You could say that Angie Rice’s business plan turns the traditional travel agency model on its head. Instead of asking where her clients want to go, she goes to places she wants to sell them — and then pushes them out to her customer base.
“Our clients are looking to us for advice; they want to mirror the types of travel that we have experienced and that we choose to highlight,” Rice says. “By promoting destinations that appeal to us, we control and influence the trips we book for our customers.”
If you think that sounds like being a social influencer, think again. While perhaps borrowing a page from the influencer playbook, Rice is a luxury travel agent, a former CPA who two years ago decided to follow her dream and open her own travel business. She and co-owner Janet Semenova, a former nurse practitioner, are closing in on $2 million in sales this year — largely to destinations they suggest to their customers rather than the other way around. Since her recent trip to Croatia, for example, several calls were from customers asking about or wanting to follow her itinerary.
“It’s not being pushy to suggest things,” she says. Like going to a doctor for a diagnosis or a decorator for a makeover, they expect advice. Many people don’t have a picture of their perfect vacation and need you to create that dream. They want you to bring the creative process to life.”
Building a business
Rice and Semenova were were newly friends when they launched is Boutique Travel Advisors, but they shared trusted relationships with doctors and accountants, and were “recognized in the community as people who travel a lot with their families. We both believe travel is a commitment; you can’t put a price tag on family time.”
They focused on trying to connect with three different audiences through three different touchpoints — and using hard data to track their success.
They try to meet clients in person, but if not, they reach out through Facebook and women’s groups, events at family-friendly workout facilities they attend, and co-hosting events like a Round the World event with a lifestyle company and travel suppliers. “We do a little bit of everything and then document how each person who calls got in touch, and track the ROI of everything we do,” she says.
The data show that her top 10 clients bring in about half of all referrals; three or four deliver 10 new clients a year. Rather than sending a gift card, they offer up a heartfelt thank-you note outlining just how important these referrals have been to the growth of their company. “Aligning yourself with influencers is very important; we make sure that we show appreciation, that we thank them and recognize them every time,” she said.
Different strokes for different folks
When it comes to planning a trip, they carefully curate each step for the individual customer. For the seasoned traveler, for example, they often look for “eco-friendly and sustainable and off-the-beaten-path destinations; someone who really believes in that type of travel will say, ‘That’s the type of agent I want to work with.’”
For the multigenerational group, “which requires a whole different level of organization,” Rice emphasizes her CPA background, marketing the need for a really organized travel advisor to handle all the moving parts. “There is an artistry to planning a group trip — and that’s what distinguishes us,” she says.
That CPA background naturally gives Rice a focus on the bottom line, and she often touches on financial advice long-term planning. She often suggests that clients include travel in their long-term planning with financial advisors, “getting them to recognize that our relationship isn’t just about one year, but about three or five years, to bring diversity to their travel and be aware of what they are spending.”
And even for individual trips, she often offers budgeting advice. “You can’t spend 60% of your budget on air; if you can’t do anything when you get there, you won’t have fun,” she might say. “I’m not suggesting they spend more than they can afford, but understand how to create the best experience with the budget they have. If they are a foodie or are in a region known for kayaking, those are the experiences worth compromising for.”
“When a potential client asks about five days in Europe, for example, I say, ‘That’s not enough time; you are investing a lot of money. If you are not able to take off 10 days, maybe you should postpone the trip until you can. Please rethink that and come back to me.’ And they often do.”
For one client on a tight budget, Rice put together a package that included all four-star hotels — except for one two-night splurge at the ritziest hotel in the city. “They would never have agreed to the room rate if it wasn’t included in the overall budget I presented — but now they recognize the value of being upsold, as long as the whole itinerary is in line,” she says.
Looking to the future
Moving forward, Rice is planning to partner with other professional service providers, delivering expanded services to both customer bases. She is considering a financial advisor, a local party planner to put together fun travel experiences, and a jeweler to package a coupon for free travel planning services with every sale.
She also has successfully connected with a Pied Piper at a local corporation that offers paid sabbaticals; planning his extended vacation has resulted in a whole new niche. “A seven-week sabbatical vacation involves a lot of planning; you have to figure out how much time to spend in each destination, and have the right flow in the itinerary,” she said. Thanks to him, “we have done many six-week trips.”
The overall goal is to create “not a travel agency but a travel community in our market, which is people who live within 30 minutes of us, and online. The local market gives us branding, and the online community drives traffic.”
To scope out destinations, Rice carefully chooses each fam trip, going only to places she expects to sell in the next 12-18 months. That first-hand experience is what really differentiates her service — and is especially important in the family and intergenerational markets. “You have to be sure the kids will adapt to Eastern Europe or Japan; you have to look at whether the kids are adventurous and open-minded and eat something other than chicken nuggets, or whether they would be better off doing a Tauck tour with other families.”
She is headed to Russia in the fall and Semenova will travel to Australia — but both also see opportunities closer to home.
She recently arranged an extended vacation for four families in Jackson Hole, fly fishing and kayaking and rifle shooting. “As a travel advisor, we think people want to go overseas, but a great niche is doing large groups that break up to do different things,” she says. “So, Canada and the national parks, and backroads tours in Hawaii, and maybe Costa Rica, are on my itinerary. For families, it’s worth the extra expense to have a travel professional organize the meals and the guides.”
In the end, she is loving her new career. “Travel is about sharing your experiences with others and meeting new people around the world. If you have that bug, that shared sense, there is nothing like it,” she says.