FORT LAUDERDALE -- Steve Lincoln stumbled on a niche several years ago that has helped him win his host agency's Millionaire's Award for two years running by taking a short cut.
Lincoln, who led a "How I Created My Niche" Learning Burst session at the Travel Weekly Cruise World and Home Based Agent Show here, was late for a doctor's appointment and took a shortcut through a local college campus. He had just struck out on his own after 21 years of "making someone else" rich and knew that because he lives in a town of just 50 people, walk-in business was not going to work for him.
As he drove through the campus, he realized that there were millions of dollars worth of new vehicles parked there. Back when he'd gone to college, he had been one of the elite because he'd had a bike. Clearly times had changed, and in that change he discovered a lucrative market on college campuses.
Lincoln, owner of Lincoln Travel, a Nexion agency in Bridgewater, Va., was very familiar with study abroad programs, having done five himself as a student. So after his doctor's appointment, he went back to his quiet office -- no phone calls were coming in from customers wanting to book travel -- and started looking at college abroad programs.
It was easy to find out about these programs simply by going to college websites and looking up study abroad programs. The sites usually listed the professors running the programs and included their telephone numbers and email addresses.
He doesn't cold call, in part because professors aren't in their offices 9-to-5. Instead, he writes them. He reminded agents who aspire to this niche that they are dealing with academics. That means carefully writing your business proposal and then reading and re-reading the proposal and then having someone else read it before sending. He includes a sentence saying that if the travel arrangements for the upcoming program have already been made, he would like to bid on a subsequent program.
Lincoln said that professors have spent 12 years or more in acquiring expertise in their field, so agents should not call themselves experts and instead should present themselves as professionals who can take the travel planning off the professor's shoulders. Travel arrangements vary. He does air-only for some programs, does air and accommodations for others and books tours for still others. He books pre- and post-program trips for students, pointing out that agents can earn commissions by selling Eurail passes to students who go backpacking after their study abroad program ends. He told agents to charge services fees.
In every email he sends to parents, who are often footing the bill for their children's study aboard programs, he says he can help them with their travel as well. As a result, he books travel for parents going to visit their children. In one instance he got a midnight call from a frantic mother who, along with two other sets of parents, had to go to Europe to bail their children out of jail. The mother called him because his email had included a reminder that he booked individual travel. The average cost of the tickets for that last-minute trip: $6,000 each.
Lincoln said that study abroad programs are an excellent way to gain entre into a lucrative market segment. The average cost of a study abroad programs is between $11,000 and $34,000. That's usually in addition to tuition. This is all discretionary spending.
"If you have that kind of discretionary income, I want you to be my client," Lincoln said.
He used other numbers to illustrate the size of the market. Student enrollment in the top five schools in Virginia is just under 132,000, and typically 5% of students study abroad. That's 7,255 students.
"And that's just from the five top schools in Virginia," he said. "Nationally the figure is just over a million." Finally, Lincoln said that there are more than 17,000 state colleges or universities in the U.S. offering study-abroad programs.
"I only work with six of them," he said. "That leaves 16,994 for the rest of you." Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.