For two ex-military administrators, the travel agency business is proving to be a natural fit, enabling them to put their on-the-job experiences and training to work in a new way.
Greg Reese and Bryan Bell, partners in Picture Rocks Travel in Tucson, Ariz., are part of a wave of baby boomers embarking on second careers later in life.
Somewhere between 5.2 million and 8.4 million Americans between the ages of 44 and 70 – or 6% to 9% of that age group – have embarked on second or “encore” careers, according to Civic Ventures, a think tank specializing in boomers and work issues.
Although being a travel agent is just one of many encore careers, it is proving to be a good choice for people like Reese and Bell who combine an interest in travel with a disciplined work ethic.
Reese had a 20-year career as a personnel and administrative specialist with the U.S. Army, followed by nearly six years with the Arizona Army and Air National Guard and Department of Veterans Affairs.
Bell spent four years in the Air Force and nearly 24 years with the Arizona Air National Guard, where he met Reese and worked for seven years as the budget manager for the joint counter-narcotics task force.
Not ready to retire
They were long and stressful careers, which left both Reese and Bell burned out. The two thought they were ready to retire, but soon discovered retirement was not for them.
“After a couple of months, we decided we needed to do something. I had always wanted to have my own travel agency, so that’s what we ended up doing,” Reese said.
The agency, an affiliate of Travel Quest, was established in October 2010, with Reese as the agent and Bell handling finances and accounting. Bell became an agent as well in March.
Military training proves beneficial
Running a travel agency was a natural after the military. Along with the experience they had gained traveling, the military provided many other necessary skills, according to Reese.
“You learn a lot of important life skills in the military – dedication, commitment, not doing a job halfway but doing it to the fullest extent possible, and certainly loyalty. All of these show in how we interact with our customers,” he said.
Early in his military career, Reese had a supervisor who was obsessed with research.
“He made me research the answers to the questions I was asking. I had to bring him everything I had looked at before he would point me in the right direction or say, ‘Ok, yes, but look at that as well.’
“It has made me a better researcher and helped make sure I’ve exhausted all the avenues when I put together travel itineraries.”
Connections bring clients
Their military experience also brought Reese and Bell their first client, a coworker who wanted to celebrate her 60th birthday by taking an around-the-world trip.
They continue to get some business from their military connections, but at this point most business comes from friends and relatives. Now the circle is widening to friends of friends as well.
Expanding into groups
Their specialties are cruises, Ireland and Great Britain, but they would like to expand into group business.
Their first group booking came about through a casual conversation with a neighbor. That conversation turned into a cruise tour to Alaska scheduled for May 2013, with 16 participants signed up so far.
They also received a call recently from a family friend about putting together a group trip for a Phoenix high school band.
The marketing challenge
Reese and Bell are gradually building their business, but it hasn’t been easy. The biggest challenge they’ve found is being home-based and getting Picture Rocks’ name out there.
Before launching the agency, they had not realized how expensive marketing is, so they got creative, using social media – Facebook, Twitter and Google+ – as their main marketing channels, along with word-of-mouth.
They took advantage of an American Express small business marketing initiative last year and a Facebook initiative this year. “Facebook gave you $50 worth of advertising credits. If you were able to increase your number of fans by 100 within 90 days they gave you an extra $100,” Reese said.
“We didn’t meet that goal, but we grew our fan base from 70 to 160.”
In spite of the challenges, Reese has never looked back.
“Being a travel agent is like working in an ice cream store. You can’t have a bad day. You’re helping people live their dreams.”