When many travel agents hear that a client is interested in a U.S. drive vacation, they take a pass on being their advisor. The assumption is that the commissionable elements of a road trip won’t be worth the time and effort an agent puts in for the client.
But slightly more than 18 months into her career as a professional travel advisor, Terri Weeks has found a way to make planning road trips worthwhile. It all comes down to attracting the right clients and charging planning fees.
“I know that agents like booking pre-packaged vacations, and not doing a lot of FITs, because they don’t think customizing can be profitable,” Weeks said. “I do think there are possibilities for traveler advisors to make money doing domestic trips. I charge a planning fee for my time and expertise, and then book commissionable hotels and activities that meet the client’s needs. There are a lot of amazing places to see in the United States and I don’t want my clients to miss out on those.”
Weeks went to college to be an engineer. After graduating, getting married and starting a family of her own, she decided to remain at home (in her Cincinnati suburb) to raise a family.
She and her friend, Laura Hoevener, started speaking locally about their daytrips with their children. Their audiences soon requested a book, and in 2010, they published their first, “Adventures Around Cincinnati.” They followed that in 2013 with “Adventures Around You: A Plan to Create Unforgettable Family Memories While Exploring Locally.”
Weeks also started writing a blog (which eventually crossed the 5,000-reader mark), and started looking into trip planning as a better way to monetize it. In fact, one of her early clients was a reader who asked her to plan a custom trip. “Her husband grew up in Indiana and Wisconsin, and he wanted to show the kids where he grew up,” Weeks recounted.
Finally, in 2017, Weeks launched her agency, hosted with Nexion. About a year in, Weeks received a client referral from a fellow agent who had quit to stay home and raise her children.
“Before our very first contact, the client and I had an initial conversation to get to know each other. It was like a job interview for me. She told me about places she has been with her family, and where she wants to go with them,” Weeks said. The client is interested in exposing her four children to a variety of travel experiences, and had intentions of international destinations as well.
“Then I told her about me, and my philosophy for my business and my clients. I explained that for some trips, like her plans for a summer vacation to visit Mount Rushmore and South Dakota, I would need to charge a planning fee to make it worth my time,” Weeks said.
“She liked the idea of having one agent to handle domestic and international, and I took her on as a client.”
Why road trips work
Weeks’ road trip family clients purchase a mix of lodging, so her commissions can vary. For example, her Mount Rushmore client (based in Kansas City) this summer will be staying first for two nights at a Best Western in Wall, South Dakota, so that they will have time to explore the nearby Badlands National Park.
From there, they are moving onto the Mount Rushmore Resort at Palmer Gulch, which offers a wide variety of lodging options. A Deluxe 3-bedroom cabin for two adults and four children for a weekend in June will cost around $400 a night, whereas a more basic cabin runs about $110 a night.
This client “wants to stay somewhere nice,” but have access to all of the resort’s KOA activities, water slides, and places like Deadwood, South Dakota. The client opted for an Executive Lodge that cost $700 a night, for five nights at a typical commission rate.
Weeks also consults with her clients to help them understand driving distances, and recommends activities and accommodations along a route. Another client is going on a five-week road trip with a camper and her three dogs. “This presented an interesting challenge for me. I had to find dog-friendly sightseeing stops in between her visits with family and friends all over the country,” she said.
Planning fees are critical
Because there are multiple destinations and most road trip activities are not commissionable, Weeks’ research time is greater and the usual commission model doesn’t work. “You have to make up for that by charging fees. Your value is in the planning stage,” Weeks said.
Weeks charges a $400 planning fee per week for a custom itinerary, with half down initially, and the rest due when an itinerary is delivered to the client. “Every family is different, and might demand more time or less. But right now, this feels right for how much time it takes me. I may adjust that later,” she said.
“If a family is going to drive, my $400 fee is about equal to one airline ticket. So, it’s like taking what would have been one plane ticket and converting it to delivering a fantastic itinerary,” Weeks explained.
She developed her fee formula monitoring the time it takes for an average 7- to 10-day itinerary, and keeps close track of the time she spends on her road trip clients. Weeks has assistance from her software developer husband, who suggested she use Grindstone, a free app that helps business owners track work time on their computer.