They’re a retiree versus a newlywed; they’re buying a franchise versus signing up with a host agency; they’re working from home versus going back to brick-and-mortar. But one thing is for sure: Lured by a growing market, the potential to make some real money and the benefit of free travel, newcomers are entering the travel industry again.
You don’t need a travel industry background to play, insiders say. But you do need to do your homework, a couple of newcomers told Travel Market Report.
From NYPD to Expedia
With a name like Mariner, you have to end up selling cruises, right? So, perhaps it was inevitable that when Joyce Mariner retired, she was drawn to the travel business. And indeed, her success story shows that the advantage of being an older “new agent” is the book of business you bring with you.
Mariner started her Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise after retiring from the NYPD, and counts New York’s finest and bravest police officers and firemen among her best customers – and her best independent contractors.
“I joined the NYPD in 1988 and worked my way up through Patrol and Robbery and Narcotics and the Detective Squad – you name it, I did it,” Mariner said. “Now, instead of sending people away kicking and screaming, I send them away happy. It’s a great life. I love to travel. If you don’t have that passion for travel, you don’t belong here.”
It was lucky timing that brought Mariner and Expedia together; the online travel giant was looking to sign its first New York franchisee in 2015, at the same time Mariner was looking to get into the business. This year, she expects to sell $2 million worth of travel, 68 percent of it in cruise and the rest in land vacations. “Brick-and-mortar is the new trend,” she said. “And being an Expedia franchise is very helpful; it gives me the brand name.”
Indeed, travel agents and Expedia are a perfect fit, Mariner said. Even as it grew into the world’s largest online travel agency, with a volume of $50.4 billion in 2016, “Expedia found it wasn’t getting to the cruise consumer. Cruises are too complex a product for online; with all the new ships and the complex itineraries, people want to talk to an agent.”
And joining a franchise organization is a good way to get started when you have virtually no background on the business side of the travel industry. “It’s good to be fresh and new in the industry, to not have any set way of doing things,” as she was, Mariner said. “With a franchise, you just follow their system.”
While the Expedia name helps bring people in, it only goes so far, she found. “I thought I would have 100 people waiting when I opened my doors, and instead there were a couple of walk-ins, including one who came in to complain because he thought I was using the name Expedia without permission.”
Most of her customers come the old-fashioned way, from family and friends and referrals, plus a warm and welcoming community in Merrick, Long Island, where she holds many consumer events. Her marketing, too, is much like any other agency, using events, mailings, Facebook ads and email blasts.
And, it’s all working pretty well. Starting with eight independent contractors, she now has 26, including some current NYPD officers hoping to follow in her footsteps, and in the meantime sell “a lot of groups of police and fireman.”
What does Mariner tell her new agents? “Just have fun and learn as much as you can,” she said. “It’s not like selling a car or a house. It’s being a detective and finding the right vacation for the right customer. And be ready to work hard – I work harder now than I did in the Police Department.”
Moving up from an MLM
While franchising worked well for Mariner, Valerie Baker-Wynn followed a completely different path.
It’s only been 10 days since she became a true professional travel agent, and she will soon take what she believes is her final step. After switching her affiliation from an MLM to Outside Agents, a respected host agency, she will add the letters “LLC” to her company name.
“It’s just another step towards being professional and looking like a legitimate company,” said Baker-Wynn, (who also recently added Wynn to her last name when she got married in November). “It shows that I have taken the time to become a professional company.”
Baker-Wynn started Windblown Travel as a part-time business with no real training and no real background other than her love of travel and her experience planning trips for family and friends.
“I really liked my MLM; it’s a really good company and it has a great training system. But, I didn’t like the marketing side of it; I didn’t like that picture of me that others in the industry had, that I was not a real professional, that I didn’t know what I was talking about and was just after the fams,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to get away from. I feel like this is a really positive change as far as invoicing, marketing, communications — and lower fees.”
Growing up “super-poor” in Montana, Baker-Wynn has only the best of memories about family camping trips, and always wished they could go farther. And loving travel, she found herself constantly planning trips for groups of friends, who always asked why she didn’t just become an agent herself, if she was going to do all the work. She interviewed with a few agencies, but no one hired her. So, when she heard about the MLM, “I jumped on it, because I wanted to become a travel agent so badly and I didn’t know any better.”
Finally, now she is “excited to be totally on my own with a really good host mentorship program, finding my own clients, building my own database.” What with “training, booking, taking care of clients and billing — but mostly training because I am adamant about getting the training I need,” she is averaging 15-20 hours a week. Her client base is “small but really solid,” with 25 or so clients who keep returning and referring friends.
What has learned so far? “There is a lot more to it than I expected. I went into it with my eyes closed, and now I’m learning invoicing and taxes and making sure the paperwork is done. Last week, I spent seven hours on the phone with airlines and hotels; you definitely have to be ready and willing to take care of your clients and fight for them.”
And her advice for other new agents? “People tell me all the time, ‘Your job sounds like so much fun.’ They don’t understand all the work, and how the flights get changed, how you need a support system in case something happens. Make sure you talk to agents and find out about the industry; look at all the host agencies so you know exactly what you are getting into. Learn how it works before you just jump in.”
In the end, industry experts say, you don’t need a lot of background to become a travel agent. “I don’t think there’s any one type of person who makes a good agent; I’ve met investment managers and firefighters,” said an Azamara spokesperson. “You don’t have to have extensive work experience. All you need is a curiosity about cultures and destinations that you want to share. Across the industry, I see travel partners recruiting people who are smart and curious about the world.”