How to build a successful home-based travel agency: Interview 1

Welcome to Andavo Travel’s new blog series, “How to Build a successful home-based travel agency.” Each month, we will interview one of our Andavo-affiliated travel advisors, in hopes that sharing their success stories will prove useful to those travel advisors new to the industry.

For our first interview, we spoke to Diane Guercio of WorldWise Travel, an Andavo Travel affiliate, and member of the Andavo Travel President’s Club since its inception in 2012, which recognizes those with top sales in our network.  She has been in the business for 24 years, and while she considers herself a “generalist”, she sells a tremendous amount of Italy. Other specialties include Western Europe, Mexico, Hawaii, Argentina, and Costa Rica.

We asked her the following questions:

1. What is your #1 tip for a travel advisor just starting out in the industry, on how to build a successful home-based travel agency?

Take all the industry courses you can find. Learn all the destinations. You have to familiarize yourself or you have nothing to say when clients call. When I started out, I only know about travel to the places I had been myself. Otherwise I would have to fake it. The truth is, travel is a hard business to be new in. There’s no way to know everything about every destination and travel type out there. There’s no one to tell you a list of every cruise line out there with a comparison list of their pros and cons. You learn as you do it. So any head starts you can give yourself by taking all the available courses out there for new travel agents, the better.

Along with that, I recommend being honest with your clients, saying, “I’m new at this, but I’m with a great organization, I have access to experts and resources, and I’ll be able to take good care of you.”

2. In your early years, how did you build up your clientele?

I originally worked in a brick-and-mortar travel agency, and I cut my teeth on their clients. The agency was interested in helping me because it was a benefit to their clients. So I built my clientele by working on the inside. I also found clients among the people I knew – both my peers, and those who had more money to spend on travel than I. It was an organic process. I made people happy, and they spread word of mouth on my behalf.

There is also no doubt that being community-oriented/involved is huge.

3. Why do you think you’ve become so successful? What keeps your clients coming back to you over and over, vs. using the internet or a different travel advisor?

Relationships. I never saw myself as a salesperson – even when I’m selling, it doesn’t feel like I’m selling. And understanding how to have personal relationships with people – for example, I’ve had client relationships with people for over 25 years and I’ve never met them face-to-face. It’s about building up relationships, remembering things about people. I started booking travel before the Internet, so I did all the family vacations for people, got to know the family really well, and could authentically ask about Grandma the next time they contacted me. Then when they were ready to take the kids to go look at colleges and figure out where to stay near the college, I’m the one they came to. Now their kids are calling me for their honeymoons, and that’s a lot of fun.

I think personality is definitely involved, and I’m always honest. When I don’t know something, I say I don’t know it. I always assure people I can’t know everything, but I have excellent sources/resources for getting the info. Then they are okay with me not knowing. I don’t pretend to know anything I don’t.

Additionally, my clients value my relationships with key vendors. I have some vendors who will stand on their heads for me, give me an extension on a deposit, etc. That’s good for me, and it’s good for my clients.

4. What technology do you find the most useful in building your business?

My mobile phone. I’m home-based, I work by myself, and I don’t have a backup (which I don’t like), so I need to always be in touch. Yes, I have my phone out at dinner with friends, and it can be a leash, but if I don’t have my phone, I can’t come at all. There are so many clients who email me the day before they leave, asking what hotel they are staying at, or other last-minute questions. Of course, I provided them with all of this info when they booked the trip, but they’ve forgotten or can’t find it and that’s what makes me invaluable. I’m always a backup for them. Not like the internet.

There is a downside to this for me – I don’t go to Australia or Africa, but I will when I stop working as hard. I just can’t go on such long trips, and be so far away from clients. Even though I always send clients everything they need, they lose it or can’t find it, and would get upset if I wasn’t there to help them when they needed it.

5. What personality traits do you think all successful travel advisors have in common?

Some people are more natural, and have the ability to interact more comfortably. I’m careful to be unintimidating. I get referrals from people who regularly stay at the Four Seasons, but many of my clients do not. I tell them I understand their budget, and I don’t have a Four Seasons budget either. I try to exude personal warmth and be non-judgmental about their budget. Sometimes I am honest that a person’s budget is better suited to VRBO or Airbnb, but I always try to put them at ease about their budget. I am understanding if people find a cheaper price for a hotel on the Internet and want to book it there instead of through me. I leave people feeling good about me, and trusting that I’m working in their best interest.

6. If you had to go back, start over, and build your business again, what would you do differently?

I would specialize. I would find what interested me, and do a lot of traveling just to those places. I’m not sorry I’m a generalist at this point. I keep really busy, I have a big business. But I’ve wondered if by specializing, I might not have been as busy, but it would have been much less work and I’d be more productive. I wouldn’t have had to reinvent the wheel so much because my depth of knowledge would be greater in my areas of specialization.

And given today, with the internet, it seems even smarter to specialize than when I started. Now everyone has sources for information.

7. What do you do to close the sale?

I close sales probably 80% of the time, likely because my business is referral-only. I restrict my business to personal referrals. They are already serious, they’ve already been told that “Diane is terrific, you’ll love working with her.” They come with high expectations already. I close most of my sales because my clients are pre-qualified.

I also close them by pointing out that my vendors give extra good care to my clients, I have cache with vendors. I explain to clients how working with me gives them access to someone on the vendor side.  The vendors I’m booking them with have been vetted by me, and similarly, from the vendor’s perspective, the client has also been vetted as a VIP by booking through me.

And most importantly, my service is 24/7 and they know that even when they are traveling they can contact me with any questions or concerns.