Many experts say that developing a niche is key to attaining success as a travel agent. But which niche is true to your interests; and how small can your target market be?
Speaking at a breakout session at the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) Global Convention in San Diego this year, several accomplished travel agents offered the benefit of their experiences.
Marinel de Jesus, founder of Brown Gal Trekker/Peak Explorations, in Washington, D.C., talked about how she launched her business this May after being a lawyer and prosecutor the majority of her professional career.
“I met my tribe a long time ago. My marketing started then, when as a hobby I organized a trek for 30 people,” she said. During the trip, “People said, ‘don’t you realize there is a career here?’ You have to see that first. A niche has to do with who you are and what you do.”
Today, her agency “focuses on one thing: mountain trekking. My clients talk about reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro,” but she acknowledges that her niche goes deeper, to people who want to challenge themselves personally. “I help people overcome their boundaries.”
De Jesus herself has trekked all over the world for about 25 years, including exotic locales like the Republic of Georgia and Mongolia.
Start with your passion
Erika Richter, ASTA director of communications, said developing a successful niche “starts from a personal place, where you know who you are and you know your ideal client. But you have to have the idea of what you want to create first.”
“Passion is just the start of it all,” de Jesus added. “To be honest, the next step is to overcome that fear. We all have boundaries. The hurdle is that you have to mentally accept and give yourself permission to do it. You will find the people you need to find. You then find the resources that you need.”
Jacob Marek, founder and chief explorer, IntroverTravels, in Sioux Falls, S.D., explained how he married his understanding of his own introverted nature with his business concept.
“I was trying to think ‘What niche do I identify with?’ It came to me one night, while I was hiking in Utah. It wasn’t evident at that moment. A seed was planted. I knew then I needed to incorporate nature with travel” and “design life-changing travel experiences for curious introverts.”
Carry your niche through every aspect of your business
De Jesus has created “a community” online and offline to promote her business and its greater goals, which attracts new clients. Her blog, “Trekking with Marinel,” is a nexus for that community, where de Jesus talks about every aspect of trekking.
“People have told me it is such a draw. It gives the entry to their exploration.”
She also uses her own Meetup.com hiking group “to get people together. You have to help create a connection between people who have a passion for the same thing,” she said. Her company offers backpacking workshops, discussing gear, training and other aspects of trekking. “Peak Explorations makes this interest more than a vacation. It’s a lifestyle,” de Jesus said.
When it comes to branding, everything about your agency, from your website to your e-mail marketing, requires that you believe in the niche and focus on it, the panelists said.
Be hyper-focused on your niche's personality type
“I hear too many travel advisors say it is a struggle to find the right clients. Well, how are you structuring your business? How are you creating your business by design?” IntroverTravels' Marek asked the audience.
Marek’s tours are hyper-focused on the personality type of his target market, so suppliers are specific to fulfilling that brand promise, he said. For example, “because I cater to introverts, my tours have a 2-to-1 travel planning ratio. There are two parts relax time and one part tingling their spines,” he said.
He tries to uncover tour guides and activities to help create “life-changing” experiences for his customers, and not every supplier can provide that. That is why Marek travels around the world for months at a time to meet with locals he partners with and to visit the sites he will send his clients to.
During the Q&A, an agent asked about dealing with two different key target markets. Marek cautioned the agent. “I think you need to go all in on one niche or the other. Targeting two separate ‘whos’ won’t resonate with either.”
Refer niche business to peers
Even when a piece of unsolicited business comes his way, if the trip does not fit Marek’s niche, he refers it to a peer. “I just turned down a couple that wanted me to book their trip to Hawaii, and passed it to a friend who specializes in romance travel. For me, it is a disservice to plan someone’s honeymoon and be apathetic. It not only positions me to be expert at other things, but if they want to do a Galapagos trip five years from now, they will remember I referred them to a Hawaii expert. I want to make sure everyone is getting the perfect experience for them.”
Marek also suggested that agents choose a host agency to support them. “If you are trying to go it alone, it will be an uphill battle.”
But be picky, he said, and ensure that the host’s service offerings help you fulfill the desires of your niche, like net rates. “Find a host that supports the niche that you want to build for yourself, versus conforming to the host.”
Even storefront design reflects your niche
If you choose to have a storefront, that also needs to reflect the essence of your brand, said Lindsay Taylor, director, business development at Tafari Travel. Her company has been developing a storefront concept to inspire people before they even think of Tafari to fulfill their travel plans.
Her first location opened in Cherry Creek, Colo., and has been so successful that Tafari is planning to open a second store in Brooklyn, N.Y., before the end of this year.
“Our awning says Tafari only. There’s no mention of travel, intentionally. We don’t want to have cruise line banners hanging from the windows or signs announcing a sale on something.”
“Some of our agents have developed trip itineraries that go in the windows. It says ‘Travel Inspiration.’ People on the street will stop and read about the trips. It is an interesting way to engage customers.”
Taylor described how the company plans to make each space “regionally authentic” to appeal to locals first. The Brooklyn location is next to a brewery, has an “industrial feel” that fits with the neighborhood, and incorporates garage doors on the front of the storefront, to open during nice weather and invite potential clients to walk in.
In addition, instead of having rows of desks, the space looks more like a lounge. “We’re creating the professional space to create that consultation with clients,” she said.