New Agencies Are Popping Up on Main Street
by Cheryl Rosen

The economy is picking up a little, and some experienced agents are feeling like they need a change. Put the two together and you get something we haven’t seen much of lately – new travel agencies popping up on Main Street.

Here’s one example. After Liberty Travel closed its Manhasset, N.Y., office last year, three former employees who are friends got together and took the plunge.

Six months ago, they opened Blue Ribbon Travel and Cruises in an office on the main street of the friendly Long Island town of Port Washington. Now Blue Ribbon, an American Express affiliate, is doing better than the three had imagined.

Agency’s assets
“We have a history. We have a clientele. We are well-traveled, and we have lived abroad,” said Arlene Wikow of the management team, which also includes Joyce Randall and Shaheen Baqueri.

“Customers like to stay local – it was a matter of demographics. And on a personal level, I needed a change.”

As a “marketing-oriented person,” Wikow looked for a great location with foot traffic and planned to build visibility in nearby towns by advertising.

Small town environs
A little serendipitous luck brought her to a “beautiful unique-looking store” on a new block in Port Washington, arguably the most community-minded area on all of Long Island.

“Port Washington is like a small town,” she said. “People here take the time to read the local newspaper. They support local businesses. They come into the store and welcome us.”

Starting with love in St. Louis
Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Shannon Lichti’s decision to launch her own agency, called Limitless Planet, was motivated as much by personal as by professional reasons.

After 15 years of working abroad, including for Seattle-based Intrav, she felt it was time to come home and marry her long-time beau. “I came for love,” she said.

She also wanted to put all those years of international travel experience and language skills to good use, so she went looking for a job.

“Everyone told me I was overqualified. So I decided if that’s true, it’s time to do something on my own.”

‘Slowly, so very slowly’
Though she started Limitless Planet with a small base of customers, her travelers kept coming back and referring others, and “slowly, so very slowly, my client base started to build.”

Still, she “needed something to fuel the company” to the next level.

So she took on a three-year corporate contract for meetings, events and incentive travel and used the inflow of cash to finance her IATAN card, open a storefront in 2012, launch a website, and do some marketing.

Finding a hook in St. Louis
While Lichti is counting on attracting customers to her agency’s unique location in one of the oldest courtyards in the St Louis city, foot traffic there is relatively light.

Needing another way to attract new customers, she fell back on her experience leading educational tours for Intrav and started a tour business of her own.

Last month she launched a series of high-level educational walking tours around St. Louis, focusing on the historic buildings in her neighborhood.

“St. Louis has some of the oldest buildings in the country and people interested in preserving them,” she said.

In search of cash flow
The new tour business is already helping in two ways – by bringing in new customers and new cash. It’s generated “a lot of hits on our social media, and two to four calls per day, many of them from groups,” Lichti said.

“Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to make a profit just from the leisure business,” she said.

But with four employees and one intern, the agency is starting to grow nicely, she said.

“The first six months my annualized income was about $12,000. This year we’ll bring in close to $250,000.”

Time to grow
Back at Blue Ribbon Travel, meanwhile, the time seems right to expand the staff.

Though declining to cite her sales volume, Wikow said, “the business is doing well enough that I’m looking to hire.”

 If you have a following and are “tired of where you are,” you might give her a call.

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