8 Tips for Building a Profitable Niche
by Maria Lenhart /

Having a strong niche is usually beneficial for travel agents, but turning that niche into a profitable business takes planning and a high level of commitment.

“You can’t just sell a specialty – you have to live and breathe that specialty,” said consultant Nolan Burris, president of Future Proof Travel Solutions, who recently added a webinar on niche travel to his Boot Camp Video Training series for agents.

Defining a niche
What is a niche? Most commonly it’s a destination or type of travel, but Burris points out that it can also be a demographic such as seniors, students or religious groups.

A niche can even be a style of service, he said.

“Some agencies have decided to be boutique and service-oriented, providing an amazing level of service that commands high fees,” he said. “In this way they are specialists even though they are generalists.”

No matter what kind of niche you pursue, here are Burris’ tips for making it work.

1. Follow your passion.
Whatever niche you choose, first and foremost it should be something you love.

“You can start with something that makes money, but if you don’t really love it, you won’t put the same kind of effort into it,” Burris said.

“If you love it, you’re much more likely to get good at selling it.”

2. Make sure there are others who share your passion.
“Specializing in something that nobody wants is a waste of time,” Burris said.

“It’s important to pay attention to demographics and trends in what people are interested in or are likely to have an emotional connection with.”

As examples, Burris cites the success that some agents have had appealing to Baby Boomers, whether it’s selling Southeast Asia vacations to Vietnam veterans or cruises with a Grateful Dead theme.

“An agent I know has found great success in selling cruises for Deadheads – he knows there are plenty of ex-hippies around who now have money to take a nice cruise,” he said. “And it works because he himself is a Deadhead.”

3. Hire those who share your passion.
“A successful adventure travel agency I know never asks potential hires if they’re good at Sabre,” Burris said.

“For them, the more important questions are if they like to hike or go scuba diving.”

4.  Fish where the fish are.
Burris said there are three basic things to ask when marketing a niche: who are you trying to talk to, what do you want to say and how can you reach them?

“Direct your efforts to where these potential customers are likely to hang out,” he said. “If your specialty is culinary tourism, consider doing a joint promotion with a fine restaurant or a Williams-Sonoma store.

“If it’s luxury travel, advertise in the opera program or offer something through the country club.”

5. Be mindful of your image.
Agents can quickly sabotage their efforts if their sales style and agency environment aren’t in keeping with the niche they are trying to promote, Burris said.

“You really have to be the specialist you say you are,” he said. “For instance, if you specialize in luxury travel, does your office convey that?

“Are there posters for mass market cruises on the wall? Do you use phrases about saving money to your clients? You have to be careful about any conflicting message that get delivered.”

Projecting an image or brand is just as important to travel agencies as it is to stores, according to Burris.

“You wouldn’t go into Wal-Mart and ask for the Gucci section, just as you don’t go into Nordstrom and look for window cleaner,” he said.

“You create an image that draws the right people.”

6. Don’t pursue too many destination specialties.
While it’s good to take destination specialist courses, Burris said agents are better off focusing on just a few destinations rather than a lot.

Advertising too many specialties might make clients wary that your knowledge is superficial – and they could be right.

“Some agents seem to be on a mission to rack up as many destination specialties as possible, but the reality is that you can only be truly knowledgeable about a few,” Burris said.

“The certificate just says you took a class – it doesn’t make you an expert.”

7.  Don’t turn other business away.
A question agents frequently ask Burris is whether or not they should continue to sell other types of travel once they become specialists.

His advice: Go ahead if the client requests it.  

“I always say ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,’” he said. “If you specialize in corporate travel and your business client wants you to arrange a cruise for his family, you can handle it.”

It’s best, however, not to market products and services that are outside your specialty, Burris added. “You don’t want to be at odds with yourself.”

8. Keep non-complementary specialties separate.
If you have multiple specialties that are very different from one another, market and promote them separately, Burris advised.

“If they appeal to different markets, it could be a turn off to some of your clients and send out conflicting messages,” he said.

“Unless the niches complement each other, give each its own brand identity, including creating separate naming and websites.”

You can start with something that makes money, but if you don’t really love it, you won’t put the same kind of effort into it.

Nolan Burris, Future Proof Travel Solutions