Travel can be intimidating for certain demographics, especially women who want to travel, but don’t have someone they can explore with on a regular basis.
Phyllis Stoller, a travel advisor who has journeyed extensively far and wide on her own, has tapped into her personal and professional experiences to develop a thriving group business that helps women overcome their fears, and nurture their travel aspirations.
“It really has surprised me, the number of accomplished women who want to travel again, to exotic places, but there is something holding them back,” said Stoller, who has spent 27 years in the industry.
Today, she owns New York City-based Women’s Travel Group, offering fixed departure tours to a mix of traditional and exotic locations. Her packages include 4-star and higher accommodations, transfers, meals, and access to “unusual events and colorful festivals.” Stoller markets and sells about 25 groups a year, ranging in size from 8-16 people.
“We went to Iran two years ago, and sold out the trip. We handpicked the local venues and guides. We also do well with Eastern Europe, countries like Croatia and Bosnia,” Stoller said.
Her clients come from all over the U.S., including big cities and small towns, though the largest concentrations are in the more populated states with large hub airports, Stoller said.
She also serves the occasional small group that wants to adapt one of her packages. “I’ll get a call or email where someone asks, ‘If I get six friends, will you price it for me?’ We’ll do that as well.” Someone requesting a conventional FIT tour is referred to her many travel advisor friends focusing on those types of trips.
On her website, Stoller describes her company as preferring “the ease and comfort of guaranteed small group travel. We like smart itineraries, which avoid tourist traps and bus tour restaurants. We enjoy thought-provoking speakers and insightful experiences. We want to make travel friends and often stay in touch after each trip.”
Half of the trips that Stoller markets now are through a partnership she has developed with Encino, California-based SITA World Tours. Stoller likes SITA for their willingness to handhold her clients, the variety of exotic locations they already offer, and the ability for them to customize local experiences based on the group’s interests.
Her key contact and chief collaborator is Mary Barnett, who works in the group sales division at SITA. “Some of the clients require a great deal of handholding. They’re not quite ready to make that first leap of being the stranger on the tour,” Barnett said. “We help convince them that half the people in their group don’t know each other, and when they come home, they will have new friends.”
One of Stoller’s clients is a successful scientist who had traveled all over the world before she retired. When her husband died, she stopped traveling until she joined Stoller’s clientele when she was interested in traveling to the Galapagos Islands.
“For this woman, it was a big step for her personally to embark with us,” Stoller said. “Sometimes, you just have to be patient. Don’t do the hard sell. They might be looking for the safety net you offer, to talk about their fears, and ask the questions that get them to purchase.”
Stoller maintains this “handholding” strategy in the production of her itineraries. For example, to help a group acclimate and build bonds, Stoller’s trips always have a “mix and mingle” event on the first night of arrival. “Some people are more shy than others, while other women are more outgoing. We want them to have the chance to come together as a group before the itinerary begins,” she said.
Solo traveler herself
A great deal of Stoller’s business model and offerings are based on her own experience living and traveling overseas as a consultant and corporate banker.
Stoller lived for ten years in London before moving to Miami in the mid-80s. There, she and her husband had to manage the fact that his vacation time dropped from the 5 ½ weeks he received overseas, to only two weeks in the U.S.
As a result, “he would say ‘take a trip back to London. I know you miss your friends.’ So, I would go off on my own, and have these fun, learning experiences. After my first few trips, I knew at some point I was going to do this for a career.”
Stoller continued: “One day, I saw I could get a frequent flyer seat for a Pan Am Vacations safari, but couldn’t find anyone to go with me. So, I took my 9-year-old son.” While on the trip, a woman approached Stoller and told her “I didn’t come on this trip to eat with a child. We won’t eat with you.”
“I wasn’t altogether happy with her approach,” Stoller recalled, “but I also understood that there was a niche for women travelers, and I said to myself, ‘I am going to start a business for me.’”
Stoller started selling her first group trip for solo females in 1991, jetting off to London in January 1992. While a success, the trip occurred the same year that Hurricane Andrew ravaged the Miami area, forcing the relocation of about half of Stoller’s subscribers to a newsletter she had created for women. She thought her budding business might be done.
But then, a local professor contacted her to help fill a tour to China, asking Stoller if she would publicize the trip in her newsletter. She was back in the game, and started booking regular itineraries under the company name of The Women’s Travel Club.
Stoller sold her company in 2007 to Club ABC Tours, and enjoyed some downtime. But when that company closed its doors, Stoller was free to restart her business as The Women’s Travel Group.
“I stuck with the same demographic, but updated it to women I want to travel with: Women who have retired or still work, who want nice hotels, want friendship, who want to learn something.”
Barnett, who has extensive expertise in Asia and Italy, described how, for a group heading to Burma in 2020, “we discovered that a number of the travelers belonged to a garden club. So, we are adding a visit to the garden by the bay in Singapore.”
“In some cases, Mary will see something in our portfolio, and tell me she would like a little more time here, or meet with local women, or have a speaker visit with the group,” Barnett said. “With all of our resources, we can feed her experiences like that.”
Handholding approach nurtures client courage
Stoller is hyper-focused on her ideal client, and strikes a balance between modern tools and old-fashioned personal touches.
First off, she believes in marketing person-to-person as much as possible, including phone calls and in-person engagement. “For my demographic, a voice is much more comforting than an email or text message,” she said. When using email, she tends to write lengthier, more detailed communications, and tries to be “very clear” in all of her digital instructions.
“Part of the problem today for many of my clients is that they find it hard to ask questions. Some operators will respond to questions with an email that says, ‘Here are our FAQs at our website.’ That isn’t enough to make our clients feel comfortable and in control,” Stoller said.
With decades of experience, SITA’s Barnett regularly fields inquiries over the phone about specific personal requirements, or destination knowledge. “I’ll answer questions about terms and conditions, or specific details about activities, like how easy is it to get in and out of a jeep for safari.”
Stoller also sustains engagement with her clients through book and film lists related to tour destinations. She sends these out prior to departure, building anticipation and excitement.
“These women are so fabulous. I have met hundreds of them personally. Some have become friends, and stop in to see me when they’re visiting New York,” Stoller said. “I have women who say, ‘I never had so much fun. I don’t have time for friends because I am a lawyer, a partner at my firm.’ These are the connections that keep us going.”