Illustration by ProStockStudio/Shutterstock
Illustration by ProStockStudio/Shutterstock
When Samantha McClure opened Small World Travel in Austin, Texas, in 1999, she wanted to focus only on family travel. But a more experienced agent gave her some advice: “You have to be all things to all people,” McClure recalled. “You have to book air, you have to do corporate, you have to do honeymoons.”
Yet, McClure didn’t want to do that. She focused solely on family travel and “never veered from that mission.” Over time, that specialty led to an even more niche specialty: planning long-term family trips, e.g., a yearlong, seven-continents journey. Today, about 25% of McClure’s business comes from those long-term family trips.
She is part of a cadre of agents who have what Kathryn Mazza-Burney, executive vice president of sales for Travelsavers, calls a “micro-specialty.”
Nude travel. Fly-fishing. Luxury rail travel. South Asian destination weddings. Trips for introverts.
Agents run the gamut when it comes to micro-specialties. Some have been narrowing in on their area of expertise for years, while others set out with a micro-specialty in mind and are hyperfocused on it.
“Definitely, there is a trend toward specialization, no question,” said Ignacio Maza, executive vice president of Signature Travel Network. “It’s very, very difficult for you as a travel consultant to stay on top of all the developments around the world across all industries. It’s harder and harder to be a generalist in this day and age.”
When families want to take long-term trips with their children, they call Samantha McClure, owner of Small World Travel in Austin, Texas.
McClure grew up traveling the world as an “oil brat” and continued the travel tradition with her own children. Now she specializes in sending other families around the world, often for long periods of time.
Her long-term travel clients typically take trips of six months or a year. Those who travel for the full 12 months usually use their time to visit all seven continents. Often, McClure plans their trips as they go. She takes on about one long-term client annually.
Small World Travel works with clients to ensure children continue their education on the road. They have a curriculum coordinator who works with their school. Generally, McClure said, schools are more than receptive to the idea of a traveling year because they recognize the inherent educational value that travel brings.
Identifying a microspecialty comes with some distinct advantages, according to Diane Petras, president of the Travel Institute.
“Superspecialization is a very smart choice because it lends itself to superfocused marketing, social media, branding, [search engine optimization] supplier relationships, consulting and amenities,” Petras said. “If your superspecialization represents your passion and has a following that travels, then it stands to reason it would be wildly successful in today’s world of virtual offices and global connectivity.”
There is a distinct correlation between specialization and success, according to consortia executives. Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Network, said agents with specialties are fulfilling consumer needs. In turn, agents are finding new clients.
"It’s extremely important to the consumer to be able to find somebody who really is knowledgeable about what they have in mind more than just broad generalities."
“It’s extremely important to the consumer to be able to find somebody who really is knowledgeable about what they have in mind more than just broad generalities,” he said.
Block said an agent knowledgeable in a specific specialty engenders trust in consumers and potential clients. He cited a member specializing in Australia whose close rate on product there is up to 60%, “simply because he is so passionate about Australia. He can demonstrate his specialization in Australia.”
Agents are also using more advanced tools from their consortia affiliations to market specializations, making it less challenging to connect with potential clients than it was four to five years ago, according to Travel Leaders Network vice president Perry Lungmus. For example, its Agent Profiler tool, an online profile for lead generation, has evolved to highlight an agent’s specializations to help them stand out.
For Brian Gies, co-owner of Fly Water Travel in Ashland, Ore., fly-fishing is a hobby turned career. He founded the agency with several other anglers, focusing on sending fly-fishing fans to the destinations of their dreams around the globe.
His clients tend to be men between the ages of 50 and 70 with the means to spend money on a fly-fishing vacation, but the sport is becoming more popular with women, as well. For Fly Water, business is all about referrals; 90% of its clients were gained that way.
Fly-fishing is truly a global sport, Gies said, but destinations like Patagonia in South America, New Zealand, Alaska and the Caribbean are particularly popular at the moment.
“It takes you to spectacularly beautiful places, typically,” Gies said of fly-fishing. It also holds the allure of exploring new places, “going around the next bend and seeing what’s there.” He estimated he’s fished in more than 20 countries around the world and now enjoys sending other anglers to new casting spots.
Block said the internet has facilitated specialization. “At the end of the day, without the internet, this whole concept of this type of specialization would never be possible,” he said, adding that the internet has also given agents much greater international reach.
Jennifer Campbell, managing director of professional development and agency services at Virtuoso, began to see agents shifting from being generalists to specialists about 15 years ago. Then, about five years ago, superspecialization really began to gain momentum.
“I think that’s because society demands this hyperpersonalization,” she said.
Signature’s Maza posited that “as the world becomes more complex, and as we are flooded with information and news, … it is very, very hard for you to know everything about everywhere. And kind of by default, people are narrowing their field.”
Offering a microspecialty is also a point of differentiation, Mazza-Burney said.
“There are not many out there, and they become that go-to person to the consumers,” she said. “That’s what they’re recognized as, and that’s what they’re looking for. They don’t want to compete with everybody else out there for that same customer.”
That’s what has helped agencies like Fly Water Travel in Ashland, Ore., to succeed while specializing in travel for fly fishermen.
“People really have a reason to call us,” said co-owner Brian Gies. “Whereas, if we were a general travel agency, obviously you’d have way more options of what you could potentially sell to somebody, but people don’t also have a reason to call you.” (Fly Water Travel was the subject of an Agent Life profile in the July 30 issue, “Agency’s success with fly-fishing lures investor.”)
Donna Daniels &
For Donna Daniels and her husband, James Bailey, their hobby of traveling to nudist-friendly destinations around the world became a lucrative niche for their agency, Fox Travel in Spring, Texas.
Daniels purchased Fox in 1984 and still operates it as a brick-and-mortar agency. In 1991, the couple officially started selling nudist travel when they realized consumers were looking for experienced nudist travelers to help.
It wasn’t something they set out to do, Daniels said, but it’s been a good fit. Today, in addition to handling clients new and old, they run four to six nudist groups each year, and they charter two affinity cruises annually. They are members of national and international nudist groups, connecting them with even more potential clients. And it’s work they love.
“If you love what you do, so it’s not work, then I think your whole being will stay in a younger state,” Daniels said, “because your mind is active, you’re with people, you’re communicating, you’re doing things.
Finding a niche vs. starting one
Some agents have been in their specialty for years, including Donna Daniels, owner of Fox Travel in Spring, Texas. She and her husband, James Bailey, now specialize in nudist travel, but they didn’t always.
In the travel industry since 1980, Daniels became the owner of Fox in 1984 but didn’t officially start selling nudist travel until around 1991. They recognized an opportunity after Bailey started moderating a nude-travel discussion board online, sharing expertise garnered from their own travels.
“The thing that was consistent throughout all the responses,” Daniels said, “was, ‘Oh, you’ve been there? I can’t find anybody who’s been there.’”
Today, they run multiple group trips each year and charter two cruises, a Princess ship in the spring and a Royal Caribbean ship in the winter. It has blossomed into a lucrative expertise for them.
“I just think specializing is a great way to start your business … deciding what you love and what you don’t love and really sticking to it.”
McClure, too, honed in on her specialty after starting out in family travel in 1999. About 15 years ago, a family hired her to plan their around-the-world trip, and thanks to word of mouth and referrals, that facet of her business bloomed. While she usually only takes on one long-term family trip per year, she’s currently planning three.
Today, McClure said, she encourages new agents to specialize right off the bat.
“I just think specializing is a great way to start your business, … deciding what you love and what you don’t love and really sticking to it,” she said. “It will bring you more business and bring you more joy and make you more successful.”
Jacob Marek is a self-professed introvert, and he uses his life experiences to plan travel for other introverts through his agency, IntroverTravels in Denver. His tag line is “life-changing travel experiences for curious introverts,” and he emphasizes nature, culture and history with each itinerary.
The difference between planning travel for extroverts and planning travel for introverts is all about the pacing.
“I tell people, ‘Give yourself the permission to go a little bit slower and actually see more by doing less,’” Marek said. He employs a two-to-one ratio when planning trips: two parts relaxation to one bucket list activity each day.
Marek is curating his favorite destinations to send introverts but is open to planning trips to other spots that fit his criteria. For the most part, they tend to be vast, expansive places (think the opposite of places that could be described as claustrophobic, he said). If a client requests something outside his wheelhouse, he is quick to refer them to another agent.
That’s the tactic Jacob Marek embraces. Marek is the founder of Denver-based IntroverTravels. In business for two years, he focuses on trip planning for people who, like himself, identify as introverts, emphasizing nature, culture and history.
In fact, his focus was even more narrow when he first started: “life-changing, nature-inspired travel experiences for introverts.” But Marek admits that might have been too specific to work out. Instead, by simply focusing on introverts, he has found what he calls his “goldilocks zone.”
Jill Jergel graduated from the American College of Switzerland with a degree in fashion merchandising, but she realized she didn’t really want to stick with her plan of becoming a buyer. At her father’s urging, she studied travel, and thanks to several Europe trips already under her belt, she was quickly hired as an agent in 1978.
Early in her career, she was exposed to French canal barge cruising, which now constitutes more than half her business.
The barges, many of which originally carried commodities like coal and lumber, have been retrofitted, many up to luxury quality. She compared them to “floating Park Avenue apartments.”
As with any travel product, she said, “what is right for one client could be so very wrong for another.” Her expertise derives from regularly experiencing the products and staying in touch with the canal barge community.
“It’s always about communication in this business, isn’t it?” she said. “That’s the key element.”
Some agents found themselves in the right place at the right time, among them Jill Jergel with Frontiers International Travel in Gibsonia, Pa.
Jergel has been an agent since 1978. Today, she specializes in barge cruising in France, which she estimated makes up between 50% and 70% of her business. (She also does custom itineraries for trips to France that don’t include barge clients.)
She got involved in barge cruising in 1983, when a barge owner, the late Gerard Morgan-Grenville, approached Frontiers about marketing his barge. Jergel cruised on it, and she’s been selling barge cruises ever since.
“I happened to be in the right place at the right time, truly, but I recognized pretty quickly that this was going to be something that would really catch on,” she said.
Hossein Moini has a degree in radio and TV broadcasting, but when his wife was assigned to Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., in 1983, there weren’t too many job opportunities in his field. He had taken a travel course before he finished his degree, though, and found himself working at Adventure Travel. He would go on to buy the agency in 1995.
Today, in addition to selling other types of travel, Adventure Travel specializes in sending Fort Sill’s soldiers-in-training home for Christmas. The agency was awarded the base’s leisure travel contract, which means arranging travel for 3,000 to 3,500 soldiers each December with about six weeks’ notice to book all the travel.
It’s tough organizationally, Moini said, especially because the local airport is small. Adventure Travel ends up bussing soldiers to multiple airports, meaning the right soldier has to get on the right bus to the right airport. But Moini said it’s rewarding to see the soldiers’ faces, and it’s an important facet of his overall business.
Turning business away
In some cases, microspecialists are so uniquely focused on their niche that they turn away all other requests. That’s been the case with some Signature members, Maza said, and they’ve been very successful in doing so. (He said they refer leads to other Signature members.)
“It’s definitely happening,” he said. “Many of our members and individual consultants, focus, narrow their field.”
Some agents are also choosing to specialize in their clients. They keep a small roster of clients that they get to know very well, developing a relationship like a client might have with a financial planner.
“They’re not trying to cast a very wide net and have hundreds of new customers,” Maza said. “They really are trying to capture a larger scale of the travel spending of a narrower number of clients by knowing so much about their clients.”
“Drip by drip, I’m trying to fill up my glass full of the right repeat clients.”
Marek is an agent who carefully curates his client base.
“Drip by drip, I’m trying to fill up my glass full of the right repeat clients,” he said.
He is more than willing to pass clients on to other agents. For example, he said, “I don’t touch Disney with a 10-foot pole.” He passes those requests to a Disney specialist.
Other agencies, like Adventure Travel in Lawton, Okla., use a niche to supplement their general business.
Adventure Travel has a contract with the Army to arrange travel from Fort Sill in Lawton to soldiers’ homes for Christmas. President Hossein Moini said that means getting about six weeks starting in November to arrange travel for 3,000 to 3,500 troops.
It’s a challenge, he admitted, but it also accounts for 20% of his overall business.
Ellen Paderson, CEO of Smiles and Miles Travel in Bourne, Mass., also sells general leisure travel, but she has developed a microspecialty in destination bar and bat mitzvahs that now accounts for around 30% of her business. They also usually result in repeat travelers.
“Once they do the bar mitzvah, they’re pretty much clients for life,” Paderson said. “That’s opened up more business in other areas.”
About 12 years ago, Ellen Paderson, CEO of Smiles and Miles Travel in Bourne, Mass., was watching a television show that featured the historical St. Thomas Synagogue in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and it sparked an idea: She would add destination bar and bat mitzvahs to the mix of travel she sold.
Thanks to good exposure on the web and five years building the specialty, destination celebrations today account for about 30% of her business.
Costa Rica is a particularly popular destination for clients who like nature and want to add some adventure to their bar or bat mitzvah. Italy and Prague are popular, too, as is the temple on St. Thomas. She always asks the child about his or her interests when narrowing down destinations, she said, because the ceremony is all about them.
Paderson has handled events for four to 100 participants in locations ranging from historical synagogues to the beach. It’s all about narrowing the family’s interests and matching them with the right mix of destination and ceremony, she said.
‘Sell what you love’
Agents almost unanimously agreed that a microspecialty has to stem from a personal passion.
In recent years, Virtuoso has introduced a number of Communities, in which member agents and preferred suppliers can engage with each other and network around specific interests (e.g., wellness and adventure travel). Campbell said agents who participate in Communities sell 72% more of supplier members than other agents.
“I think some of that’s fed by it being a passion,” she said. “I mean, it’s so much easier to sell what you love and what you have interest in.”
‘It’s so much easier to sell what you love and what you have interest in.’
“I would just tell people to have the courage to find a niche and to be authentic to themselves, because that will come across to your clients as well,” Marek said.
“If you’re picking a niche just because you think it’s profitable or trendy, or if you read about it in trade publications or in the news or whatever, just because it’s the trend du jour doesn’t mean that you should follow it. If you’re not interested in something, then how the hell can you get excited to sell it to somebody else?”
Patience can also be key in developing a microspecialty, according to Moini.
“Sometimes you just need to hang around for a while,” he said.
“The first year or two, we were kind of questioning whether [the Army contract] was a good move for us, but things got better as we got better.”
Owen Hardy &
Eleanor Flagler Hardy
Owen Hardy spent some of his college years as an exchange student in Germany. His wife, Eleanor Flagler Hardy, said he became fluent in German as well as in trains. When he returned to the U.S., he was amazed at how lacking the train infrastructure was, leading him and his wife to start a magazine on modern train travel, International Railway Traveler, in 1983.
That eventually morphed into the couple selling luxury train travel themselves. Owen Hardy is the founder and CEO of the Society of International Railway Travelers in Louisville, Ky. His wife is the agency’s president.
Eleanor Hardy recalled, “Somewhere along the line Owen said, ‘We know more about these trains than anybody; why are we giving their 800 numbers? We need to have our own 800 number.’”
The Hardys started organizing group trips each year, then realized they were limiting themselves and started putting together FIT itineraries based around luxury rail travel. It remains their focus today.
Webinars alone don’t cut it
Another thing successful microspecialists have in common is experience.
Eleanor Flagler Hardy is president of the Society of International Railway Travelers based in Louisville, Ky. She runs it with her husband, founder and CEO Owen Hardy.
Their focus on luxury rail travel grew out of experience, Eleanor Hardy said. Before starting the agency, she and her husband published a magazine about modern rail travel. That eventually led them to sell rail trips, and they and their agents still experience the products they sell firsthand.
“You’ve got to go to these places,” she said. “You have to experience what you’re going to turn around to sell to somebody. You can’t base your business on web-inars.”
The agency tests everything it sells to clients, including airport transfers and hotels.
It’s expensive, she admitted, but “it’s an investment in your business.”
Mini Badacha, Bains Travel’s manager of Eastern Canada out of Mississauga, Ontario, agreed that knowledge is crucial for superspecialists. Badacha’s specialty is destination weddings in South Asia.
“When the call comes in and you’re talking to prospects, you already have that knowledge,” she said. “You can tell them, ‘Hey, I’ve done a wedding here,’ or ‘I’ve been to this resort, and they have so many venues where you could hold the ceremony,’ and so on and so forth.”
She added: “No matter which area you want to focus on, you need to be an expert.”
Word of mouth and years of serving the South Asian community in Canada is helping Bains Travel expand its specialty in destination weddings in South Asia, according to Mini Badacha, the agency’s manager of Eastern Canada.
A few years ago, Badacha landed her first South Asian destination wedding of about 120 people. Then, another lead came through for a 100-person wedding. Since then, the weddings have just kept coming.
Most of the weddings Badacha has planned have been for couples who are Sikhs, a common religion in India. She said the events have three major components: a ceremony where the group celebrates and sings together, a morning ceremony and an evening reception. The decor is colorful and bright. Badacha matches couples with the right hotel and connects them with on-site wedding coordinators.
“The return on your investment is amazing,” she said. “You’ve built new customers and clientele who, even after the wedding, some people call me back and say, ‘Hey, I’m taking a personal trip.’”
Generalists: a dying breed?
Specializing has taken center stage in recent years, and microspecialists have taken it a step further. But it begs the question: Are generalists a dying breed in the agency community? Thus far, the resounding answer is no.
It’s a matter of scale, Block said.
“The number of customers who go to a seven-day Caribbean cruise and Mexico and Florida, just the number of passengers, it’s in the millions,” he said. “Whereas the number of people who want to go to an art museum for pottery throughout Europe is probably in the thousands.”
“Ten years from now, are we still going to have general practitioners? Yes, but are people going to need specialists? No question. And be willing to pay a premium for that? No question.”
Campbell agreed that generalists won’t be pushed out by specialists. Instead, she argued that the trend of specialization will actually probably strengthen generalists’ businesses.
“If I’m focusing on wellness travel or river cruises, and I don’t want to do these other things, then there’s going to be plenty of room for someone who does want to do all of those things,” she said.
Maza likened generalist agents to general practitioners.
“Ten years from now, are we still going to have general practitioners? Yes,” he said. “But are people going to need specialists, a good ear, nose and throat doctor, a good gastroenterologist? No question. And be willing to pay a premium for that? No question.”