Sales at Lincoln Travel in Bridgewater, Va., were up 69% for the first half of the year. That would be impressive in a good year, never mind a year of deep recession.
The secret? Owner Steve Lincoln latched onto a new market niche: study-abroad programs. His new clients, tired of being do-it-yourselfers, helped expand that aspect of the agency's business relatively quickly.
In January, Nexion, the host agency for Lincoln's business, urged affiliates to join its Dialing for Dollars challenge, meant to boost business in gloomy times. Thirty-eight signed on and, by deadline three months later, the 38 agencies had achieved more than $1 million in incremental sales.
In February, Lincoln read of the challenge the day he and his wife drove across one of the local college campuses. Noting the high-end vehicles there, he commented that kids these days certainly have a lot of money available to them.
He went back to his office that afternoon and browsed the websites of the three campuses in town, where he found information on their study-abroad programs along with names and contact information for the professors responsible for each program.
He composed emails for each asking for the opportunity to prepare price quotes for the students and their instructors.
"I was very surprised," Lincoln said. "In most cases, the individual instructors had responsibility to contract for the travel, and they found it quite burdensome." He said 95% asked for the bids.
Lincoln is surprised, as well, to be involved in student travel. Still, he is no stranger to study-abroad programs, as he was once a student studying abroad. In fact, his experiences overseas were how he got into travel in the first place.
He spent 15 months studying at universities in five cities: Florence; London; Munich; Innsbruck, Austria; and Lucerne, Switzerland.
In his free time, Lincoln did as much personal travel as possible and soon became a kind of pied piper to other students, he said. He worked through a Washington-based agency for some of these group itineraries. That got him a job offer and, he said, "I decided I would give it a go."
Lincoln worked for others until he concluded in 2003 that he needed "to branch out and do business my way."
Before taking the Nexion challenge, Lincoln said his cruise business already had been pretty good, though yields were low. Having found a new niche, he believes he will have a 2009 volume of up to $2 million, with study-abroad programs accounting for 35% of the business.
There were no prizes for Dialing for Dollars, but Lincoln's success with the program helped take him over the top for a Nexion Circle of Excellence award, presented at the group's annual conference Sept. 30. That prize includes a December trip to Playa del Carmen with Nexion executives.
He said he has seldom used print advertising, relying on word of mouth. He has no website because "I want to control the growth of the company."
He certainly started something with the universities. He said he coordinated the travel for 37 programs in the spring semester and, this fall, will handle at least 56 programs, for groups of 18 to 120. He now works with five universities in Virginia.
He contracts for group air and, as needed, for group hotels and rail for destinations all over the world. He said he researches overseas providers "very carefully" and looks for connections with the U.S. Tour Operators Association and the like.
The students depart as a group but come home at will, which means Lincoln arranges FIT travel for some students. He also aims to keep his database current on those students, with the idea of keeping in touch with them as they leave school.
Lincoln employs two part-time assistants and said he would hire help on the sales side if needed. The opportunity is opening up some now, he said, because he is able to work on travel planning for the spring and winter semesters in 2010.
The study-abroad option turned into a pleasant surprise, but Lincoln said the biggest surprise for him professionally was "how easy it is to spot new business. ... Capturing the universities was a high point, but really, the opportunity is at your feet every day."
In Greece, exploring Hydra and Athens
Steve Lincoln of Lincoln Travel in Bridgewater, Va., created the following Greece itinerary for a group of students studying in Paris for a semester.
Day 1: Departure by air from Paris at 7:20 a.m. On arrival in Athens at 11:35 a.m., collect your baggage and proceed through customs. Then, proceed to the bus terminal outside exit door No. 4. Look for the bus named X96. It provides scheduled service to Piraeus every 20 minutes. You are confirmed for prepaid space aboard the 5 p.m. departure of the Flying Dolphin ferry for arrival at the island of Hydra at 6:35 p.m. Present your confirmation receipt at the Hellenic Seaways office, located next to the vessel, in exchange for your boarding cards. You also have prepaid reservations for double rooms at the Bratsera Hotel on Hydra for seven nights; rates include continental breakfast and VAT.
Days 2-7: Days at leisure to enjoy Hydra.
Day 8: Board the Flying Dolphin at 10:35 a.m. for your return ferry trip to Piraeus. On arrival, follow the exit signs until you reach Karaisaki Place. The JVC buses to Athens run every 20 to 30 minutes. In Athens, check in for two nights at the Minoa Hotel, where you have double rooms, which have not been prepaid. The rate is 85 euros per night plus taxes, including continental breakfast.
Day 9: Take the Athens hop-on/hop-off tour. Your packet includes vouchers for the tour. It begins from your hotel entrance at 8:30 a.m. and runs a continual circuit until 5 p.m. Headphones, for narration in English, are available from the driver.
Day 10: Return flight to Paris.