Bringing in the Kids: Travel Advisors Pass the Torch to a Second Generation

by Cheryl Rosen
Bringing in the Kids: Travel Advisors Pass the Torch to a Second Generation

Lots of travel advisors are bringing their children into their businesses. Photo: Shutterstock.com. 


Take an aging population of long-time travel advisors, add a strong business environment, and mix in the lure of seeing the world and working from anywhere. What do you get? Lots of travel advisors who are bringing their children into their businesses.

Corina Johnson and her mom, for example, opened their agency 28 years ago; now her 22-year-old daughter has come onboard. “She’s been helping in the office and witnessing how we take care of our clients for years,” Johnson said. “When she decided she actually wanted to sell travel, it was an easy fit!”

While at first, they butted heads a bit, “we made time to talk through it. We strategically placed our work spaces so she didn’t feel like I was in her business all the time. It’s a process. But she is an amazing agent,” Johnson said.

Ralph Santisteban has also brought three of his five kids into his Dream Vacations franchise agency in the past year. “We are getting older and the business is now a well-oiled machine; at some point, Myrna and I need to step back and work less. It’s a blessing to be able to pass down a legacy,” he says.

His advice? Start early. “There is a lot for them to learn and this cannot happen overnight. It’s a long-term commitment.”

Diverse skills bolster the business
But perhaps the blue ribbon for most kids working for mom goes to Jennifer Doncsecz, who has brought four of her five children (the youngest is still in college) into VIP Vacations, Inc. Her oldest joined nine years ago; now 29 years old, he manages the group business. In addition to selling travel, his 26-year-old brother, a graphic designer, handles the marketing and video production; also onboard are the youngest son (a business major) and a daughter (the first to actually major in hospitality).

While the eldest joined right after college, Doncsecz encouraged the rest to work somewhere else first — a tip she passes onto others considering taking children into the business. It teaches them a little about the real world, she says, and makes them appreciate the benefits of being related to the boss.

But that’s not to say they get to ride her coattails; the Doncsecz kids are expected to deliver. Bobby holds a number of sales records, including most bookings in January 2019 (200), breaking his own record from January 2018 (150). Megan holds the record for largest sale, a $180,000 world cruise. “They are very competitive, but hospitality and kindness and patience also are in their blood. They are super-sweet people,” Donscecz said.

While it’s great having four employees watching out for you and your business, being responsible for the livelihood of a second generation — and eventually, perhaps, a third — adds an extra layer of stress, she notes. “It has forced me to really incorporate leadership and the overall direction of the company into their training, to make them feel ownership and responsibility.”

It wasn’t until the youngest joined that she realized that she “really needed a plan for where they see themselves in 15 years, and what I can empower them to do now to help them get there. You have to put your Mom hat on and ask them all these questions, as you would about any job they were taking: Do you get medical insurance and vacations? What growth path is there for you? Are you happy?”

They need to learn finance and budgeting and how to read a P&L statement, she said; she includes them now in the marketing team budgeting process. Bobby has taken QuickBooks training and is learning accounts payable. “That helps me a little, but it’s also a trust thing, giving him access to my bank account.”

It’s very time-consuming, but so rewarding to help them understand not just selling, but “why we do what we do, how to love everyone on the team and be cohesive. It’s not just taking care of your clients; it’s also about building relationships with vendors and with the press.”

The key is not to push them into it, “so they don’t just do it because their mom sells travel, but because it’s a great business, because they have a dream. I didn’t start this business as a legacy for my children; it’s something they had the option to do.”

A new generation with a new customer base
While having children in the business may be more work, it’s also a great way to learn new things and expand you customer base into a new generation, many noted.

When Mike Edic’s daughter joined him at Pioneer Travel in February, for example, she brought in her own following of friends and acquaintances.

Given her background as a top salesperson at JCPenney and her love for all things Disney, Edic was happy to have her. He had her start with online training with Disney and Universal, and sent her to training and marketing classes given by his consortium; next she will expand into Hawaii, building on her knowledge of Disney’s Aulani resort there.

“Those are things I don’t specialize in,” Edic said. “She’s already handled a few trips from her customers, people who knew her. And she’s learning social media, where I don’t understand half the stuff, and getting our promotions out there. It’s another avenue I didn’t have access to before.”

She doesn’t get any special favors, Edic says. “She has to be professional, represent the business, and not just skirt along; I have five ICs and she gets the same split as everyone else, and pays her own way for training. You have to set the boundaries for what’s expected and what she is responsible for. You have to have a written contract, and she has to pull her own weight.”

Defined areas of expertise
Candice Howell waited until she was 27 to join her mother’s business, though she worked there off and on over the years. She said the key is for everyone to have their own areas of responsibility, their own niches. “We have different personalities, so there’s different ideas and ways of doing things, which works great,” she said. “I specialize in destination weddings, honeymoons, family travel, Disney. A very happy ending!”

Denise DelVecchio already is training her 16-year-old daughter to take over the family theme park niche; she takes her to travel conferences and supplier events as an independent contractor during school breaks. On some bookings, she lets her daughter do all the work, under her supervision; she enters those bookings into the CRM under her daughter’s name and pays her like any other new agent.

“She will be heading off to college in a few years; my hope is by then she will have a little side job to help her make some extra money and possibly market to her fellow students,” DelVecchio said.

Indeed, the rise of the IC option has given agents a great way to bring in children and test whether it works, said Susan Schaefer. “Offer them the chance at being an IC if they don't want to commit to it full time.”

Tips from the kids
For Selena Bohinski, working for mom has been a great opportunity. “I try to bring a lot of new ideas to the table that are relatable to younger clients, like honeymooners, babymooners, etc. I’m active on social media and I have become friends with our clients. I revamped the whole look of our website, from being mobile-friendly to a new logo to business cards, for a new fresh exciting look! I take my mom’s business ideas that she has used and make them current.”

For Lauren Capotosto Doyle, the ultimate end of working for mom is in sight for both generations. After 35 years in the business, her mom has begun the process of stepping down — and Doyle is stepping up.

After working outside the industry for some years, she gave in to the lure of working from home when she was pregnant; today, she is executive vice president of The Travel Mechanic in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“My mom really wanted to grow her weddings and honeymoon division, and I’m a Millennial with a lot of friends who were getting engaged and married, so I started by heading up that division; it was perfect. Now as my mom is getting ready to retire, I’m also growing the business, finding ICs to join us. Young people love to travel; there are so many people in their 30s who are really interested in becoming entrepreneurs. I work within my community, and Facebook has worked wonders for me; when people comment on my Facebook page, I say my family owns an agency — and floods of people answer.”

Indeed, she says, the biggest challenge is that their styles are so different that she and her mother have virtually two different businesses. “She’s working with clients face to face but my clients don’t want to meet me. I say we should do video consultations and blogs, and she says her people won’t do that. We definitely have two different target demographics. But we both have open minds and try to make each other’s crazy ideas work.”

While her siblings have no interest in joining the agency, she says, “My mom already is grooming my kids to be agents. They play travel agency; they are obsessed with traveling.”

And while The Travel Mechanic sold over $1 million last year, it’s not just the money that makes Doyle hope to one day see those kids join her. “I live in North Carolina and my mom lives in South Carolina — but the business has brought us closer than we ever imagined,” she says.

Mother-son duo gives advice
Mara Hargarther and her son Corey Hargarther, who works at her agency, Dream Vacations Hargarther, Thaler & Associates, also had a few tips to share.

Mara says: “I have been a home-based travel agent for 25 years. My kids grew up with cruising in their DNA. When brochures were delivered to the house, they would grab them and read them cover to cover. Fast-forward 25 years later, after college and an MBA, my son Corey joined our agency as an associate. Now 18 months later, he is one of our top-selling agents and works in true Millennial fashion.

“While we did work in the same office for several months, he now has his own office. We speak almost every day, and help each other when we can. He has taught me many things. 

“My advice to a parent who is thinking of doing this is to draw the line between parent and boss. You can’t do both. Give them room to grow in the direction they choose. Let them build on their strengths. Just because you do things a certain way, doesn’t mean that’s the best fit for them. Get out of their way and let them shine in their own spotlight.”

Corey also had advice to give: “Use the opportunity to diversify the product/brand offerings within your overall agency. 

“Encourage creativity and deviation from the business norm. It’s always good to try new things rather than stick with the tried and true.

“Gain exposure to clients of all ages/budgets and industry leaders. Avoid being relegated to back office/admin work.”

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