Being a travel agent is not that different from being a U.S. border security expert, says Sylvia Longmire — and she should know. She’s doing both jobs. From her home office. In a wheelchair.
An Air Force vet who came down with multiple sclerosis (MS) 13 years ago, Longmire was confined to a wheelchair in 2014, but that has hardly slowed her down. She works as an analyst on the drug war in Mexico, writing for the Homeland Security website, and was named Miss Wheelchair USA of 2016. Now she has a new passion: she launched Spin the Globe Travel, 11 months ago.
The roles of security analyst and travel agent are not dissimilar, she said: “Research and analysis are my gig, and that is most of what we do as travel agents. We do research to find the perfect vacation.”
So, when Longmire decided to switch careers, she began by spending hours and hours making sure she had everything in place. First came the licenses, then “probably the biggest financial investment” of E&O insurance. And finally, joining CLIA, ASTA, and NACTA.
The hardest part, she said, was finding the right training; since there is no standardized certification process, it took a lot of research to find reputable companies with which to partner. In the end, she followed The Travel Institute program for setting up a home-based agency and joined Nexion.
Even for someone skilled at doing research, “It’s been a very steep learning curve; there’s a lot of information to absorb,” she said. “The Travel Institute teaches you how to be an agent; Nexion teaches you how to actually make a booking. It’s a great combination of resources.”
From traveler to travel expert
But, Longmire has no regrets. This second career is her labor of love. Medically retired from the Air Force because of her MS and then divorced, she became an expert in traveling alone using a wheelchair. Two years ago, she started a blog of her experiences, put up a lot of videos and drone videos, and soon had almost 6,000 followers. And the idea for her new business — Spin the Globe Travel, in Sanford, Florida — was born.
“I went to Dubai by myself and had a great time, so I did Iceland and Alaska and Australia; I hit 20 countries and pretty much became an expert at arranging accessible travel,” she said. “I had started many businesses in my lifetime, so I thought, since I have gotten really good at this, why not make some money doing it for other people?”
The first couple of months were slow, but then around January, “It just exploded; almost every day, I get email messages and people filling out the questionnaire on my website.” So far, she has sold about $58,000 worth of travel. For next year, she put together a group on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas that sold out in two weeks, with 18 people, including 8 wheelchair users.
A $17.3 billion a year niche
“It was a little intimidating and overwhelming, because I have to team up with accessible tour companies overseas to help with transfers and shore excursions; I have to help my clients arrange all of that outside of the cruise line itself. It takes a lot of advance planning and coordination, so I want to see how this goes” before going bigger, she said. “It helps that there are not many people like me; even most travel agents who specialize in accessible travel are not actually wheelchair users themselves. That level of personal authenticity really resonates. And this is a big niche — people with disabilities are spending $17.3 billion a year on travel.”
Longmire noted the generous help she has received from other agents she met at ASTA and CLIA, and her own willingness to help others interested in reaching this niche market in return. She recommends the Special Needs at Sea certification program; it takes just a couple of hours and offers lots of information on the various types of disabilities and the mobility equipment they might need to rent. But most importantly, it teaches agents the right questions to ask.
“I’d love for more agents to love the value of this market and help us travel,” Longmire said. “As a wheelchair traveler myself, it’s important to me to make sure all wheelchair travelers get what they need. You can’t wing it, it’s very easy for our vacation to be ruined. If we get somewhere and it’s not accessible, we have to go home.
“We want to travel; we need to travel; we have the money and we want to spend it. And we need more agents who want to help us.”