Travel agents are a rare breed these days.
The business has been reshaped by the Internet, changing the way the travel industry functions. Most hotels and airlines don't pay commissions to travel agents like they used to as consumers now do their own booking online.
So it may be surprising that one Cape Coral entrepreneur thinks there's opportunity in that industry. But Betty Jenny Armas has picked a single niche destination: the Galapagos Islands, the Pacific Islands off of Ecuador made famous by scientific explorer Charles Darwin.
Home to species such as giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies, Ecuador limits the number of visitors to the Galapagos Islands so people don't disturb the wildlife. The islands are part of a national park and marine reserve.
Armas knows the Galapagos. Born and raised in Quito, Ecuador, she studied biology and became a naturalist guide on the chain of islands. For five years, she and her ex-husband operated a sailing charter on the islands, taking visitors such as a crew from National Geographic magazine to the remote volcanic locations.
Armas moved to New York in the 1990s and eventually moved to Cape Coral in 2000 and started selling real estate here. When they find out about her life as a nature guide in the Galapagos, customers pump her for information. “A lot of people always ask me about it,” she says. “Everybody wants to go.”
Armas realized that she still knows many of the reputable operators in the Galapagos, and she can recommend charters based on customer needs and preferences. “I've been talking to the people I already know, those that have a great operation.”
The real estate downturn gave Armas a good reason to look for another source of income. “I always wanted to work for myself,” she says.
So in the spring Armas decided to start her own travel company, Galapagos Green Tours. She will specialize in helping schedule individuals and groups on charters to the Galapagos, earning a commission from the tour operators.
Because of the limited availability and strong demand for adventure travel, trips to the Galapagos start at $2,500 per person. “If I can send a group, that would be best,” she says, noting she can arrange trips for as many as 16 people.
The winter season from December through February in the Galapagos is already booked, proving the popularity of the destination. “The trips I'm working on now are for Easter and April,” she says. “April is one of the very nice seasons to visit the islands.”
The Southwest Florida Microenterprise Project recently awarded Armas $2,500 to start the travel business. A single mother with a teenager, the money will help Armas create a website (galapagosgreeentours.com) and organize the travel packages she's got planned.
To market her services, she'll tap into the vast network of real estate contacts she's made over the years. In addition to the website, she's planning to organize trips for travel journalists whose articles will generate publicity.
Sailing clubs could be a good source of prospective clients. “People who like boats want to go to the Galapagos,” she says.