Photo: Tait Photography
The last thing Stacy Small thought she would be doing 25 years after graduating Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Journalism is owning a travel agency.
Her goal was to be a reporter—until she landed her first post-college internship at a publication called Caribbean Travel and Life.
When her editor got sick just prior to a press trip to Necker Island, Small got her first break.
“It was one of my first assignments with a byline,” she said. “Over the next few years I found myself taking numerous trips to the Caribbean, and I’m meeting all of the major personalities, like (Sandals Resorts owner) Butch Stewart.”
In 1994, Small signed on at Travel Agent magazine as assistant Caribbean editor. Two years later, she was promoted to senior airline editor. “I knew nothing about the airlines. I was more of a destination reporter. Now I’m assigned to travel all over the world, flying in the front of the plane, meeting the CEOs of airlines in Korea, Israel, Singapore.”
Small covered a host of major developments in the airline and agency industries, including being one of the first in early 1995 to report how Delta Air Lines was cutting commissions. “I understood that agents would have to come up with a new business model to survive, that everyone would have to adapt,” she said.
Travel Agent named her West Coast editor in 1998, but though she was meeting a host of new industry players and visiting destinations she hadn’t seen previously, two years later she was searching for a new challenge. “I wanted to do something entrepreneurial.”
Small started her own firm, The Write Crowd, a content-marketing company that worked with tourism bureaus, hotels, and other industry suppliers. But her entrepreneurial days were cut short when she was asked to serve as editorial director for a new publication, Elite Traveler, based out of New York, and moved back to the East Coast in 2001.
“Elite Traveler was for the ultra-high net worth market, people flying in private jets. I was getting to know managers at luxury hotels, and what this group of travelers was looking for in their travel experience. And while I was doing that, people were calling me up for more information about the companies we were featuring in the magazine.”
After moving to West Palm Beach in 2003, Small found herself restless again. She started Elite Travel by Stacy in 2005. This time, she married her newfound love for helping people book vacations with her extensive experience in content-marketing strategy, website development, e-mail marketing, and emerging social media communications tools. (She’s known on Twitter as @EliteTravelGal.)
“She was one of the first people to successfully do this,” said Janine Cifelli, who at the time handled PR for a group of Richard Branson’s properties. “I think it was her readership who helped her wake up and smell the coffee. The more questions people asked, and the better she got at answering them, the better she got.”
Still, Small says, “I’ve never tried to sell travel online. I’m a journalist by nature. And I still get people who say they follow me on Twitter.” Instagram is her photo travel diary. “I have people saying that looks beautiful, I want to go there.”
Working out of her home, Small built up a client base from a variety of sources, including friends and acquaintances from the many West Palm Beach activities in which she was engaged, including the local chapter of a Breast Cancer Research charity there.
She moved back to Los Angeles in 2008, where her business, three rescue dogs and her brand continue to thrive.
“It’s a matter of having serious knowledge, that I can curate the information overload down to something that I can recommend for them,” Small said. She was named the Most Innovative Travel Advisor by Virtuoso Travel in 2013 for her work with social media.
Today, Small estimates that about 90% of her business, averaging 25-45 years in age, is by referral. She finds herself especially popular with entrepreneurs. “They’re not asking me to sell my services. They’re coming to me because of what they’ve heard about me.”
Having recently announced an affiliation with Coastline Travel Advisors that will allow Small to focus on what she does best, she's looking to the next iteration of her travel life.
“I may want to write some books about this life. I also want to grow the luxury travel business in Maui; I have an IC in Hawaii. We want to be the go-to company for anyone traveling there or coming from there,” Small said. “Life is less about having a plan, and more about following your heart.”