In early 2020, after Covid brought the travel industry to its knees, luxury travel advisor Ralph Iantosca embarked on some serious soul-searching. “I thought a lot about my life,” Iantosca said. “I realized I’m tired. I missed the creativity that I used to have. I have passion. I want to do what I love.”
Within just a few months he had relaunched his already-successful independent travel agency as a subscription-based service, with annual fees starting at $3,500 a year. (He has since raised his entry level subscription to $5,000 yearly.) Iantosca fashioned the new business model for Iantosca Travel after concierge medical practices.
“I thought long and hard about it. I thought this model is broken. There’s got to be a way that I can say, ‘No thank you,’ and only work for the right kind of client. I get a choice, not just the client; I get to be happy too,” said Iantosca, who is in Irving, Texas.
A wakeup call
It’s not as if Iantosca had been indiscriminate before. He already specialized in custom high-end FITs featuring curated experiences. He worked with a select list of luxury suppliers and had loyal clients who spent handsomely.
Iantosca was doing well financially too, singlehandedly selling between $4.5 million and $5 million annually in the years leading up to the pandemic.
In a way, his success was part of the problem. Even with a part-time assistant, Iantosca could barely keep up. “I felt like I worked at a Kroger grocery store – I’m a checker, and there’s a line out the door. I didn’t have the time to be creative. I realized that I didn’t want this big clientele anymore.”
Dealing with pandemic refunds fueled the move, Iantosca said. “Not all clients are equal. During the refund phase, you found out who was wonderful and who wasn’t. There were a few clients that treated me like I’m a commodity. It was a wakeup call.”
And so Iantosca reached a decision: “I’m not going to do this for people that don’t value me.”
By invitation only
He combed through his customer list to identify the clients he wanted to invite into his new subscription service. “I really got to handpick the cream of the crop.” Money was not the guiding factor. “It was how they valued how they spend their time, how active of a traveler, how passionate about travel.”
Starting in June 2020, he began calling clients who had made the cut to tell them he was making an exciting change to his business and to be on the lookout for his email.
The email was a formal invitation to sign up for his “exclusive” new service. With it came a Let’s Get Reacquainted assessment, a 15-minute survey that went beyond the usual questions about travel priorities to ask about things like the client’s decision-making and planning processes and what they value about Iantosca’s services.
The survey also asked clients to share how the pandemic had affected them. “Everybody’s life shifted; everybody made adjustments. I need to understand where they are today, what their new priorities are, along with what’s on their bucket list.”
Next Iantosca met with each potential subscriber (currently meetings are via Zoom, Facetime or phone) for a “deep dive of all the things we can work on this year or next.”
Iantosca is a Virtuoso Wanderlist advisor, and his approach is similar to the Wanderlist program in that he consults with clients to map out two-year travel plans. At the moment, those include backup options should unforeseen pandemic-related obstacles arise.
Iantosca’s entry level $5,000 annual fee covers 20 hours of his services, after which clients are charged an hourly rate. Some clients with ambitious travel plans have signed up for 40 or even 60 hours a year. Clients also sign a legal agreement.
Closer relationships, more control
As expected, not every client who was invited to subscribe went for it, so Iantosca had to get comfortable with the idea that some clients would be upset about losing his services. Still, by early autumn of 2020 he had reached his roughly 50-subscriber cap; there’s now a waiting list.
Clients who have signed on are pleased, and so is Iantosca. “What I think we like more than anything is the collaboration and the creativity this allows. This brought me very much into a closer role with people. There’s a lot of sharing back and forth.”
The new business model also has allowed Iantosca to regain control over his work. “Now I have an organized business model. I know what I’m doing, what trips I need to work on. It lets me completely control my schedule.
“The stress is gone. The anxiety is gone. The feeling like the list is never going to end is gone. With every client, I know what tasks I need to set up and get done. I don’t feel overwhelmed anymore.”
Iantosca, who turns 49 in September, has been working in the travel industry for more than three decades, most of that in retail travel. He said the reinvention of his business has renewed his excitement for his chosen profession. “It’s fun. I’m happy. I know after 31 years that I don’t want to do anything else. This is what I love.”
The money’s not bad either. As Iantosca said, “$250,000 a year without a commission for one travel advisor is a pretty good little job.”