When Deborah Miller was a 22-year-old she "sent herself to Alaska," first via train from Philadelphia to Seattle, then onto a flight to Anchorage to start a new life.
"Looking for her own adventure," she took one of the biggest risks of her life. It didn't take long for her move to pay off. It was in Anchorage that she’d get her first solid post-college job with a law firm at an office in Anchorage, before getting hired at Merrill Lynch’s Alaska office.
From those early days, a love of travel was important to Miller, owner of Edge of Wonder Travels Unlimited, a Northern California-based luxury agency. Her success in finance took her to a number of different major players in the industry and all over the world, from Alaska to New York to England and then Northern California, an area she calls home today.
Deciding to Start an Agency and Initial Success
Despite her success in finance, Miller said it was a "very stressful" job that was financially rewarding but not necessarily fulfilling.
Eventually, a desire to “do something that I was passionate about and not just a job” had her looking elsewhere 20 years into her career. “I got advice from someone who said ‘Find something you love to do and figure out how to serve people with it,’” she said.
In 2013 she started a slow migration into the travel industry.
“I spent a lot of the first part of 2013 doing a lot of research before pulling the trigger. I joined a host at first and did a lot of due diligence. I realized that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ so I researched, and found a lot of travel agents who were higher end and I would call them.
“The ones who responded I just did phone calls with and asked them how they got started, what worked, what didn’t, what scared you, asking those types of probing questions that I thought would help me the most,” she said.
She started an LLC in January 2014 and started selling a small number of trips on the side of her financial services career. The plan was to sell travel on the side for two years and “see where it goes.” She didn’t want to drop her financial services job, instead, she wanted to be able to be selective in what she was selling and be in a position to not take every potential client that came through the door.
“Looking back, when I first entered the industry, I had a goal of not taking on every piece of business that came through the door, however, I didn’t stick to that rule very well! I definitely do that more now after having learned that not every travel request is the right fit,” she said.
“But at the same time, taking on some business that you maybe shouldn’t have also is how you learn that lesson! So no experience is truly wasted as long as you learn as you go.”
Her goal was always to work up to going full time, however.
“If it was at a place where I could actually live off the income I was making, I was going to pursue it full-time,” she said. “I found that the skillset I learned working for Fortune 500 companies really translated well into travel.”
Banking on Success
When she first got going, like so many other advisors, her initial wave of business came from friends and family members, and colleagues who she had a personal relationship with. Things changed when Miller started getting a good amount of local leads through Yelp, the user-generated, online review site that was coming of age around the same time.
“At the time, I was the only travel agency on Yelp in San Francisco with five stars,” she told TMR. “Yelp was more of a thing in San Francisco than other cities since it was headquartered there… locals would check Yelp when you were going out to eat and I had friends who were Yelp reviewers. But it started organically.”
The Yelp lead generation eventually wound down, but, two years into her career, she decided to take the leap to travel advisor full-time based on the success she'd had. She left her corporate job in March 2015, throwing herself fully into travel, to great success.
“For the first four years or so, I was nearly doubling my business every single year – it was really on a pretty strong trajectory,” she said.
Miller also credits her success to having a specific goal when she started.
“I think I’ve excelled in part because I stepped into this work not to make money, but to serve and care for people through something I was truly passionate about. I think, or at least I hope, that my genuine concern and heart for people comes through and helps to build relationships that last,” she said.
Out of and Back Into Travel
Like so many travel advisors, COVID-19 decimated Miller’s future bookings.
“I honestly didn’t know how long COVID was going to last. I felt really strongly it was not just going to be a six-month thing. From what I saw happening overseas, I thought this was going to be a long road to recovery,” she said.
Miller had to make the difficult decision to go back to work in financial services, first as a contractor and then back to full-time. It was bittersweet for Miller who had carved out a career in a new industry, had found success doing so, and then ended up back in an industry that she had willingly left.
In 2022, her travel business started coming back. She managed to do half her pre-COVID sales and then, in 2023, she'd already exceeded her best pre-COVID year by February with old clients coming back to book travel.
With business booming, the decision to go back to travel full-time, or stay part-time and continue with the other career, was coming quickly. The decision was made for her when her bank went through a restructuring.
She is now working again as an advisor full-time and is happy to do so.
After two successful stints in finance, she still credits her travel business success on the realization she had when she first dreamed of a future travel career—doing something she loves is what's most important.