When Heather Christopher Travel Consulting opened for business on Monday, 29-year-old Heather Christopher became the latest entry in what some just a few years ago were calling a dying breed. She became the owner of her own travel agency.
The Gettysburg, PA-based agency joins a growing number of new agencies sprouting around the nation in a remarkable rejuvenation of a business many were predicting would soon be replaced by computers. And indeed, Christopher reports that her blog, How to Tell If Being a Travel Advisor Is Right for You, has led to “dozens of emails saying I want to be an agent, too, direct me. Once I launch this business I will launch another to mentor new agents through the process.”
Christopher may be young, but she has a full decade of travel-industry experience behind her. She started at the age of 19 with a career diploma from Penn Foster, eventually managing an agency and handling all of its social media. The last couple of years, with two young children, she was home-based until “it just became clear it was time to spread by wings.”
In her own business, she intends to follow the successful business plan she pushed for in 2012, when she encouraged her previous boss to become a boutique-style agency that charged fees. “We really started to focus on not taking every client, not wasting time on the shoppers,” she says. “We stopped taking walk-ins altogether and became appointment-only. And we let go of a couple of outside agents who were actually costing us more than they were contributing. That allowed us to travel when we needed to travel—and our clients love seeing us travel. They want to know I am answering their emails from half-way around the world.”
Christopher’s push toward fees turned out to be the wave of the future—and many say, the path to success as high-end clients gave up on the Internet and came looking for professional advice from professional advisors. Revenues increased from the very first year, as “we stopped taking the bargain hunters and focused on the complex FITs and river cruises. It happened naturally; the business you take is the business you make, I believe. When we learned to say no to what we didn't want, our requests turned into the kind we were saying yes to every time."
It wasn’t until she started working more independently, at home, though, that she decided she was “really ready to do this myself instead of always asking a boss, ‘Is this OK?’ I felt I was contributing many of the ideas that were helping the business grow, and at some point I just wanted to take my ideas and use them to grow my own business. It was just time go and try it on my own.”
Over the past 10 years Christopher admits to being surprised herself at the growth in the industry. “I’ve seen the industry just turn around,” she says. “When I started people were saying, ‘Why do you want to be a travel agent?’ it’s a vibrant industry now, there are lots of young people, great programs from ASTA, Travel Leaders of Tomorrow. The more the word gets out, the easier it becomes for all of us to be considered professionals and charge fees.”
On her first day as her own boss, there is already “a pile of things to do.” She is promoting a group she is leading to Italy, hoping to increase the number of customers from the current 6 to 18. She plans to do a Facebook Live video. (“You just click under your name on the camera and people can comment as you are speaking. That will be a fun way to announce my new agency and share my excitement with my customers.”) And of course she will launch a website, and do an email blast on MailChimp.
She has signed up with Gifted Travel Network as her host agency. Because it is “pretty new to the scene, with just 150 agents, I won’t get lost,” she thinks. And she likes the fact that it is female-owned: “I always find it interesting that so many agents are women but so many host agencies are headed up by men,” she says.
Still, like any 20-something leaving the nest, she is feeling a little lonesome. “I have such love and respect for the old agency – it’s been such a big part of my life for 10 years,” she says. “It’s funny to be talking about just me.”
Indeed, her old boss, with whom she remains friends, can hardly object to Christopher’s new-found independence. She did exactly the same thing, working for someone else for 10 years before going out to start her own agency.
Her tip for other new agents? “Someone once told me you need to spend 15 minutes every day reading the news. I’ve done that for 10 years and I think it has served me well.”