Leave Your 9-5 Gig to Sell Travel Full Time? I Did It and So Can You.
At the beginning of 2023, I jumped headfirst into becoming a full-time travel agent.
I didn’t start out with the intention of doing this full-time. I enjoyed my corporate job in the financial services industry. Plus, I had an eighteen-month-old. Who had time to turn a passion into a full-time gig between diaper changes, restless nights (my kids didn’t sleep through the night until closer to two years old, lucky me), and the beginnings of tantrums . . . not to mention a 40-hour workweek plus commute?
Who had time to turn a passion into a full-time gig between diaper changes, restless nights, and the beginnings of tantrums . . . not to mention a 40-hour workweek plus commute?
Beyond that, leaving my corporate job was walking away from security. My job was salaried, so I could count on the same income twice a month. I got my health insurance for myself and my kids through that job too. The stakes were high.
But fate/Providence/luck/(insert your preferred way of accounting for circumstances) had a different plan. Here’s how I did it.
Meet Me, Kara Brown
Let me back up a bit – I’m Kara and I own Experience Culture Travel. I specialize in culturally immersive and adventurous travel. Trips like homestays in rural Ecuador, travel to destinations that may be perceived as less accessible (like Cuba), or discovering unique destinations that aren’t typically at the top of the average Joe’s bucket list. Oh, but I do those too – bucket list destinations, I mean. This type of travel, the kind that helps the traveler jump into local customs and cultures, is what I am passionate about.
Because I know many agents out there aspire to do this amazing gig full-time, I wanted to share a bit of my story of how I got here.
Starting Out With a Full-Time Career
In 2016, I began perusing Host Agency Reviews (HAR) for a while, doing my research. After a few months of reviewing allllll the articles (I am thorough yet fast at making decisions), I pulled the trigger to register as an LLC, get a business banking account, and join a host agency. After I launched, I did the basics. I told my friends and family I was a travel agent and made social media pages for my business.
At this point, I don’t think I had any real leads. It was a little nerve-racking because I wasn’t sure what else I should be doing, aside from dumping money into ads (which I wasn’t willing to do). But at the same time, that led me to have more time to start training on how to actually complete a booking on a few different supplier sites, as well as do some destination-specific trainings.
My Break in Generating Leads
My corporate job had an intranet where they would occasionally interview an employee to see what they did from 5 pm to 9 am, and there I found my first piece of free marketing. I was interviewed, and my story was broadcast to a company of about 2000 employees. I got my first clients from that and I’m grateful to all of them to this day for giving me and my business a go in its infancy.
Aside from those initial customers, I was not keen on advertising. I had an eighteen-month-old at home, and if you’re a parent (or grandparent, auntie, godparent, or even if you’ve ever even seen a baby) you probably know how tiring those years are. Instead, I focused on finessing my website and social media pages and creating blog and social media content. I also focused on learning processes such as fielding client inquiries, how to create and send proposals, how to collect credit card authorizations legally and securely, etc.
That’s not to say it was easy. I was taking all of the little “free time” I had as a mom of a toddler, and devoting it to my business. When I could’ve been binging the newest Netflix show, or actually reading a book (gasp! Is that even legal for moms???), and sometimes even when I could’ve been relaxing with my husband, I was at my computer, working on the business.
At first, it seemed like it was fine. But as new trip inquiries came in and I got busier, this started taking a bit of a toll on my husband and me. Even after I changed my full-time status to a part-time one at my corporate job, he perceived me as working “all the time” for very little pay. He felt like I was never not working.
Scaling My Travel Agency
I knew that if I wanted to scale, my processes had to be efficient now to spare me hair-pulling stresses later.
Since that first year or so, I’ve also upgraded a few things in my business:
- I switched from creating quotes using Microsoft Word to PowerPoint to using an actual itinerary builder (I personally use PlanItEasy, a CRM and itinerary builder all in one).
- For collecting credit card authorizations, I went from using Cognito forms to a free CRM (through my host), to now the more robust PlanItEasy CRM.
- I went from not charging any planning fees, to charging a $50 refundable planning fee, to a $50 nonrefundable planning fee, which evolved to charging different amounts depending on the complexity of the trip inquiry. (This eliminated SO MANY tire kickers and reduced my wasted time.)
- I began making my initial consultation mandatory for every new trip. People schedule 30 minutes with me to chat about the trip they’d like to take and we cover logistics like budget, when they’d like to go, and what style of travel they’d like. This allows people who haven’t yet worked with me to meet me, ensure they are comfortable with me, and ask questions about why I charge a planning fee. It also allows me to make sure they are a good fit for me, ensure their budget is reasonable for the trip, and that I can review any concerns with them directly.
- I started sending an email asking for a review the day after every single traveler comes back from a trip.
Reaching Sustainability Selling Travel
Truth be told, I think that being able to go from part-time to full-time was due largely to charging planning fees, having a higher SEO presence, and getting quite a few good reviews.
This trifecta led to sustainable income selling travel:
1. I have a great Google rating (4.8 or 4.9 stars right now I think) so people in my area who are searching for an agent can see that and my listing comes up due to the SEO. 1
2. Even though my average commission isn’t that high (I tend towards moderate budgets), my planning fee allows me to ensure the trip is worth my while to plan. Since I’m not chasing after the highest commissioned product, I am able to think clearly to find what is best for my client, even if that means I don’t get a commission on that component. My clients can rest assured that I’m out there searching high and low for the things that would knock their trips out of the park, regardless of if I can get commission from them or not.
3. This feeds back into my first point, I get good reviews because people know that I’m hearing what they say, diligently searching for things to accommodate their desires, and reflecting these preferences into their quotes.
Taking the Leap
It wasn’t an easy decision to go from selling travel part-time to full-time. My husband is generally more of a worrier/anxious person than I am, so he needed time to “prove” that I could make it as a full-time agent. Walking away from a steady salary and benefits was something we had to talk about.
We agreed upon a 3-month period where my side hustle would prove that it was sustainable enough to make the jump. I won’t go into the details of the requirements it had to show, because that was very specific to our situation. But in the end it was successful, and my husband and I decided it was time for me to quit my 9-5 and sell travel full-time.
And you know what? It’s been great. One month this year I even out-earned my husband. Not only is that a great start, but it’s a good indicator that a travel advisor career is not only sustaining but can grow.
So if you’ve been wavering about it, or maybe you’ve just started out and want to eventually switch over to full-time, I hope this helps you plan out your future in this incredible field I now call home.
- (Side note – SEO takes time and lots of it. While not my intention at the time, me spending so much time to fine-tune my website really is helping me out a lot now because Google identifies my website as a higher search result for several reasons, but one of the biggest is that I’ve had a blog now for 6-ish years and have regularly created content for it throughout that time). ↩