Is it 'crazy' to open an agency now? New advisors accept the challenge

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Sayra Stone-Harris (left) and Sharon Knight founded Tumble Beans Family Travel Co. in Rincon, Ga.
Sayra Stone-Harris (left) and Sharon Knight founded Tumble Beans Family Travel Co. in Rincon, Ga.

Tessa Marsh was in the middle of a leisure trip to Nigeria when borders around the world began to close. She would end up extending that trip, to a total of three-and-a-half months, before she was able to charter a private plane to Paris, then fly through Canada and Boston en route to her home in Charlotte.

Before that trip, Marsh had worked in several customer service positions. It wasn’t that exciting, she said, and after losing her last position, she thought, “There’s got to be something for me to do where I can make money for myself instead of working so hard for other people and not getting the recognition I need.”

Tess Marsh
Tess Marsh

And so last month Majestic Vacation Paradise, a Travel Planners International affiliate, was born.

Like many others who find their way to the agency community, Marsh has always loved travel. It may seem counterintuitive to start a travel business in the midst of a global pandemic, and indeed, she came in just as others were exiting. According to a survey of travel advisors conducted earlier this month by TravelAge West (a sister publication to Travel Weekly), 40% of respondents said they knew a colleague who had left the industry due to the Covid-19 crisis, and more than a third said they had considered leaving the business themselves. 

And yet host agencies and franchises alike are seeing interest from new entrants.

To respond to that demand, Dream Vacations recently launched a weeklong virtual training program for new agents. Classes have averaged 25 to 28 people each month; the maximum allowed is 30.

Dawn Haugen
Dawn Haugen

Dawn Haugen is a new Dream Vacations franchisee based in Hannaford, N.D.

Her background is in information technology, project management and employee relations. For years, she worked for a manufacturing company, but in April decided to take the plunge and open a travel agency.

“When I say now is the best time for me, it’s because this gives me the time to learn and gain the education I need to become a great travel agent, and really just start from the ground up and set up my business how I want to,” Haugen said.

Leah Rubiano and her husband, Richard, were also drawn to starting an agency during the pandemic. They, too, purchased a Dream Vacations franchise, in May.

The Rubianos, based in Apopka, Fla., have been avid cruisers for years. She has been a pharmacy technician for 30 years, teaching for a pharmacy technician program at a technical college for the past 10. He worked in construction.

Richard and Leah Rubiano purchased a Dream Vacations franchise in May.
Richard and Leah Rubiano purchased a Dream Vacations franchise in May.

They had been considering starting an agency for some time.

“When I told everybody that I was doing this now, they were all like, ‘What is wrong with you?’” Leah Rubiano said with a laugh.

Their reasoning was similar to Haugen’s: The pause in travel is giving them a chance to set up their business. It turns out, circumstances have reaffirmed their decision. They purchased their agency on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, Richard Rubiano found out he was part of layoffs affecting 40% of employees.

Sayra Stone-Harris also came to the industry from outside travel. A media specialist at an elementary school, she recently started her Rincon, Ga.-based agency, Tumble Beans Family Travel Co., with her business partner Sharon Knight.

Knight has business experience -- she owns the Tumble Beans Cafe and Play, an indoor cafe and play space geared toward families in Medway, Mass. -- and Stone-Harris has been engaged in learning the travel consulting side of the business.

“I’m not going to lie: Starting a travel agency during a pandemic is a crazy idea,” Stone-Harris said. “But it also provided me the inspiration and time to devote to the classes, research and setup I needed to get this business up and rolling.”

Michelle Mulimbayan
Michelle Mulimbayan

Michelle Mulimbayan, owner of Current Location Travels in Los Angeles, founded in late May, agreed.

“You find yourself with more time on your hands, and you’re like, you know what, I can only bake so much banana bread -- let me acquire a new skill,” she said.

Coming in from the industry

Some with industry experience are also gravitating toward the agency community.

Lizbeth Carrasquillo has worked in the travel industry her whole career. She started at 17 behind a Continental Airlines ticket counter, then moved on to receiving cruise ships in port. She’s been a flight attendant with JetBlue since 2011. 

Lizbeth Carrasquillo, owner of Cruise Fly Repeat in Orlando.
Lizbeth Carrasquillo, owner of Cruise Fly Repeat in Orlando.

When the pandemic struck, she found herself flying less and had more time to devote to training as a travel advisor. She started her Orlando-based agency, Cruise Fly Repeat, in April.

Stephen Schenck is also based in Orlando. He has been a software developer for years, specializing in the photo imaging and capture market, specifically within theme parks. He’s been moving toward a career as a travel advisor for several years. 

His inspiration lies in his children, who perform music with an orchestra. He and his wife often accompany them on trips around the world. He offered to help the orchestra more with travel in the coming year, and with plenty of time because of the shutdown, has accelerated those plans and founded Taking Care Travel.

Stephen Schenck
Stephen Schenck

The industry’s freshman class is in agreement that when travel returns, they will benefit from pent-up demand and an increased desire to use travel advisors.

“Although we have a pandemic going on and although travel may be halted temporarily, I don’t believe travel will ever just go away,” Haugen said. “People still need time to get away.”

Carrasquillo is already enjoying business from two new-to-advisor travelers.

“They just recently shared with me that they felt a lot more comfortable traveling with someone than venturing out and going onto a computer and buying something,” she said. “It’s nice to have someone on the other side that knows more and can look out for your best interests.”

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