Successful Travel Agents Share their Stories - Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld 2012 Live

June 20, 2012

This is a series of live posts from Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld 2012. Due to the short time frame from which we hear the sessions to when we publish them, please excuse any errors! 

Wednesday's General Session saw moderators Joanie Ogg and Mary Pat Sullivan asking a panel of 6 six successful travel agents the following question: "In 6 minutes or less, share the highlights of your success in the industry." Here's what the successful travel agents have to say.

Successful Travel Agents Panel


Gary E. Smith, Owner/Manager, CruiseOne Franchise

Smith: When I was 14 I went on my first cruise with my aunt. I had a tradeshow management firm. We started doing events on cruise ships and eventually charted a cruise ship from the customer side. Later in life, I ended up working on a very large sales account where I brought no happiness to the world. I wanted to work somewhere that was happiness oriented. There are fantastic products to sell in travel so I got back into travel about 8 years ago.

What we sell in terms of cruises is a commodity. It’s the worst thing in the world to sell. I made sure everyone in the agency understands they are selling themselves. We focus on the value we add and never forget the fact we’re there to make somebody happy.

Paula Cunkelman, Franchise Co-owner, CruisePlanners/American Express

Cunkelman: Totally opposite story of Gary. I work with Cruise Planners and, to my surprise, I’m a Rock Star [revenue level] at Cruise Planners. I met my husband about 20 years ago and he loved cruising, I’d never cruised. For our honeymoon, he wanted to go on a cruise, I was nervous since I get sea sick. I got the patch, went on the cruise, and I loved it!

The next few years we traveled twice a year. At his work my husband became known as ‘the cruise man’. When he retired, he said ‘I think we need to get into the cruise business.’ That was about the time home based agents were coming around. We read up on it and we went and talked to Cruise Planners.

My husband was so excited when we went down to FL to sign the docs, I was crying. He was an engineer, I was an admin assistant for a pastor. We were not sales people. It took us a while to learn the sales process. That we’re selling ourselves, not the cruise product.

One of the things Cruise Planners offers is excellent planning. We put an ad in the paper, waited for the phone to ring… nothing. We slowly went into the business. We started learning more about the business. We talked with people at our church that we felt comfortable with, that wouldn’t reject us.

There are two reasons we went into business. First was, when we were in the work world, travel agencies were only open 9-5 and we couldn’t meet with them. We wanted to be around to 24-7. The second reason was we wanted to teach sort of a Cruising 101 to newbies.

We had to learn to expand as the cruise industry expanded. People started calling us and they wanted land vacations. We weren’t comfortable with land vacations since we’d never been on them. But Cruise Planners had great training.

We learned it was about respect. We had to learn how to be savvy with Facebook, we had to grow with the travel industry.

Sherri Rost, President, Castaic Travel

I’ve only been in the industry for about two years. I was part-time before that. I was a member of a Harley Davidson motorcycle group. At a meeting, they were looking for a volunteer to put together a trip for them. It ended up being 33 ladies to wine tasting country. They loved it. To this day I plan an annual trip for them. It was a hobby back then.

In 2007, one of the ladies, Kathy, was putting together a cruise for the group. She passed away and I took it over. Kathy was with YTB so I inherited YTB. I made a call to them and I realized, this just wasn’t the company for me.

I looked at a list of host from Agent@Home magazine and contacted Montrose Travel I spoke with Andi Mysza. After 30-45 minutes on the phone with her, I knew this was the agency I wanted to be with. I was with the FBI and was within 2 years of retirement.

I was at a point to turn my hobby into a second career. I built upon strengths I had as an FBI agent—documenting the heck out of everything, paying attention to detail, etc.

I first utilized the classes by Montrose Travel; they were excellent. I then went on to ACC and Princess Commodore certification. Now, I need to start selling things.

I went back to my core motorcycle group. My next trip for them, I had 41 people on the cruise. I planned the next trip and reserved 33 cabins. I did a sales presentation and had booked 36 by end of it. By the end of week, 42 cabins. I’m now in the process of planning their fourth cruise.

I’ve expanded out and am doing my marketing with about four motorcycle groups and hope to expand even further.

I retired September 30th, 2011. October 1 became my first full-time day as a travel agent. What did I do? I set up booth at FBI office in L.A. I had business cards, brochures, and suppliers with me.

I built upon the people I already knew and the associations I’d had. Since I’d been with some of the people at the FBI for 25 years, they know I’m going to tell them the truth and will put together something that will be a great memory for them.

Melisa Nicolet, Independent Affiliate, Avoya Travel/American Express

Nicolet: When I was three, I went toMontanaon my first flight. I spilled pop all over the seat. The flight attendant came over to help out and she looked just like Jackie O. I wanted to be FA.

Things changed and I ended up studying childhood education. When my son got to be about 6, I decided I was sick of kids. I went back to school and studied travel and tourism.

I worked at a brick and mortar for 16 years and then went home based with Avoya. Best decision I ever made. It’s such a family environment, you’ve got 24-7 support by email, by text. The commission is paid every week. There is instant commission. I would never, ever go back.

I want to be my own boss. I got sick of wearing the heels. If we [clients] were on Skype, they would be horrified! The hoodies, the pony tails…🙂

My son works at Disney World, he keeps asking when he can come work for Avoya.

I can work anywhere. I was in theEiffel Tower and was helping clients. At the grocery store.

Toby Nash, Founder & Owner, Cruise & Travel Masters

Nash: I worked for a large agency in Salt Lake City. I became pregnant and there was zero flexibility. I was disenfranchised. I looked to see if the needs were being met locally at the travel agencies. I called all the travel agencies in the area and pretended I was a customer.

Of the 15 agencies I called, I only received 2 communications… and they were in writing. It made me understand there was a need for something bigger and better than what my community had.

I needed the flexibility and didn’t care if I worked 80 hours a week. I opened a cruise only agency in 1984. It only lasted one year and decided they needed to have a broader scope. In 1985, we opened what would later be called a host agency.

The thing I value about independent contractors was the respect they have for the clients’ experience.

We grew from one person to another person in 1985. We have 46 independent contractors now. I view the independent contractors as my client. I manage the office with my relationship with our vendors.

We joined Vacation.com 15 years ago because they bring such huge value to us as an organization. Commissions, marketing, back-end, front-end… it’s just phenomenal.

The key to me has been associating with independent contractors that have the same goals as me, that want to work and play hard, and deliver incredible experiences with customers.

I need to stress that having a GDS has been crucial to our business. We make so much money off running airline tickets. I think one of the best decisions I ever made was not closing that chapter in my life.

 Jerry Vaughn, President and CEO, World Voyager Vacations

Jerry:  First, if you want the secret of making a small fortune in the travel industry. Start with a large fortune and you’ll soon get a small fortune! 🙂

Understand the truth that the only thing that will never change, is that things change.

Being bold, persevering, and adaptability are key to being successful in this business.

When I retired in 1995, I quickly drove my wife crazy. So I built a successful business and sold it.

Once again, I was at home and driving my wife crazy. I was too young to retire since I’m type A and can only sit still for about 5 min.

I went to dinner with a friend of mine and he asked what do you like to do? I said ‘Go on vacation’. He said, ‘Why don’t you think about that?’ He gave me the book 50 best Franchises in America. In the leisure travel category, CruiseOne franchise was listed as #1.

We plopped in $30k for a franchise. Went to Southern California for two week of training; Florida for another 2 weeks of training. It was astounding. Three weeks before we were supposed to open store, we went to annual franchise convention in South Florida. We were so excited.

At the convention they told us they sold the franchise system and it was going to be something never done before, it was going to be a ‘click and mortar’ system. A hybrid storefront and online travel franchise.

It was going to be called Byebyenow.com. It was during the dot com bubble and the company went bankrupt within a year. Another large travel company bought byebyenow.com out of bankruptcy. This was not what I signed up for. We now became part of another franchise. We paid royalties and no one came to our store.

My research lead me to the belief leisure travel was the future. Our franchise contract came to an end in 2005. We decided to do vacation travel and became part of Ensemble. I was appealed that it was a co-op. Getting money seems to make more sense than paying money.

During 1999 to now, we’ve contracted and expanded. We’ve had up to 16 employees and 3 locations.

We bought a competitor in 2006, about a $3M store. In 2010, we had a setback when I lost a year to health issues. We’ve emerged and we’re growing again. We’re mostly meeting incentives, large groups, and a lot of Alaska.

It’s been a bumpy road and we’ve had to be flexible and nimble.

Other Travel Weekly’s CruiseWorld 2012 Live Blogging

  1. A Master Class in Marketing & Sales – Travel Weekly’s CruiseWorld 2012 Live
  2. Tech Tips and Tricks to Micro-Target Clients – Travel Weekly’s CruiseWorld 2012 Live
  3. Keeping the “Business” in Your Home Business – Travel Weekly’s CruiseWorld 2012 Live
  4. Legal Dos and Donts – Travel Weekly’s CruiseWorld 2012 Live
  5. Cruise Line Leadership Shares Insight – Travel Weekly’s CruiseWorld 2012 Live
About the Author
Steph Lee - Host Agency Reviews

Steph Lee

Steph grew up in the travel industry. She worked with thousands of agents in her role as a former host agency director before leaving in 2012 to start HAR. She's insatiably curious, loves her pups Rygy and Fennec, and -- in case you haven't noticed -- is kinda quirky.

If you’re looking for Steph, she leaves a trace where ever she goes! You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest as 'iamstephly'. 🙂