When the pandemic first hit, Lindsey Epperly and her business partner/husband, Jeremy Sulek, knew what their priority was: keeping Epperly Travel's team intact.
The duo had been planning to buy a house but pulled out of the deal and funneled their savings into the Atlanta-based agency, which today has six employees: three internal advisors and three support staff members for 42 independent contractors (ICs).
That plan paid off. Toward the end of 2020 and early this year, Epperly Travel was ahead of the game, and its namesake started thinking about how to grow the business in a meaningful way. "Acquisition" was one word that was bandied about, particularly by agency consultant Bob Joselyn. It was Joselyn, in fact, who mentioned Jetset World Travel in Aspen, Colo.
Epperly already knew Jetset's founder, Julia Pirrung, and counted her among her good friends. Within 30 minutes of Jetset's mention, a call was scheduled, and the rest is history. Jetset World Travel was officially acquired by Epperly earlier this month, with the combined agency representing $25 million in annual sales pre-Covid.
"It was like sparks flew," Epperly said. "The conversations were just so in alignment with what she wanted to achieve and what we wanted to achieve, and we knew it would benefit both companies, which was most important to both of us."
Jetset will continue to operate as a brand underneath the Epperly umbrella, and Pirrung is affiliated as an IC. Megan Hintz, Jetset's COO, has joined Epperly's leadership team, which also consists of Epperly, the CEO; Sulek, COO; and Cassie McMillion Deifik, managing director.
The Epperly Travel way
Epperly's focus is on the travel advisor as an entrepreneur, she said. She wants to foster a boutique, hosted environment that caters to ICs' needs.
"What we're seeing happening lately in the industry is that, it's like, mega agencies that are just gobbling up left and right," Epperly said. "They're being rewarded based off of volume and body count, not based off of merit and professionalism, and we thought this could actually achieve a really groundswell effort toward the travel industry to make it better and bring it back to boutique."
Of course, the combined agency has immediately benefitted from its increased volume, a meaningful metric to suppliers, but Epperly said she and her team are being thoughtful about that volume. They want it to represent the potential and professionalism of Epperly advisors.
Epperly updated its hosting program last fall. It is focused on helping advisors reach different milestones, from starting out in the industry, to hitting $1 million in sales and then getting past the plateau that usually follows the million-dollar mark and building a team.
It has three touchpoint keys to its business model: community, clarity and cages. Epperly said the agency first wants to build its virtual community of ICs. Clarity around business practices is also a priority. "Cages" refers to releasing ICs from more rigid commission structures and rewarding them at certain thresholds with 100% commission.
For Jill Taylor, an IC with Jetset, coming under the Epperly Travel umbrella has been a very positive experience. For one, Jetset's advisors tend to be more tenured, whereas Epperly's have access to the training program Epperly and Sulek created, Entre Travel. That has taken some burden off the Jetset team, particularly with regard to new ICs. But even more important, she said, has been the opportunity to collaborate with a larger team.
"I think we all get stuck in our own ways, so just having a bigger group of people to help collaborate with is fantastic," Taylor said.
Like other hosts, McMillion Deifik said Epperly noticed an influx of inquiries from prospective advisors of late. Several are contacting her each day, likely attracted by the business model and resources like Entre Travel, she said. But still, Epperly Travel is being thoughtful in who it onboards, ensuring the ICs are a right fit for the host.
"I think that the misconception for advisors right now is that the power of the tools that a larger agency has resources for, just because of their volume, that that is more significant than the fit of the culture and the community that is thoughtfully cultivated to fit their needs," Epperly said.
Jetset is Epperly Travel's first acquisition in the agency's seven-year history.