Agent Issues Agent Life: With online presence, Inspirational Journeys owner evolves By Kate Rice / October 17, 2013 Share 1 -- Jerry Vaughn is on career No. 3 as president of Inspirational Journeys, the Federal Way, Wash., travel agency he runs with his wife, Carol. Vaughn's first career was in law enforcement: chief of police in Garden City, Kan., and Largo, Fla., and executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. After that, he became an entrepreneur, creating an interactive-video job simulation testing business. But when he sold that company, the terms put him under a highly restrictive noncompete agreement. "After a little more than a year, I started getting pretty restless," he recalled. "I just wasn't suited to sitting at home." He mentioned his restlessness to a friend, who asked, "What is it you like to do?""I said, 'Travel,'" Vaughn recalled.The friend gave him a book listing the top 50 franchises in the U.S. The list included Cruise Holidays, from which he bought a franchise in 1999. After investigating retail travel, he'd opted against doing a full-service agency, deciding he wanted a niche instead. By 2005, the Vaughns had three storefronts, had moved from Cruise Holidays to Ensemble Travel Group and were operating as World Voyager Vacations.By 2010, they had closed all three storefronts and gone completely virtual. Today, under the umbrella of Inspirational Journeys, they have a half-dozen niches, each with its own website.What changed, he said, was the industry, the economy and the Vaughns themselves. "When we first started in the business, cruise lines were our working partners working hard to support us," he said. But as time went on, the cruise industry's model changed, driven by bean counters and Wall Street analysts, Vaughn said. Noncommissionable fees were one problem, but more egregious for Vaughn was the aggressive direct marketing to the agency's customers aboard ships."They paid lip service to wanting agents," he said, "but the practical effect was they were undermining the travel agency community, and the repeat passengers were really critical to the survival of small travel stores."Vaughn wanted to use technology to drive efficiency and business. So he built the World Voyager website, paying 36 cents per click for the term "cruise" on search engines. He decided to move from a one-size-fits-all website to a keyword-based website to get high organic placement without spending a fortune on pay-per-click advertising. In 2002, he bought the domain MeetingsonShips.com and began developing a meetings and incentives business for small to midsize companies. "It turned out to be one of the best things we ever did," he said. In 2006, he bought IncentiveTravelAdvisors.com and AlaskaCruisesandLandTours.com. "That has been an absolute goldmine for us," he said. For a while, they partnered with Cheapfares.com as their cruise provider. Their domain for that effort was GoodDealsonCruises.com. The relationship with Cheapfares ended, but they kept GoodDealsonCruises.com and also secured the RiverCruiseAgent.com domain. Meanwhile, their client mix shifted from walk-in business to people spread across the country. Some of his best clients became independent contractors. When the 2008 crash hit, the resulting recession severely hurt their meeting-and-planning business. Vaughn himself went through a health crisis that put him out of commission for several months, placing a huge burden on Carol. After running the numbers, he decided the storefronts weren't worth it and reluctantly closed all three."I look back on it and think I should've done it three years earlier," he said. "But I was just so afraid of what would happen when we closed those three stores. I could not wrap my head around having a travel agency of substance without some kind of a retail presence." Now, the company employs six virtual agents, all independent contractors. But going virtual did not mean going impersonal. Early in their foray into the meetings-on-ships business, they decided to escort any group that had 25 people or more."That has turned out to be the most effective marketing that we do," he said. "We developed a cadre of really very loyal repeat customers." Vaughn said customers turned to World Voyager Vacations not just for group business but also for family travel."It turned out to be one of the best things we ever did," he said.Vaughn combined meetings with incentives once he realized that many meetings didn't have an incentive and a lot of incentive groups didn't have a meeting component, so he filled that gap with IncentiveTravelAdvisors.com.Then, as World Voyager Vacations continued to work with the same groups year after year, some customers opted for land-based meetings. Vaughn found a meeting held at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico "quite easy" when compared with using a standard hotel.During an advance visit to Cancun, he was impressed by the number of incentive groups he saw there. Again, he saw opportunity, so a year ago, he launched MeetingsatAllInclusiveResorts.com."Quite frankly, it has exceeded my expectations," he said. At this point, however, the Vaughns were encountering something of an identity crisis. So they created Inspirational Journeys as a holding company for their multiple brands, which allowed them to continue making all their bookings under one IATA number.Vaughn uses technology to drive efficiency. In addition to developing much of its own content, World Voyager uses Passport Online's Nexcite for special offers, some content, travel destination guides and links to certain vendors. He automates as many bookings as possible using Passport Online's Tandem cruise booking engine. "We started using a technology that had a [remote] receptionist who answered a phone better than anyone I had ever hired," he said. Callers, he said, can't tell if they're calling agents based in Nebraska, Washington or Costa Rica.The Vaughns wrote a very comprehensive business plan before they ever opened their doors. Jerry Vaughn said that they have kept many of the core elements of the original plan, but it's a work in progress because of the way travel constantly changes."Our basic business plan has evolved to fit what's going on and to try to ensure that we stay relevant," he said. "We have a good road map of where we're going, but it's a pretty flexible document. I am constantly massaging it. … I'm not always sure we're moving ahead, but we give it our best try."Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.