Back in 1968, Jean Kuhn arrived in New York City with one goal in mind – to work in travel.
She paid a fee of $200 to an employment agency that promised it would get her foot into the door of a travel agency. It did, and her life's been an adventure ever since.
“I knew what I wanted. I went after it, and I got it,” says Kuhn.
After many years working for a New York brick and mortar agency, Kuhn went home – home-based, that is. In 2005, she affiliated with the Florida host agency Cruises & Tours Unlimited, relocating to South Carolina that same year.
Building a business
She distinguished herself with a penchant for community outreach.
Over time, she built a lucrative, repeat client list by holding “travel nights” and “cruise nights” at local libraries and restaurants, speaking about vacation products in front of civic and church groups, and holding networking events with other businesses near her home in Murrells Inlet, S.C.
It was, she says, exciting and exhausting.
Today Kuhn's business model and career continue to evolve.
“Now that I'm getting older, I decided to take a different spin on things,” she says.
Cultivating sales leads
Kuhn recently bid a fond farewell to her longtime host and now primarily works from leads she gets as an affiliate of Avoya Travel through its “live leads” program. The host agency offers sales leads to its independent affiliates based on the agent's expertise and performance.
“I do miss getting out there with sales pitches, but I wanted to be involved with the trend toward lead opportunities. There's less overhead now for me and I work only on the actual sales aspect of travel. I guess my career is morphing again,” says Kuhn.
Virtually all of her sales are by phone and email, and these modes of communication represent a challenge for someone so accustomed to in-person interactions.
Now she has clients all over the world versus within shouting distance of Murrells Inlet.
“I work with customers in Australia, the U.K. and in many other places, so I'm phoning and emailing at all hours,” she says. And the challenges are much different.
“When I was working locally, I'd invite prospective clients to my house. If they were thinking about an Italy vacation, which is one of my specialties, I'd put out a red and white tablecloth, and put some Chianti on the table with a nice wedge of cheese. And my passion for that destination and my knowledge of it would be obvious to them.
“It's entirely different selling an Italy vacation by phone, but I believe that my enthusiasm comes through in the tone of my voice as I'm going through the sales process,” says Kuhn.
Immersed in Italy
The agent has been an Italy specialist for years. “I went through the specialist course a long time ago with Alitalia and I've been to Italy many times. And, I have an Italian heritage so I think all of that becomes part of my selling process.”
The goal, she says, is to offer experiences that provide destination immersion.
“For example, when I arrange trips to Tuscany I might include a cooking class in a private home in a place like Siena or Florence. I might add in a vineyard tour or a visit to an olive orchard – activities that bring my clients right into the culture of a destination. I'm a foodie, so I like to design tours that focus on cuisine,” says Kuhn.
The retailer says that while she is focused on Avoya's leads, she'll keep some of her longtime clients. “I don't want to give them up, but I'm really busy these days. In fact, I just hired an assistant to help me out,” says Kuhn.
However, she says she's done with booking trips like “three nights in Vegas.”
“For me, after 45 years, I want to be selective and specialize.”
Kuhn says she wishes more young people would join the industry as travel sellers.
“It's a great opportunity, still. But you have to be a real people person. If you're not, don't apply,” says the agent.