Eric Hrubant has spent the past 20 years in the travel industry — and by any measure, he’s gotten pretty good at it. His seven-year-old agency, CIRE Travel, a division of Tzell, has 12 employees in four offices; he sold $19 million worth of corporate, leisure and group travel in 2018; he charges a minimum planning fee of $500 and turns away those who don’t want to pay it.
But at the age of 42, Hrubant figures he has 20 years to go in this industry — and he’s rewriting his agency’s business plan. By reinventing the sales call, leveraging his suppliers, and focusing on marketing and social media, he says, he hopes to reach his new sales goal of $50 million by 2025.
It helps that he has an office in Manhattan and a summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, a small and insular community of well-heeled folks who like to travel. Still, though, he augments that with somewhere between two and 20 strangers a day who read about him online or in social media and cold-call, asking for his travel-planning assistance.
When the phone rings, Hrubant says, his team quickly weeds out the crazy folks and the price shoppers. But if someone seems really genuine, “I say, ‘Our fees range from $500 to $5,000, but my parent company has some really great agents who charge lower fees; can I refer you to them?’ We like to keep it in the Travel Leaders family.”
Start with a foundation
It all begins, he says, with a personal relationship with suppliers. “I feel like we need to reinvent the way we interact with suppliers, to do something different and out of the box to make it more fun for everyone.”
His space in the main Tzell offices in Manhattan has a lounge, a bar cart, a sofa; evenings from 6-8 pm, he often just sits around and schmoozes with suppliers. “Every travel agent is really about their partners, their connections — and I look around and see a lot of bad behavior,” he says. “From a business perspective, if I’m going to ask a vendor for a favor, it’s important to have that mindset where we all need each other, and do something that directly benefits us all.”
He often hosts parties in Maine to which he invites suppliers to mix and mingle and meet his travelers; he recently did a Safari Night; his next will focus on India.
Like many travel advisors, Hrubant got into travel by accident, stuffing ticket jackets as a part-time college job. When he graduated, he went to work for an agency; when the owner retired seven years ago, he bought the place and kept on its three employees.
“I was a latchkey kid; my babysitter was Oprah, and she named her company Harpo, her name spelled backwards. I told myself that, one day, I would own a biz named CIRE, for Eric backwards,” he says. “I find selling travel super-duper easy, because there is such a lack of service out there. The internet is not my competition. I know what I want to do, which clients I want to work with; I believe we are the best in the business, and you are booking with us because it’s us. You get to leverage all our contacts and all our perks.”
Of course, he promotes CIRE Travel wherever he goes; he likes to chat with his Kennebunkport neighbors who sell fine wines and upscale food. “It’s all about the service — but it starts with having a story to tell,” he says. “When someone says, ‘Do travel agents still exist?’ I say, ‘Have you ever had your flight canceled?’ Then I tell the story: We jump in, get you a new boarding pass, and get you home. I say they should work with us because it’s me. They get to leverage our contacts, our problem-solving, our perks. If you want the perfect trip, go to a travel agent.”
For the rest of 2019, Hrubant is focusing on bringing in new customers through search engine optimization (SEO). When he heard a CBS executive had moved to Maine, he brought her onboard to manage a six-figure budget for marketing and client services.
Everything he does is posted on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn, shared with his agency partners, Tzell and Travel Leaders and Signature. When an agent is invited on a fam trip, “we have a whole social media and marketing plan — these are content gold; it’s really important to find original, cool content.” When a client sends a thank-you note, it goes up; “when everyone’s flights are being canceled and you save someone, there’s real value in posting that. When they compliment you, brag about it. That’s the way you sell yourself.”
It’s all about the mindset, Hrubant notes. “If you think running a business is going to be hard, it will be hard; if you have the right energy, you will be aligned with others’ energy.”
That attitude no doubt has helped him grow sales organically by 30% every year — but getting to $50 million will require a new level of commitment. Now he is looking to buy other people’s books of business. “I haven’t bought anything yet, other than the original agency, but I do feel like it’s an aging population, and I don’t know that they realize the value of what they have.”