How to build a successful home-based travel agency: Interview 3

Welcome back to Andavo Travel’s new blog series, “How to Build a successful home-based travel agency.” Each month, we 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 third interview, we spoke to Lisa Miller, an Andavo Travel affiliate located in Marin County, California, and a member of the Andavo Travel President’s Club, which recognizes those with top sales in our network. She has been in the business for 34 years and specializes in creating exceptional private itineraries throughout the world for her individual clients.

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?

When I started, there were travel schools, and I think it’s a lot harder now to start from the ground up with no knowledge of the tools and how to use them. You have to be more proactive and self-taught.

If you’re not going to specialize in a particular area, then it would be a good idea to take all the destination and travel supplier seminars you can find, as you’ve got to be familiar with all the different options out there. Same thing with trade shows – go to every single trade show you can get to. This will ensure you get firsthand info, build supplier contacts, and get a sense of who you want to work with and how you want to work with them. Because of Andavo’s membership in Virtuoso, I have access to Virtuoso Travel Week and the Virtuoso Regional Meetings, both of which are invaluable sources of info and networking that you can’t get out there on your own. All of these educational opportunities are really important.

Beyond that, if you can find a seasoned agent who is willing to have you shadow them, that would be a great tool to learn from them via listening and watching.

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

I started out being an intern employee, learned on the job, taught myself the computer, and initially my business was all corporate accounts. When I decided I wanted to expand that and go the independent travel advisor route, I started asking for their vacation travel. That was the core and it grew from there by referral. I had already built relationships with these people because I did a great job on their corporate travel, so they didn’t hesitate when they knew they could give me everything else.

I also tapped into past professional relationships from jobs I’d had previously.

Don’t be afraid to ask your repeat clients to refer you. It’s your best resource. Like anything else, you ask your friends for a mechanic or plumber referral, and it’s the same for travel advisors. Referrals are much more likely to call you if they’ve heard a glowing recommendation from a friend.

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?

They trust me. They know that I know what they want, what they like, and what they enjoy. And they enjoy a travel advisor with a really, really good dark sense of humor… Kidding aside, I do a lot of interviewing when I’m getting to know new clients. I always ask them to tell me their worst travel memory or experience, and that tells me a lot. The more detail they can share with me, the more I can tailor the itinerary to meet their expectations.

Also, being honest. Don’t try to pretend that you know everything. I think people can accept that, if you explain their request is something you’re just not sure about, but you’ll get the answer and get back to them in a reasonable amount of time. They learn to trust that you’ll come through for them. People also remember how a problem got solved. They had a problem and you fixed it in a way that worked for them, and in a timely manner.

4. What are some of the behind-the-scenes things you do, that the client doesn’t even know about, that make the trip seamless?

This is a great question, and an example comes to mind. I had a client going to New York for a couple of weeks, and I was able to find the perfect rental. When he canceled at the last minute, he said, “At least this was a simple booking, right?” I had to reply, “I do strive to make it look simple and seamless to you, so if you feel that way, then I’ve done my job. But rest assured, there’s a lot more behind this ‘simple booking’ than you know.”

Some of the things I do include Multiple phone calls to the vendor, ensuring they have everything absolutely perfect for the client. Small things like the pillows they like, or a bottle of champagne waiting for them in their room because it’s their anniversary next week. Or the general manager comes to personally meet them. These are all things that make them feel really special. So when they get there, they are not an internet booking number. They are Mr. and Mrs. So and So, clients of Lisa Miller, one of our best agents.

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

Email and text. It seems like it is more email before the client departs, and then text when they are traveling. My clients know they can text me if they’ve forgotten what hotel they’re staying at, and they’re in the cab already. Or they text me from Bangkok airport because they packed their travel documents in their checked luggage and the luggage was lost. After their text, I got in touch with the onsite and had someone at the airport within an hour to pick them up with a new set of documents.

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

I don’t think there is just one. Regardless of what kind of personality you have, if you truly care about doing the best possible job and giving the client the best possible experience, it will build your clients’ trust in you. Travel is a personal business. Some advisors are outgoing and spontaneous, and others (like myself) are more reserved, but it doesn’t matter, because there’s a travel advisor out there for everybody (just like with love, right?!). You are not the right agent for every single person who comes your way. It took me a long time to realize that. That I’m not going to work well with this person, so its time to move on. To have a client say to me, “Oh, you know what we like!” is truly a compliment. It’s all in my hands and they are fine with that because they know that I know what works for them.

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

I would try to create a business plan early on, dictating where I want to go with this career. I would like to have had a clearer picture of what I wanted to achieve so that I could lay out an actual path of how I want to get there instead of just going wherever it took me. When I look back, there are trips I should never have taken on, and clients I should never have worked with. It was a lot of wasted time and energy that I could have used differently. Now I can comfortably tell someone that what they’re looking for is not really what I do, or I can’t work with their budget, but at the same time I never want to hang up the phone with a negative, so I do try to give them some ideas on how/where to find what they want.

8. What do you do to close the sale?

Because my clientele is all repeat clients or their referrals, if the trip doesn’t happen, it’s usually because of something out of my control. My repeat clients have generally already decided on the trip by the time we talk.

For new referral clients, the first time we talk, we discuss in detail what they want. I like that first discussion to be face-to-face, and so it usually either begins there or ends there. I tell them, “Think about it and let me know if you’d like to work together and collaborate on this trip.” I don’t want them to feel pressured to book with me. I would say 95% of the time, they say they do want to work with me.

If anything, people don’t want to work with me because I charge a planning fee, and that’s fine with me. I explain in our initial meeting how I work. The benefits they received from my relationship with vendors. How I get paid — it’s very important that they understand how I get paid. If you are open and forthcoming with explaining how all that works, why you charge fees, and how you get commissions, that builds trust from the beginning and they are more inclined to be willing to step into the relationship at that point. I explain that I pretty much charge a flat fee and that fee doesn’t get applied to the trip. I tell them that commission payments from vendors are random – some things pay, some things don’t, and I don’t want to just have to book things that pay me a commission. I want to have the freedom to book things that will be the best for my clients, so my fee helps me be open to a larger variety of choices.

The other thing I ask new clients, who are wondering why they should use a travel advisor or book a trip through me, is “Why would you WANT to spend hours on the internet doing your own research? Why WOULDN’T you want someone who’s been to Paris ten times to help you sort all the options and find the perfect fit for you?”