Business is all about numbers, says Alicia Kingston. If you have the right data, and share it with enough people, sales will follow.
Four years after opening her own travel agency, her focus on bringing lots of numbers to a numerous online audience brought her close to $1 million in sales last year, with more than half of it from Facebook friends she has never met.
Of course, sales are about words, too. Ten years’ experience in sales and marketing helps her understand exactly what to say and to use statistics to her best advantage. And, having a mother in the travel business helps gets her invited to fam trips and supplier events, which in the end, translate into more knowledge, and better service for her customers.
But first, you have to find customers — and Kingston does that largely through Facebook. “I’m really good on social media,” she acknowledges. “When someone on a forum posts that they are looking for a nice suite on a fabulous beach for their honeymoon, 25 travel agents reply ‘Hi, I’m with XYZ Travel and I’d be happy to help, please email me.’
“But I say, ‘I was at this great property in March that sounds perfect for you. I specialize in romance travel in the Caribbean, and I’ve been there 42 times, so I have a lot of information to share.’ I give them a partial answer, with just enough information so they feel I can help them. And I’m usually the one they contact.”
Working the digital world
Next, Kingston began building a database of statistics about her business, based on customer reviews. She carefully crafted a welcome-home email, “where I kind of plead with my clients to rate me on my Facebook and Travel Leaders websites.” So now, whenever a potential customer calls, she links them to those more than 75 reviews of her service — all of which give her five stars.
In the end, though, Kingston never relies on the internet to actually close the deal. “I never reply to an inquiry via text,” she says. “I insist on a phone conversation with every client. That gets us on the level of friends right from the beginning. And then I give them so much good information, they don’t even think about booking it themselves.”
In any online forum, the more customers you have, the more often your name comes up in discussions about travel, and the more often new customers hear about you and reach out. That’s true with Google, too, where as more and more customers have begun to search for her, her name comes up more often when people search for “travel agent” in her town.
To spread the word, Kingston suggests joining every group you can think of in your area: mothers’ groups, family groups, womens’ groups, church groups. For her, though, the biggest spike came from creating her own group for her new home town, just off Philadelphia’s tony Main Line.
“People here are affluent and love to travel — and they are busy; they don’t want to spend the time researching their own trips. And I realized there was no parent or community group that encompassed this whole geographical area from the Main Line to Pottstown. So, I created my own group, called 422 Families, named for the highway that runs from King of Prussia to Reading,” she said.
In about two-and-a-half-years, the group is up to about 8,000 members — and as moderator, she gets to see every post first. That helped at first, as she got first dibs at the travel questions. Facebook took notice of the rapid growth of the group, and named Kingston to the Facebook Power Administrators group, where she helps other administrators manage and grow their groups.
“That really helped build my brand and position me as an expert across the whole region,” she said.
A little background
Even though Kingston spent much of her working life in advertising, she really did grow up in the travel business. Her parents, Brenda and Richard Punchak, own Cruise Time Plus in Allentown, PA; and HoneymoonAndDestinationWeddings.com, one of the first online destination wedding sites.
But she pursued her own path, with a sales and marketing career that took her to the position of national sales director for Broad Street Media, a subsidiary of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Then, when her husband took a job in the suburbs and she started a family of her own, she ended up thinking, once again, about the advantages of a career she could build working at home.
In 2015, she went along as her mother’s plus-one to the grand opening of the Hyatt Ziva in Jamaica and the nearby Secrets. “My mom said, ‘Well Alicia, you know if you take the AMResorts course, I can hire you as an agent and you can come with me whenever you want?’ So, I took the course and put it on my personal Facebook page and I got a few calls from friends, and then a few more, and then some referrals, and then tons of people started calling me — and I ended up fully immersed within two months.”
In her advertising career, part of her job was helping customers with their social media, and then tying ads into that. “That’s probably why it was so easy for me to achieve success using social media,” she says.
Kingston: “The more you know, the farther you go."
Giving prospects information that hooks them
Now, she often not only posts on Facebook, but does a lot of live Facebook broadcasts — which she has found brings in many requests for the destination.
Again, she notes, she tries to focus on giving customers a lot of information, not just a pretty picture. “I don’t say ‘Here’s photos of the Bermuda Hamilton Princess’; I do a full description on the coolest things that will make you want to go there. At the Hard Rock, I show the BMX Biking Course, Trampoline Park, and Ninja Warrior course. When I travel on fam trips, I get tons of requests from customers; I’m not only seeing the resort on a fam, I’m selling it.”
And she never stops working on fam trips, focusing always not on how much she knows, but how much more there always is to learn. “The more you know, the farther you go,” she says. “When I was in sales, I was one of the top salespeople.”
She befriends the established agents; she takes notes nonstop; she reads every issue of Travel Market Report and other trade publications, and follows travel news online. After four years, Kingston said, “Several colleagues who know me say I am a walking encyclopedia of the Caribbean. It’s my niche and my focus, and I’m very passionate about it.”