You would think that travel advisors are extroverts, just by the nature of their jobs. They spend hours on the phone speaking with clients trying to match them with the best vacation experiences.
Then there are travel conferences, networking, attending fam trips, and sharing hotel rooms with other advisors. And social media promotion can demand a high level of extroversion.
All of that can be exhausting for anyone, but for Jami Ellison, who describes herself as “extremely introverted,” being a travel agent can be a challenge.
“My business got off to a really slow start because I'm not naturally outgoing,” Ellison said. “It's difficult for me to strike up a conversation with a stranger or brag about myself and what I do. It's even more challenging to speak to a group of people.”
Ellison and other introverts say they have to tap a well of internal fortitude to press on through. “I have an incredibly strong work ethic, so I push through the discomfort,” she said.
Jacob Marek, a self-professed introvert, started IntroverTravels, an agency in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, when he realized he was happier being true to his personality serving people like him.
“I honed in my niche for IntroverTravels because I realized, these people aren’t going to call me every day. They will prefer email or Facetime. Those are the people I want to attract. When I realized that was a key part of who I am, it all seemed to just click.”
Stepping out of her comfort zone
In 2006, Ellison signed up to work for a contractor in Iraq managing services at U.S. army bases at the urging of an uncle employed there. “He told me, ‘It’s just like being a Girl Scout, living in a tent, being outdoors,’” Ellison said laughing now.
“I was going through a transition in my life, and I just needed to get out of the U.S. for a little while,” Ellison said. At 26 years old, just five weeks after applying for the job, Ellison found herself in Baghdad.
Over the six years she spent in Iraq, Ellison lived and worked in five different camps, including places like Anbar Province, Mosul, and on the Iraqi border with Syria. She held numerous administrative positions, ultimately finishing up as a human resources associate in the travel department.
Because of the war zone conditions, the contractor’s employees were given time off every 120 days. Her first year, Ellison used the time to go home to Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and visit her family, including eight brothers and sisters.
“After that, I had the desire to travel. I was single, no children. I told my mom, ‘If you want to see me, you’re going to have to travel with me.’”
Catching the travel bug
Her first trip was in July 2007 to Malaysia. Initially, Ellison had plans for her mother and a co-worker to join her, but they both opted out. A spiritual person, Ellison uses that side of her personality to trust she would be okay going alone. “Maybe being young and naïve was part of it too,” she said.
Other than her airline tickets, hotel reservations, and a couple of pre-booked local tours, she planned to use Kuala Lumpur as a home base for spontaneous exploration. She visited Putrajaya, spent a day in Genting Highlands and went to Batu Caves.
In the middle of her trip, Ellison caught a cold from a couple she met, forming more of her newfound overseas travel skills. “Everything was in another language and their meds are different than ours. I had to depend on what someone else was telling me. I now prepare better by taking my own meds just in case, and on the list of travel tips I share with clients, I encourage them to do the same,” Ellison said.
Her next trip a year later was eight days in Italy with her mom, a cousin’s wife and a girlfriend. The girls’ group toured Rome, Florence, and Tuscany, with Ellison helping plan the other group members’ flights. “I think that is when I got the travel bug,” she said.
Over the next four years, Ellison would visit Panama, France, Costa Rica, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Aruba, Niagara Falls, Hungary, and Austria — often taking members of her family with her, including her parents.
The pieces of her travel career started to come together in 2011, during the last few months of her time in Iraq. Ellison ended up working in the contractor’s travel department, processing employee leave paperwork.
“I thought, ‘This is something I can do when I get back. I’m really good at this,’” Ellison said. She started researching how to be a travel agent, including joining a host agency.
Then, in May 2011, Osama Bin Laden was located and killed in Pakistan. Hostility towards U.S military camps increased. “In the middle of the night, you started hearing rockets and mortars going off. From then on, I was a bit on edge,” she said.
The first time a mortar round hit her camp, Ellison didn’t realize what it was. “It sounded like a garbage truck dropping a dumpster. We got up and ran to our bunker. I didn’t feel scared at first, but as the day went on, I could feel myself growing anxious. I didn’t want the day to end because I knew the attacks would start up again at night,” she recalled.
About a month later, while she was home visiting family, a building at her camp close to where she worked took a hit. “I said, ‘That’s it. I cannot do this anymore.’ I put in my paperwork to go home.”
Recovery and renewals
Ellison transitioned out in September 2011. Suffering from PTSD, she took some time off. “I wanted to rest. I didn’t feel like doing anything.” When she was ready to go back to work, she began interviewing host agencies, and chose Travel Quest Network, launching her business in August 2012.
“When I was in Iraq planning my vacations, I loved it. I felt so much joy being able to travel. I wanted other people to feel the same joy I felt. To know that I could have a hand in that is such an amazing feeling,” Ellison said.
It reminded Ellison of when she was little, and her parents took her family on vacations every summer. “We had a pick-up truck with a camper on it,” custom-fitted by her dad with beds for her large family,” she said.
“It wasn't fancy, but it was fun and we were together as a family, and we knew there was more to the world than our small town. My dad is 73 now and I asked him once if he thought he'd ever get to see the places he's seen. He said no. He could never have imagined it. And my heart was full because I did that,” Ellison said.
“For him, for my mom and for the hundreds and hundreds of other clients I've worked with over the years, there is no feeling like that in the world for me,” she said.
Whether an extrovert or not, crafting a career as a travel advisor has its ups and downs. For empathic, sensitive people like introverts, the challenge can be even greater, especially when life throws you curves.
“To intentionally move my profession to a place that honors my true self gives me peace of mind. We live in an extroverted society, and the expectations aren’t easy for introverts. But you have to own your challenges,” said Marek.
Ellison has had hers. She suffers from migraines, which are mostly under control. But in the summer of 2016, she started experiencing near constant headaches, accompanied by anxiety. “It was increasingly difficult to control,” she said.
Then, in 2017, her oldest brother passed away. “That devastated my whole world and that of my family. I was not me in 2017,” setting back her travel business, as well.
Then she was selected as one of 100 U.S. travel agents to attend Corroboree in Australia. “I still get emotional thinking about it, because I feel like my brother was with me the entire trip and that I did it with and for him,” Ellison said.
Today, Ellison specializes in groups, romance travel and destination weddings. She also is trying to develop a wellness niche, and wants to pursue a degree in health, nutrition or holistic medicine.
“I have been interested in health and wellness for a long time. But in March of this year, it became even more of a personal journey,” she said. On a fam trip to the Netherlands, Ellison passed out while touring. Over the course of the next few days, she was barely able to walk, eat or sleep.
When she got home, after numerous doctor's appointments over six weeks and losing 20 pounds, “no one could tell me what was happening to me. I finally found out what was going on and now I have to figure out a way to manage it. So, I'm working through ways to change my lifestyle through wellness,” Ellison said, and she sees potential intersections with her travel business.
“I’ve been through some rough patches, but I’m not a quitter,” Ellison said.