When Amy Rectenwald decided to become a travel agent, she had no foothold in any niche or market segment and no experience selling retail travel. What she did have was a spreadsheet containing some 300 to 400 names and an unabashed willingness to ask for business.
Today, less than four years later, the independent travel advisor has surpassed $1.5 million in annual sales, and she’s done it single-handedly. Rectenwald’s tale of business growth is instructive because, in many ways, she’s just doing the things any leisure agent should be doing to grow their bottom line.
Making the move into travel
Amy Rectenwald is a 47-year-old mother of three school-aged children who works out of her home in Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, about 90 minutes north of Pittsburgh. She launched her retail travel career in June 2014 after signing on as an independent advisor with Connecticut-based Largay Travel.
Before that, she was executive director of a local United Way chapter. It was while casting about for what to do next that Rectenwald found herself thinking back to her first few jobs after college. Back then she had worked for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, then for a luxury French barge company and finally for a Boston travel agency, where her mix of non-sales tasks included escorting groups.
But that was 20 years ago. Was it too late to get back into travel, she wondered? A friend who is a hotel rep said "no," and that her timing was perfect. After some research, Rectenwald decided to affiliate with Largay Travel. Then, she prepared to spread the word about her new venture.
Reaching out to personal connections
Rectenwald knew the size and scope of one’s personal network can really jumpstart a business, so she started there. “I made a list of everyone I knew. I have a great network from college. I’m the youngest of eight, and my siblings live all over the country. I’ve had different careers, so I have reaches in that capacity. I also had just gotten remarried, so I had our wedding invitation list.”
She sent everyone on her list a long email announcing her decision to pursue her lifelong love of travel by becoming a travel agent. The email asked recipients to think of her for their travel needs, large or small. It also touted the strengths of Largay Travel and mentioned the added value clients receive because of Largay’s affiliation with Virtuoso.
Rectenwald also messaged all of her Facebook connections, asking them to consider her for their travel needs. And she began using Facebook “prolifically” to talk about the benefits of working with a travel agent.
“Facebook, honestly, is the best free marketing,” said Rectenwald, who continues to post frequently, freely mixing business and personal postings. Between her personal and work connections, she has amassed more than 1,800 Facebook friends.
Making connections locally
Rectenwald never expected to do much business locally, since she lives in a small town in a small county that is not particularly affluent. But to her happy surprise, roughly half of her business is local.
A big reason is that Rectenwald is “super engaged” in her community. She is president of a local parent-teacher organization and volunteers at high school sporting events. Whenever anyone asks for a donation or sponsorship, she tries to give something, “just to get my name out there.” And at the small boating and fishing club where she and her husband are members, she makes sure everyone she meets knows what she does for a living.
Joining the local Chamber of Commerce has proved invaluable, and Rectenwald now organizes its annual group trip of about 30 people. The people she has gotten to know on those trips have ended up using her for their personal travel.
She is also a guest every other week on a local radio show during a segment on travel. “It’s just all these tentacles,” Rectenwald said.
One quality that helps Rectenwald is that, because of her experience in fundraising, she is not shy about asking for business. “I think it’s really important to be comfortable asking for business, but also learn when to shut up and not be overbearing.”
She asks clients for referrals frequently. “When I send travel documents, I always put a thank you note in there with many business cards and say, ‘Please feel free to distribute to your friends and family.’ I’ll tell them that referrals are the best source of building my business.”
Pounding the pavement
Old-fashioned legwork helps, too. Every few months Rectenwald staples her business card to supplier brochures and Virtuoso magazines and distributes them to local doctors’ offices and coffee shops.
She has developed a close relationship with the owner of the local day spa where she gets her hair done. “My brochures are all over that place, and she tells every person that comes in about my business. And I think she’s fabulous, so I tell everyone. It’s local people supporting each other,” she said, adding, “It’s all about relationships.”
These days Rectenwald keeps track of those relationships in ClientBase, relying on Virtuoso’s marketing program to deliver timely offers to clients based on their interests.
Choosing not to specialize
Rectenwald has defied the usual advice to specialize, and she likes it that way. “I do small trips for people to all-inclusive destinations or weekend getaways to the Cape or overnight trips to New York City. Then I have the big things – multi-generational trips to Switzerland for two weeks over Christmas, villa rentals, trips to Africa, destination weddings.
“I’ll do anything for anyone, so long as they’re friendly and fun to work with.”
She finds she can count on her affluent clients for repeat business. “It’s like clockwork. The grandparents take the whole family every Christmas, so right around January or February I get a call, ‘What should we do for next year?’”
The pool of helpful colleagues at Largay Travel and in the larger Virtuoso network, the availability of training, and a knack for learning how to learn quickly make it possible to succeed as a generalist, she said. “It’s not easy, but it’s feasible to not specialize and still do a really great job for clients. Just make sure you’re getting the right advice from the right people, so you don’t steer your clients wrong.”