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To niche or not to niche, that is the question. At least, when it comes to creating a travel agency. There are two sides of the debate-do you create a specialty or take on any kind of traveling client?
We asked many travel agents and tour operators to tell us why they created a niche for themselves, what the benefits are and how they stand out.
Oli Russell-Cowan is the founder of Rad Season, a company that specializes in the adventure travel and action sports niche.
"Action sports and adventure travel information is very fragmented, not only among the various sports but in how people obtain it-across the web, print media and word of mouth," said Russell-Cowan. "If you get lucky and hear about an event in time, you still have to pull up multiple websites to work out all your travel details, accommodation, transport and reviews. The process is a mess. Finding rad things to do shouldn't be this hard."
So, he founded a community for rad enthusiasts and athletes. Why get rad? According to the Adventure Travel Trade Association, adventure tourism was a $263 billion market as of 2013. "This was an increase of 65 percent per year since 2009-and the numbers are still growing as technology transforms the way we experience travel," he said.
There were risks, however. "As a startup founder, we're always acutely aware of what our bottom line is and that trends come and go with the slightest breeze," he said. "With a business model based on cyclical events and seasons, it's a risky move to invest your life's work in a niche instead of a broader industry. Because of the risk, it's critical to understand tipping points and analytics models (what's converting and what's not)."
[READMORE]READ MORE: Travel Agents Who Specialize in Sports Travel[/READMORE]
Theresa Jackson said that her business niche in the luxury experiential/adventure segment is sustainability.
"Whether the client wants a trip built around responsible travel or just the most personal and immersive vacation, both can be achieved with a responsible tourism model," said Jackson of Enlightened Journeys Travel. "It is not about voluntourism or specific donations. It is an awareness that your travel is sustainable and that aspect makes my clients feel good about their choices. So, I stand out from the crowd in that my philosophy is #TravelforGood and to do what I do I have to be a #GlobalLocal, always developing contacts in the areas I send my clients (the hashtags are mine and specific to my brand to get my point across quickly here).
When Susan Moynihan went into business three years ago, she specialized in the romance market with her company, The Honeymoonist.
"Much of this is based on my past experience," she said. "I've been a wedding magazine editor for 15 years, specializing in travel and so had visited many of the places my clients would be heading. I also had a strong reputation in the luxury wedding market and understood how the industry worked from friends and peers on the client side. Lastly, I knew from my magazine research that honeymoons are the first time many couples reach out to a travel advisor. It can be confusing and overwhelming to plan a honeymoon and I knew I could bring special patience and insight to that market."
However, today, honeymoons are only half of her business. "I also work on special occasion trips, family travel and group travel, as an affiliate of Largay Travel," she said. "But whatever trip I'm planning, I love finding the emotional backstory to any of my clients' trips and bring that element of detail and passion to each trip I plan."
MickeyTravels, LLC's niche is that they are a 100 percent Disney-only travel agency.
"While some agencies specialize in Disney destinations, they typically book other destinations as well," said Greg Antonelle, managing director. "MickeyTravels has distinguished ourselves as only booking Disney vacations. This allows our agents to focus all their efforts on being as knowledgeable as possible regarding Disney vacations."
Antonelle said his company stands out thanks to their customer service and agent selection criteria.
"We select each agent to work on our team through a very rigorous process and less than one percent of all candidates that apply ultimately get hired to work with us," he said. "Our selection process is focused on several distinct things that I have learned during my 20+ years of executive recruiting experience."
He said that the risks in specialization for MickeyTravels is minimal. "Clearly, it's turning away business that comes our way that isn't Disney related," he said. "For us, the pros of being Disney only far outweigh the cons of turning away business."
Nina Fogelman's niche is Peru and she makes sure not to keep that focus razor sharp. "I do not attempt to step out of my comfort zone of selling what I know so that I can offer exactly what our demographic is looking for," said Fogelman, director of Ancient Summit. "I have never learned how to provide wholesale or group set departures and it is not my passion. I think a big key is to love what you do, know what you do and create that niche. Our clients look for "mom and pop" personalized contact and that is totally our niche."
The risks, she said, are not getting too much return business to the same country. "I have had to diversify a little by getting to know the nearby countries and forging great relationships with partners I work with there," said Fogelman.
Pam Walker's specialty is Adventure Travel/South America.
[READMORE]READ MORE: Why I Specialize: Travel Agent Nicole Thibault[/READMORE]
"I picked this niche because I love doing everything that it entails-biking, kayaking and hiking the beautiful places and meeting the people in the small towns and villages," said Walker of Walker Adventures, Ltd. "The benefits are many and the risks are that people are surprised when I tell them I also can do other things, like book cruises or tours in Europe. They think that my specialization limits me to just that and they book away from me."
Beth Johnston's niche is destination weddings and honeymoons. Having a niche is important she said because when you market to everyone, you end up marketing to no one.
"Essentially for marketing purposes, it is important to have a vision of your ideal client in mind and when you are not specialized you can't do that," said Johnston of Beth's Beautiful Getaways. "I think I stand out because I recently had my own destination wedding, which allows me to see everything from the client's viewpoint. I know the things they struggle with and what they are worried about. I can be more empathetic when helping them plan their dream destination wedding or honeymoon."
Muffie Fulton is the founder and owner of Bold Food LLC, immersive travel experiences that explore culture and history through food. "Bold Food definitely stands out by being unapologetically food obsessed and creating trips for other like-minded folks," she said. "The main risk in specialization is of course around appealing to a smaller group. However, foodies interested in travel can be very committed to companies that provide a great product and I know that we do."
She also said that one less obvious risk is that people don't know yet to look for this type of very focused tour. "The benefit is that this is my specialty," she said. "I know travel and I know food, so it makes much more sense for me to offer food tours than other types of tours."
Margie Lenau of Wonderland Family Vacations specializes in family travel. "At the time, I was warned that I would lose business from romance bookings, like honeymoons and destination weddings, if I put the "family" in my actual agency name," she said. "I ignored the warnings and followed my passion for families. The benefit of specializing is that I get to work with more family groups. Another benefit is that my marketing can be directed toward the ideal clients that I want to attract and most enjoy working with. Family travel is exploding, with cruise lines and resorts making more accommodations for all kinds of family groups."
Deciding to specialize or generalize is an individual business decision that may or may not work for each travel agency.
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Lisa Iannucci has written many travel articles for national magazines and newspapers. Over the years, her travel articles have...
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