Elliot Finkelman describes himself as a serial entrepreneur and a devoted cruiser. Seven years in the travel business, with over 40 independent contractors (ICs) and “multimillions in sales a year,” he has just opened his third brick-and-mortar agency — and credits a love for travel, radio and TV, along with a great franchise partner, for making his wildest dreams come true.
When he heard an Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise was up for sale in Ottawa, Canada, it seemed inevitable that he be first on line to buy it. “We now sell in a month what I dreamed of selling in a year – over a million in our best months,” he told Travel Market Report when pressed for a number.
The many years, many industries and many jobs in his long work history all help, of course. His last job was as an independent consultant for Expedia CruiseShipCenters, where he learned about the travel industry. His business background helped him ask the right questions; when he heard a franchise was for sale, he did his due diligence by calling up as many “BDMs of every cruise line in Canada he could find” and asking if they thought Expedia CruiseShipCenters was the right company to partner with.
Then there was his radio show, heard locally on 580 CFRA in Canada’s capital and on the web at iHeartRadio, which he has had for years, with 10,000 listeners — the perfect vehicle for promoting himself as a travel expert. His travel show “has been a big support for the business, because while I talk about travel in general, people get to know me and Expedia CruiseShipCenters,” he said. “We feature suppliers and independent contractors, and we advocate for travel agents – I say I’d like for people to use us, but as long as they use a travel agent, I’m happy.”
And of course, having the Expedia CruiseShipCenters name, so well-known by consumers, helped. “People are fed up with being put on hold and 1-800 numbers,” he said. “I tell them, ‘You might think it’s cheaper to book a trip yourself, but it’s not. When you book yourself, you don’t get a commission, you don’t get a discount and you are your own backup. We are part of the largest online travel company; if you don’t believe me, book your cruise, put it on hold, and the cruise line will switch to us and then we will take care of you from there.”
He’s also become the travel expert on the local CTV morning show, appearing about once a month.
It’s all in the marketing
When he first started, Finkelman grew his business using local marketing in community newspapers. But now he gets good results from targeted Facebook ads; more than 50 percent of sales come from the “amazing IC team” the ads have helped him build up. To find his squadron of ICs, Finkelman turned largely to Expedia’s Discovery Nights. But he also finds that many of his best consultants are, like him, former customers who love to cruise. He is always looking to add to the team.
“I woke up one morning and took my money and gambled it — and so far, we are winning,” he said. “The hard thing about this business is that you don’t start seeing money for a year, but Expedia agencies are well-respected, we get a lot of support from suppliers, and when I call, I get action. Without being part of a consortium of some kind, I couldn’t possibly have done what I did.”
In his first year, he sold about $300,000 in travel himself; the team, as a whole, sold more than $2 million, marketing through street signage, “a lot of cruise nights and events,” and the radio.
“Anytime I could figure out how to market for free, I did it. Local media is always looking for content,” he said. He went on his friend’s radio show every couple of weeks for 15 minutes, and then for 30 minutes, and then on a show of his own; he wrote a column for the local paper; he joined Facebook groups — and he made sure his ICs did, as well.
More comfortable now, he still hesitates to call himself a success. “Ask me when I retire how well I did,” he says, “because there are ups and downs the whole way. There are always nights when you say, ‘OMG what’s happening?’ Just remember that one month is not a trend — you have a great month, and then the next month, nothing. I have a little sign up saying ‘Remember Day 1,’ to remind me of the day I opened my first Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise. I worked 22 hours and I had zero sales, but I was so excited. Don’t get dragged out two years later. If I was excited then, why shouldn’t I be now, when I have so much more?”