9 Travel Agent Veterans Share Their Secrets to Success

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These "masters of the craft" each have at least 20 years of experience in the travel industry and the title of "owner" or "president" within his or her respective companies.

Last year, the TravelAge West staff rounded up a group of "million-dollar travel agents" — owners of multimillion-dollar agencies or top individual earners — to share their tips for building a fruitful business.

We tackled topics ranging from the importance of career specialization to getting that first foot in the plane — er, door. And this year, we’re at it again.

Although our second travel advisor roundtable still features a mix of highly successful "million-dollar agents," they are connected by more than just their bottom lines. With more than 180 years of experience among them, they represent some of the most skilled travel consultants present at Northstar Travel Group’s Global Travel Marketplace (GTM) West conference, which was held May 15-18 at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. (Northstar Travel Group is the parent company of TravelAge West.)

Most of these professionals got their start when airline tickets were written by hand; when a travel agent designation came with a certification from "travel school"; and when brick-and-mortar storefronts were as common as a neighborhood Blockbuster. (We aren’t naming names, but one advisor even joked that he started his career before the invention of the fax machine.)

Participating in this year’s discussion were Sally Black, owner of Vacationkids; Donna Evans, owner of Exceptional Adventures; Devin Hansen, president of Sunflower Travel; Dave Mazor, president of Pacific Sports Tours, Inc.; Suzi Nelsen, owner of Countries and Crossroads; Carla Plaster-Camp, owner of The Escape Artist Travel; Dale Strong, owner of Strong On Travel; Estelle Wilkinson, owner of Wanna Get Away Travel; and Andrey Zakharenko, owner of Always Travel. Each agent has more than two decades of experience in the travel industry and the title of "owner" or "president" within his or her respective companies.

The roundtable discussion took place at this year’s GTM West, an elite travel agent event hosted by Northstar Travel Group.
Credit: 2018 Northstar Travel Group

How Did They Get Here?
There’s no "right" way to land in the travel industry, as this diverse bunch proves. Some caught the travel bug at a young age — Hansen grew up working at his family’s storefront with his travel agent mother (and current business partner). Nelsen, on her mother’s advice, spent her early 20s traveling the world. Evans worked as a flight attendant for 12 years; Mazor organized and led ski groups as a student at California State University Northridge; and Zakharenko, whose father was an employee for Russian airline Aeroflot, began managing agency finances at age 18.

Others took a less direct path. Black recalls answering a newspaper ad in 1994 for an internet marketing position at a travel company where the only listed qualification was "must know how to email. " Some dabbled in other careers first: Plaster-Camp was a law enforcement officer; Wilkinson a car salesperson; and Strong worked for a record company.

The nine travel advisors interviewed here have more than 180 years of experience among them.
Credit: 2018 Northstar Travel Group

Lessons Learned
No matter how they got here, these agents’ strong business acumen propelled them to success. When asked what they’ve learned throughout their careers, many answered similarly: Staying afloat in a sea of new supplier offerings and leveraging professional affiliations is important, along with fighting against the rise of do-it-yourself travel. (And yes — you should be charging clients a service fee.)

"From the beginning, I realized that the industry was in a constant state of flux, so, for myself, change was expected," said Plaster-Camp of The Escape Artist Travel. "We didn’t have the internet, so every component other than air was booked by phone — and there were 50 percent more airlines and more than double the number of flights to choose from. I guess the crux of it all is, change with it, or it will change without you."

When it comes to the internet — the double-edged sword of travel — advisors say to embrace its benefits.

"When I first started, I had to literally call a hotel and read off the names of the guests," said Mazor of Pacific Sports Tours, Inc. "Last week, I had a group with 200 people. Once online, I pressed a button, and it was done."

But the exorbitant amount of information found online — seen by some as a threat to agents — also causes confusion among consumers. However, these professionals see this technological shortcoming as an opportunity to keep their clients coming back.

The internet provides the "instant ‘surprise vacation,’" Zakharenko of Always Travel says, but serious travelers — those with unwavering preferences and deep pockets — will seek out an expert for insider knowledge instead.

"I tell my clients, the ‘hot deal’ is what the internet does if you want the three-star experience," he said. "But if you value my time and expertise, and you want to stay in a place recommended by my network, you should come to me."

Wilkinson of Wanna Get Away Travel relies on her tried-and-true car-selling methods. Instead of asking, "What do you want to do on vacation?" she says it’s important to take charge of the conversation.

Black of Vacationkids agrees.

"When they’re overwhelmed from the internet, people can’t make decisions," Black said. "And when you’re confused, you’re not going to buy. I find that I close a lot more sales when I lead it by saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ It’s almost like they appreciate having decisions made for them and being able to rely on my expertise."

And the picture-perfect images found on a hotel’s direct-booking website — flashy suites and photoshopped beaches, for example — may provide a gross misrepresentation, causing disappointment for travelers once they’re in the destination and sending them running to the agent for a fix, points out Strong of Strong On Travel.

Devin Hansen (left) of Sunflower Travel and Estelle Wilkinson of Wanna Get Away Travel
Credit: 2018 Northstar Travel Group

Changing Tides
Although this group has adapted their selling methods over the course of several years (in Mazor’s case, 38 — the most of all participants), they agree that agent education takes a much different form than it did 20-plus years ago.

When Plaster-Camp first began her career as an advisor, for example, she enrolled in the travel agent program through the now-defunct Emmett Travel school. At that time, she says, she was surprised to see that many employees at brick-and-mortar agencies had a Certified Travel Counselor certification, but not a passport.

From the beginning, I realized that the industry was in a constant state of flux, so, for myself, change was expected. I guess the crux of it all is, change with it, or it will change without you.

And although certifications are still quite prevalent in the industry, our roundtable agrees that networking at conferences and, perhaps more important, on-the-ground time within a destination, provide the most valuable training.

"You need to know what you’re selling," said Strong, who specializes in luxury, family and adventure travel. "I find that a lot of agents haven’t been anywhere. You can’t describe the feeling of where a location is unless you’ve actually seen it."

Black advises that newer advisors invest a part of their commission back into travel.

"A lot of new agents starting out are pinching pennies, so I’ll say to them, ‘Take 10 percent of the commission you earned, and reinvest it into travel,’" she said. "Back in the day, you paid to go to travel school, but people don’t do that anymore. Traveling is your education."

Another helpful skill? Knowing basic geography. Not only does Wilkinson make it a point to bring new agents on fam trips, but she also gives each new hire a laminated map and list of country flags to study.

Sally Black of Vacationkids
Credit: 2018 Northstar Travel Group

Passing the Torch
When it comes to attracting new talent and younger consultants, roundtable members identified a serious recruitment problem, despite the fact that these job seekers have a strong desire to travel — and make up the most well-traveled generation yet.

It’s not a lack of interest that’s stopping these country-collecting young professionals. Rather, it’s a low starting salary, long hours or the reality that the job may include more selling — and less travel — at the start of the career.

Black has tried to tackle this problem in her own community by working with a local college to establish a travel agent program — either an adult-education class or a unit within a hospitality-focused curriculum — that will show students the career opportunities available to them if they choose to be a travel consultant.

"There’s a big world out there that students are overlooking," Black said. "I want to get some of that knowledge into the community and make it available to a young person who may not have considered it."

Evans believes it’s critical to engage the 40s-and-under age group specifically and encourage them to choose travel as a career.

"And educating their peers is paramount to the survival of the industry," she said. "Travel is an experience, an adventure, an education, relationship therapy and so much more."

Zakharenko who, at age 38, is at the younger end of the roundtable group, says he makes it a point to help mentor younger folks who are looking to enter the industry.

"Some of the agents who have been working forever will only retire when they die, but don’t know how to teach and pass on their skills," he said. "Or, they’re holding onto clients for dear life and don’t want to give them to the new generation. But what’s going to happen when somebody has to take over and there’s nobody there?"

Luckily, he sees hope for the future of his field.

"When I first started going to conferences and learning, I didn’t have mentors," Zakharenko said. "Thankfully, it has evolved, and people are more open. We’re all trying to help each other out and make the industry noticed and respected."

Industry conferences — such as GTM West — are a great place to deepen these peer-to-peer relationships, too.

"If I need help with something, and I know another agent who specializes in it, I feel like I can go to them and say, ‘I don’t really know that destination — can you help me? What would you do?’" Evans said. "Those relationships are just as important as those with suppliers, tour operators and destination management companies."

Another trend worth keeping an eye on? If the power of social media influencers is any indication, the "face" of the agent will become more important than his or her brand, Zakharenko says.

"In the future, agency names will be interesting," he said. "People want to do business with people. I have the Always Travel brand, but clients say, ‘Andrey, I only call you.’ They don’t care what my agency name is. Will it matter if you work for Valerie Wilson Travel or Travel Leaders Group — or is it just going to be your name?"

Strong says she sees a travel agent acting more like an on-call personal concierge — a job that goes far beyond creating a basic itinerary — handling everything from private dinners to custom excursions.

Plaster-Camp agrees.

"The agent of the future is a reflection of education, a high level of customer service and the desire to offer clients experiences, not just a vacation," Plaster-Camp said. "Agents who think outside the box and avoid the low-hanging fruit, will survive and flourish."

Note: GTM West will take place May 9-11, 2019, in Henderson, Nev., at The Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa.

Pro Tips: What was the best piece of advice you received when you started as a travel agent?

Learn the ins and outs of owning a business. Early in her career, Denver-based Countries and Crossroads’ Suzi Nelsen had a mentor who was a high-level employee at Dairy Queen. He took her under his wing and taught her how to run a successful business.

“I was able to be his client … he brought me into the inner sanctum and taught me how to have a business,” she said. “And that’s what helped me open my travel agent offices in San Diego and Denver, so I believe that learning the structure of a business is very important.” 

Specialize. Pick your niche and dive in, says Donna Evans of Exceptional Adventures in Aurora, Colo. She specializes in leisure travel to “her loves”: Africa and Australia.

“You can’t be everything to everyone, although we all try,” Evans said. “A specialty also gets clients in your door, and then you have them for other things later on. The more you know, the more you can sell.” 

Be present in your community. Devin Hansen, president of family-owned Sunflower Travel in Wichita, Kansas, says local networking is extremely valuable.

“We try to give back to nonprofit organizations,” he said. “If you have the luxury to be able to be out there [in the community] and to do that, and if you have enough agents, giving back and networking is the best thing you can do.”

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