When Heather McClure Winger signed on to become a travel advisor, her motive was one that many travel professionals would disparage. “The only reason I became an agent was to get deals on my own travel. I had no intention of working even part-time,” Winger told Travel Market Report.
Yet today, some 18 months after making her first booking, Winger is on track to gross more than $1.5 million in sales for the current calendar year. And last year, she was named the Avoya Travel Network Rookie of the Year.
They are huge milestones, to be sure. But financial success? Work-life balance? Those still elude Winger, whose agency is called Sea Sand Travel.
‘I love this business’
Winger, who lives with her husband in Murray, UT, was in the habit of posting about their vacations on Facebook when in September 2020 she was recruited to the host agency InteleTravel with the promise of discounted travel.
She paid an enrollment fee to Inteletravel and received training in recruiting other would-be advisors but never felt comfortable making bookings. By March 2021, at the urging of a prominent supplier, she had decided to move to Avoya and try to make a go of her new business.
After completing Avoya’s training, Winger began receiving leads from Avoya in May 2021. She landed her first sale, a $2,900 Amtrak ticket, on the same day she got her first lead.
With that, Winger was hooked.
“I learned from that moment that I love this business and that no matter where I was, if I was on vacation, or sitting in my car, or with my grandkids, I could still work using my cellphone.”
Apart from the Avoya training, Winger was as green as they come. She never even planned her own vacations; her husband always took care of that. “It’s crazy – I had zero experience booking a vacation,” she said.
Learning from scratch
Winger said her business “really has just evolved,” but the reality is she has worked hard, investing her money into building a website and her time into training, including completing more than a dozen supplier courses. She’s also gotten good at picking the brains of supplier reservations agents.
During her first eight months with Avoya, Winger only booked Amtrak Vacations, working exclusively with Avoya leads.
She has since expanded into tours, river cruises, and ocean cruises, focusing on premium to luxury brands. Most of her current active clients are booking Europe vacations with suppliers like CIE Tours, Collette, Globus, Insight, Avalon, AmaWaterways, Oceania, and Atlas Ocean Voyages.
The profitability challenge
Though Winger is hitting sales levels that would be the envy of any second-year travel advisor, she has yet to achieve what she considers financial success.
For one thing, she’s logging crazy-long days – 12 to 16 hours, seven days a week – at the expense of family time and work-life balance. “It’s intense, the amount of work I put in versus what I can show for income. I’d be making more at McDonald’s,” she said.
One big challenge to profitability is the fact that the bulk of her business comes through Avoya’s lead generator, and Avoya only pays her 30% of supplier commission on those sales.
So while Winger credits much of her success to the Avoya affiliation and praises the support she has received from the host, her goal now is to boost her earnings by building up her book of business outside the Avoya lead-generating system.
“If I had my own clients, my annual income would be closer to $95,000 to $98,000 annually. Right now, we’re looking at $45,000,” she said.
Avoya’s no-fee policy means Winger can’t charge Avoya clients for her time. But even if she could, Winger has decided not to go that route. “I need to do what’s right for the customer, and that does not include nickel and diming them to death. Supplier commissions should suffice, as long as they are my own customers,” she said.
‘It needs to stop today’
A huge thorn in Winger’s side, and a significant challenge to profitability, has been the countless hours she spends researching quotes for resort and all-inclusive vacations, usually without closing the sale.
“I don’t like that part of the business, because people will take my quotes and book it themselves. With every other type of travel, my closing percentage is very high. With resorts and all-inclusives, my close rate is close to zero.
“It needs to stop today. This has gone on way too long,” she said.
One issue: New customers who inquire about resort stays tend to have unrealistic price expectations and make unreasonable demands.
One inquiry earlier this year came from someone who said they wanted to celebrate their upcoming October wedding anniversary at a resort in May 2023. When Winger sought to confirm the timing, the customer replied, “‘Let’s quote something for October, November, and for May, and will you get pricing for Cancun, Florida, and Hawaii?’
“When they don’t have a specific date, location, or budget, it becomes almost impossible to make them happy,” Winger said. “I am really considering letting people know that unless they know the exact location, date, and budget, I’ll probably turn them away.”
Building customer rapport
One big plus that Winger brings to the table is her ability to establish a great rapport with customers, and she has five-star customer reviews to prove it.
“I spend more time with my customers than I think a lot of agents do. An employee from CIE told me, ‘I don’t know of another agent that engages with their customers like you do. I think that’s what makes you stand out – being personable and friendly. It’s giving of yourself and being there for them.’”
It’s not complicated, Winger said of her customer relationships. “It really just comes down to getting to know them as people.”