel forums, which were an early form of social media. I built my business through this.
I’ve been writing a blog for seven years and I have a professionally done website. I still contribute to travel forums and it’s amazing how people find you. It becomes a magnet.
Do you travel a lot yourself?
Ourisman: Absolutely. You tend to sell those regions that you know best. I just got back from a trip to Vienna, Berlin and Prague where we visited every Virtuoso hotel. I write trip reports and post them on my blog.