Agency’s Mentoring Program for ICs Yields Sales Stars
by Maria Lenhart /

Finding talented, high-yielding independent contractors is a challenge for many agencies and host firms, but not so for Brownell Travel. The Birmingham-based agency finds a ready supply of candidates from among graduates of its innovative mentoring program.

Brownell, a Virtuoso agency, offers the Brownell Mentoring Program as part of its host agency operations. The rigorous year-long training program was founded in 2007 by Rebecca Willson, Brownell’s senior advisor of hosting programs, who identified a “vacuum” in the marketplace.

Born of frustration
“It was born out of my frustration as I was turning away people who I knew would be successful consultants, but had no experience in travel,’ she said. “I couldn’t think of an existing training program to recommend to them.”

The highly selective program, which is offered twice a year, typically admits just seven or eight people out of 250 or more applicants, according to Willson. So far 16 participants have completed the program, which initially accepted just three students a year; seven more will have graduated by January.

The program costs participants upwards of $5,000, including tuition and certification training, and it requires a full-time commitment.

“During the program, they are launching a business, selling [travel] and earning certification at the same time,” Willson said. “They’re developing a marketing plan, completing assignments, attending meetings. You can’t do this on a part-time basis.”

Criteria for admission
In selecting candidates for the program, Willson considers a variety of factors. She favors individuals who have already built a successful business, have strong community and business connections and are well-traveled.

They should also want to focus on Brownell’s specialty, which is luxury leisure travel.

“I’m looking for people who have fire in the belly about this – it’s got to be a real passion,” she said. “We’re also looking for maturity, not someone who is straight out of college. In general, this will be their second or final career.”

Graduates of the program include individuals with backgrounds in law and finance.

Flexibility matters
Willson also looks for people who are “coachable” and flexible in their attitudes.

“In this industry, if you can’t accept instant change, you can’t go with the flow,” she said. “There are always things that go bump in the night – luggage gets lost, hotels are oversold, the ski slopes don’t have snow. You have to know how to deal with these hiccups and then move onto the next thing.”

Participants also have to be prepared to deal with little or no income as they go through the program and work to establish their new business, she added.

Those who know how to tap into their connections among family, friends and community tend to get off the ground quickly, according to Willson.

“We had one person who was well-networked in local charities, schools, church. She knew everybody,” she said. “By the time she became a travel advisor, there were tons of people dying to use her. She met her first year sales goal after one quarter.”

Success rate
So far all but two of the mentoring program graduates have become independent contractors working with Brownell as their host agency.

“Some of them are now our top producers,” Willson said. “For example, David Ourisman, one of our first graduates, has a Ph.D. from Princeton and had been a minister. He is passionate about travel. Now he does about $6 million a year in sales and has a staff of six.”

Expansion plans
Willson hopes to expand Brownell’s mentoring program from two classes a year to three, beginning next year. Doing so will require marketing it to the public for the first time.

“Right now we’re listed on the NACTA website as a host agency and on some host agency review sites, but we’ve really just relied on word of mouth,” she said. “But now we are developing a social media campaign through Facebook, Pinterest and more.”

I’m looking for people who have fire in the belly about this – it’s got to be a real passion.

Rebecca Willson, Brownell Travel