Passion, expertise, courage, and responsibility. They sum up the core principles that have propelled Lori Swinderman into her latest venture: Mexico FamTrips.
At a time when advisors have realized the best way to reinforce that travel can be safe and still enjoyable during the time of COVID-19 is to “walk the walk” so they can “talk the talk,” Swinderman has established a business to facilitate travel advisor familiarization trips to her favorite destination: Mexico.
An eight-year veteran of the travel industry, Swinderman began her travel career as the co-owner of Upon a Star Travel based in Pittsburgh with her business partner. Together they currently have 28 ICs based across the United States. Despite the overall industry decline due to effects of the pandemic, their business has begun seeing an uptick in recent months. And, in the midst of that growth and navigating new protocols, her circumstances began to shed light on a new business opportunity that Swinderman knew she just had to use her expertise to seize.
As new rules and regulations began swirling around for Covid travel and Mexico started to emerge as one of the most popular and accessible getaway spots on the map, Swinderman saw a substantial increase in the number of inquiries she had – not only from her clients but from fellow advisors seeking her knowledge.
“Mexico has always been my passion. It’s what I’ve always sold the most and what I believed in,” said Swinderman, who was accustomed and willing to share her knowledge about the country with her peers. But then she noticed there was something more: many of the travel advisors reaching out to her were either solid veteran advisors who never sold much Mexico before or newbies who were serious about learning about the destination. And they had one common desire: they wanted to travel to Mexico to be educated so they could share their experiences with clients.
I thought to myself, ‘What can I do to make sure that this is done correctly, that people are learning as much as they can to be able to sell Mexico the right way and make it beneficial for Mexico and the travel industry as a whole?’”
Part of the solution required a courageous move. With her four kids in tow (ages 11, 11, 9 & 8), Swinderman packed up her belongings and headed south to Playa del Carmen (just south of Cancun), where she is now residing in a home with her family while thrusting herself into her new venture. For Swinderman, it’s not only a business decision but the culmination of a long-awaited dream to live in and support both the country and industry she loves most.
Not your typical fam trip
Once Swinderman made the decision to start Mexico FamTrips, the rest fell into place fairly quickly, a testament to the need for her new business. Suddenly she had 300 applications of travel advisors seeking to participate in one of four fam trips scheduled from now through March, 2021. In fact, the first official fam embarks this week to Cancun with 30 participants who were exclusively chosen by Swinderman. While she hopes to eventually have the capacity to host all of the applicants on her waiting list, for now the selection process is based on specific criteria like percentage of sales to Mexico and a proven desire to learn about Mexico and sell the destination.
In addition to the individual advisor fams, Swinderman is also hosting five agency-exclusive fams for companies who are looking to travel as a group on a more customized itinerary that includes specific properties and locales in Mexico. Swinderman coordinates all of the fams through long-standing partnerships she has formulated with Mexican resorts and transportation and excursion companies. Her partners include: Fives Resorts, Hard Rock & Unico brands, Haven Resorts, Live Aqua, Karisma Resorts, Catalonia Resorts, Excellence Resorts and Lomas Travel.
“Many more properties are coming on board and I will also work with other individual properties that an agency wants to visit for a site inspection,” she noted.
Fams are currently just in the Cancun/Riviera Maya area but Swinderman plans to expand her reach to Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta by this time next year. She is also planning fams that cater to the luxury market and those who prefer EP and boutique properties and more off-the-beaten path experiences. Applications are currently being taken for general fams after March and agency fams after April. The cost for the fams vary but is based on the length of stay and resorts chosen.
For example, a 4-night fam to an all-inclusive 3 ½-4 star property, including transfers, activities and seminars provided by both technology and social media experts, might start at $350 per person.
While dubbed Mexico FamTrips, Swinderman points out that her fams are not typical. “What we’re doing is much more custom and focused on culture and specialized education for what these agents need. Plus, I want people to see that it’s safe to come here. You don’t need to be afraid to travel in Mexico and if clients see their agents going, they will change their perception. And of course, in the age of Covid, they can also come here, be socially distant, and have a safe and fun vacation at resorts that are taking every precaution, many at their own expense.”
A shared purpose
Swinderman’s desire to start Mexico FamTrips was always tucked away in her long-term business plan, that is until the pandemic gave her the courage to bring it to the forefront, she said.
“This is a time when we so desperately need to support each other. I love and truly believe that we are not each other’s competition. If other agencies start learning about Mexico and succeed, it benefits all of us and most of all, it benefits the tourism sector. That’s what we all need.”
She added that through this process, she has also witnessed incredible non-traditional partnerships unfold. One example is agency owners in the same towns coming together to request a customized fam trip for their collective advisors. She also noted that the Mexican resorts and her BDMs have been incredibly supportive of her efforts.
“One of the reasons why I’ve wanted to do this is because I want Mexico to thrive. I’ve seen what the pandemic has done to them. If they don’t work, they don’t eat and they are hard workers.” As part of the effort to give back, Mexico FamTrips is also adopting a local orphanage, whereby she is asking all of her fam participants to offer a small donation. “So, we are not only giving back with the donations but also by bringing people to Mexico so they can watch it flourish.”
Satisying a need for advisors
While hosting fam trips is hardly a new concept for the travel industry, Swinderman pointed out that particularly for advisors who are new and don’t have the volume with resorts and tour operators or the experience of working in Mexico, it can be very difficult and frustrating to try to plan a fam of your own.
“Maybe you’re an advisor who started selling Mexico but you haven’t sold a ton yet, it can be hard to get a hold of people to plan a fam. Not to mention there have been quite a lot of changes in staff at many resorts. Then you have to figure out the transfers of how to get from one resort to another. I live here, I know the best routes to go in and out of these properties and I know the people. I’m at these resorts at least once or twice a week, just visiting. I’m doing absolutely everything to coordinate the fams, creating the best possible schedule and educating the advisors. All they have to do is show up.”
In the midst of a pandemic, Swinderman has found her silver lining, and fortunately for the travel industry and Mexico, it’s one that is far-reaching.