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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 14, 2020 6 months ago

How to succeed with a legacy business in a digital age

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Personal connections are critical and don't try to compete on price.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

In an era when vacations can be booked in seconds with a few clicks of a mouse, why would anyone choose to work with a travel agent?

A better question might be: “Why wouldn’t they?”

The internet and e-commerce bring the world’s information to our fingertips. But that also results in information overload, which often makes it difficult for busy people to make decisions. Others like to research and plan itineraries on their own but then have an experienced professional fine-tune, validate and, ultimately, book their trip.

'We don’t just train our agents how to run a travel business. We teach them how to run a business.' Rob Stuart, co-founder of Creating Magic Vacations

Rob and Kerri Stuart, co-founders of Creating Magic Vacations, a St. Petersburg-based travel agency, are riding high on that concept and a surge of interest in travel agency services. They run their entirely online, virtual agency — which, in less than two years, has already signed up 80 travel agents nationwide — from their home, and although they decline to disclose revenue, he says, "We had a really good 2019, a 2019 that we did not expect."

The Stuarts had been part of a nationwide travel agency franchise network, prior to going out on their own. To cultivate and expand their client base, they launched a podcast called "Disney Travel Secrets." In a March 2018 episode, Rob Stuart made a fateful comment.

Kerri Stuart “did not want me to say this, but I just said, ‘Hey guys, we’re thinking about starting our own Disney travel agency. Who wants to team up with us?’ Well, our email broke. We had hundreds of people reach out to us.”

The Stuarts launched their agency with 18 agents, the majority of whom were totally new to the travel industry and got into it to make money on the side. A few are now on their way to making it their full-time jobs. Aspiring agents pay a one-time fee to join Creating Magic Vacations, and in return they get a starter package that includes clothing, business cards, a website, admission to the company’s annual conference in Orlando and access to regular virtual training sessions. 

Rob Stuart says Creating Magic Vacations’ fee is a fraction of their previous agency. “When we joined [that agency] in 2012, it was a $10,000 franchise fee,” he says. “But we don’t just train our agents how to run a travel business. We teach them how to run a business.”

That training includes how-to insights into the unconventional business practices that have allowed the Stuarts to flourish in a time when brick-and-mortar travel agencies are on the decline. For example, Creating Magic Vacations doesn’t have a website. Instead, the company focuses on reaching customers via podcast — in addition to "Disney Travel Secrets," Rob and Kerri now host a second podcast called "Travel Talk Weekly" — and phone.

“We train our agents to pick up the phone and call their clients because they need to have a personal connection with you,” Kerri Stuart says. “I book a ton of business via Facebook Messenger, but I’m always like, ‘Can I get on the phone with you?’ We want to have that personal conversation.”

That’s another key to success for a legacy businesses in a digital age: Make it personal. It’s an approach that has allowed to Creating Magic Vacations’ agents to do well, head to head, with such companies as Costco that offer discounted travel packages for their members.

“Costco is not going to do that for you,” Kerri Stuart says. “But once you get to know somebody, and you talk to them, you're like, ‘Oh, I learned this about you.’ And then we can figure out ways to ‘plus up’ their vacation that they are not going to think of.”

They might take more time than sending an email or text message, but Rob Stuart says one-on-one conversations with clients reinforce two simple but critical aspects of a travel agent’s ability to convert leads to sales.

“No. 1, they have to know you can book it,” he says, “and No. 2, they have to think of you when they want to book it. That is the entire travel industry. There are only two components to what we do.”

The strategy works surprisingly well with millennials, who tend to gravitate toward boutique, experiential travel they plan themselves. They appreciate having a travel agent in their corner, Rob Stuart says.

“They’re some of our best clients," he says. "They do all the research. But they need someone to validate it. They just want somebody to say, ‘Good job, that was awesome.’”

This story has been updated to reflect that Creating Magic Vacations is not a franchise. 

 

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