Every once in a while, you meet a couple that has managed to work and live together … successfully and happily for the long-term. Most of us wonder how they do it, spending untold hours together, day in and day out. But when it works, it’s a dream come true.
Travel Market Report talked to three outstanding travel advisor couples who have navigated the bumpy waters, and basked in the calm seas, of running a business together - and they are thriving. Here are some of their secrets.
How did you come to work together?
Often, it turns out, couples end up in business together as a result of a work milestone for one or both partners. For instance, Steve Leichner, of PSL Travel, in Southern Florida, was in the process of closing his previous business; and his wife Penny was getting ready to retire from her full-time job in the travel industry. “She knew I had always wanted to own an agency, and since the dynamics of starting a travel agency have changed, and the cost of entry is so inexpensive, she suggested I start one and that she would help, with her decades of travel experience,” he said.
Steve and Penny met in September 1972 at Queens College in New York. They’ve been traveling the world together ever since. They backpacked through Europe in the 1970s. They’ve traveled in every type of style, from shoestring to luxury, over the decades. Traveling has always been their passion. And then, they finally birthed their own travel agency in August 2012. “It is a dream retirement,” Steve said.
What's the best part about working together?
“We are able to share our passion of travel by working together doing what we love to do. Traveling was a large part of my previous career and I was out of town almost every week. Now, we are able to share creating travel experiences for other people,” said Jim Moll, who also works daily side-by-side his bride and business partner, Dedra (DeDe) Moll at DeDe’s Travel, in Kansas City, Missouri. They’ve been “married for 40 wonderful years,” and have been working together for the last 14 years.
What's one of your secrets to being great business partners?
“We are married partners first and business partners second,” said the Leichners. “So, we set common goals and understand the division of responsibilities based on strengths and weaknesses.”
Most importantly, they said, their marriage and family come first. “If you find that working together is affecting your relationship, remember your priorities. For us, working together as travel advisors is fun. When it ceases to be fun, we have an exit strategy. When you are considering this as a full-time family business, do you have an exit strategy? What if you want to close up shop? What about your clients? What about your income? All things to think about in advance.”
In our chats with agents, having respect and appreciation for each other were important components and a common theme. DeDe Moll said: “We each have different strengths, which bring a lot to the table. I like to think we complement each other pretty well. We share our thoughts and ideas with each other, and often one comes up with something the other doesn’t.”
Janet and Jeff Blackwell, who met on a blind date 36 years ago and now own Bel Air, Maryland-based Tidewater Cruise and Travel, were in complete agreement about their secret to success. Janet quipped: “I'm always right! No, seriously, if I had to pick one, I would say it is that we respect each other as partners, both in business and in life. Jeff said: “Janet is always right. Really. And solid communication skills. Janet and I have vastly different styles of communicating, but we've figured it out over 35 years of marriage. Bringing that strength into the business is one of our secrets to being great business partners. There are still plenty of times we end up on different wavelengths, but when that happens, we know from experience to keep at it until we figure things out.”
What happens if you have different opinions on an important business issue? How do you break the tie?
Since Jim Moll’s wife’s name is in the name of their agency, DeDe’s Travel, she usually has the final say on business issues. They engage in constructive conflict to resolve business issues. And, they often come to agreement. But if that doesn’t happen, Jim said, “even if there are only two of you in business, someone has to be the boss. If not, you will never get anything done.”
Janet and Jeff Blackwell operate their business using a similar set-up, with Janet having the final say.
Do you each have specific roles in your agency? How did you decide who would do what?
The Blackwells have specific roles in their business that evolved around their respective strengths. Janet loves to cruise, so her niche when she started the business was selling cruises. But, she said, “Jeff gets seasick on a ship tied up to the pier, and though he can slap a scopolamine patch on and enjoy cruising with me, cruises aren't in his sales wheelhouse.” So, Janet focuses on the sales side for cruises, all-inclusives, group travel, and some land travel; as well as the bookkeeping. Jeff concentrates on FIT, adventure travel, and air booking sales; and he does all the writing and social media.
At DeDe’s Travel, DeDe is usually the contact person, while Jim is more behind-the-scenes. “I often find out what our clients are looking for and then we discuss the details,” said DeDe Moll. “Jim is excellent at researching specific locations and ‘don’t miss’ things to see and do. He sends me suggested itineraries and options that I present to the client.” It’s a match made in Heaven.
How do you separate your business time from your personal time?
This is often the biggest concern facing travel advisor couples. “With the rise of the cell phone and social media, everyone wants travel information instantly,” said Jim Moll. “Establishing boundaries with clients so that they don’t impede into our personal time is probably one of the most critical issues that we deal with. We understand that people want to contact us when they have free time, in the evening, on weekends and holidays - that is the nature of the business.
“We have both been in sales in our previous lives and we have a healthy understanding of balancing both work and personal time. Basically, if you don’t answer the phone or email in a reasonable amount of time, then you may not make the sale. We make good use of the personal time we have in our own way, but understanding the sales process goes a long way in having a great relationship.”
The Blackwells honestly admitted that they could do better at separating business and personal time. They made the decision this year to have set office hours, And, although they let their clients and prospective clients know they can work outside of those hours upon request, they make that the exception rather than the rule. They are also making it a point to claim one day over the weekend to themselves. That is challenging in the era of worldwide 24/7 connectivity, and for them, it is a work in progress.
What obstacles have you come up against in spending so much time working and playing together?
“Although we enjoy working together, it’s important to give each other a bit of space! We work from home and have separate offices,” said DeDe Moll. “We generally start our day over coffee together and discuss what we each plan to work on that day. Of course, this can change instantly when the phone rings or an urgent email comes through. We enjoy different hobbies and support each other in those things.”
The Blackwells agree. Janet explained: “We have separate offices with doors that are across the hall from each other, so we can work independently but talk when we want to. Those offices also have doors that we can close when we feel the need. Now that we spend almost all of our time together, I make it a point to find some ‘me’ time. I like to go out with friends for lunch or some other social event, and leave Jeff to run the office. Jeff is still figuring that bit out for himself. I think he may take up fishing this summer.”
What's something that you would caution travel advisors about in running a business?
“Don't work tired,” said Janet Blackwell. “Just about all of my mistakes have come about because I worked past the point when I should have called it a day.”
She also noted that it's imperative to keep meticulous records - keeping track of final payment dates; summarizing phone calls with suppliers (including the date/time and name of person you spoke with); keeping email correspondence and summarizing phone calls with clients; keeping copies (electronic or paper copies) of confirmations from suppliers. “The list is endless. You never know when there might be a glitch, and having meticulous records can be very beneficial.”
Steve Leichner, who was a small business consultant in his previous career, said that one of the most important things is to make sure you are adequately funded. If you are starting up as a full-time business, you need to have reserves to carry you until you start receiving commissions. Even if you book a million dollars of revenue the first day, you will not receive a commission until final payment or after the travel date. “Selling travel is easy,” he said, “but making certain that all of your payments are on time, your accounting records are up-to-date, and you are achieving your business goals short-term and long-term is hard. He cautioned to make sure that you develop good bookkeeping and business management skills.
Also, always put your important client communications in writing - such as agreed-upon services and rates, ability to charge a client’s credit card, and if they rejected travel protection.
What's your best advice for other travel advisors who want to start their own agency (either on their own or with someone else)?
“You can't just wake up one morning and decide to be a travel advisor. To be successful as a travel advisor, you have to invest time and money in learning the trade,” said Janet Blackwell. She recommends taking industry trainings and finding an experienced travel agent to work with. Also, find a niche that you’re comfortable with; and learn well how to qualify clients so you can make good matches between travel products and clients.
Steve Leichner said to take the time to create a business plan together with your partner, to make sure you share the same goals. And, he noted that having a host agency definitely helped him and his wife to have quick success.
DeDe Moll places networking and training as top priorities. “You can never learn enough from other travel advisors, vendors, suppliers, speakers, etc. … Look for any opportunity you have to grow. Attend conferences that provide direct contact with vendors that you may not receive on your own. This allows you to build relationships with key suppliers that are helpful in growing a successful business.”
Now that you’ve heard some important insights from these three, amazing travel advisor couples, what will you do? If you’re thinking about going into business with your love, consider these parting word of advice from Jim Moll: “There is nothing like the experience of sharing and running a business together. When you find a business that you are both passionate about, then it’s really not work. The feeling that you can provide a service where people will actually pay you is exhilarating.”
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