Is this growing business model a good fit for your future?
Today’s home-based travel agent has multiple options: part-time or full-time; employee, independent contractor or self-employed; aligned with a host agency, owner of a franchise or independent; new to the industry, experienced travel agent or phasing into retirement…
All the options, the many appeals of working from a home-based office and ongoing cultural changes continue to lead to increases in agents who are choosing to work from home. In fact, in Travel Weekly’s 2017 Travel Industry Survey, released in October 2017, more than half (55 percent) of the travel agent respondents were home-based, with 18 percent defining themselves as home-based employees and another 37 percent identifying themselves as independent home-based agents.
"There is no one right way to go about becoming a home-based agent,” says Joanie Ogg, CTC, MCC, a long-time champion of home-based travel agents and co-owner of HomeBasedTravelAgent.com, FindaHostTravelAgency.com and TravelProfessionalCommunity.com. “But whatever the path, an agent is going to have to have a business plan and a marketing plan to go along with that from the very beginning. You have to have a plan to know where you’re going, maintain your focus and continue in the right direction.”
Thinking about becoming a home-based agent? While there are no right or wrong answers, here are some considerations to start the thought process.
What are your motivations?
In the lead-up to opening her own home-based agency about a year ago, Tara Hyland asked herself the hard questions, including: “Is this something I really want to do? Why do I want to do it? Am I willing to step out and see where it leads me?”
Hyland had been in the travel industry for 35 years, most recently as a luxury leisure travel agent in a brick-and-mortar agency for four years. “Primarily I wanted the independence of running my own business,” she says. “I wanted the opportunity to be more in charge of my time management and to have more control of my earning capacity. Opening my own agency seemed to be part of a natural evolution of my career.” Her answers helped dictate her next step, which was to start Tara Hyland, LLC, an independent affiliate of Worldview Travel, in the Houston area.
What’s your model?
Hyland opted to join a host agency, a choice made by more than two-thirds (69 percent) of all independent home-based agencies, according to the 2017 Travel Industry Survey. In the survey, the top reasons agents chose for joining a host agency include access to preferred suppliers (89 percent), to book travel (76 percent) and for accounting or marketing services (62 percent). Hyland also says, “The other important part for me was the technology piece…I can book through a point and click system rather than a GDS, which I find more user-friendly.”
While Hyland has been happy with her host choice, Katina Bradley has changed host agencies in her five years as co-owner of Wish You Were Here Vacations, LLC, based in northern California. “We started with one host, but it wasn’t the right fit,” she says, noting that she had also considered a franchise model. “Finding the right fit took some time.”
Brand-new to the industry when she started her own business with her husband, she says, “Originally I got most of my information from my very good friend Google. I didn’t realize all the Facebook groups that were available at the beginning and I didn’t know how much help is available—this is such an open and giving industry and people will trip over themselves to help you if you come into it with the right attitude and develop real relationships.”
Where will your business come from?
One of the reasons Bradley changed hosts was the evolution of her business model. When she and her husband started their part-time business, she chose a host where she brought in her own clients. “That was well and good when I didn’t have to count on the income,” she says, “but when I went full-time, we changed hosts to one that provides leads.”
“For transitional agents, who have been in a brick-and-mortar agency setting, this is a big question,” says Ogg. “Do they have a book of business they can take with them? If not, they’ll have to consider what they need to create their own book of business: What do they specialize in? What special skills might they need? What resources do they have, and what additional resources do they need to build that business?”
Deb Fogarty, CTA, ECC, owner of Be Well Travel, LLC, in Pembroke Pines, Florida, has relied on referrals, organic marketing and a well-defined brand since she started her own home-based agency in 2013. After entering the travel business in 2008 as a personal assistant to a travel agency owner, she worked as an independent contractor before branching out on her own. “That agency wasn’t the best fit for me and when I realized how well I was doing, I decided to take a chance and see if I could do it on my own,” she says. “This year I set a financial goal for myself that I never thought I would really reach—and I’ve almost doubled it.”
Are you prepared to run a business?
“For many agents, the business side is the hardest part,” says Ogg. “Agents are passionate about selling travel and creating dream vacations for clients. But then there’s the reality of running the actual business side, which can be more challenging.”
Bradley learned “the industry and how to run a business in the industry at the same time,” although she has help from her husband co-owner, who has years of tax, bookkeeping and other business experience.
And Hyland points out, “People might think a home-based business doesn’t require as much planning, but you need to factor in all the business aspects, including equipment and space needs, privacy to work, licensing, business structure, tax implications, internet domain names, marketing plans and so much more.” In the first year, she also emphasizes the importance of understanding your financial situation and exposure. “It’s unknown what the earnings will be, especially in that first year,” she says. “Can you absorb the expenses while you’re finding new clients and transitioning existing ones to build your business?”
Fogarty, who started at a dining room table and now has a complete home office to work from, recommends consulting an accountant and planning for a payroll check every week, along with taking out taxes regularly. Although she says she works “40 to 60 hours a week, and sometimes 70,” she also is strategic in carving out time for education and networking. “I meet other high-caliber agents who work as hard as I do. And it’s so refreshing to meet with other agents and hear about their challenges and successes,” she says.