Are you a successful independent travel advisor who’s doing $1 million in sales but can’t seem to grow beyond that? Is your work-life balance shot, but you’re still barely staying on top of things, much less moving forward? You’re not alone.
Independent travel advisors typically max out at $1 million in sales because they’re trying to do everything themselves, a task that has gotten even tougher since the impact of COVID-19 started to take hold on the travel industry. There’s literally not enough time in the day to do it all, much less to continue to grow.
“They’re on this never-ending hamster wheel, where they can barely keep up. They’re not taking the time to step back,” said Jen Cochrane, co-founder and COO of the Gifted Travel Network host agency.
Difficulty sustaining business growth is common to many solo entrepreneurs. “As in any industry, people start out as subject-matter experts – they’re great at travel design and sales. What they aren’t necessarily doing is rising to the level of leading their own business,” Cochrane said.
Advisors facing this challenge need to change their mindset, she said. “It’s about transitioning from being a solopreneur producer to a strategic business owner who is building an infrastructure for growth.”
Earlier this year, Travel Market Report asked Cochrane how successful independents who have hit a sales ceiling can continue to grow. Here’s her advice.
1. Get strategic
The first step is to hold a strategic planning session with yourself. “They need to get really clear on their vision, their ideal client, get clear that their message and brand speaks to that marketing segment, and get clear on how they want to grow the business.”
The process should include an analysis of what’s driving your growth, the yield on your sales and the sustainability of your business model, Cochrane said. “There’s a big difference between sustaining a million-dollar business that’s made up of ten $100,000 bookings and one that’s made up of however many $1,000 bookings.”
Take a look, too, at how your growth goals fit with your lifestyle goals. For instance, are you happy working 50-plus hours a week, or do you want more time for travel, family or other commitments? “They have to be really clear on what that picture looks like so they’re driving the business in the right direction.”
2. Figure out what you do best
“The second step is being really clear on your own brilliance and your highest-and-best use,” Cochrane said. “For most, that’s going to be sales and travel design, meeting with prospects and with the pied pipers that lead groups, going on radio shows, speaking engagements, etc. – whatever is aligned with your model. They should design their business with them spending their time doing that.
“They need to take their own skillset to the next level and let go of things at a lower level, so they’re stepping into their best use,” Cochrane added. “If it’s not strategic or business development or business growth, the owner of the business shouldn’t be doing it.”
3. Offload the other stuff
Next, identify the support functions that do not represent the best use of your time and find someone else to handle them, Cochrane urged.
The two easiest functions to let go of, in Cochrane’s experience, are accounting and client care.
“Bookkeeping is the first thing I think everybody should outsource. Even though it’s super important to understand your numbers, it is not what leads to growth; it’s a support function.” Ideally, your bookkeeper will be someone who, in addition to basic accounting, can help you understand what’s driving your revenues, Cochrane added.
Client care is the next area to get help with. “If you look at the sales cycle, the owner’s got initial client relationships, client qualification, maybe travel design. Everything from the point where the client says ‘yes’ should be passed along to somebody else.” This includes tasks like sending out client documents, pre-trip engagement and preparation emails, client gifts and post-trip follow-up.
A third area in which to get support is marketing and social media implementation. Make sure the content stays in your voice, Cochrane cautioned, but the actual implementation – posting on social media, opting people in to marketing campaigns, setting up automated marketing, etc. – can and should be delegated.
4. Add another travel advisor
The next step to continuing your growth is to add another travel advisor to your team, either as an employee or independent contractor. Depending on your strengths and preferences, this individual could focus on generating sales, handling leads or servicing clients, Cochrane said.
“If the owner is bringing in a lot of volume, they can cherry pick the clients they want to service themselves and allow another travel advisor to handle the other clients. That’s another way to really increase capacity,” Cochrane said.
Even when you choose to service a client yourself, you should just be doing the inspirational part of trip design, not booking the itinerary, Cochrane advised.
Be sure you hire the right people
Whether you’re hiring your first staff person or outsourcing parts of the job to independent contractors, bringing on someone new can pose a major hurdle. “People feel like nobody can do it as well as they can,” Cochrane observed. This fear can keep advisors from hiring anybody at all or cause them to bring on someone who requires too much oversight.
Another common pitfall is hiring a friend or acquaintance and building the job around their capabilities. It’s much better to define the job and hire the right person for the job. Look for individuals who are great at what they do, whose skills complement yours, and who won’t need much supervision, she advised.
What it takes – in a nutshell
Cochrane summed up the steps a travel advisor should take to scale their business this way: “It’s really transitioning from driving sales individually, doing everything, to being a strategic owner, knowing where you want to go, letting go of things that are not your highest-and-best use and building that infrastructure. Otherwise, you’re putting a cap on your growth, because you only have so many hours in day.”