Andres Zuleta, Boutique Japan

Travel Agent Chatter Vol. 12/ Andres Zuleta, Boutique Japan, headshot

Meet Andres Zuleta, owner of Boutique Japan. He started out as a trip designer for a travel company and ended up growing his own agency into the 2.3M business it is today. But Andres' path toward starting a successful agency was anything but direct. Rooted in a response to a "Quarter Life" crisis, when Andres picked up and moved to Japan to start his business without any industry experience. From there, Andres launched into a fruitful career trajectory. Listen and learn from his insider tips including: how Andres pivoted from his original travel agency niche; how he prioritizes a work-life balance among his employees; how he developed his stunning website; and why his business model of working slowly and intentionally is such a success (despite pressure for fast-turnaround). Andres also offers a few expert advice on booking a Japan trips for your client . . . or for yourself! Because after you listen to Andres interview, you'll definitely want to pack up and go.

👇👇👇👇 Read the full transcript below 👇👇👇👇

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Show Notes

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1. Asana: A program to help businesses manage workflow and track deadlines for projects. Basic tier is free.

2. Vol. 8 of TAC w/ Madeleine Jhawar: Madeline has a similar business as Andres, but a vastly different destination. If you're curious how agents subsist when they only earn 20% of income from commissions, you'll want to check out this episode too!

3. Boutique Japan Pricing Page: Check out Andres' pricing page to see how his agency structures their fees.

4. Images for Your Website: Andres has gorgeous images on his Boutique Japan website. In order to find resources to acquire your own website images, check out this resource from HAR.

5. Google Docs/ Google Workspace: Boutique Japan uses Google Docs to create complex itineraries for their clients. This allows multiple trip designers to work on a single itinerary. (Save 10% your first year using our link)

6. Stripe:The payment processor Boutique Japan uses for their agency.

7.Boutique Japan's Blog Post on Japan Rail: This blog post is a critically helpful resource to Japan travelers and just one of many in depth articles Boutique Japan features on their site.

8. Boutique Japan's Job Posting: Andres uses incredibly detailed job postings to help vet prospective employees.

9. HAR's 2020 Travel Agent Income Survey: Everything you've wanted to know about travel agent incomes and more!


Steph: All right. Well, hello, everyone. I don't know what time it is. Well, you're listening to this. So I'll just say happy morning. Afternoon. Evening to you all. I'm the founder of Host Agency Reviews and I'm so thrilled to be the host of today's show.


So what do we have in store for you today? It's a real treat. And that's actually a really funny pun because it's almost Halloween. And, you know, it's a really bad pun when you explain it. Very bad stuff. Moving on.

Okay. Our guest today is Andres Zuleta, the founder of Boutique Japan. He opened his agency seven years ago with the vision that his team would always be 100% location-independent. The model that he has is . . . he specializes in creating bespoke Japan itineraries. And some unique things about his model is that he doesn't rely on commissions, but rather his revenue comes from itinerary design fees. And the model is definitely working for him. So since his start seven years ago, he's grown to six full-time employees, including himself. And I think, yes, three I sees. And last year, his agency brought in over 2.3M Dollars in sales.

Just a quick mention that we started a new tradition on the podcast here where we're pushing out the podcast not only in audio form, but also in video form. So hello to those of you watching on video. If you want to try out the podcast in the new medium, you can visit and click on volume 12, which is this one and you can find the audio, the transcript, the video and the show notes all in one handy place. Or you can also go to YouTube and search for Host Agency Reviews and it'll pull up our channel. All right. So for today's schedule, we'll be breaking it down into four segments. They are beginnings, vision, finding clients, and then we'll wrap it up with our warm fuzzy segment. And I'm so excited because it's time to bring in today's guest. So Andres, welcome to Travel Agent Chatter.

Andres: [00:02:13] Thank you so much. Thanks for inviting me.

⭐️Shortcuts to podcast topics: ⭐️

  1. Andres' Beginnings
  2. The Vision for Boutique Japan
  3. Marketing/ Finding Clients
  4. Insider Travel Agent Tips on Booking a Japan Trip
  5. Warm Fuzzies

Andres' Beginnings

Steph: [00:02:18] Well, so I have to tell you all that Andres and I met maybe seven or eight years ago when he reached out, he'd emailed in through the site when he was starting up his agency. And it's . . . we've kept in touch through the years and it's been really fun, and such a joy to watch Boutique Japan take off. And for me personally, I'm not sure how many of you that are listening know my story. This is going to turn into a podcast about me, Andres.

I'm not sure how many of you know my story, but I grew up in the travel industry. So my mom started a home based agency when I was in high school and then I worked for the agency for quite a few years before I started Host Agency Reviews. So I had this really strong background and wealth of experience and connections that I was able to draw from when I started my site. But your situation was completely different. Andres you didn't have the agency background, but before you started Boutique Japan, the one thing you did have was you had immersed yourself in pretty much all things Japan. You learn the language, studied the culture, you lived in Japan and all of these things helped build the foundation for your agency. Although I'm guessing you probably didn't know it about at that at the time you were doing it. So I'm curious if you just tell us about the classes that you took in college that kind of helped ignite your love for Japan.

Andres: [00:03:43] I'm sure so, yeah, I basically had no interest in Japan pretty much until I went to college and it was pretty accidental. You know, one of my best friends was studying Japanese at the time and I was studying Italian, but he basically convinced me that Japanese was more interesting, and I was just taking all sorts of classes at the time. You know, Iranian cinema, Chinese literature, class, just kind of liberal arts education. So anyway, so I switched to Japanese and I completely fell in love with it. And it was unlike anything I've ever encountered.

And so I fell in love with the language and the literature and history. And so it just kind of became kind of this unexpected passion for Japan.

Steph: [00:04:32]: Interesting. Okay. It just I . . . so I didn't know you had been studying Italian prior. So are you . . . you're not fluent in Italian two, are you fluent Spanish?

Andres: [00:04:43] Because my family is Colombian. And then one of the reasons I was looking for something other than Italian was that after about a year of studying Italian, I was a little bored just because of the similarities, between, you know, Italian and Spanish.

Steph: [00:04:57] I totally get it [laughs].

Andres: I mean, there are a lot of the words are quite some learned the, uh, the grammatical structure is similar. So, anyway, I was drawn to something a little more, I guess just different.

Steph: Okay. All right. So you took those classes and then when you were 24, you moved to Japan during what you're calling a quarter life crisis. And so you move to Tokyo and you met some really fun people at a restaurant you worked at that kind of planted a seed about starting an agency. Can you tell . . . would you mind sharing that story with everyone? It's kind of cool.

Andres: [00:05:37] Sure. So. Well, yes. I moved to Japan and my goal was to learn Japanese and become fluent Japanese. And so the . . . one of the funny culminations of that was working at this restaurant that I really loved. It was a night job, which was great because I was playing music and studying during the days. And so was this restaurant run by this group of Japanese surfers who were just obsessed with California and Mexico. They would always go on these trips to California and Mexico. They'd come back with suitcases full of tequila and literally, you know, they had the best tequila selection that . . . they had these really . . . anyway, but long story short. And in talking with them, the seed got planted for this idea of planting surf trips in California and Mexico for Japanese surfers.

Travel Agent Chatter Vol. 12, Andres Zuleta of Boutique Japan

Steph: [00:06:29] And so you when you were doing your market research, what did that consist of?

Andres: [00:06:35] Well, yeah. I mean, I never started a company before and I never worked in the travel industry before. And I also, you know, full disclosure, I'm not a surfer. It was just fun to hang out with them and talk about it. So my market research consisted of pretty much taking out this Japanese surfer guy in Southern California. I took him out to get some pizza, beer and I asked him a bunch of questions. And yeah, after that interview, I realized that it was kind of a dead end because I didn't know much about surfers. But, you know, the whole point of a surf trip is you spend as much spend as little money as possible on everything other than surfing.

Steph: [00:07:13] So, yeah, I feel like that's OK. Well, the story is just cool in general, but I like it too, because I think there's a lot of agencies that start off with an idea and it . . . may be like if you are a surfer, it might seem like a great idea, but then you realize I really can't make money in this, or my heart's not in it. Whatever it is. But I think it's important to recognize that, you know, you might have many iterations or pivots along the way as you're trying to find your niche.

Andres: [00:07:45] So I guess that was like the original idea.

Steph: [00:07:49] It didn't last very long. Just through a beer and a pizza.

Andres: [00:07:52] Pretty much.

Steph: [00:07:55] OK. Let's move forward. So you move back to the states after a few years and you had a light bulb moment at a Halloween party, where a woman told you like this seemingly very obvious thing, but she told you that if you want to start a travel company, you should really try working in the industry first to learn it. So you ended up getting a job in the travel industry. So what were you doing? And for how long before you started Boutique Japan?

Andres: [00:08:24] Yeah, so I was basically it was a sales position. Technically speaking, but I think different travel companies call the role different things. I mean, I was a trip designer, basically. So, you know, I would talk to people who contacted us, find out what they were looking for and, you know, kind of narrow down what they want to put a custom trip together for them, and then coordinate everything. And at the time, I was basically planning trips, not only to Asia, but also to—throughout Latin America and Africa.

Steph: [00:08:58] OK. And then and so how long did you do that before you launched and did your own thing?

Andres: [00:09:02] Four years.

The Vision for Boutique Japan

Steph: [00:09:04] Okay. Okay. So you had a nice a nice basis within there. So let's switch gears, because let's start moving into your vision, because we've gotten a really good feel for how your life experiences have set you up for a successful agency. But I think there's there's a lot of planning that goes into the new a new business. And you did a really great job of having a strong vision of what you wanted your agency to be like. And it was you wanted it, Number one to be remote and emphasis on a work-life balance, having a decent work life balance and not having to work all the time. And then, I don't know if this was kind of in the vision, but it ended up being non-commissioned based that you were you were working on a different business model.

So I'd like to start off with talking about the remote team. So there's nine of you right now, including the independent contractors all across the world. What sort of tips do you have for people that are looking to either start a remote team or have a remote team? Like how do you make things work?

Andres: [00:10:14] Yes, I think one of the biggest challenges . . . I think it's easier to start a remote team if you're starting from scratch. I think it's a different story if you're starting from a non remote team and trying to transition to remote, I can't really speak to that. But like you said, you know, from the beginning, I really wanted to have everything just be completely in, you know, in the cloud, and location independent. And personally, I love to work, but I don't actually like going into an office. And I know there's other people like that. I know, of course, some people like going into an office, but that's not for me. So that was just kind of a core thing. And, so beyond that, I mean, I think the number one key is the people. I mean, to make it work, you need really self-motivated people who can thrive in their homes or from a coffee shop. I think honestly, that's the most important thing. All the other stuff, the technical stuff, the apps and the tools that we use. I mean, those are just tools, but they can't substitute just having, you know, amazing people.

Steph: [00:11:23] So how do you find like, what's your process like when you're looking for people that are going to be part of your remote team?

Andres: [00:11:33] Well, first of all, even though the fact that it's remote is definitely appealing to a lot of people. We usually, you know, we promote that, I guess, as a key aspect of the role, but we don't over promote it, because really we're looking for hard workers who want to do the work. You know, we're not looking for people who are just, you know, looking to be working on a computer in Bali.

Steph: [00:11:56] Yeah.

Travel Agent Chatter Vol. 12/ Andres Zuleta of Boutique Japan 7

Andres: [00:11:57] Well, I mean, you can totally do that if you want, but it's about the work. First and foremost. So we have a really detailed SOP standard operating procedure for hiring that encompasses five or six different checklists in our project management software called Asana, [where you know everything from defining what the role is, obviously ensuring that we have the financials for the role and then putting together a customized job posting for that role and then promoting it and then a super detailed kind of application and interview process as well. And you know, we found that having a very formal procedure for hiring has helped us find better people as opposed to, hey, you know, my friend could be a really good fit for your company. And then, you know, we talked to this person. Maybe they could be a good fit. But I guess the Loosey Goosey nature of that just hasn't worked for us.

You know, we've always had people kind of referring people to us. It's always worked best when even if we have a referral, if we put people through this formalized process that we have, I think it makes them take it more seriously. And it definitely makes us take it more seriously. And. I think I told you in the past, you know, most of the people who work on our team are actually, have been referrals in some shape or form. But all of our best hires have been just through boring—but interesting and intensive—hiring process.

Steph: [00:13:38] I should . . . I'll link in the show notes to Asana. So if people want to check that out for kind of project management, we use that on our end to in-house that Host Agency Reviews. But I'll also see if I can find . . . because I know you've posted your job on our jobs board before. Right. And so I'll see if I can find the link for that and put it in the show notes because it is really helpful because I think you you set out the expectations right in the beginning on what you're going to be doing. Because I do think there's a danger when you're working remotely and not talking to the person all the time. They don't want to be asking you all these questions on what their role is. And so it's very I remember when I read your job posting how clear it was on what this person would be doing and what skills would be an absolute necessity for you.

Andres: [00:14:26] I can share those with you. And I do. I do remember with our very first successful hire. She had commented that when she read the post, she appreciated that we weren't necessarily saying, "Oh, this job is perfect for everyone." It was very much like. At this role is probably good for you if this is not, but if this is not, you're probably not the right fit. You know, sorry. So, we're trying to just attract the right people, but not necessarily misrepresent the role.

Steph: [00:15:04] Okay, so your agency is outside the norm in the fact that you don't count on commissions, they're are a small part of your revenue ... And for those of you that have listened to our podcast for a while, you know that if you're kind of finding Andres' model really interesting. Check out Volume 8 with Madeleine Jhawar from Italy Beyond the Obvious because, she has a very similar model. But your revenue comes from those itinerary planning fees. So would you mind giving us an overview of how that program works? I know you don't have set prices, but just yet explain how it works.

Andres: So, the most, you know, kind of the most succinct way is that we put together the best possible trip for each client for the best possible price. So we are . . . the way we work is that we work directly with each hotel, with each ryokan—ryokans are traditional Japanese style inns and each guide, for example. So for any given itinerary, we're you know, we have a budget with, you know, 10 to 20 different suppliers for each trip. And we're customizing every single element of each trip. So when we're getting pricing from all the suppliers, you know, some of them pay a commission, some of the don't don't pay commissions. A lot of these guides, I mean, they're not really necessarily business-minded, you know, they're professional guides or experts at, you know, certain things. So we're not going to be rude and say, "Hey, you need to give us commission." You know, obviously we appreciate a fair price and we have some sort of negotiation. But, you know, these are very small individual players, not large tour companies. And then with the hotels. Well, sometimes we'll put clients in the Ritz in Kyoto. So, you know, usually hotels like Ritzes are normally giving commission. But we also book a ton of boutique hotels, tiny ryokans, and again, you know, especially in Japanese culture, it would be extremely rude if we were placing demands on them. So, while we're strongly requesting, you know fair pricing, we're not strong-arming people into giving us commissions.

So is all this pricing comes together and then we basically, you know, instruct our clients from the initial communication that, you know, your trip costs is going to be in this range of pricing or in this rang of pricing. And that's something that we tell them up front. So, there's no surprises about what the trip is going to cost. So we usually say, okay, well, it's going to be based on the fact that you're looking for super high end hotels and want a private guide every single day. Your trip might be a, you know, X hundred or a thousand per person per day. Is that about what you were thinking? And so we really we place a huge emphasis on just getting on the same page budget just from the very start.

So like you said, we also have a planning fee, and the planning fee is usually $500 per itinerary or sometimes it's a $1,000. Once in awhile it's more. And that's just . . . I mean I could go into the details of how we get that, but these are all kind of the different elements of our pricing. I'm happy to elaborate on any part of it.

Travel Agent Chatter Vol. 12/ Andres Zuleta of Boutique Japan 5

Steph: [00:18:37] Yeah. Well we'll link to it because I—well, one thing that—and we I talked about prior was how at first when you started, you didn't put the pricing on the website. But then you came around and decided that it was actually good, but the pricing on the website, so we'll link to that, your pricing page, so people can take a look at things. But do you want to maybe go over why you had a change of heart about putting pricing on the . . . like to everyone so they could read it?

Andres: [00:19:10] Yes, you know, when we first started. I think I was a little shy about the pricing, and I think you first start out. You know, it just kind of nice to just have more people contacting you than fewer. And so having just started out, I was less confident. And so, you know, I didn't want to scare people away. I'd rather have them contact us and then have the discussion. I think the turning point is just the fact that, OK, well, we were getting enough website traffic, if we were getting enough inquiries and we were actually maybe getting too many inquiries. So we needed a way to kind of filter them out a little better. And also part of the problem was that by not having the pricing out there, you know, people were contacting us who were really nice people, but not exactly the right fit for the service because it's a high end service. So, yeah, at some point it just made sense to say, "This is our pricing. Here it is. No surprises. Obviously, it's not for everybody, but it is for some people. So if it's for you, just contact us."

Steph: [00:20:19] Yeah. Yeah. I think it's great to put the pricing out there because then. People are coming in like similar to with your job listings, they're coming in with the right expectation.

Andres: [00:20:30] Oh, yeah. But I mean, I do, you know, if I was starting again today. And I had zero traffic and zero clients. Would I start with pricing on the website? Probably with, you know, with what I know now. Yes, but I don't regret starting with no pricing because it led to a lot of interesting conversations. But eventually, yeah it just made sense.

Steph: [00:20:53] But it must have honed your skills as you're because you're talking to all these people.

Andres: [00:20:58] Yeah, I just had to explain pricing a zillion times.

Steph: [00:21:00] Yeah, it's good practice.

Andres: [00:21:03] Exactly.

Steph: [00:21:05] All right. So you mentioned that work/life balance was important for not just you, but for like your vision with you and your team and so that you built it into the company culture. And I think one of the challenges with the remote teams and just having flexible hours in general is that the work-life balance can get so blurred if you're not working regular hours and set hours. So what what kind of steps do you take to avoid that, and how do you communicate that to your team to make sure that they're not working at 2:00 in the morning every night?

Andres: [00:21:45] So it's a it's definitely an ongoing mission and challenge. I would say I mean, one of the ways that I personally try to enforce work-life balance is I don't have any work stuff on my phone. So I never check work e-mail on my phone. I don't have any of the stuff on my phone, period. So, you know, my phone is my phone, and my computer is pretty much for work. You know, another thing I personally do is, I clock in and clock out for myself every single day. We don't require our employees to clock in and clock out, they flexible hours and it's assumed that people are working 40 hours a week, but we don't time it. But I like to time myself just to make sure I'm not working too much. And it's something I've done for the last couple of years.

Other things, I mean, they're challenges because, you know, for example, we have a couple of mothers on our team. And so a lot of times, you know, they will take some time out of their daytime or their evening to do family-related things. You know, picking up their kids or having dinner as a family. And so their hours get pushed around, you know, in different ways so that, you know, they're not working for several hours during the day. And maybe they're working late at night. So, you know, it's . . . I think it's a little tougher for them. And, I think we're all really hard workers and we're all perfectionists, so, you know, and we all care a lot about our clients, but we do our best to set boundaries. For example, if you contact us on our Web: Like if you're contacting us to plan a trip on the confirmation page, like on the welcome page after you hit contact, it says something like, "Hey, thank you so much for contacting us. You know, if you've reached us on on a weekend, we'll get back to you on the next business day," because, you know, we like to do our old stuff. You know, we like the travel and families. And, you know, we have an out of office every weekend. Some of us, you know, definitely have, I guess, the bad habit of catching up a little bit on the weekends, but we don't do client-related stuff on the weekends unless it's urgent. So I would say, I think my employees would agree. You know, it's a it's an ongoing process that we're working on, but we all have this ideal of really having like a good work-life balance.

Steph: [00:24:24] Well, so moving into the kind of the vision of what Boutique Japan is providing, like a bespoke travel company that was truly customized and unique. It's important to have the on the ground connections and to keep up with the experiences that your your clients will be experiencing. So I guess I have two questions there: The first would be, you no, like, how did you build those on the ground relationships when you started the company? And then how do you maintain those through the years?

Andres: [00:25:03] I mean, I have to say, you know, a lot of it was luck and then a lot of it is just spending time on the ground. So luck was, well, being in the right place at the right time kind of thing. So, you know, having lived in Japan for years, and also having worked in the travel industry for years, I just knew a ton of people. But starting out, you know, I didn't really know any guides in Japan, for example, and I didn't have any direct relationships with any hotels. So what my fiancee and I did into, you know, not everyone can do this, but we had basically just gone all in on the company. And so we sold everything in San Diego and we just up and moved to Japan for several months at the time of starting the company. And, you know, it's the kind of thing where like day one, I'm like, "Okay what do we do?" You know, so I just started reaching out to all these hotels and just saying, "Hey, this is who I am starting this company," you know, "Can I visit and started researching guides too, just started just reaching out to people saying, "Hey, hey, hey." And since we were in Japan, it's easy to setup tons of meetings.

Steph: [00:26:20] Yeah.

Andres: [00:26:20] That was a start. And then since then, it's just going to Japan all the time. I'm going to Japan a few weeks again and I'm just sending up tons of guide meetings, visiting new hotels. So I don't think there's a substitute for that. Yeah. I don't.

Travel Agent Chatter Vol. 12/ Andres Zuleta of Boutique Japan 6

Steph: [00:26:40] Do other members of your team go over there, or is it just you usually that are maintaining the relationships and building them?

Andres: [00:26:48] Actually, yep. Other members of my team go as well.

Steph: [00:26:50] Okay.

Andres: [00:26:51] So I mean, I'm the main one. I consider it kind of a core part of my role. It's just I guess you could call it develop— product development. I'm not sure what to call it exactly, but, it's just fun.

Steph: [00:27:04] Relationship building.

Andres: [00:27:04] There you go. Yeah. And, you know, it doesn't feel like work. I mean, when I say meet with guides, we have extremely high standards when it comes to guides. So when I say meeting with guides, I'm basically just hanging out with friends who just happen to be really good guides. But yeah, I mean, other members of my team go to Japan, and three months ago—-the whole company—we all went to Japan for a team retreat. A lot of that was hanging out with guides, visiting different hotels, things like that. So it's yeah, it's important for us. Very important.

Marketing/ Finding Clients

Steph: [00:27:44] Well, let's take a look at the other side of the equation and move into the next section. So I want I want to hear more about how you market and what the process is like when a client books with Boutique Japan. So I'll start off this section by saying that, like if you're listening. Well, hopefully you're listening right now. Hello! All right.

So those that are listening, you—I'll link to Boutique Japan's website. But Andres' website is beautiful. And it's not only beautiful, but it's rich in content, and it paints just a beautiful picture of Japan in general, as well as Boutique Japan and what they offer. And and you get a majority of your leads or most of your leads from people on the website. Right?

Andres: [00:28:40] Exactly.

Steph: [00:28:40] Okay. Yeah. You've just done such a fantastic job of inbound marketing. When you check out the site it's like a deep, dark, rabbit hole for someone that's looking for information. A deep, happy, beautiful, but deep rabbit hole. For anyone looking for information on Japan, you just have such in-depth content and the interlinking that you do between articles as you like. Teach about something in an article you. It links to another article that goes more in depth on that. So I know that's an area that a lot of advisors struggle with. Is their website presence in the content on there. So what sort of advice do you have for advisors that are looking to beef up their site's blog. Like how did you get started? And what's your philosophy when you're writing?

Andres: [00:29:34] Well, I will say, I'll preface this by saying it's a lot easier to have a focus like Japan. I mean, if you're doing the whole world, I have no idea where you'd start. I think it's important to have some kind of focus or angle.

So, you know, our idea was, okay. Japan. So it's going to be the best Japan travel company putting up content. And this was 2013. So, you know, at the time, there wasn't a whole lot of content. I mean, I think we got lucky that we started it at a time when it was still kind of like the Wild West. So the basic premise for us was we didn't have any money. We had a lot of knowledge and we had a lot of time. So we had saved up a pretty small amount of money, and we said, okay, within six months we need to be making sales. All we have is a website. We have no traffic, no client was nothing. How can we get people to see our website? Because if we if they see our website, we're confident that we can make them like happy and took a trip. So, you know, based on my limited knowledge of marketing, I was like, well, I think the easiest way is blogging. And how do you get people to blog? Will you write good quality content? So I kind of just made a list of what I thought were the most important topics that people would be interested in if they were planning a trip to Japan, and then just narrowed it down to what I thought. Like okay, these are like the core core questions that, you know, someone planning a trip to Japan to be asking at the start of their search. So, you know, things like, "What is the best time to visit Japan? Do I need the Japan Rail Pass?" And so then it was just a matter of sitting down or standing up at your standup desk, and writing really in-depth high quality articles on these topics and just hoping for the best. I mean, so that's what we did, and we got really lucky. But I think we also got lucky with the URL, because, it seems like within a couple of months or so, people were finding us from all over the world. Not a lot of people, but some people. You know, our first clients were from Australia. And they had been looking for boutique hotels in Japan.

Steph: [00:31:49] Oh, interesting.

Andres: [00:31:50] So that was again, lucky. But, you know, they landed on the site. They read the content. They, I guess, subconsciously or consciously trusted us. And, you know, it all worked out.

Steph: [00:32:05] Mm hmm. Mm hmm. So. So how long do you. Because now you hire out some of the writing. Correct?

Andres: [00:32:12] Mmm Hmm.

Steph: [00:32:12] Okay. When you are writing the articles, because I know for us that Host Agency Reviews we have a very similar philosophy, in that we're not pushing out quantity, we're pushing out quality. And so for us, the blog posts we push out can take weeks for us to create, and and kind of, when we're adding the different resources and different things. So how long for you did it take when you were writing the different blog posts?

Andres: [00:32:42] Yeah, I think weeks is the right magnitude of time and it still is. Yeah, I mean, basically, it's like you have to write a first draft or an outline and then you have to rewrite it, and rewrite it, and then do the formatting, and the pictures, and make sure the pictures look good and make sure they have the right description. So, yeah, it's a it's a long process, but it's like you're building a little I don't know . . . building a little thing, you're putting it out into the world and it's going to be doing work for you basically. So it's worth the investment.

Steph: [00:33:17] Yeah, it definitely it's a lot of work up front, but then it just continues to work for you like years and years later, which is is the nice thing. Because you have so much cornerstone content that you've created in over time. That's I think why you're like interlinking is so strong because you have all these main topics you've written about that come up again and again in the different posts.

Andres: [00:33:41] Yeah. We've actually gotten to the point where it's not even that interesting to write new topics. It's more interesting to go back and rewrite the old topics again.

Travel Agent Chatter Vol. 12, Boutique Japan blog image of cherry blossom season
Boutique Japan's blog features gorgeous, sensory images and thorough content.

Steph: [00:33:50] Yeah. We started doing that a few years ago too. Yeah. Yeah. And it's sometimes it's so. Well no it's not. Sometimes it's very embarrassing. Oh I look at my writing, it's just horrifying from like seven years ago. I'm like oh I'm so embarrassed. I hope no one read this. I know, I know. We have the same thing. They're so bad. You know, when I refresh an old one. Yeah. As I was looking, it was like, oh, my gosh, I can't believe we've allowed this to be. Well, let's.

Steph: [00:34:22] You're not alone. Well, OK.

So you mentioned the images because that is something that's really beautiful on your site . . . is the the photos you use. They're gorgeous. They're high quality. Are those things that you've taken or how do . . . where are the photos coming from?

Andres: [00:34:38] Some are mine. Most are stock photos. So nowadays the main resource we have [00:34:45]is on Unsplash, which is a free resource, which is awesome.

Steph: [00:34:49] Yep.

Andres: [00:34:51] And then originally to start the site, I forget which one it was. It wasn't Shutterstock, it was one of those stock photo websites,.

Steph: [00:34:59] Oh, like a IStockphoto or something?

Andres: [00:35:01] Yeah, one of those. We bought a one-month subscription. I think it was know $69 or $99 and it allowed us to go in every single day at like 3:00 p.m. download five photos that day. So I basically just had an alarm set every day to go get free five photos. I felt so at the end of that first month we had one 150 really nice looking Japan photos. So that was that.

Steph: [00:35:25] Yeah. So smart. Oh, in our show notes because we—handily enough we've written an article on how to find images for your Website, and we do have Unsplashed linked in there and a couple other different places where you can find free or paid for. Most of them are free and you can do some upgrading if you wanted, but we'll link to that in the show notes. If you're looking for some high quality images for your site,.

Andres: [00:35:50] Yeah, photos are definitely a challenge, but people really connect with them emotionally.

Steph: [00:35:57] It does. It adds a lot of professionalism, I think, to a site. So now that we've gone over your marketing strategy, let's chat about what the experience is like for a client. So could you walk us through what happens when a client reaches out to you and what's their journey like from the initial contact to after they get home from travel?

Andres: [00:36:25] All right.

Steph: [00:36:27] Let's really dig deep here.

Travel Agent Chatter Vol. 12/ Andres Zuleta of Boutique Japan 4

Andres: [00:36:30] OK. So they contact us usually through the website and they may have got that confirmation page that I mentioned earlier that says, we'll get back to you within one business day. Then one of us, either myself or our other you know kind of front line sales person, will contact them and say, "Thank you so much. I look forward to learning more about what you're doing for this trip." And then almost always, we're kind of running at a little bit beyond capacity. Here's the thing. You know, I think common . . . the tradition, conventional wisdom, I think, in sales is that if a person contacts you. You need to just make them buy like now. Because they they want to buy now, and we don't really subscribe to that kind of false urgency. So we actually do the opposite. Typically speaking, if if a new lead comes in, I can't just drop everything. You know, I'm working on some other stuff. I'm busy focused on the itinerary or something. So you kind of tell people by default, "Hey, you know. We really want to work with you. But is it okay if we can start the process in earnest a few days from now, or a week or two weeks, depending on how busy we are?" And this has the effect of making things look calmer. And it also filters out people who are maybe overly demanding.

Steph: [00:38:06] Yeah, I didn't think about that.

Andres: [00:38:09] Because if somebody wants a proposal today, you know, maybe they're not the right fit for us because we take things a little more slowly. So in that meantime, you know, people you . . . pretty much everyone is like, "No problem." In the meantime, we send them an optional questionnaire and it's like, you know, just a few pages trip questionnaire asking all sorts of questions that we want to find out, you know, to help them plan their trip. And it's optional. We frame it as optional because some people would rather just have a phone call, which is totally cool. So anyway, then we pick it up again and the qualification process really begins and qualification is mutual. So we want to make sure they're the right fit for us and we want to make sure that we're the right fit for them because our service isn't necessarily for everybody.

Steph: [00:38:58] Yeah.

Andres: [00:39:00] So that process of back and forth can take a few e-mails or it can take just one phone call.

Steph: [00:39:07] And at this point, they haven't paid anything, right?

Andres: [00:39:10] Nothing.

Andres: [00:39:11] OK.

Andres: [00:39:11] No. Once qualification is complete and we feel confident that we can give them what they're looking for and they feel happy with what we've said so far, then at that point, we will put together a very rough outline and estimate for them. And that's something that, you know, it's pretty simple enough. Day 1 Tokyo. Day Two's . . . Days 2, 3, 4 Kyoto. A little more substantial than that, but pretty basic into an estimate. And then at that point we are asking people for the planning fee. And. Most people pay the planning fee at that point because we've encapsulated what they had told us and given it back to them in a more logical format that they wouldn't have planned themselves. And then from there we put together a more detailed proposal. So when they've paid us the planning fee, we don't necessarily consider that they've booked with us yet because they've really just committed to going further into the process. That's all.

Steph: [00:40:18] Yeah.

Andres: [00:40:20] So the proposal is much more detailed. You know, this is you're getting a detailed itinerary with hotel names and room types, tour times, and things like that. After they see the more detailed proposal, that's when they can decide to book the trip.

Steph: [00:40:42] Something that's kind of . . . sorry. Something that I thought was really impressive was you had told me . . . I think it was 85% of the people that—last year, perhaps that filled out your inquiry form and you started doing the pre-planning, ended up paying the planning fee. Was that . . . am I using the right statistic there?

Andres: [00:41:04] No, not quite. I wish it was that.

Steph: [00:41:06] I knew it!

Andres: [00:41:08] That's okay. But 85% ... 85% percent of the people that we sent the outline and estimate to decided to move forward.

Steph: [00:41:18] Okay. Still very impressive.

Andres: [00:41:21] Yeah, it's good for us because I mean, basically putting that outline together, it's quite a bit of mental work, you know. I mean, we're basically synthesizing everything they've told us. And saying, OK, this is what your trip's going to look like. It doesn't have the details yet, but this is your trip pretty much. So even if they don't pay us the fee, you know, those 15% of the people who didn't pay the fee, they now can go.

Steph: [00:41:50] Yeah. I mean, you have to you have to have a really high close ratio with that in order for it to make sense to put that much effort in.

Andres: [00:41:57] Right. But we used to not even do that. We used to just give people a full proposal. That was a lot of work.

Steph: [00:42:08] So with your—because I mean, you've described your really, really detailed itineraries that you do and you're coordinating this between your team, so multiple members of the team. How are you communicating? Because it's so many details. How do you communicate it and make sure that it turns out OK?

Andres: [00:42:32] Well, I think, you know, it's not necessarily the most efficient process, but it's very hands on and every trip has, you know, multiple people kind of checking and rechecking details. So we use a lot of internal notes just to convey. Obvious and subtle things. You know, for example, if we have some clients traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, and we have them leaving on an 11:30 bullet train. But that's not necessarily going to be obvious why we did that for another member of the team. We'll leave a note in the itinerary notes, it's like "Chose this, because I think we're gonna have to get a bento lunch at the station and we want them to hit the ground running when they get to Kyoto because they have this other tour in the afternoon. So, we essentially explain ourselves to one another in written form constantly just to make sure that everything is clear. And that, in and of itself, is . . . it's an ongoing process that we continue to refine. I mean, I used to be called kind of rogue. My employees made fun of me because I just kind of did things and didn't explain them.

Steph: [00:43:53] I just imagine a bunch of type A people being like, "He's gone rogue."

Andres: [00:43:58] I was ... I was rogue. Yeah. They're like, "Oh, Andres has his own system." Anyway, I didn't want to be, you know, above the law, so to speak. I still sometimes do things my own way just because I'm always experimenting and trying to refine processes and things like that. But yeah, we use a lot of internal written communication.

Steph: [00:44:19] In Google Docs. Because that's where you do the main workup?

Andres: [00:44:22] That's what we do . . . yeah, kind of the itineraries before we put them into their final form in is Google.

Steph: [00:44:29] We'll link to too, Google Docs. If you're not aware of it as part of Google Workspace which is really affordable way to get your word processing and all your office tools plus email and together. So we'll link to that initial notes. Okay. So once you've created this customized itinerary that's got all sorts of internal notes and there you send it off to the client and the client probably make some refinements. But once it's all finished, then how does the payment processing work? Do you charge them 17 different charges to the different hotels and guides, or what what happens there?

Andres: [00:45:06] No, we just charge one total price for the trip and we receive payment. We get payment by credit card or bank transfer. And then we make all of the different payments to each supplier individually. And that is a huge endeavor in and of itself, because one hotel might be due now. One hotel might be due, three weeks from now that's not refundable. You know, another hotel might say, "Our policy is we always take payment after checkout." Guides are the same way. So we take care of all of that. And . . . yeah, it's it's a process.

Steph: [00:45:53] Yeah. Yeah. Well, who do you use for your payment processing? Because I know sometimes agencies can get stuck with . . . they get red flagged that they can't process credit cards.

Andres: [00:46:06] We use Stripe now.

Steph: [00:46:08] Okay, cool.

Andres: [00:46:09] Yeah. We started off with PayPal and then we used . . . I forget the name of the company, it was another just payment processing company with really high fees, but like you said, travel industry traditionally just has trouble with payment processing, but eventually we got on Stripe. It was really good.

Steph: [00:46:31] Yeah. We'll link to Stripe in the show notes. It'll also link to some other companies that work with travel agencies, or quote unquote, "high risk" industries.

Andres: [00:46:41] Yeah, there have been times where we've had to produce documentation to them just to kind of just say, "Hey, look, you know, everything is golden," you know? No charge backs, and extremely low refund rate and all that. Okay. Good. Just making sure . . . yeah traditionally I think the travel industry just has a bad rap in the industry for some reason.

Insider Tips for Booking Travel to Japan

Steph: [00:47:04] Yeah. Let's see. So for—Because I want to take advantage of having a Japan expert on our podcast today—so what are like three quick tips for agents that have clients traveling to Japan. something that's not a cookie . . . cookie cutter tip, but like an insider tip that they could give their clients.

Andres: [00:47:30] Well, this isn't quite an insider tip as much as a myth. But, you know, this is personal opinion, but a lot of travelers come to us, "Okay, well, we want to go to Tokyo, and then we want to go to Kyoto and in Kyoto, everyone tells us we have to stay in a ryokan in Kyoto. And our position is that actually you should stay in a ryokan in the countryside . . . Instead, and have a really amazing ryokan experience with hot springs and just, you know, just the full quintessential countryside, ryokan experience. And then a Kyoto just stay in a really convenient hotel where you can walk everywhere. So, you know, the ryokan—I don't know how much, you know about Japan but—the ryokans in Kyoto are beautiful, and traditional, and have really refined service. But you can also find beautiful, refined, ryokans elsewhere. And the ones in Kyoto don't have hot springs.

Travel Agent Chatter Vol. 12/ Andres Zuleta of Boutique Japan 3

Steph: [00:48:32] They do not because the one we were at did not.

Andres: [00:48:35] Exactly. Yeah. That's one basic tip. Try to steer people away from cherry blossom season. Everyone wants to go at cherry blossom season. Try and steer people away from cherry blossom season. It's really crowded. I don't know how much you keep up with this, but Japan in the last six years has undergone a huge boom in the tourism. So it's really crowded now. So when you go when you go to peak season, it's like everyone and their mother is there. So, you know, a more interesting time to go, I think is like mid-May. It's really nice weather.

Steph: [00:49:17] That's when I went!

Andres: [00:49:18] Oh, well, good job.

Steph: [00:49:20] Yeah. It's just when I . . . my friend was free, so . . .

Andres: [00:49:24] So not the first week of May because that's Golden week.

Steph: [00:49:27] Yes.

Andres: [00:49:30] Mid-May, before the summer but after the cherry blossom season, it's really nice. Or go in January. No one is there. You'll have the country to yourself. It's cold, but it's not crazy. It's really nice.

Steph: [00:49:43] For Minnesotans. It'll still be a really nice temperature. We'll be like, "This is so beautiful!"

Andres: [00:49:50] Yeah. What else? Oh, yeah. You know, everyone thinks you have to get the Japan Rail pass, and that's absolutely not true. Not to promote ourselves, but we have a blog post explaining why. I'm sure, you can find it, but . . .

Steph: [00:50:05] We'll link to it in the show notes.

Andres: [00:50:07] Okay. I just think, you know, look, if you're on a budget and you're not going . . . if you're in a budget, it may make sense for you, but not necessarily. It . . .it always depends on how many places you're going, and the timeframe. But the upside to not getting the Japan Rail Pass is that you save a ton of time. The Japan Rail Pass means you have to go to this office when you get to Japan. You wait in line, you take your passport. You have to . . . then you have to wait while the ticket agent gives you a bunch different tickets for all the trips you want to do. And you don't even get to go on the fastest bullet trains. If you don't do the rail pass, you can just order your tickets in advance. They just show up at your hotel. You can go on the fastest trains. It's a little more expensive, but it's worth, I think, the investment for saving a ton of time. Also, sometimes people with the Rail Pass end up in extending room only trains, which sounds like a nightmare to me. But again, if you're like a backpacker, then fair enough. Have fun.

Steph: [00:51:11] Well, those are great tips. Thank you. I feel like we're kind of reaching the end of things, so I feel like I do after eating a really delicious, satisfying meal. I feel really . . . I feel really satiated and really good right now. So let's let's move in—because it's the perfect time, I feel like, for like a warm, fuzzy nightcap. That's what we're going to call it. So, for those that are listening—first-time listeners-- this is our segment that we end with every time that helps us essentially remember why all of us are doing what we're doing for a living. So we ask our guests to share something that they've done, or something their clients have done that have made the world a little brighter and, you know, made it so you really enjoyed your job. So Andres, what, like . . . send us off with an uplifting story

Warm Fuzzies from Andres

Andres: [00:52:05] I mean, we have . . . I think we're just so lucky to have the kindest clients. You know, we had a really, kind of a cool story about a couple of weeks ago where we had some—some of our clients from Japan—and the husband is huge rugby fan. But the trip was not for rugby. So they had just kind of decided, okay, we're not going to rugby, but . . . they were out to dinner with one of our favorite guides who was taking them out to dinner, that was the tour. I mean, they were just having a ball together talking about rugby. And it turned out that the guide's friend actually had a couple of extra rugby tickets for a match the next day. And they, you know, basically one thing led to another and all of a sudden they were going to this rugby match. And then the next day, they had another tour with another one of our favorite guides. Anyway, long story short, it turns out that the original people weren't able to go to the rugby match. So now two of our favorite guides in our clients end up going to this rugby match for free.

Steph: [00:53:12] That's super cool.

Andres: [00:53:13] We got a picture over the weekend. I woke up and I saw the message. What's going on? Why are these guys hanging out? And why are they at a rugby match?

Steph: [00:53:23] You went rogue again.

Andres: [00:53:25] But yeah, they said it was just, you know, a really kind of magical experience. It's very . . . things like that. Japan has a certain magic to it. People really enjoy just kind of delighting one another and enjoy delighting visitors, especially. So, you know, our trips are full of kind of those accidental things that happen that are wonderful.

Travel Agent Chatter Vol. 12/ Andres Zuleta of Boutique Japan 2

Steph: [00:53:50] Heart that. Well, just like that, we wrapped up another episode of TAC and if you followed our site for a while, you know that we do these really neat in-depth surveys twice a year. We just published the results of our 2019 Travel Agent Income survey. So here's here's a few fun tidbits for those of you that are listening: The travel agent income is up 10% for hosted agents this year with the average. Let me make sure I get this right . . . The average full-time experienced agent is making on average $61,000 a year. And another important finding that ties in with with this episode in terms of business models is that hosed advisors make 7x more in commissions than they do in fees, although we are seeing a trend towards more people charging fees. That probably got you hungry for some more. I love all these . . . like we're talking hunger nightcap satiated.

Andres: [00:54:57] I'm hungry.

Steph: [00:55:00] I know! So now that you're hungry for more, you can read the full report and check out our infographic. We'll have a link to the studies in our show notes Andres. I had a blast and learned so much. Thank you so much for sharing your story today.

Andres: [00:55:17] Thank you so much for having me.

Steph: [00:55:18] And to those of you tuning in, all of us here at Host Agency Reviews are so grateful that you took the time to listen today. So thank you very much. And big hugs being sent to all of you.