Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada

One advisor started her career in the best of times, albeit at the very tail end. One started her agency in what many would consider the worst of times. But both are optimistic about what the future holds.

Lawson Rothgeb, owner of Lawson Luxury Travel in Fort Lauderdale, began her career as a travel advisor by joining Brownell Travel's 22nd Mentee Class, which launched Feb. 21, 2020. Most in the travel industry were coming off their best year in 2019 and poised for even more success in 2020.

Alli Cole, owner of Alli Cole Travel in Denver, is a member of the current Mentee Class, No. 23, which launched Feb. 22 this year. The industry was still in something of a standstill due to the pandemic, especially with cruise ships still not permitted to sail in the U.S., but there were some signs of hope ahead.

Brownell's Mentoring Program is open to a select few applicants (its acceptance rate hovers around 2%), but it offers future advisors a path to success in the industry after a yearlong process. It kick-starts with an in-person class at Brownell headquarters in Birmingham, Ala., and continues with homework, support calls, training and more once the class members return home and begin booking travel.

Rothgeb and Cole were each drawn to Brownell specifically for the mentoring program, but they came from very different backgrounds.

Rothgeb graduated from business school and spent 10 years in the corporate world, marketing for luxury beauty brands. Then she fell in love with sailing and sailboat racing and took a year hiatus from her career to sail.

Lawson Rothgeb, owner of Lawson Luxury Travel in Fort Lauderdale.
Lawson Rothgeb, owner of Lawson Luxury Travel in Fort Lauderdale.

From there, she found work as a concierge on super yachts. On the last super yacht she worked for, she would fly ahead of the owner in his travels and scope out hotels. After that position, she spent a few years working for a yacht management brokerage firm, often planning things like shore-based excursions; she was basically already working as a travel advisor, she said, and she didn't even know it.

After she had her son in 2019, she was trying to decide her next career move. The word "Virtuoso" kept coming up, and among Virtuoso advisors who were friends of friends, the word "Brownell," Rothgeb said. She contacted Brownell in January 2020 and was able to gain a seat in Mentee Class No. 22.

She left her in-person training session March 1, 2020. Covid-19 had already begun to spread in the U.S., and the pandemic would officially be declared a few weeks later.

Cole, on the other hand, started her career in the healthcare industry right out of college. It wasn't the best fit for her, though, so she moved on to Extraordinary Journeys, a supplier focused on safaris. She worked there for three years until Covid derailed everything.

Alli Cole, owner of Alli Cole Travel in Denver.
Alli Cole, owner of Alli Cole Travel in Denver.

"That gave me this moment of pause," she said. "What do I really want to be doing? Is it staying in this very niche industry, or do I want to go out on my own and challenge myself?"

She has a family member who is an affiliate of Brownell, and Cole decided to jump in. Her class met for its in-person training earlier this year.

"It was a very strange time to make that decision, but at the same time, I was like, 'Well, this is going to take a lot of time, effort, organization to get things going, so the lull might actually be an advantage for a bit,'" Cole recalled.

Cole is currently planning some trips for clients, she said. A number have been put on the back burner, but she continues to monitor border closings. She also believes she, and others in the travel agency community, will benefit from pent-up demand as travel returns.

"With people being cooped up for the last year, that is where I hope we will be key in coming in and swooping them up and sending them off," she said.

For Rothgeb, the beginning of her career as a travel advisor happened in March and April 2020, when many were still hopeful travel would return in just a few months. Reality set in around May and June. And While she hoped the phone would start ringing off the hook Jan. 1, that wasn't the case -- but things did start picking up in February.

"The challenge is, where can we send them?" Rothgeb said.

She share's Cole's optimism about pent-up demand.

"I think people really want to travel," Rothgeb said. "I think there's still hesitation. I don't think everyone is going to be on the beaches in the south of France and Amalfi Coast in June. But I think it will happen quickly when it does happen."

Cole knew what she was getting into when she joined Brownell's Mentee Class. But for Rothgeb, would she do anything differently if she knew in February 2020 what she knows now?

"I can honestly say I wouldn't have," she said. "I am exactly where I'm supposed to be and I'm happy."

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