Laura Del Rosso
Laura Del Rosso

Travel + Leisure magazine's annual A-List of top travel agents can be a game changer. For Margie Hand, a 21-year industry veteran who has been on the list for nine years in a row, it's a "huge" honor that has and helped drive her home-based business to success.

"Because my name is out there [on the list], I have been able to network with a lot of companies and meet managers for hotels," she said. "I've met people from other parts of the country and been able to expand my clients beyond Alabama. I would not have the relationships that I have without it."

Hand, who is affiliated with Andavo Travel and belongs to Virtuoso, replied to an invitation to apply to the A-List when she was an employee at another agency. She made the list on her first try and has been on it each year since, each year filling out a lengthy questionnaire, writing an essay and submitting recent itineraries that she has booked.

"They want to see something unique or over the top, and you have to prove yourself each year in your area," she said.

Hand's specialties are the Caribbean and destination weddings, and she typically handles 10 to 15 destination weddings, each with about 30 to 40 attendees. She is arranging a wedding in the Dominican Republic next year for 150 people.

The destination-weddings specialty can be a challenge, Hand said, but she makes sure to work with resorts that she knows have capable wedding planners with whom she has a good relationship. "You need to find a coordinator who cares as much as you do about your clients," she said. "There's a comfort that you need to have ... Also, you can't have a cookie-cutter mentality about weddings, because everyone wants something special. So finding the right partners and vendors is key."

Hand's biggest challenge is not some may assume -- handling nervous and demanding brides and grooms -- but rather two issues beyond her control: hurricane season and the Zika virus. Concern from travelers about Zika has led Hand to search for destination-wedding alternatives beyond the Caribbean, such as Hawaii.

To ease her workload she uses the support staff at Andavo and relies on vendor contacts through Virtuoso for more support. She also sometimes uses Andavo's office in Birmingham, Ala., for client meetings.

Hand made the transition from brick-and-mortar agency employee to home-based independent contractor three years ago and found she preferred it to working in an office. "I have a lot more focus," she said. "I seem to be able to accomplish a lot more because there is no outside interference."

However, she added, her independent contractor work has been a success because of her years of employee experience that gave her confidence to build her business. If she had started by herself at home, she said, "I don't think I would have done as well early in my career and would not have been as comfortable working on my own."

Hand said her income has risen sharply as an independent contractor. She logs longer hours because work is always beckoning at her home office.

"I think that my mentality has changed; I've always wanted to do as well as I could, but when you're an independent contractor you have an extra drive to do the best you can. When you see sales coming in, it pushes you and drives you to do even more."

Hand is looking forward to further building her business. "I'm going to expand destination weddings, which is growing every year. I'd like to build more relationships with wedding planners to grow that market. And I'm also planning to expand multigeneration travel, which I also do. It's something I see growing because it's hard for families to find time to be together because everyone is separated (geographically). It's an amazing opportunity."

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