Last week at Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld, I met one of the industry's one-percenters.
Using the metrics established in our recent Travel Industry Survey, his $3 million-plus in gross sales (as an agent, not an agency) puts him firmly in the top 1% of all retailers.
He's atypical in other respects, as well. His age, 33, places him among the youngest 3% of agents. His gender means he's outnumbered almost 5-to-1 by women, and the focus of his sales puts him into a classification that's practically an endangered species: He earns more than 90% of his income selling economy air tickets.
Chris Niemeyer, founder of MissionTravel.org, is a believer whose experiences have typically been connected to a cause. As a teenager, he traveled with church groups on missions to underdeveloped countries.
After a short stint as a political consultant, he began casting about for a way to make money selling travel on the Web. He knew he needed to find a niche that couldn't easily be served by a large online travel agency.
The path he decided upon could only have been chosen by an industry outsider; almost everything he did would perplex an experienced travel professional. Although luxury travel is booming, he decided to serve nonprofit groups going to Africa on religious or relief missions. In fact, his target market typically spends between $2,000 and $2,500 for a 10- to 20-day trip, air and lodging included. (Accommodations are often on the floor of a church or in a hostel.)
"People warned me away from air, but I just didn't see why," he said, concluding that agent resentment over the capping and cutting of base commission in the mid-'90s simply led them to "leave money on the table." His volume with consolidated air, he said, quickly gets him to double-digit override thresholds.
Some missionaries do what they do because they're true believers, comforted by revealed truth. But there's a subset that never stops searching, and Niemeyer seems to belong to that group. It was, in fact, why he attended CruiseWorld.
He sees both risk and opportunity on his present path, and he is simultaneously looking for ways to ramp up growth of his current model while diversifying into related sales opportunities. In an effort to maintain his current 25% annual growth rate, he became a host agency and now has five agents deploying his technology and contributing another $2 million in sales.
But he's also worried that the movement toward direct connections by airlines might have a negative impact on consolidators, and wants to expand his nonair revenue. Currently, 10% of his business is related to pre- and post-mission travel, primarily safaris or hotel stays, and he wants to grow that.
He was at CruiseWorld not to see about trying to tag a cruise onto the end of a mission trip but to assess whether the same groups that he sends on missions could use cruising to raise funds.
"Fundraising is tough, but a church group could sponsor a cruise and, say, $100 of every guest's fare would be used to work with orphans in Africa," Niemeyer said.
His biggest challenge is finding young agents to recruit for his host business. Short term, it's a legitimate concern, but my conversation with him and other new-wave agents gives me hope.
Public perceptions about travel agents among the young -- that the profession is an anachronism, a relic of the last century -- would discourage most from considering a career in retailing. But Niemeyer is among a handful of young entrepreneurs I've met recently who see incredible opportunity in travel retailing.
They are chartering entire cruise ships and filling them via Facebook marketing. They are buying traditional agencies for a song and using technology to improve margins and scale up the businesses. They're building small but global agencies, reducing expenses by employing people they've never met in countries halfway around the world.
They, like other young people, looked at travel retailing and saw tradition-bound, moribund models. But they also recognized that travel is booming. As a result, they don't see a dead-end career; they see limitless opportunity in competing with the status quo.
I'm more convinced than ever that young people will come back to travel retailing, and they will do so with missionary fervor. But initially, like Niemeyer, they'll enter on the statistical fringes, one-percenters in categories that no one is yet measuring.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.