Working from home is par for the course in the travel industry, but it wasn’t always that way. When Suzanne Smith, owner and manager of Champagne Vacations, launched her home-based travel agency in 1994, she was one of few advisors to do so.
“People would say, ‘Can I come to your office?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m in my home,’” Smith told TMR. “I love helping people travel and making their vacations great, and the fact that I've worked from home 30 years and raised a daughter and sent her to college, as a single parent … it's been wonderful to do all of that and working when you want to work.”
Still, running a successful travel business for three decades has not been without its challenges. As the North Carolina-based travel agency approaches its 30th anniversary, Smith reflected on what she’s learned over the years and how it’s paid off.
Getting started in travel
Smith “did not mean to get into this business,” she said. She studied to become a paralegal but quickly learned it was not the job for her. She instead began working at her friend’s travel agency in the human resources department. Though Smith was in HR, her friend taught her to book flights and manage travel for clients when she was away.
“I thought, ‘I could probably do this myself,’” Smith said, and so she did. After a while, she left her friend’s agency and launched her own, at first called Champagne Travel and now Champagne Vacations. The business specializes in cruises, honeymoons, destination weddings, reunions, and other family vacations.
“Destination weddings and honeymoons helped me build client base,” Smith said. “If you treat those family members as if they’re the bride and groom, you get clients. I’ve had some weddings where I never speak to the bride or groom again, but I still book their families' trips.”
Looking back on her start as a travel advisor, she said she wishes she had the advice that she now gives to her own advisors, who work as independent contractors for Champagne Vacations.
“I love mentoring young agents the way I wish someone would've mentored me, which is: Do what pays your bills and if you love doing it, that’s a bonus,” she said, referring to booking the types of vacations that are most lucrative, rather than ones that are the most fun to book. “I’ve learned to modify. I learned that just because Suzanne wants to do something doesn't mean it’s going to pay the bills.”
Managing travel crises
Unfortunately, Smith often learned these lessons in times of crisis. She cited 9/11, the 2008 financial collapse, and the Covid-19 pandemic as travel crises that have had huge impacts on the way she runs her agency.
“The only thing that saved the agency was that people were still doing honeymoons and weddings after 9/11, then 2008 also dried up the company,” Smith said. “Then I got into river cruises because there were such great 2-for-1 sales.”
When Covid hit, Smith switched gears from selling Europe, which was closed to travelers, to selling Disney vacations, because it quickly reopened. “It’s about being fluid and realizing when you need to shift,” Smith said.
Champagne Vacations now has a team dedicated to booking Disney. The agency is an authorized Disney vacation planner and a preferred Sandals agency.
While she tells advisors to book what’s trending, she also advises not to count out certain suppliers they may not like working with. If you treat the client who wants to book with that supplier right, the client could always become a return customer in the future, she pointed out.
“Every customer is important,” Smith said. “You never know what that customer is going to bring you. Some people don’t want to book certain suppliers because of low commission, but you never know – that client might usually book luxury.”
Other advice Smith has for new advisors is staying organized, being personable with clients, and having patience. Especially for group travel, like weddings or reunions, organization is key. When there are travel issues, Smith noted that she has clients contact her, not the supplier, to handle them.
“There are so many different travel apps you can use now – I just got Travel Joy,” she said. “Before that I kept everything in file folders and notebooks. If I had a big group, it was a three-ring binder and a booking sheet where you wrote everything down and checked things off.
“Things are a lot easier now, but it’s keeping everyone straight, keeping a checklist...,” she added. “You have to learn to be OK with repeating the same thing over and over again.”
River cruising to fulfillment
By navigating through tough times to grow the business, and with travel resurging post-Covid, Smith herself can now return to booking her favorite types of trips and leaving the rest to her trusted team of travel advisors.
The contracted agents at Champagne Vacations handle the family vacations, Disney trips, and the like, while Smith now enjoys booking only river cruises and Europe FIT tours. In the past, she has escorted groups of travelers on river cruises, which she particularly loves.
“I’ve been on so many river cruises,” Smith said. “I love the small size, and the pricing is very affordable with air included. My favorite is Uniworld. l love the packing and unpacking just once and going to these little towns.”
In addition to Uniworld, a boutique river cruise line, Smith has also been booking Viking cruises lately. She added that she enjoys taking people on their first river cruise, especially singles or solo travelers, because it is easy to meet people on the small-size ships. Also, river cruises are fully all-inclusive, a benefit to the travel advisor booking the trip.
“You can do itineraries two or three times because you see different things every time,” she said of river cruising. “I’ve been very lucky, and I try to pass on to clients and give them best possible experience I possibly can.”