Jennifer Doncsecz, VIP Vacations
Jennifer Doncsecz, CTIE and President of VIP Vacations, is no stranger to Host Agency Reviews. We interviewed her about going from home based to storefront Back in the days of yore, we interviewed her about transitioning from a home based to storefront. Since venturing into storefront territory in 2013, her travel agency has continued to thrive over the years. Our podcast picks up where we left off, digging into the goldmine of Jennifer's 26 years of travel industry experience to discover pointers on how to build a successful brand, expanding her niche to include destination weddings and honeymoons and other marketing gems.
- VIP Vacations: Jennifer's website! Pink galore!
- Keeping the Business in Your Home Business: Jennifer's seminar on wearing different hats
- A Tale of Two Agents: Our earlier interview with Jennifer
- WhatsApp [18:49]: Jennifer's preferred method of staying in touch with clients while they're on their vacations.
- Amy Cuddy's TED Talk [49:54]: A warm fuzzy and source of inspiration for Jennifer, "Your body Language May Shape Who You Are."
Steph: You're listening to "Travel Agent Chatter," Volume Four. Today we've got Jennifer Doncsecz with VIP Vacations on the show. I'd like to give a big warm welcome to all of our new listeners, and a huge hug with warm chocolate chip cookies to all of you that have listened before.
"Travel Agent Chatter" is an audio series, produced by the team here at Host Agency Reviews. If you're a fan of the show, don't forget to leave a review and subscribe to us on iTunes. And a quick shout-out to CamiC71, for the lovely review a few weeks ago. She said, "Love this podcast. I'm just dipping my toes into the travel industry and this podcast, as well as Stephanie's other resources, such as HAR's website and 7-Day Setup Support Group, have been invaluable to me. I'm very inspired by Stephanie and feel confident in the steps I'm taking thanks to her. Can't wait for the next podcast." Well, guess what, Cami? We've got your next podcast coming up. Let's get onto the show.
Hello, hello everyone. Welcome to "Travel Agent Chatter." This is Steph Lee, the founder of Host Agency Reviews and your host for today's show. As usual, we've got a great listen for you today with Jennifer Doncsecz from VIP Vacations in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. So I met Jennifer...I was attending a conference years ago and happened to be sitting in on a session Jennifer was putting on.
I think the name of it was something like, Putting the Business in your...or Keeping the Business in your Home-based Business. And I didn't know anything about Jennifer. But let me describe the scene for you. So I sit down and Jennifer is standing in front of the room dressed in all pink. And if you've ever met Jennifer, you know she almost always dresses in pink to stay on brand with VIP's Vacations. And you also know that she's a fantastic business woman.
She really stuck in my mind. They went up and introduced her afterwards, and, you know, we've been friends ever since. But today, I'd like to pick her brain and figure out how she grew from a home-based agent selling Disney, to a storefront with nine employees and she's now...in 2016, she was Beaches number one selling agency, as well as in 2016, the number one destination wedding agency in the world for Sandals.
So, I'm excited for Jennifer to share with you, all of our lovely listeners, tips on marketing and how to own your own success. As usual, I want you to be able to sit back and relax during the show and not worry about scribbling down notes. We'll be listing the resources that we chat about and bring up during the episode, as well as a full transcript in our show notes.
So you can really focus on the actual conversation and go to the site later to get the details. So you can visit hostagencyreviews.com\tac and click on episode four to find the show notes. And then for those of you that just can't wait and need a little itinerary for an upcoming episode, we'll be breaking the podcast down into four segments.
The first is going to be the rise to a storefront, marketing, owning your success, and then we'll end with our warm, fuzzy segment, which is especially applicable today because it is cold outside in Minnesota. So sit back and relax, my friends. It's time to hear some gems of wisdom from our lady in pink, Miss Jennifer Doncsecz. Jennifer, welcome to Travel Agent Chatter.
Jennifer: Hi, Steph. Thank you so much for having me.
Steph: Super excited to have you on. So, I think, so far, that you take the cake for the most experienced agent that we've had on Travel Agent Chatter. You've been in business for 26 years, correct?
Jennifer: Yeah. Yup, 26 years. I can go by the time I was pregnant with one of my kids, because I was on bed rest. So, yeah, that's when I started. Yes.
Steph: And you've got a really interesting story, because your niches have run the gamut, from you were an employee that was an in-house corporate agent, and you've gone to home-based, to Disney, to storefront, to groups and destination weddings and honeymoons. Would you mind sharing your story about how you went from being an in-house corporate agent, to branching off onto your own and then to all these different niches?
Jennifer: Sure. Well, you know, the rise of a good travel agent usually meant that you had to know how to issue air tickets and then you've got a really good corporate account. And we're talking in the early '90s, before there was any kind of commission cap with airline tickets, and before agencies even had to use computers really.
So, clients were coming in and they didn't have computers. So we had these systems that were hooked up to like Worldspan and Apollo, Amadeus, Galileo, a Sabre, and you had to get trained. So, automatically there was a sense of credibility because there was no way for the consumer to really look online. And we had to be set up with, you know, ARC to do this. So you had to get bonded and it was a lot of credentials to go into it. It was a lot harder to just become an agent. You had to go to classes and be skilled. But I did that and I was assigned a corporate account and, you know, I was on site there for quite awhile. I really got to know the people that worked there. It was a big company.
And then when I was pregnant with my son, I eventually had to go on bed rest. There was this new thing called a computer at home that you could get hooked up to your phone and dial in. And we actually started it with Prodigy. Now I'm really dating myself. But I was able to do a business while I was at home, and that really became kind of how my business took off, because the company I was working with really wanted me.
So I was able to negotiate contracts with them, and then it just kind of spawned. They knew people and set me up doing, you know, travel for other companies. By 2000, I had about $3 million of corporate accounts. And if you think about that in terms of my age, I was, you know, not even 30. Three million dollars at 10% commission was a pretty good life, but a pretty crazy life because I was at the beck and call of these companies and there was really no after hours care.
There was really just the phone. So I hardly left. It wasn't even like people had cell phones. So I hardly left my, you know, office, running from my home with my children. And then 9/11 came and kind of crashed everything, because people just didn't wanna travel and companies didn't wanna travel.
So the only people that were traveling were basically the vacationers that I had booked Disney for honeymoons for. And I had taken my kids to vacation they had gone on every single year with Disney. And that really set me up for organization, which I think is key. I feel like there's a passion with people who do Disney, because the pay might not be that great. The commission, you know, is usually around 10%.
But it's a lot of planning and details and scheduling, you know, the dining. Setting it all up and really taking that customer service level above and beyond because you're working with families' vacation and they're saving for awhile to do this.
So I got, you know, well known in our area for doing Disney, and that kind of sustained the business. Then, again, like I said, the honeymooners kept traveling even after 9/11. And I kind of fell in love with Sandals and Beaches. And that's how the wedding business moved in, and it took over. You know, it started to grow.
I didn't have these massive accounts that would sign on to do...you know, promised to do close to $1 million in corporate. But I was able to actually make some more money because commissions were a little bit higher, especially with, you know, some of the all-inclusives. And before I knew it, I was doing well over $1 million in sales and I couldn't handle it anymore. So I had to take on a part-time agent to kind of help with data entry and final payments.
And this is before even technology is as good as it is now. There are still, you know, tour operators that were not using payment, you know, online sites. And so you still had to take the time to be on hold or make changes. Then I blinked and it was 2010, '11 and I had several agents working in full-time, salaried agents, not ICs. Agents working in our home, that we kind of converted this area for backdoor and we were having walk-ins on Saturdays.
It took over. Once Google found my address, man, everybody was coming to that address. You know, we had Sandals-wrapped vehicles, so the neighborhood knew about it. And I just said it was time. By the time I had about five agents, I had to move. We found a location and painted it pink, and the rest is kind of history. That was almost five years ago.
Steph: Yeah. We interviewed you a while back for an article on agents that went from home-based to storefront. For those that haven't read the article, we'll link to it in the show notes. But can you tell us about the transition and if you felt a difference, when you transitioned from home-based to storefront, in terms of how people looked at you, how you felt as an agent?
Jennifer: Well, you know, I think that it had a lot to do with having existing clients already and being able to forecast ahead to see how business was growing. So, you know, there was definitely...there's a fear when you have to take on, you know, like, a new building, whether it's rent or...
You know, we bought the building and remodeled. But I can tell you it was, like, instantly worth it, the amount of business that came just from having the location. So now you're visible. For us, we literally call ourselves The Pink Elephant that was in the room, because we painted this...yeah. It's true. We painted this Victorian building that was kind of grey and didn't stand out, this kind of very calm.
Looks very Cape May or Island-y like—pink with white shutters and, you know, all of the white millwork that Capes are known for, and everybody in the neighborhood just saw this place. We're on a really great public street in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that 40,000 cars a day go by.
So just the recognition of people knowing that there's an agency there, and the neighborhood respecting the fact that we really cleaned up this dilapidated building and remodeled it. We had people just coming to just see what it looked like inside because they saw the months of work in prepping and doing the renovations on this place.
But then there was also the credibility - I'm using this word over and over again - credibility that came with reassurance that people, especially Gen Xers, always doubt everything, that they have a solid business that they can go to, that they can count on. Whether there's some fear that you work from home, therefore you might not be legitimate, which I had to overcome for years when I worked at home.
But also, this "I just wanna meet with you," and it was fine to meet at Panera, but I wanna go in. And I can hear the phones ringing now. And I can see other, you know, agents there. So you have to be running a good business. So, that became this push now that we are absolutely legitimate. We're in our area. We're a small business, help small business.
And it grew. Our numbers grew the first year by 34%. So that was huge. I won't say that that's the norm, though. So I don't wanna, like, run through everybody's bubble garden with a pin. But I think there was a lot of really good [inaudible] branding, marketing, advertising that went into play, and the location had a lot to do with it, right, in real estate, location, location, location.
I do think that there will always be a push up, if you are going from home to a legitimate kind of office or a storefront that helps you close sales. There is something about being able to close sales when you are in a building. And yet, as I say this, 90% of our business is phone or email. So there's just something about people feeling comfortable with it.
Steph: Did you do any, like, advertising, like, traditional means of advertising when you moved to a storefront? Or was it just because it was...
Jennifer: Heck yeah.
Steph: Oh, you did? What did you do?
Jennifer: No. We did. So we had a huge open house and we actually...I budgeted for having vendors come. So we put out a tent and we had vendors come, and we definitely charged them a vendor fee. Think about, like, if you were gonna go to a bridal show, how much a bridal booth would cost.
And then we had a tent put out in case there was bad weather. So we had this huge, you know, pavilion tent set up. Some of our partners not only paid for, you know, their booth, but, for example, Hard Rock Resorts brought a band in. And it was just a local band, but enough that it brought in attention.
We also made sure that every vendor did a giveaway. Surprises always kind of attract people. We emailed our entire database and then we did a billboard as well, for about 60 days preceding the grand opening. We also have a very well done, robust website that we put our event on a calendar on our website. Social media was great as well. And we had 500 people come to our open house.
The billboard was uniquely done for us as well - we designed it - that said we were moving. And I drive a pink Beetle, and we had the photographer take pictures of every agent sitting inside of the Beetle. And if you are old enough to remember that the fun, little, you know, clowns running into a Volkswagen and then, you know, how many clowns come out of the Volkswagen.
This is a convertible. So we were all sitting on the convertible and it had luggage on the top, and the gentlemen that worked for me, the agents were kind of pushing the car as well. So we fit the 10 of us, and it said, "VIP has moved," you know, with our new location, our website and our open house date.
So that was a huge success. That was a big splash. We also called local media to come into our event. We had a radio station that reported...you know, like, came live in between, you know, their music. So we really used connections with media and, you know, press releases and such in our area, to bring attention to it.
It was on the signature of all of our emails, because it was about three months after we moved, we had this big, you know, open house. So everybody was invited. And it was great. We've been here for almost five years. I think that article that you wrote was almost like...it was like four and a half years ago. So I mean, we've been here for awhile and I wouldn't change a thing.
I will tell you, my life is a lot different though because I'm not working at 11:00 at night, and that's a great thing. It separates the life. I still look at my phone. I'm still addicted to, like, looking at the phone and the emails. But because it's a set schedule, I actually get up and leave. It doesn't mean I leave when everybody else leaves, but I still get up and leave, and that has had a huge impact on just living.
Steph: That's a great point I don't think a lot of people bring up about moving from home-based to storefront, is it really draws a concrete line between your work and your home life. And it's nice because sometimes it's incredibly hard to draw that when it's in your home.
Jennifer: Especially when you get really busy. When you're really good, there's less of a boundary that you have with your clients. They know you work at home. So they're calling you at 11:00 at night. And I won clients over back then, for sure. That, you know, I answered an email and I got them a price right then and there.
But the amount of clients that I won over, compared to the lifestyle that I had, you know, I guess it's what you put a value on. Because getting a few clients in the course of the year because you answered the email at 11:00, or being able to sit at home with your family at 9:00 at night and have, you know, dinner and put them to sleep and that kind of a thing, that means more to me than, like, those three clients that I might have won over.
And there's no saying that I wouldn't have won them over if I answered them the next day either. So I think as you get, you know, more into the business, you're so eager to just please everybody, that sometimes we have to train our clients. And if clients know you work from home, the boundary line is just blurred. They'll call you all the time.
Steph: I think there's kind of a life cycle of an agent when you're starting out, you need those clients and you want those clients and you're willing and you have the time. And as you become more mature and experienced as an agent, you have a set book of business already and you don't necessarily need those, and you know your value and don't feel like you have to, you know, be answering the phone at 11:00 at night. That it can wait until the morning.
Jennifer: Yeah. You know, it's hard even here in the office. Because we hit send and receive on our, you know, on our computers. You might think you're done at 6:00 and get ready to leave. But you hit send and receive and there's...you know, you have to balance. Do I wanna answer this person now? Do I want to wait till tomorrow? So you will always have to play that. You know, what's important? What's the priority? What's not?
With technology, we are able to answer people if there's an emergency. I tell all of my brides before they're about to leave. I use an app on my phone called WhatsApp, and I only give them my cell phone about a week before they're supposed to leave. Because, again, we're training them, right, and letting them know that we're still available.
So they'll come back very, very happy. Because if there is a problem, we want to help them, for sure. It's a lot easier when they're there than when they come back. You can't fix it then. But there's also, like, I'm not giving it to them when I'm working on a quote for them or just starting it. That takes time to learn, and it's a dance. You have to play with them too.
Steph: Yeah. We'll link to WhatsApp, the link to that, in our show notes. But do your agents then that work in the office do the same thing with their clients? Is that kind of a VIP procedure?
Jennifer: It depends on what their role is, that's for sure. So our office is kind of split up to have a front office and have a groups department. So we have four agents in the front and they all have access to their emails. You know, however they wanna do it. Whether it's set on a laptop at home or on their phone.
So I would instill upon them that it's a judgment. Right? If you get an email and it's your day off and somebody says it's urgent, please use good judgment. But for the agents that are more in groups and working with brides, absolutely. Absolutely, they will take that. They will send that message, "Here's how you can reach me."
And then we also have people that are kind of in operations, that handle, like, you know, the invoice and the payments, making sure documents get out. So there's not as much of a push for that. And then we also have a backup person that if it is a Sunday and we hear from somebody via email that it's urgent, will come into the office and work on them, especially if we don't have their paperwork.
That was a big thing for me to kind of let go of when everything was in my house. So I could just run downstairs and say, "This is their schedule." And things like that aren't as easy, if you're not walking back and forth to your office with your laptop, which I'm not doing. So we have a couple of people that will call, you know, like the emergency person that will run in.
I was actually in Jamaica in October, and I had a client in Scotland that had an issue. And this agent came in - his name is Michael - he came in on a Sunday, spent three and half hours on a Sunday helping this client. Because that's kind of our backup person to do that. I think that that's a good policy for people to have. How do you handle that when you're traveling? How do you handle it?
If you do have an office in your home and you're traveling, what do you do? Do you stop everything? So having, like, more of a defined boundary between hours and who works on certain schedules, because we're open six days a week. That really helped us kind of figure out what we need to do if there is an emergency.
Usually those plans come from necessity. You know, something happens and it's a hurricane, and what do you have to do next? So we have these, like, drills for hurricanes and for when everybody's traveling, and for when there's, you know, snow storms to figure it out. Just so that we can, you know, do these fire drills to help our clients if there's an emergency.
Steph: I'm sorry, I'm just envisioning you doing drills in your office and you're like, "All right, everybody. Everybody, we're gonna do a hurricane drill. Get to your stations."
Jennifer: This is what we do. But, you know, those are the things that make you look so much better to your client when you have issues. Like what we had in September this year. You know, those hurricane after hurricane, after hurricane. We could be proactive, where people were more reactive.
Because we could look ahead and we still learned again, based on, you know, "Okay. Now, this is the hypothetical, but now this is in motion." We have actually now even fine tuned it even more, because we know what happens when you see a hurricane coming and you know where people are traveling and we pull the files and we know how to reach out to them.
What we didn't realize were the islands that weren't affected by, let's say, Irma, so many of our clients were doing connecting flights through Miami. So we would look and say, "Okay. Aruba's not hit." But now we have to actually also fine-tune the details, because people were stuck, because they were flying through Miami and Miami Airport was closed.
So, all good intentions. You know, we still can learn from them and figure out how we have to tweak what we're gonna do, you know, for the next time that happens. But being proactive is so much better, being ahead of it.
Steph: Yeah. You know, it makes you look good to the clients, but it's also really great for your agents and for your own mental well being, to not feel like, "Oh my gosh, there's a hurricane. I don't know what to do." To be able to think ahead and have a plan that's written down, that you can follow and then be adaptive from there.
Jennifer: Exactly. Because, you know, the funny thing is, I was actually traveling and I came home on the 10th of September. And the crew here had already figured out a lot of what needed to happen, that that was the following week. That 11th through, like, the 15th, that everything was coming down crashing. So they already had the means and the outline of what they needed to do, because we had practiced that fire drill. We have that as well for, you know, snow emergencies.
Steph: Which isn't gonna affect everyone, but those of us in cold weather, we definitely have the snow problem when there's a snowstorm.
You were just talking about kind of the different roles within your office, and I'd like to move into marketing now and how you market VIP. Because you mentioned that you have some roles in the office, where the people are doing more back office things. We've checked numerous times in the past, as an agent matures and sells more, they need to start handing things off. And you have a rule that used to be, I think, that agents that reach $1 million in sales, they need to start handing things off. I think yesterday you told me that you had changed it. What's your rule, and why have you changed it?
Jennifer: Yeah. So, I've always kind of thought that if you were by yourself and you sold $1 million, to get to that next level or continue to have growth would also include a lot of tasks that you can easily hand off to somebody else. That you can do additional marketing or really tweak a sale and you're not gonna lose the customer service that actually built your reputation and why people come back to you.
And keep you up to date on, you know, new trends and being able to be ahead of the game rather than trying to play catch up. When you have $1 million in sales, it's just you have to do all of those things or your lifestyle is going to change. Again, you're gonna be working at night.
You know, it's really hard to build a new wall when you're constantly trying to, like, stick your hole in the dam and fix things that are cracking. So, my theory was, you get to $1 million, you actually hire an assistant and then you can build. And if you have two agents that have $1 million, you can still have that one part-time assistant but now your business can grow and grow and grow. So you're gonna have, like, one full-time, one part-time.
Three agents, you might wanna then have one full-time assistant or admin or ops person, and then so on. And you can keep growing with that. So now you have five people doing $1 million in sales. Maybe you have the full-time and now you have that receptionist or somebody that's answering the phone, or, you know, kind of qualifying people part-time.
That's how I was able to kind of do this, like, business plan when we moved to this building. But that has since changed, because technology has changed and my agents have been with me for a long time now. You know, when we moved here, I had agents that were here with me two, two and a half, three years. Now they're pushing seven and eight years, and they're better, and technology is better so we can actually handle things.
We're not staying on hold to, you know, get fee assignments or make payments, or even add the flight times to get the schedule, you know, to get the transfers in. So it's now changed to not just be...it's not just $1 million. Now I'm more along the lines of the commission based.
So that means when your commission is well over $100,000, we have to look at how you're doing. Because $1 million of sales, on average, you would hope the agent made 10%. Right? But sometimes it gets bogged down in a lot of the either...you know, in a lot of the either [inaudible] cruise line [inaudible 00:26:36] on.
So, it's no longer that $1 million mark for me. It's at least $100,000 in commissions. And then I try to see what the tasks are and what you're specializing in and where you're making the most of your money, and focus on, "Okay. I have an agent that does a heck of a good job with Hawaii. You're gonna do all Hawaii with the agent that's spending hours trying to figure out Hawaii. You're not doing Hawaii anymore." You're gonna push that over to the other agent because she can do it a lot faster.
So efficient, proficient in technology has kind of changed that. Even our admins can do things faster and better. So it's more about the growth of each agent, and that starting point of $100,000 has now maybe even moved to $150,000 in commissions. They're just happy to have, you know, an ops person doing...I mean, can you imagine if you've done groups, to have somebody who handles the payments, reaches out to each of the guests to get their flights, does their flights, does their docs, makes sure that everything is, you know, in line, invoices, how many more groups you can do, if you had somebody just being able to do that?
Steph: Yes. I mean, even in my business, I look at how nice it is to be able to work with a team, and to be able to hand things off to people that specialize in those areas. But I mean, it is something that comes with growth. And as your agency, like, one of the nice things, I would imagine, for you is you started off and you had to do all the bookkeeping and you had to do, you know, all the bookings.
So you know all of these roles really intimately. So it helps you train and know what to expect from the person. So it's, again, like a progressive thing and something that hopefully agents can shoot for in the future, if they wanna grow their agency.
Jennifer: Well, if you're working by yourself at home, I think the class that you might have come to was the class that, you know, when we met at that seminar was I had these different hats. You know, when somebody calls for accounts payable, you have to put your hat on. And actually, I demonstrated with a different hat. I put the caller on hold.
Steph: You sure did.
Jennifer: I said, "I'm gonna get you the accounting department." And I put on a hat that said "Accounting," and I answered the phone. Then somebody's like, "Hey, I wanna talk to you about advertising." I'm like, "Okay. Let me put you over to the advertising and marketing department," and I put on a hat that said marketing.
Then, you know, sales is a whole 'nother hat. So, there was a lot of juggling, and I think being self aware of what you do really, really well, that pushes your business, is what you've gotta take the priority with. What you don't do well can hurt your business. So could you offload that to somebody else and can they do a better job?
You still know about it. Like, I still know the groups and how we handle groups. But I have a group's manager that is amazing. So if I have somebody that's even better than me at it, that just enhances our company and makes it better, makes clients want to come back to us.
So, you have to lose this image of, like, you have to be the best at everything, to really focus on what you do really well and who you can offload to that's even better than you. You know, that's how great companies are built. They have great people. I think the biggest step for agents is thinking to themselves, "So I have to pay somebody. So that's gonna take a hit at the bottom line." And that is a big step.
You know, the next big step is, "I have to pay rent now." Working at home was...you know, that was not one fixed expense that I had to worry about. But what we have in travel is a great way of forecasting. You can look ahead now and see where you could most likely be next year because of everything you've pre-booked. So we're not getting paid until people travel.
So, you can plan ahead for that moment and you can even set goals to yourself and say, "Hey, it looks like next year I'm gonna make, you know, $125,000 in commission. Can I pay a part-timer $25,000 or $20,000 and come in and do my database, do, you know, follow-up emails, do, you know, 'Welcome home' notices, do payments? Can I have somebody do that? And then will that allow me to actually sell things better, market more? You know, enhance our social media campaign?" Because if it can, then that $125,000 can easily be $150,000. Now you're making exactly what you were making before, but now you've got some growth. Maybe even a better life.
And then before long, that person can become a full timer and your business can almost double. That's what happens with this kind of, like, explosive growth, when you let go of some things and have faith in some people. Two minds are better than one, all the time. All the time. So it's that next step that I think home-based agents have to try to take.
Steph: Yeah, to let go. Well, what's been...if you could name... This is of course...this isn't possible, that there's just one most effective marketing tool for you. But what would you say is one of the marketing techniques you've used that you like the most or you've seen the best results with?
Jennifer: Like, it's really interesting for a market. I would have to say the way that we've branded our company. And I don't wanna just throw out there a color. But because I was in the corporate world, I instantly realized that I had to have a name that sounded more corporate, for those same clients to have faith in me.
Now, if I look back, VIP Vacations probably wasn't the name I should have picked. But remember what I was working with. It wasn't people on the internet, it was people looking at the phone book. It was either A's. People go right to travel agents that start with A's. And AAA has had that locked down. Or they go all the way to the end. In the middle gets blurred.
So there was no, like, Z, W. It's like V, VIP. There you go. So that's what I came up with. I probably wouldn't do that now because there's a lot of people that use VIP, like they use Band-aid or Jello. It's a brand, but it also is easy to associate with. You know, you don't say Band-Aid. You don't say, "I'm going to get a bandage to cover my cut." You don't say, "That jiggly stuff is not gelatin, it's Jello."
So VIP is used a lot. So when all of a sudden SEO started to become a big buzzword for your website, VIP kind of got lost. However, keeping it professional and corporate, we also developed a corporate logo. And I knew that in branding, getting the clients that trusted me to do their corporate would have to trust me. I had to look very professional.
So that has really helped the kind of pushing my company from being, you know, a palm tree. And I don't wanna send anybody but Suzy's Travel to thinking a lot larger, to be VIP Vacations with a corporate logo and a look and a font and a color. Because, you know, when you go to do that on your website or do it with marketing and advertising, they need to know the color. And it's not just a color is okay. This is the color of our company.
Just like Tiffany has a color and, you know, of their boxes, that's actually trademarked. And Christian Louboutin, for the bottom of his, you know, shoes. You have to know your color. And so, if you're gonna have somebody do any kind of marketing, whether it's on a beach bag or, you know, a poster or a banner.
So that was really good in starting out, and it helped me say to myself, "I might be one person working from home, but that's not what everybody has to think when they see this." Because if you go back to 1996, home-based agents were just not around. So, this was how I was able to kind of push it. And that scene, that brand, that's the look, the message that you get when you go our website.
Our Facebook, our business cards, everything, has the same feel, the same color. And now you can actually get into telling a story with your brand. So you mentioned pink, but, you know, we tell a story with that. And we used, you know, scientific data about how brides are geared toward going towards the color pink.
Even if they say they hate the color, the websites that tend to have those undertones of pink work. You know, your listeners might not really even wanna work with brides. So it's not about getting the color. It's just about being consistent and authentic. You know, it started with me that, you know, I loved the color pink. I would show up at, you know, events for travel professionals and I would be like, "Okay, I'm wearing pink."
I started to do some organized groups and somebody said, "Are you Barbie tour guide?" And I was like, "Yeah. You know, Barbie is pretty cool." Okay. I'm blonde. I like to wear pink and I'm also smart. Because you remember, Barbie could be an astronaut and a president. So I said, that's what I'm gonna go for. I'm gonna make sure that my company is represented with, like, this pink color, and consistent and corporate. And that is how we've kind of marketed it.
I've been lucky to also have, you know, a background in PR. So, having the reputation of being on the news and on TV also helped. But for what I think home-based agents should look at, not to say, "Well, I'm never gonna be able to be on TV," to be able to actually have the consistent brand and company name that people trust is just the first start.
Steph: I wanna jump into kind of how you own your own success, because I think that's important. But you just mentioned something about your TV spots. So I wanna jump to that really quickly. I don't see a lot of agents that use TV as a marketing tool, and you go on as a subject matter on FOX TV from time to time. It's hard to break into the TV market for marketing. But what pointer do you have for an agent that knows nothing about the world of TV? How can they get a producer's attention and possibly break into this marketing world?
Jennifer: So, what I have found lately is with like these Facebook Lives and, you know, even Instagram Live and even...I think there's LinkedIn Live too. You can start to become comfortable seeing yourself doing some sort of presentation. I was lucky because I had...that was what actually I was going to college for, was communications and PR. So, I had that.
I got into a whole different field, but when the time came, when there was some, you know, big buzz in TV, I was able to send some press releases out and some notifications about, you know, "This is how we're handling this." It got this little five seconds, what I thought was, you know, like my 10 minutes or 7 minutes of fame or whatever.
But, because I had had the experience, I remember one of the producers saying, "Oh my gosh, most people come here and wanna throw up afterwards, and you just did so well. Can you come back and do another segment for us?" And that's how that kind of spiraled. And when you show up on time, when you're professional, when you know what you're talking about... Because that's the other thing. I wasn't nervous. I knew what I was talking about. You have that security in yourself. Those producers remember that, and they never stay. They move along. I have been doing FOX's regular in Philadelphia, and it's also syndicated for Fox National News on many occasions, since 2006.
And I have seen so many anchors come and go. I mean, one of them is now a co-host on "The Today Show." Another one does, you know, the "Morning Joe" on FOX. You know, somebody else is in Cincinnati. And they all remember. So they all call when there's something else going on.
So I felt comfortable. I knew what I was doing. But I think the key was taking the opportunity. After the hurricanes, how many agents reached out to their local TV to say what they were doing for their clients?
Jennifer: What happened in those islands.
Steph: That's a great tip. That's a great tip, to send out press releases.
Jennifer: I didn't just do...and you know what, you can see the info person in the news desk, on every website on Facebook. I didn't just do it for FOX. I did it for our local stations as well. So it was like back-to-back weeks. I did it for all of our trade publications. I think VIP was mentioned after the hurricanes on "Travel Weekly," "Travel Agent" magazine, TravelPost, "Travel Market Report," and on three TV stations.
Because you can copy and paste, right, and send them out. And yet, it's not about seeing that there. It's about taking advantage of it. Everybody has the same opportunity. Taking advantage of those opportunities is what sets the things apart. I don't feel lucky. I feel like I've actually jumped on things that others might have walked by.
So you have to have the confidence. And maybe what I would suggest is people start...you know, agents start doing some live videos of when they're on a destination, or, you know, say, "Hey, we've gotten the big request right now," it might be group trips to Europe, "I'm gonna go over some of my top things for Europe at, you know, next week." And then just promote it, promote it, and then do the live.
Start feeling comfortable with it. And then you can even send those as samples. The other thing is, keep a bio handy. Keep a bio, you know, put it together with your, you know, head shot and keep it right there. Because when you send a press release, sometimes it's nice to also have that bio right there. It makes you sound a lot more professional and that you do this regularly.
Jennifer: And TV has helped, radio has helped. Newspapers have helped. There's a lot of ways to get out there by using media.
Steph: Yeah. I like your statement that you don't feel lucky. I think it leads into the next segment of owning your own success, and really well. I think for a lot of entrepreneurs, and especially female entrepreneurs, it can be hard to own your own success and use that as a way to promote yourself.
You and your agency have a lot of accolades under your belt and you aren't afraid to use them. What comes to mind for me first, because we've been emailing, is your signature line is a great example of a way you easily can market your expertise. Do you wanna share how you decide what to put underneath your email signature, and tell people what it looks like?
Jennifer: I'm gonna start with...absolutely. The number one thing that I think every home-based agent needs to remember is, there's a reason people are coming to you. Maybe it's because you met them some place or they were referred. But that's not an instant sale. So whether you're, you know, on your phone, your business card, your email, your website, your Facebook, you still have to show this level of credibility.
I've always kind of used sales and persuasion side-by-side, and I know you and I have talked about this, but being persuasive is a skill. So, it's a skill and it can be kind of manipulated. Because persuasion isn't about saying, "Come on, come on." It's not peer pressure. But people are persuaded to do things when they trust you. That's number one.
Being trusted, usually it means you have to have some sort of credibility underneath, you know, your belt. So if you're just starting out and you have some certificates, you know, with that on your website, "I'm certified in this." If you've been in the business a little bit longer and have earned your own accolades. I know there's a lot of resorts that designate different agents by levels, whether it's Palace Pro Agents and a Hard Rock Amped Agent, or a Karisma GIVC or a Sandals CRC. The list goes on and on. Or Hawaii Master Agent.
You know, you can put that underneath your signature. You can do a press release. You can put it in social media. You can have it on your website. You can put it on your business card. And without even having to say something to your clients - stay humble - that you can build the credibility without them. It's kind of like a subliminal credibility. Wow, she knows this.
Most consumers will check you out when you might not even know they're checking you out. Looking at your website, seeing where you've been. And that's the other thing. You can also...if you don't have a lot of testimonials or you don't have awards, you can easily put where you've been, because, you know, I'll listen to somebody who says that they like that restaurant. They eat there every night. Because they've been there.
Then if you can even add something special like, "Try the risotto, it's amazing," now you've just gained even more value. So, using your credibility is definitely something that can be persuasive. So we use, you know, that I write for "USA Today" on my signature. One of my agents doesn't use that, but she might use that we're the number one selling Sandals and Beaches wedding agency in the world.
So somebody who's gonna email us and they're kind of deciding between maybe a Sandals and a different product, they might say, "Wow, you know, they know Sandals. Maybe I should trust them." So that wins over without you even knowing that it won people over.
Steph: Yeah. In your website, when you talk about people, they do. They do their research on any company they're going to go with most likely. And especially for a big budget item, they wanna like the person. On your website, you do a great example of using social proof to help yourself stick out if they haven't decided on an agency yet. I'll link to your website in the show notes, but would you mind talking about how you use social proof to gain customers, like the accolades and the pictures of the clients and things like that?
Jennifer: What was really interesting for me when we developed our website, there's a lot of these plug and play websites that are out there. If you're just starting out and you don't really know what you're about, they're great to use. There are a lot of companies that sell, like, these templates and you just kind of put them in.
But what we were finding was that, okay, so the consumers are trying to book online themselves. I want them to book with us. What's gonna, you know...and I don't want to actually have people have the ability to book on our site. Because the point that they're coming to us is a personal connection and that they're dealing with a real person. I'm never gonna beat Expedia. I'm never gonna beat them. That's not our model.
But our model is much more hand-holding and getting to know them. But if we wanna get to know our clients, then our clients should wanna get to know us. So we've created these really great bios and use them on our website for each agent. And not just, "Okay, here's a picture, and this is what I specialize in, and this is my favorite destination."
Each one of our agents also puts some quirky stuff in. Because people wanna work with a real person and they wanna work with somebody that maybe they connect with. So there's something like, you know, "What's your two-word, you know, title that describes you? What's your theme song? What's your go-to drink when you're at a bar?"
Then they also have their certificates that are listed there, one by one, by one. You can click on a little drop-down and it shows every certificate. Because the agents that work for me are all under the age of 32. So grandma might not have faith that this person knows what they're talking about, but then, look, "Oh my gosh, they've got like 60 certificates." Then a full bio there. Again, like I said, do a full bio. Why are you doing what you're doing? Where have you traveled to? What do you love? And instead of saying that I started this five years ago - that's a no-no - say the year you started. Otherwise you're gonna have to keep updating it.
Steph: Yes, yes.
Jennifer: So say, you know, 1996. I did this. You know, and then we have another little drop-down of testimonials. So not only does our website feature an entire page of testimonials, but each agent has their own testimonials with pictures. If it's sent in without a picture, it's not going up. Pictures, first and last names and where they're from. The reason we put where they're from is because though we're here in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not all our clients are.
So we want people to say, "Oh, you're located in Bethlehem, but look at these testimonials. They're all from, you know, all over the world." So, those are, you know, some connections. We also have the widgets on the bottom, where people can share via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google Plus or just email that.
So if somebody says, "Hey, I'd like more information," you can put the information on the quote, but you can also say, "Have you checked out my profile?" And boom, send it there and now you are having somebody really get to know you. It's, again, not bragging about yourself but staying humble. And I can track the hits on the back of the website, so I can see when people click onto these profiles. It does work. People wanna know who they're working...they wanna know who they're working with.
Jennifer: It's also done in a kind of...for people listening, and not on our website right now, it's also done in like a photo booth style. People like photo booths. They're fun. And we focus on weddings, and a lot of weddings have, you know, definitely have photo booths. And we go to a lot of bridal shows where there's scads of photo booths. But you pick out an item, you know, before you get in there.
So, you know, whether it's the crazy glasses or, you know, a crown or a mask or something. So we've had each of our agents kind of do these photo booth pictures with like the prop that represents them. It's crazy. So many of them have their pets, which is awesome, and people who love pets are good people.
Jennifer: So we kind of have that tie as well, you know, with clients that they know we're real and authentic. I think that's what has helped, because we've been able to tell a story about who we are. So it makes it real. And dealing with a real person is what we're about, and I think travel agents at home we're competing with, you know, the online sites a lot of times. So at least dealing with a real person can set you apart, for sure.
Steph: Well, that has brought a smile to my face. Like, just talking about all these happy pictures on your website, and that kind of brings us to the last part of our program where we're gonna be talking about my favorite thing, warm fuzzies. So, every episode I ask our guest to share something they've done or seen, that has brought a smile to their face or to the face of others. My hope is that it can brighten the day of the listeners and maybe inspire someone to do a random act of kindness today. So, Jennifer, what warm fuzzy would you like to share with everyone today?
Jennifer: Well, it's interesting, because it's more about females in business, and those starting out and those who have been in it for awhile. There was a TED Talks by a lady, Amy Cuddy, C-U-D-D-Y. She talked about faking it until you make it, and she's famous for this Wonder Woman post.
I can tell you that a lot of times, your adrenaline goes or you feel nervous or you feel stressed. I know women, we are emotional. That it's hard to get your foot in the door or to get past, you know, a scary situation. We were talking about maybe doing some live videos or going into media, or even having the confidence to keep...to hire somebody or to maybe rent a place now to operate your business, or even just meet with that client.
Amy, in her presentation, talked about how you can trick your body into actually giving you more confidence. She puts these stances where like... You know, I mentioned the Superwoman post. There's some other victory poses. But what scientists have discovered is that if you stand for two minutes with your hands on your hip like Wonder Woman, or if you've just finished a race and you put your hands up in a V, for two minutes it raises the testosterone level and lowers the cortisol level. And the cortisol level is what makes us freak out.
Okay. So you want that low. Testosterone is what gives guys the guts, right? And it changes it, and it actually helps you feel like you can take on that challenge. So it's kind of like faking it. But when you feel you can take on it, research has shown that when people have the confidence to feel like they can do it, they actually do it.
So you can actually fake it till you make it. But then actually make it because you're faking it. So I would encourage everybody to look at that Ted Talk, the Amy Cuddy's TED Talk, and just read it. She had a great story. She's now, I believe, one of the people that write for "Cosmopolitan." So she's woman's woman, for sure.
But we need more women in this industry, to have the confidence to stand up for their business and to feel like they can be successful and have that push and drive and determination. Because it's really hard working by yourself. It's really hard to take on those challenges, which is why there's a lot of, like, mentoring programs, but why it's also tough to keep doing it when you have hurricanes and your business is like down now because they wiped it out.
You know, or when there's terrorism. So when you can develop that kind of self-confidence, it really can be that catalyst to help you keep going. And that's my warm fuzzy, is to try to watch that video and become that woman that we hope to be.
Steph: I love that.
Jennifer: In power and confidence.
Steph: Yeah, I love that. I'll go ahead and link to the Amy Cuddy TED Talk in the show notes too. So, thank you for sharing that, Jennifer.
Jennifer: You are welcome.
Steph: Let's see, you guys. Can you believe it? We've wrapped up another episode of "Travel Agent Chatter." If you liked the show, please take a moment to write a review on iTunes. We got another couple in, but I would love a couple more. Speaking of social proof. And you can subscribe to us on iTunes by searching for "Travel Agent Chatter."
And remember, you can read the transcripts and see the show notes at hostagencyreviews.com\tac and then clicking on Volume Four. And you can find myself, Steph Lee, or Host Agency Reviews on Facebook and LinkedIn, by searching for Host Agency Reviews. Or on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, using my personal handle, iamstephly, and it's with an "LY." So, Jennifer, thanks so much for coming on the show. And until next time, everyone, I'm sending you huggles and lots of rainbows.
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