The secrets of million-dollar travel advisors

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Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann with three travel advisors who each sold more than $1 million in travel products in 2019: Amy Vecchione, Donna Carlin and Sally Black.
Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann with three travel advisors who each sold more than $1 million in travel products in 2019: Amy Vecchione, Donna Carlin and Sally Black. Photo Credit: Tim Goplerud
Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Last weekend at the New York Times Travel Show, I moderated a panel of three travel advisors who each personally sold more than a million dollars of travel products last year. I got their names from my colleagues who vet agents for our Global Travel Marketplace, a hosted buyer show at which being in the million-dollar club is the minimum threshold for acceptance.

There were so many takeaways from the panel -- specific business practices about how advisors handle client relationships, supplier relationships, marketing approaches, attitudes toward charging clients fees ­-- but it became clear that there is no singular path to success. One size does not fit all, and these successful advisors sometimes did the exact opposite of the person sitting next to her, each providing persuasive arguments for her own behavior.

And interestingly, each became a travel advisor after leaving professions that appeared to have nothing to do with selling travel.

Sally Black, CEO of VacationKids.com, had been a nurse. "Some people say the idea of selling travel would stress them out, but from my perspective, if nobody has died, it's been a good day," Black said. "When you think about it, triage is the same as qualifying clients. And if I can sell a 3-year-old into getting a shot, I can sell anything to anybody. Sometimes people don't recognize the skill sets they already have. Or you think you're missing a skill. I suck at math. So I hired someone on my team who's great at it."

Black might have considered hiring the panelist to her left, Donna Carlin of Stepping Out Travel Services, a former math teacher. Donna has been selling travel for 32 years, but she only broke out on her own in 2005, with the encouragement of her son, who had just written a thesis on new business models and foresaw a swing away from the commoditized internet and toward personalized service.

I asked her if there was an epiphany that had led her to become a million-dollar advisor. "My epiphany was realizing I wanted more," she said. As an example, she said that if she's offered standard commission, "I tell them I'm entitled to more. Ten to 12 percent commission just isn't in my ballpark."

I responded: "Let's have that conversation. I'm the supplier. I tell you I'm going to start you out at 10%, but if you hit certain thresholds, you have the potential to make 15% or even 18%. Do we have the beginnings of a good relationship?"

"No," she said. "You just insulted me. I'm worth more. First of all, I have 12 independent contractors and good volume. My minimum is 15%.

"Do we have a deal?" she asked, extending her hand.

I wasn't ready to capitulate.

"How about we see how you do, and if you're productive, we'll be right there for you," I said.

"Nice to meet you, Arnie," she said, turning away from me.

"You have to have confidence in yourself," she concluded. "I have the backbone to ask for what I deserve. You suddenly realize that if you just had 1% more, you'd be at another level."

Despite her negotiating skills, Carlin said she is not driven by financials. Rather, she believes that if you do what you love and do it well, the money will come.

Amy Vecchione of Aventina Romance Travel, takes a different approach. She moved to travel after leading operations, sales and marketing divisions at Amazon, Lifetime Television and General Electric.

"I come from an analytical background, and it's all about the numbers," she said. "I know how much I have to sell, and my goals drive everything I do: what fam trips I take, what conferences I attend, what educational opportunities I pursue. It helps me focus and drives my business. You have to find what works for you."

And each panelist had done that. Carlin never charges a fee. Vecchione requires a nonrefundable deposit. Black asks for a retainer that goes toward the booking. For large groups or complex trips, she requires 2% up front.

Black never advertises. Vecchione pays referral fees to others in the wedding industry and advertises (but advises against doing so until you've built up reviews). Carlin built her business on word of mouth.

One trait they share is putting customers first.

"It's not 'my' client, it's 'the' client," Black said. She'll send her client to another agency if she feels it's a better fit. Likewise, Vecchione will hand off clients who want Disney or cruises, "because it's just too hard for me." Carlin built up a portfolio of independent contractors, each with a different niche expertise.

My takeaway? It came from Vecchione, recounting what a young advisor once said to her on a fam trip: "I don't know how you're so successful. You do everything wrong."

They all stressed the importance of listening to others. But first and foremost, they know their own strengths, weaknesses and potential. They know themselves.

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