Innovative agency owners are turning the brick-and-mortar storefront, thought by some to be a vestige of the past, into a welcoming, mixed-use space where a customer is as likely to find a latte as a brochure.
Illustration by Macrovector/Shutterstock.com, Reenya/Shutterstock.com and Yindee/Shutterstock.com
Illustration by Macrovector/Shutterstock.com, Reenya/Shutterstock.com and Yindee/Shutterstock.com
A bar. A restaurant. A wedding venue. A lounge with coffee and wine. No, these aren’t standalone businesses. They’re aspects of travel agencies whose owners have gotten creative making appealing spaces that draw in clients, new and old, with innovative features and services.
While their business models differ greatly, there are a handful of agencies today that are redefining what it means to have a storefront, or brick-and-mortar, agency. In a recent report on the travel agency landscape, Phocuswright identified the trend as the “potential rise of a new breed of brick-and-mortar agency locations.”
The report, titled U.S. Travel Agency Distribution Landscape 2016-2021, stated: “As these entrepreneurial-spirited, independent agents expand their business and work side by side in a shared office space, or even virtually servicing their clients, novel types of brick-and-mortar sales environments are starting to spring up, and this may lead to a new kind of travel agency that is building even better relationships.”
In creating the report, Phocuswright surveyed a number of agents. It found that 10% said they had opened a new storefront, while another 10% said they were looking to do just that in the coming year, according to leisure travel analyst Mary Pat Sullivan.
58 Stars creates pop-up opportunityMike Salvadore has experience creating pop-ups, including this family lounge at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Thanks to co-owner Mike Salvadore’s background in marketing, Seattle-based agency 58 Stars is embarking this year on a strategy that uses pop-up agencies to engage with potential clients.
“The initial goal of the pop-up is to connect with consumers in their environment,” Salvadore said.
“We’re not focused on selling them but rather connecting with them in conversations about travel that have the opportunity to create meaningful shifts in behavior.” To do that, Salvadore said, 58 Stars plans to create a “warm and engaging, multisensory environment.”
The pop-ups, which are still being formally developed, will likely use video, music, food and more to connect with consumers. Exactly what each pop-up looks like will depend on its location and the demographic 58 Stars hopes to reach, but they will generally be physical locations in place for one to three weeks. Salvadore is no stranger to the space.
He previously owned an experiential marketing agency and created pop-ups for the likes of Southwest Airlines and Amazon.
58 Stars’ first pop-up partnership is with co-working space the Riveter, which is based in Seattle and has several locations there and in Los Angeles. The first pop-up is expected this spring.
“There’s a positive feeling about buying travel from a professional,” Sullivan said. “I think it was hard when it was all about the expenses and a traditional brick-and-mortar agency had to struggle to figure out how to make ends meet. And then you’re competing against the internet. I really feel like — and I think a lot of our research is showing this — that especially on the leisure side of the business, there’s starting to be kind of a leveling off.”
That is coming in the form of acceptance that it’s sometimes appropriate for consumers to go to OTAs. But more experiential travel, especially in the luxury segment, is owned by travel advisors.
“I think the industry is feeling more confident because they see where [advisors] fit,” Sullivan said.
‘I think the industry is feeling more confident because they see where [advisors] fit.’
Virtuoso first started to see the trend of innovative brick-and-mortar agencies emerge four to five years ago, according to Cheryl Bunker, vice president, U.S. and Canada, for global member partnerships.
“Travel advisors really want to have a place that’s appropriate to work with their clients that’s really about extending their brand and setting themselves apart as professionals,” Bunker said.
Keith Waldon was an early entrant into the space with his agency Departure Lounge in West Lake Hills, Texas, which serves clients free coffee and wine in “a very cool, open lounge concept.”
A Way to Go Travel designed to growThe iPad wall at A Way to Go Travel in Greensboro, N.C., helps customers explore destinations.
A Way to Go Travel in Greensboro, N.C., just moved into an office about a half a mile away from its previous location.
The old office “wasn’t ugly,” president Chuck Joyce said, but it didn’t really hold a candle to the new office’s modern design, iPad wall and comfortable couches that greet customers. A smart, minimalistic brochure rack provides a subtle pop of color on one wall. has several locations there and in Los Angeles. The first pop-up is expected this spring.
And consumers are noticing.
“We always had walk-in traffic,” Joyce said, but in the new location, the number and quality of walk-ins has been “substantial.
And we just got here.”
Visitors to A Way to Go will be met by a wall of iPads mounted on a world map.
Each iPad has been set up in partnership with suppliers, Joyce said, and features content from the continent it rests upon.
For example, safaris are featured on the iPad that sits on Africa. The response to the iPad wall has been so great that Joyce plans to install more of the tablets. They’ll be placed between the continents and will feature content from cruise lines.
“Business is stronger and better than ever, so you just want to stay on top,” Joyce said.
Waldon said innovative brick-and-mortar offices offer numerous positives for the agency community.
“I think this movement is really good for our industry,” Waldon said.
“It really brings back visibility to the profession, and with the right brick-and-mortar, it also elevates the profession. Meeting with a client at a Starbucks versus meeting at a facility like what we have and what some of our counterparts have, it really makes the confidence level much stronger with the client so that your closure rate is higher, your retention rate is higher. And I think it’s going to continue to bring back our industry from a visibility standpoint and also help us attract amazing talent for the next generation.”
Departure Lounge taking offDeparture Lounge serves coffee and wine to its customers at its West Lake Hills, Texas, location.
Five and a half years ago, Departure Lounge opened in downtown Austin, Texas, on a busy street corner. It was a coffee and wine bar open to the public as well as a leisure travel agency.
The concept was well received, but it had its flaws, founder and director Keith Waldon said. Parking was a premium in the busy city, and it wasn’t uncommon for travel to get overshadowed by the wine bar aspect, depending on the clientele (think of a $100,000 safari sale being interrupted by a gaggle of giggling bachelorette party attendees, and you’ve got a good idea of what Waldon was dealing with).
So when the lounge’s lease was up, Waldon moved where he originally wanted to be: an upscale shopping center in West Lake Hills, Texas, close to many of the agency’s clients. Departure Lounge still serves coffee and wine. It’s just free now, and it’s not a public bar.
“It doesn’t look like an office,” Waldon said. “We don’t like the word ‘office,’ because office sounds like work, and lounge sounds like fun. We like the fact that we do our work in a lounge.”
In fact, Waldon likes it so much that he has big expansion plans for the agency. Another location will open soon in San Antonio, to be followed by others in Texas. Then he hopes to take Departure Lounge national and, eventually, international.
The new breed of innovative brick-and-mortar agencies all have different business models. Many share some attributes: an on-site coffee bar or one that serves alcoholic beverages, a lounge-like feel and a modern design with some vintage flair. Some have employee agents, while others serve as a working space for independent contractors (ICs).
And while they all vary greatly in tone and style, there are some common theories about why they’re popping up today.
House of Travel raising the barHouse of Travel in Aventura, Fla., features some leftovers from the space’s former life as a bar.
At House of Travel in Aventura, Fla., owners Jerry and Doris Lang like to do things differently.
For starters, their agency is located in a former bar. Instead of bottles lining the wall behind the bar, they’ve installed TVs. An entire wall of the agency has been papered with a photograph of a busy Miami nightclub. And there’s art everywhere.
“People think our office is an art gallery. They get really confused,” Jerry Lang said, laughing.
The agency also features one of the pool tables left by its former occupant. Lang had it the felt replaced — in Miami Dolphins colors, of course — and uses it for agency business. For example, some hotel representatives he knew well came in one day for a visit. Lang decided to hold a pool tournament with them.
“Why do a normal presentation?” he asked.
Lang uses his open-plan, 4,500-square-foot space for larger events as well, he said, like the themed nights he puts on in partnership with suppliers. These usually leave a lasting memory, he said, as most visitors are unable to leave without taking a photograph of something.
“We try to push boundaries,” Lang said. “We try to be different.”
Erika Richter, director of communications for ASTA, sees it as the realization of a need for a cultural connection.
“I think that, just like travel advisors are becoming popular again, that need to have face-to-face interaction in a space that’s cool and comfortable and inviting is also really important,” Richter said.
‘That need to have face-to-face interaction in a space that’s cool and comfortable and inviting is also really important.’
Leah Smith, president of Tafari Travel, said that one thing that is driving consumers back to brick-and-mortar agencies is that the proliferation of travel offers and resources online has left many consumers overwhelmed by the options available and what might be best for them.
“I think these days there has been a lack of trust in where your money’s going as far as travel,” Smith said. “The online market has really helped us.”
Tafari has two offices located in areas where there is a lot of foot traffic, which has helped expose consumers to the agency.
Like real estate agencies often do with their top listings, Tafari often places its top itineraries in its windows to attract passers-by. That, combined with inviting, open offices with a lounge-like feel, has been a success for Tafari.
Smith said that while nothing is concrete, the agency has a short list of destinations in which to open future locations.
Kelly Luf, general manager of Travel Associates, which recently unveiled a hip space in downtown Los Angeles, also believes the internet has helped the agency community.
‘We’ve got people who are looking for the next big thing, and they can’t find that on their own.’
“I believe we’re in a generation that’s really, really focusing on a return to service,” she said.
For a time, travelers were skewed toward do-it-yourself online travel, Luf said. But today, the pendulum is swinging back. Consumers are once again interested in talking to an expert to plan their vacations, and where better to do it than at an upscale, modern agency location?
“The customer type demands it,” Luf said. “We’ve got people who are looking for the next big thing, and they can’t find that on their own.”
Events held in innovative agencies have also proven to be popular.
Lorraine Travel growing around GlobeThe Globe restaurant and Lorraine Travel share a family-owned building in Coral Gables, Fla.
Lorraine Travel was founded in Cuba in 1948. The family-run agency moved to the U.S. in 1960 and about 20 years ago decided to do something outside the box: open a restaurant on the first floor of a building the family owned, with the agency on the second.
That move is still paying off today, according to Greg Guiteras, CEO of the travel agency.
Today, the Globe restaurant occupies a 3,000-square-foot space on the first floor of the building in Coral Gables, Fla. Guiteras’ brother runs the restaurant while he focuses on the agency. The two are run separately but do some light cross promotion.
“People can have lunch or dinner or drinks, whatever, and while we’re open, they can come upstairs and plan a trip with us,” Guiteras said.
Lorraine Travel’s influence on the Globe is “subtle,” Guiteras said: a card left on tables, or brochures left here and there. But the Globe has become an important place for Lorraine Travel. It’s where Guiteras often entertains suppliers and clients alike, and suppliers often host events like cocktail receptions at the Globe.
Next up for Lorraine Travel is creating a space that has a “living room atmosphere,” Guiteras said, where people can lounge and think about travel. And he’s got options. The building housing Lorraine and the Globe is 7,000 square feet, and the family owns the building next door, too.
“I would like to do that relatively soon,” he said.
Travel & Transport’s Travel Design Lounge in Omaha, Neb., is a full-service agency and a full-service bar. Manager Shelby Goodrum arranges events to introduce new clients to the agency.
“The point of the space is really to make the idea of working with a travel agent more approachable, so it’s a relaxed setting,” she said. “It really is a good setting for events. Each month, we feature a different destination or a different travel theme.”
For example, if Travel Design Lounge is talking Italy, the presentation could include a wine tasting featuring vintages and varietals from different regions of the country.
‘The events are a good opportunity for inexperienced travelers to ask questions and more easily talk with a travel advisor.’
“The events are really designed to be an easy way to get more travel education as well as a good opportunity for inexperienced travelers to ask questions and more easily talk with a travel advisor,” Goodrum said.
House of Travel in Aventura, Fla., sells about 70% corporate travel. But owner Jerry Lang isn’t overlooking the leisure segment, ensuring they are greeted with a fun, nontraditional office filled with art and even a pool table.
He often uses the 4,500-square-foot space for events, and the office is particularly useful because of its open floor plan. Lang also does his best to ensure the agency stands out.
“We’re selling an emotional experience,” he said. “Travel is emotional. People who come into the office are coming in for more leisure. We don’t want to them to come in and feel like they’re in a stale office. We want them to start getting excited from the moment they walk in.”
Waldon said the Departure Lounge holds events once or twice a month on average, focusing on a destination or type of travel. Dozens typically attend; a recent presentation on Italy drew 90. Several more events are planned around luxury and river cruising.
It’s part of the beauty of operating a comfortable, welcoming space that has plenty of amenities, Waldon said.
“Our clients are used to coming into the lounge area on a regular basis for events and also to meet with their advisors,” he said.
Pique Travel Design carved out spacePique Travel Design’s travel agency in a renovated lumber warehouse doubles as an events space.
Jim and Linda Bendt started Pique Travel Design in Excelsior, Minn., six years ago. The agency is located in a lumber warehouse that dates to the 1940s. The Bendts worked with the building’s owner to restore the space, and today it features its original floors and barrel roof. Reclaimed wood, metal and other materials give the space its character.
That character was not lost on the community.
“Shortly after moving into the space, our clients and passers-by were stopping in asking if we would consider renting out our space,” Linda Bendt said.
The Bendts had their agency reclassified from an office space to an events space, and the rest is history. For four years, they’ve been renting out the agency to community members; some weeks, Linda Bendt said, it’s rented for one or two events and others for four or five.
It’s also been a great cross-marketing tool: Not only can you get married at Pique Travel, but the owners can design your honeymoon, too.
“It’s our largest marketing expense, but most fruitful,” Linda Bendt said, adding that the space is “great for exposure and to strengthen relationships with clients, prospects and the community on deeper levels.”
For Linda Bendt, who owns Pique Travel Design in Excelsior, Minn., with her husband, Jim, operating a unique space helps deepen connections with clients. Pique, a restored lumber warehouse built in the 1940s, doubles as an event space.
“Technology has made people crave that human connection even more,” Bendt said. “For us, the physical space is a way to welcome people into our home and build relationships. While most of our interactions are done over phone and email, having a place to be together provides richness and more meaning.”
Seattle-based 58 Stars will attempt to reach clients with a new type of physical presence this spring: pop-up agencies. The pop-ups will be located in a given spot for anywhere from one to three weeks, each targeting a specific demographic. Co-owner Mike Salvadore said they will feature video elements, food, beverages, music and more.
“We can’t just sit back and expect consumers to come to us,” he said.
‘It’s important for agents to go to their clients and think outside the box...’
“It’s important for agents to go to their clients and think outside the box with customized experiences that attract a younger generation that is accustomed to online travel booking services. And, if we make it convenient for them, and we do our job of talking about travel in a way that is bold, beautiful and aspirational, then we have a greater chance of turning them into customers.”
The new agency concepts also represent a space for new entrants. Lorraine Travel in Coral Gables, Fla., has shared a building with the Globe restaurant for 20 years. CEO Greg Guiteras said his family owns the buildings, and the agency enjoys having a ready-made entertaining space downstairs.
Expanding into the food and beverage arena isn’t easy or inexpensive, Guiteras said. That could be a barrier to entry for some, but it is an attractive premise for potential customers.
‘We’ve seen how malls are doing everything they can to increase the amount of foot traffic, and they’re doing that with innovative concepts.’
“Everybody wants a better experience when they come in to shop for whatever they’re shopping for,” Guiteras said. “We’ve seen how malls are doing everything they can to increase the amount of foot traffic, and they’re doing that with innovative concepts. Generally it stems around dining. Let’s face it, people have to eat.”
Tafari TravelTafari’s Brooklyn location has a wall that can be rolled up in pleasant weather, drawing walk-in customers.
Tafari Travel, the retail branch of Coastline Travel, has locations in Cherry Creek, an upscale Denver neighborhood, and in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Each, president Leah Smith said, is strategically located in an area with a mix of commercial and residential uses.
“It’s very much an open office plan,” Smith said. “Nobody has offices.”
Instead, they work in open spaces from laptops. While Tafari does have desks, independent contractors working there are more often found sitting around coffee tables or on couches. The lounge-like atmosphere helps foster a sense of collaboration, and Smith has noticed an IC’s sales tend to increase once he or she starts working in the office.
The two offices are both light and airy — in fact, in the Dumbo office, a window-lined wall can roll up, opening onto a patio — and feature “playful, vintage” murals, Smith’s vintage Holiday magazines and a bright, midcentury modern aesthetic. It’s drawn in clients, who are able to establish trust with advisors they can personally meet.
“Having that face-to-face [meeting], it’s really helped with the trust factor,” Smith said. “When we open in a new market, that’s really the best way for us to get going right away — to be face to face with the clients and be in the area where they’re walking and where they’re spending their days.”
Why make the investment?
A physical space will always require more overhead than a virtual office.
Yet, while the number of virtual agents in the industry is blossoming, there are agencies investing in brick-and-mortar locations. It begs a simple question: Why?
“The biggest reason we did it initially was to continue building relationships and exposure for Pique Travel,” Bendt said. “It has become our best marketing tool.”
In addition to drawing clients to events — and others who rent the space for their own events — Pique Travel frequently offers discounts for fundraisers. The space lends itself to community awareness and support, she said.
Running this new breed of brick-and-mortar agencies isn’t for everyone.
Kathryn Mazza-Burney, executive vice president of sales for Travelsavers, said one of the consortium’s members who ran a cafe/agency recently shut down the cafe portion because it was eclipsing her work in travel.
But Travelsavers is seeing a different kind of trend: member agencies that are working to create travel training programs within their agency.
At least two have bought buildings that will dedicate one floor entirely to a school, with the agency on another.
Mazza-Burney also pointed to a wedding specialist who has turned a floor of her home into a wedding facility.
Travel AssociatesTravel Associates’ office in Los Angeles features a modern space with a coffee bar and a split-flap board.
Travel Associates, Flight Centre Travel Group’s premium agency brand, was traditionally a back-of-house business serving C-suite referrals from the group’s corporate brands. Not so with its Los Angeles location, which was recently renovated to be an eye-catching space to draw in foot traffic.
“We saw a clear opportunity with downtown Los Angeles, which is undergoing a huge revitalization as we speak,” general manager Kelly Luf said.
Visitors to the location are first greeted by “giant, giant aubergine doors, and they’re gorgeous,” Luf said. The 12-foot-high doors with brass hardware are already becoming Instagram famous, and being in L.A., the agency is entertaining requests to use the doors as a filming location.
Inside the agency is an espresso bar loaded with fresh-baked goods from a local bakery. The space “feels warm and homey,” Luf said, describing the furniture as comfortable midcentury modern, “something you want to plop down on and get comfortable.”
Travel Associates also has a split-flap board it customizes to welcome customers with their names. Luf said the space has been so well received that others are being planned. “There’s good energy in there,” she said. “It just makes you want to sit down and stay awhile.”
“It works for her because that is her niche, and that is her bread and butter,” she said.
Waldon said he wanted to create an innovative brick-and-mortar location to elevate travel advisors’ professionalism. Before Departure Lounge, Waldon worked at Virtuoso for 16 years and for Rosewood Hotels right out of college. He saw the agency community from both the supplier side and the agency side, and every day he met people who still thought that travel agencies didn’t exist.
“It’s because over the past 25, 30 years, travel agencies that did have storefront locations and visibility in the community moved to office towers and out-of-the-way spaces that were lower rent,” he said. “And they decreased their footprint on space, typically because the internet allowed them to have some staff, or a lot of staff, working from home.”
‘We lost visibility at the street level with the community.’
That kept those agencies alive by lowering their overhead, which helped them stay profitable. “But the byproduct was that the industry became invisible,” Waldon said. “We lost visibility at the street level with the community.”
He was concerned. It was difficult to get profitable agencies to take a leap of faith and reopen a visible storefront, so Waldon did it himself.
And a byproduct of that decision was attracting new talent to the industry in the same way he was attracting new clients.
“It’s been very fulfilling to see the impact,” he said. “For those of us who are brave enough to go back into the space, it’s pretty wide open.”
Waldon also operates a Departure Lounge restaurant and bar inside Austin Airport. While it doesn’t offer travel planning, Waldon said the visibility it has afforded the brand has been “awesome.”
Brick-and-mortar offices of the future
Only time will tell, but brick-and-mortar innovators today have some ideas about what their agencies might look like 25 years down the road.
Travelsavers’ Mazza-Burney said, “If I look in my crystal ball, I definitely see retail locations. I don’t think that will ever go away.”
‘If I look in my crystal ball, I definitely see retail locations. I don’t think that will ever go away.’
Virtuoso’s Bunker agreed. “Whether that’s an upside-down office made out of glass or some other thing, that remains to be seen, but I think we’ll definitely continue to see some office space of some sort for travel agencies,” she said. Tafari’s Smith predicted that the travel agency of the future will probably morph into more of a business-to-business collaboration with other service industries. For example, agencies could be located in bars or restaurants. Agents could even be positioned at concierge desks in luxury apartment buildings. “I think we will see a lot of synergy between like-minded brands,” Travel Associates’ Luf said.
“You might see somebody doing business as a travel agency working out of a restaurant setting or a like-minded brand. Maybe having a travel agency inside a high-end luggage boutique or something like that.
Things that go hand in hand with each other.” Above all, predicted Chuck Joyce, president of A Way To Go Travel in Greensboro, N.C., there will be one universal constant at future brick-and-mortar locations: Service will have to be excellent. “One thing that’ll never change is customer service,” Joyce said. “If you provide customer service, that’s the No. 1 thing. Technology will change. We’ve just got to stay on top of whatever that is.” ASTA’s Richter predicted that future brick-and-mortar agencies will be “highly digitized,” with a heavy emphasis on virtual reality to give clients a sense of destinations.
The spaces will be cross-functional, like those today that are doubling as event spaces. And though the world seems to be getting smaller every day, even more exotic destinations will open to travelers and to for advisors to sell, she said. Richter teased a tantalizing new destination that advisors could be selling in the future: “I hope in 25 years that we’re on the verge of space travel.”
Travel Design LoungeTravel Design Lounge is also a full bar, with agents present throughout the day and at frequently held travel events.
Travel & Transport has several brick-and-mortar locations, but they aren’t like the company’s Travel Design Lounge in Omaha, Neb.
Travel Design Lounge is a travel agency and a full bar, a concept designed to answer the question, “How do we reinvent the experience of buying travel?” according to Jeff Cain, senior vice president of specialty divisions for Travel & Transport.
The space has travel advisors on hand from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. who are ready to sit with any consumers who might want to plan a trip after enjoying a drink and leafing through some travel books.
The response, Cain said, has been amazing, so much so that the lounge is looking for additional advisors to handle the volume and is considering opening similar concepts in other cities.
The large volume of consumers is partially aided by the special events the lounge holds regularly, themed around destinations or types of travel, manager Shelby Goodrum said. A recent Saturday morning event featured an international coffee and doughnut pairing and drew dozens of people. They even paid for the experience.
“Travel is still our primary revenue driver,” Cain said. “That’s what we are. But the other stuff just kind of adds to the experience and the ambience of the place.”