What would you say if I told you that we found a unicorn travel advisor who earns 80% of her income from travel advisor fees, as opposed to commissions? Yes, you heard me right. In fact, it's the unicorn that found us for this interview, and we were wowed by the success and creativity of Madeline Jhawar's business model for her travel agency, Italy Beyond the Obvious. Madeline discusses—in deep sea depth—surprising marketing strategies which include focusing her on website development and SEO; relying on fees over travel agency commissions; and writing detailed travel tips on her site that seemingly risk sending her clients running to an Online Travel Agency to book themselves. But it turns out these risks pay out—literally: With master-level knowledge in Italian destinations, Madeline sells approximately 2M annually. How can this possibly work? Listen in, or read on! By the end, you'll believe in unicorn travel advisors too . . . and heck, you may even be able to become one yourself!
1. Host Agency Reviews Survey: Want to keep up with travel agent fee trends? We want you to add to the pot! Take our quick fee survey whether you charge fees or not, and we'll crunch the data to show you aggregate fee-charging trends among agents, and how they've shifted over the years.
2. Madeline's travel tips & blog It may seem counter-intuitive, but Madeline posts detailed tips on booking famous Italy tours on her site. You can see her blog at the link. Listen to the podcast to learn how she uses this to her advantage
3. Madeline's fee structure Madeline leverages a very clear and transparent fee structure in order to qualify her clients so she can spend more time planning and booking and less time chasing down business. Check her site to see her 3-tiered fee structure.
4. Axus App: Madeline uses this app to send her custom itineraries via mobile. (Spoiler alert: You'll also want a hard copy back up)
5. Madeline's Blog on the Uffizi Gallery: Here's an example of Italy travel tips that Madeline offer on her blog. It may seem like she's supporting her own competition (the internet), but listen to the podcast to hear why this is not the case.
6. Canva: This is the user-friendly (in my opinion) program Madeline uses to make creative for her website.
7. Sumo: A Word Press plugin, Sumo is a marketing automation platform where you can track your ListServe and create newsletters and ads for your travel agency website.
Steph: [00:00:01] Top of the morning to you, my little bumblebees. Or evening, afternoon, middle of the night––whatever best fits your situation. This is Steph Lee the founder of Host Agency Reviews and I'm thrilled to be your host for today's show. For those of you that have been listening to Travel Agent Chatter for a while, you may recall that I usually give a shout out at the end of the podcast to see if anyone has any suggestions for a good agent to be on the show. Let this be on the record that Madeline came from one of those emails.
So here's the deal about Madeline. What caught my eye about her agency is that 80 percent of her income is from fees. You heard that right 80 percent. And of course this piqued my curiosity and I needed to chat with her more on how she's making this happen. Which brings us to today ...
Every year HAR has an annual fee survey to help agents get a pulse on how many agents are charging fees, what amounts they're charging, and their model for charging fees. And it's that time of year where we're collecting data for the survey. You can visit HostAgencyReviews.com/feesurvey to take this year's survey. We're giving out $200 worth of gift cards to participants and everyone that takes a survey will be able to compare their results to the industry at large.
And to piggyback on the HAR fee survey, today's episode is for those of you needing some inspiration on charging service fees . . . some inspiration on ways to grow your email list, how to position yourself as the destination or niche expert that people will pay thousands of dollars in service fees to tap into your expertise. So here's the itinerary for today's show. First we're gonna talk about focusing on Italy; next, fees and services; we'll follow that with website; and we'll wrap it up with our warm fuzzy segment.
So take it easy and kick off your shoes ...It's time to enjoy the show. Madeline welcome to Travel Agent Chatter!
Madeline: [00:02:05] Hi Steph, thank you!
Steph: [00:02:06] Yes, so everyone Madeline is the founder and owner of Italy Beyond the Obvious. And we have so much to chat on today. So she's just a treasure trove of information and I don't want to spend too much time on your background Madeline. But I think it's super important that people understand how deep your experience with Italy runs. So give us a quick synopsis of how you came to start Italy Beyond the Obvious because you have a long track record with Italy.
Madeline: [00:02:39] I do. I lived in Italy for five years. Not all in a row though. So I started as an exchange student and then moved back as a tour guide for Butterfield and Robinson after college and I led hiking and biking tours for them for a year and a half-ish (three seasons), and then I went back for a couple of different summers as a nanny. And then I went back again for two and a half years and lived in Milan and worked in global operations for a company that distributed semiconductors. So in between people just kept––once you work as a tour guide for Butterfield and Robinson people are like where should I go, what should I do? So for 10 years before starting Italy Beyond the Obvious, I was answering those questions for friends and family. Where should I go? What should I do? I'm going to Italy. And it was my favorite topic of conversation. So I was like "Oh, how much time do you have? What's your budget? Do you have kids? What are the travelers like?" and so I was really just doing it for fun. And then 10 years ago. I decided to put up a website and charge fees and see what would happen.
Madeline: [00:03:54] And yeah ... that was the beginning.
Steph: [00:03:57] Well, that's a great segue into talking about how your deep expertise in Italy positions you to be a really successful agent. So right now you're currently bringing in an income of over six digits from selling Italy and only Italy. And when you and I were talking, we discussed how it's tough to track your sales since you don't follow a traditional travel agency business model. As in we don't know that you book 2 million in sales or whatnot, but we talked through some numbers and we estimated that you'd be around like one point five to two million in annual sales. Which to me makes you immediately qualified as an Italy booking whiz, and I think everyone listening would agree with that. And for those of you that are listening, there are two people in Madeline's agency. But Madeline you're the only one that books travel, correct? Your assistant does kind of back end stuff for you?
Madeline: [00:04:58] Um she actually does most of the bookings so . . .
Steph: [00:05:02] Oh, she does most of the bookings?
Madeline: [00:05:02] So, I Interface with the clients and I put together all the uh pieces, and then she does all the ... She books everything.
Steph: [00:05:11] Okay, so one of the interesting things also about Madeline's business model is, um, like for some of her clients she actually doesn't do bookings for them. She just does consulting. But um what we'll kind of be chatting on I guess later on in the podcast is about how Madeline charges these service fees so that she's not being compensated––she may get compensated from the different vendors––but more like she's relying on these service fees and not on these commissions. So when she's booking things, she may be booking a lot of things direct. But that's, uh, putting the cart before the horse so.
Because you're so . . . your expertise is so deep with Italy . . . I know that our listeners would love to hear a few in-the-know Italy tips from someone that has that type of experience. So, what are like let's say three tips for those of us that are less than the know about Italy that we could use to impress people interested in booking in Italy.
Madeline: [00:06:19] Sure. Just good tips too that agents could tell their clients that are going to Italy that would make the agent look good in terms of like, "Hey, heads up insider information" . . . you know, one thing is I always put a shawl in my bag when I'm going to Italy in the summer because you cannot enter churches or places of worship with covered . . . without covered shoulders . . . so it can be the thinnest, it can be almost like a transparent shawl that crumples up into a teeny tiny ball and you can throw it over your shoulders, and even if it's 90 degrees outside you know, you get to wear those spaghetti strap tops or whatever, but you could just, you're not limited. you know, you won't be turned away. So that's one thing. And then nobody gets stuck you know, not not being able to go into a church or to see you know, there's some beautiful art in churches in Italy even if you're not going in for religious reasons.
A second kind of trick to know is––I get this reaction from you know, 90 percent of my clients is in Italy––the restaurants don't even open until about 7:30 PM for dinner, and at 7:30 PM is when you get that kind of early bird feeling. So if you want like the buzzing Italian dinner hour and you want to eat with the Italians, you need to eat dinner you know, 8 or 8:30 or 9. So people when I tell––we book restaurant and we do all our clients restaurant reservations––so when we're discussing this with them they're often like oh my god we eat dinner at 6:00p.m. I can't eat dinner at 9:00 and especially if you have kids are like our kids go to bed at 8:00 they can't be sitting down for dinner at 9:00.
So we have this conversation with people all the time and so one––you know, plenty of people are happy to adjust and eat when the locals eat and that's fine. But especially even at the beginning of the trip when you're jet lagged and they're like we just had what can where can we eat at 6 PM. So a good trick is to find wine bars and eat dinner at wine bars. The great thing about wine bars in Italy is that they do allow children. There's no age limit and they have limited menus. So you want to find––many of them do––so you just want to find you want to take the wine bar approach and that'll make you look good as an agent. You'll be like, you know, the Italians don't eat dinner till 9:00 but I've booked your reservation at this awesome wine bar, and it will have a limited menu. So you might be like . . . you might have two options for pasta. Or it might be kind of more like cheeses and meats and a side salad or something. And so that's a great way to kind of help your clients eat early and you know, get adjusted to the time difference.
Steph: [00:09:04] Would you recommend that they book reservations for any wine bar that they're going to, or is that kind of a precaution you take because you do such white glove service.
Madeline: [00:09:17] I definitely recommend having a reservation that you might cancel rather than not having a reservation. I'll make my other my other restaurant-related tip. For people that are like, "I want to go with the flow, I want to explore, I want to check out the places and find my own place and discover my own restaurants and walk around and see what looks buzzing." I'm like Okay, that's fantastic. You can definitely do that. However, I want to make your dinner reservation for the very first night that you're in a town because you're arriving the town you know, what you want to avoid is walking around, in high season, with a family of four, where everybody's hungry at dinner time. And you want to find that you know, the place that has the good food and the great atmosphere on the authentic, you know, all of that, and it's dinnertime and everything's full, and the rest where you're like 'that looks cute' you know, the restaurants in Italy get ... you know, we make our restaurant reservations for our travelers a week to two weeks in advance. And to me, if it's a week in advance it's already late. Like I'm already hoping that I can get them a table. So I definitely say make a reservation for the first night you're in a new city. And then after dinner, take a walk, go walk through the neighborhood, or on the way back to the hotel or whatever and check out places that you think look great that are buzzing, that are full of locals, read the menu and then pop in and make a reservation for the following night. And so that's a great strategy for them being able to discover your own places but also not get stuck.
Steph: [00:10:56] Mm hm. Those are fantastic tips, thank you for sharing. And actually so on Madeline's site, on Italy Beyond the Obvious, there's there's a great resource that I'll link to in the show notes. It's Italy travel tips and there's tons of great tips like insider tips like what we just went over on that blog post. So I'll link to it if anyone's interested.
And we're going to just jump right in to our next segment, Fees and Structures. While I want to believe that people hopped on here to listen to me complain about how I'm paying a fee for a GPS tracking collar for Rigel. After we learned that–– and I'm not sure how he did this, but he's let himself into two of our neighbors' houses––and so they come home and they come running out because there's this huge dog in their house that they don't know. So, we're not gonna be talking about the fees for Rigel's GPS tracking collar. But, your fees are more applicable to our listeners. You have three plans that you offer and I'll link to those again in the show notes because everything's very well laid out on the site and it's very transparent. So would you mind explaining your fee structure and like what's included.
Madeline: [00:12:20] Sure. Yeah. I have three levels of service. And, as you say, my goal is to be very transparent so that people know what I do and what I don't do, and how much it costs. That's important because agents can work with the same clients year, after year, after year, after year because one year the client is going to Brazil in the next year they're going to Thailand . . . clients that are only going to Italy, I only work with people a couple of times. And so I need a high volume of requests and I need to turn those requests quickly into my clients. So my website is very transparent. I want to really target the right client. So, I want that client to recognize themselves and my services and say, "That's me; that's what I need; that's what. Yes, I want yes I want to work with you." And then the amount of time I need to spend to close a client is very short, which it has to be if I'm going to actually be spending my time planning their trips and not talking to client aft–– potential client, potential clients all day.
So that's a little segue into it why why I'm so transparent. And so I have a table of fees and services on my website. And I have three different––I've honed these over the years––so there is kind of a low and a middle-of-the-road and a high end. I work only with independent travelers, so if someone contacts me and says I have my very first passport and I want to go to Italy, I might say to them, you know, I don't know if I'm the best person to help plan your trip. So I usually work with people who are pretty well-traveled and have kind of been there and done that. They want to go a little deeper. They want to get off the beaten track. Or they have some kind of unusual request, you know maybe they have some pretty strict dietary requirements or they're traveling with a 90 year old and a 2 year old and they're not sure how to structure the day. So I get a lot of that.
So my lowest, or I should say my cheapest, most inexpensive level of service is what I call "Coaching." It's for the person that just needs my advice and can go do all their own bookings and so that they work with me over email. And I have a very structured process and we focus on one piece of the process over seven days. On each of the seven days I tell them you get one hour of my time and I tell you what to do, and you then need to go do it all. It'll take you about 40 hours to then go do your own trip. So that's a flat fee, and that's $750, and is completely over email.
Then the other two services are my Gold Planning Service and my Platinum Planning Service. Those are both where I own the project. Those are for people that say, "I don't have time to do this. I want your expertise, but I also want you to do all the bookings and just take care of everything. And get everything done when it needs to get done." So the Gold, which is $225/per travel day––this is for up to six travelers––And that's, I call it "the basics." So I'll put together the overall itinerary. That includes the hotel bookings, it includes one activity per day. It includes one restaurant reservation per day and then I do the logistics.
And then the Platinum is is more. So it's for people that want full days. So they might want a morning activity, a lunch reservation, or an afternoon activity. It also includes maps, it includes on-trip support. The on-trip support is . . . so my colleague in Milan is available to them on their trip. So all of our trips we have the emergency number for anyone––if we made a mistake, of course, by all means call us. But on-trip support is more like, you know, "cancel my dinner reservation," or you know, we had someone who had an issue with their car and they had to return the rental car. So we did everything ahead of time so that all they had to do was drive the rental car in and get the keys to the to the new rental car. They didn't have to deal with the paperwork. Or we help people if they have to find a pharmacy, or if they need instant translation they can call Claudia and be like, "This person is talking to me in Italian and I don't understand what they're saying." And so she's she's a phone call away. So stuff like that. So the platinum level gets the on-trip support as well. And that is that's kind of a range in terms of the fees depending on what the traveler needs. The range is is $350 to $500/per travel day.
Steph: [00:17:25] OK. And that's, so it's per travel day, up to six travelers on the trip?
Madeline: [00:17:32] Correct.
Steph: [00:17:33] OK. So I guess the big question is for so many agents is how do you sell those service fees? And how did you become confident enough to charge them?
Madeline: [00:17:47] So I started, because I was not trained as a travel agent, I worked as a Butterfield and Robinson guide. So I knew the pieces of the trip, I knew Italy's wow factor, I had all the connections with the local wineries and the local everything. And I knew how to put together the pieces of a trip. I kind of started looking at the travel industry as an outsider and I didn't get it. I signed up for––and this was 10 years ago––I signed up for the IATA newsletter and I signed up for all these kind of travel agent industry newsletters and to be honest with you, I mean I'm sure they're great organizations, but I was like this is kind of a waste of my time. I need to be planning trips for my client.
So I kind of—more out of not frustration, but more because I just didn't understand—I was like, "Okay I'm going to take this a different direction. I'm going to charge fees." And so I just said to myself . . . my question was, 'What do I have to charge in order for this to be worth my time?" And that's just the question I kept asking myself over and over because I had left a corporate job. I was a global operations manager, I had a good salary at a corporation, and I knew that I had valuable skills, and I was like, "this is only worth my time if I can earn a minimum X."
And so when I started––I don't remember what I started at––but my fees were a little bit lower, but they weren't super low. Because I really was not earning any money from commissions, I didn't understand how that worked. I didn't have any relationships with any . . . now I do have a host agency and so I can I have an IATA number that I can use . . . But at the time I was I wasn't using that at all. But what ended up happening is, so a couple things; so it allowed me––when I knew I was getting paid––I could spend time on things that, in the end, people said were really this kind of the secret sauce of their trip. And they were things that would allow independent travelers to really go beyond the obvious. And so as an example, I would put together a Tuscany driving tour for them. So I would say, "Wake up at your hotel. It's a 20 minute drive to this town. Here's where you should park. Here are the three things you should see in this town. Here's a bakery where you should try the local focaccia. Get back in your car, it's a 30 minute drive to the next town. Here's where you park." . . . And there's lots of things to consider to put together a day like that, because in Italy shops close after lunch. From about 1:30 or one until 4:30. If somebody is reading a guidebook and they're like I'm going to go to this town, and they show up and they're like, "Well that was a ghost town." And I've had this conversation in the past where they're like, "Oh, I went to Luca and it was a ghost town" And I'm like, "Well, what time were you there?" And they said, "two o'clock." I was like, "Well yeah, all the shops are closed at two o'clock!".
So there's a lot of time and effort and it's all customized, right? So, it's like somebody likes cashmere. I'm like, "well go to this Tuscan cashmere farm." Or somebody else likes pottery, and I'm like "here's an awesome pottery place." Or somebody else loves, you know, olive oil, I'm like well, "Hit this olive oil mill." And so it can be a very custom experience but yet they're independent travelers. And so it's it's a way for me to get paid, and me to spend time, and me to create something like that. And then the client really has that connection to Italy and has a really good experience. you know, everybody's happy. I get paid and the client has good experience.
And so what ended up happening is I kept hitting capacity every year. I started out kind of working part time, and then it took me about three years to get to full time. And then I would hit capacity in terms of what the number of trips I could handle. These are very high touch trips and nobody goes to Italy for less than about a week. So all the all the trips I do are, I would say, a minimum of seven days. Usually they're closer to 10 days and then up to usually three weeks. A lot of coaching clients are doing you know, four or five, six week trips because nobody is going to pay me $300/day for a six week trip. Maybe they will, but not many people will. So most of my trips tend to be two to three weeks.
And so I would hit capacity of what I could do. And so year four, five, and six I'd hit capacity, raise my fees. Hit capacity, raise my fees. Hit capacity, raise my fees. And so I think it was year six where I said, "Okay, I'm solidly in the the luxury travel space. And now I need to increase my capacity." So then that's when I hired my assistant. So she's now been with me for three––well, by the time this podcast comes out, it'll be four––years. And she hit full time after two years, I think. So then in 2018 we increase the fees again.
So, I mean the market is there. I keep telling people . . . you know, people are afraid to charge fees. The market is there. I mean it's definitely there. Yeah.
Steph: [00:23:35] Just to note for everyone that's listening. We have a travel agent salary survey we do every year. And like what we see is this trend . . . I saw it when I was at a host agency and worked with tons as agents . . . is that— I know what Madeline is saying that it takes three years usually until it's like a sustainable model. So plan for that. I'm also going to mention that Madeline works with agents as well that are nervous about charging service fees. And she you know, she does an hourly rate to coach you, or talk with you about how you can become more confident in charging service fees.
Um, the other thing I wanted to mention too—because when you're talking about these extremely customized itineraries—when we were talking earlier, I just want to tell everybody that, because you said last year you booked about 50 trips and you've been doing this for 10 years. So, let's say between like 400 and 500 trips you've probably booked?
Madeline: [00:24:41] Yeah.
Steph: [00:24:42] But you said you never booked the same itinerary before.
Madeline: [00:24:46] I've never done the same one twice. Yeah. I've never I've never done the exact same itinerary twice.
Steph: [00:24:53] Yeah. So that's just ... I mean, that's amazing. That's a lot of trips to come up with and a lot of creativity.
Madeline: [00:25:01] I mean, let me, I should clarify that. I've done lots of you know, Rome, Florence, Venice. But in terms of the same hotel, the same guides, the same transfers, the same restaurants. I mean all of that depends on the traveler.
Steph: [00:25:12] Yeah the same activities, everything's different.
Madeline: [00:25:14] Yeah. Yeah. For sure.
Steph: [00:25:16] Well because your model is so different, uh, and it's more custom and you're not booking through vendors, tell us how you divvy up the payments. Meaning like, do they pay it all at once? And then walk us through the booking process from the time they decide they say, "I want to book with Italy Beyond the Obvious." Like how does that work from there?
Madeline: [00:25:46] So when they say I want to hire you, I say, "Great. I'll send you an agreement." So the coaching is prepaid upfront and then it's all email. So I'll separate the coaching out from the Gold and Platinum services. The coaching is is more casual and it's seven one-hour blocks of my time and we move to the next step when I get the client feedback. And that's as I say prepaid PayPal via a link on my website. And so that's how coaching is done.
The Gold and the Platinum, I create an agreement and it says, you know, here's what I'm gonna do for you. Gold services X number of days, at X per day is a total invoice of this. And it has in the agreement that we both signed that talks about liability. It talks about cancellation fees. And so we're both on the same page in terms of what I'm going to do and what I'm not going to do for the client. And then there's a 50 percent deposit that I ask for upfront. I was going to say 50 percent is not important if it's six thousand dollars in fees and the client kind of balks at that. It's just a deposit to get on my calendar is what I tell them. Because there are lots people that say they want to work with me and I'm like well soon as I get your deposit, you know, then you're on my calendar. And then once I get the deposit then I own the process. And so then I take over and I have a five step travel planning process.
As you can imagine with juggling this many trips, we do a lot of trip-of-a-lifetime bucket list trips, multigenerational trips—you know, grandmas taking the whole family. And so I do a lot of very kind of uh, important—I guess you'd call important, I mean I know all agents do—but you know, these are like trips that people have saved up for years.
Steph: [00:27:55] Yeah, they're splurging on them.
Madeline: [00:27:56] And so often I work with people for, you know, nine months before departure. So, even though we did 50 trips in 2017, for many of those months I would look at my roster of clients and I would have 30 trips going at the same time. So I have a very, very structured five-step travel planning process. I kick the process off with the client agreement as soon as I get their deposit. And then as soon as I'm done working with them, I send them the invoice for the other 50 percent.
Steph: [00:28:33] Okay, so then with your five step process can you give a high level overview of, like, what is the first step involve?
Madeline: [00:28:41] Yeah sure. The first step is the overall itinerary, and that is the most important step. That Is where I send . . . I have some standard questions for people so that I can I can get to know them. I want to know if they've been to Italy before or if they have where did they go? If they haven't, have they been to Europe? If they haven't been to Europe, have they been to, you know, foreign countries where they speak different languages? I want to get a sense of how independent they are. I want to know if they're OK driving or if they prefer to take the train. And I want them to tell me about their accommodation preferences, all that kind of general stuff. And then, you know, is there anything specific they want to see. And then based on their feedback, I will send out links, specific links, to things that I think they would love. So I'll say, you know, "you mentioned that you want to go to the beach so you could go to, you know, the Liguorian coast, you know, near the Chincoteague or near Portofino." Or you could go to Pooley or you could go to Sicily. So I'll just kind of throw out ideas based on their feedback. And then based on my initial ideas they say to me, you know, "Yes definitely want to include this. This not so much. This is a maybe." And then based on that, I put together their itinerary. Of course, that's also dependent on how many days they have and their budget. And you know, the other considerations they told me, like if they definitely don't want to rent a car, or if they definitely do want to rent a car. So that's step one that's step one is the overall itinerary.
Steph: [00:30:17] OK. And then you also send a pre-trip checklist. Is this one of the steps when you send the pre-trip check list and then do a call two weeks before departure?
Madeline: [00:30:31] That's after everything's done.
Steph: [00:30:32] Oh, that's not even one of the steps!
Madeline: [00:30:36] No, so the step two is is the accommodations. And I do hotels but I also do farmhouses and apartments and every now and again someone wants me to book an Airbnb for them, which I will totally do. It's a little bit of a pain because I do not want to be the person the Airbnb owner is texting to say, 'Where are you? I don't see you on the corner..." So I make the clients do those bookings because I don't want to be the bottleneck. But I will book Airbnbs, for sure.
So the accommodations is the second step. And then tours and guides and activities are the third step. And logistics are the fourth step. And food Is the fifth step. And then once everything is all finished then we get into the kind of pre-trip preparations. So that's where I send out the pre-trip checklist and we review all the kind of general travel things they need to know just to get prepared for their trip to Italy.
Steph: [00:31:36] Perfect. And you also use Axus so your clients can have a mobile itinerary, correct?
Madeline: [00:31:45] Yeah, yeah. So they get everything on the Axus app. Yeah, and I always tell them to print it, of course.
Steph: [00:31:55] Yeah... That's a great tip.
Madeline: [00:31:58] Oh my gosh. Yes. You need a paper backup.
Steph: [00:32:01] Yes!
Madeline: [00:32:01] I mean, but what do you don't get pick pocketed. I mean we can have a whole segment on safety when traveling to Italy but um, yeah, you need the paper backup.
Steph: [00:32:10] Well, I'll also link to––if those of you listening haven't heard of Axus app before, it's like an itinerary app that's popular with travel agencies––so I'll link to their site the show notes.
Well, let's move into the next section which is websites and I want to focus on your website for a little bit because you use it to showcase your knowledge so well.
Madeline: [00:32:38] Thank you.
Steph: [00:32:40] You really do. For those of you listening, if you're looking for inspiration on how to use a site to curate better quality leads, you'll want to take a look at Madeline's site. As we saw earlier like, she throws out, like, insider tips to traveling in Italy, she throws them out like they're candy! They're just like all over the website. So what I like about it is that so many agents hold their cards close because they don't want their clients to take their knowledge and book online. Which, you know, is not unfounded because that happens to every single agent out there. But you take a different approach. You're like, here's my expertise, this is what I know. And you use your ... it seems like you use your website to vet clients, so they're totally sold on you before they are even reaching out to you. You had talked about how you were really deliberate in how you built the site and the things you write with your website. Did that did this kind of idea play into how you built your site?
Madeline: [00:33:59] Oh, definitely. And this was not, you know, this is something that I, in hindsight I can say yes I built it like this, but in reality it was a zigzag journey that ended up . . . It's not like 10 years ago I sat down and I was like, "I'm going to build a site that's up to ideally optimized for SEO and totally targeted to the perfect client and they're just going to find me." I mean, that's how it ended up. But it was not straight and clear. You know, there were lots of times when I was fumbling around and changing things and modifying things. So I could say if there is a secret sauce, that is the secret sauce. And it's for me, right? When you're a destination expert like me, when you work with clients only two or three times because they're only going to go back ... they're going to work with me once and they're going to say we had an amazing trip and you know, what now we want to pull out that B list of all the things that we didn't do last trip. We want to go back to Italy and they'll work with me again and then they'll come back and they'll be like, "Now we want to go somewhere else." Right? So, I need a lot of new clients. I mean at this point I'm at 50 percent referrals. So that's great. But I don't spend any money on marketing because I've spent so much time and effort building a website so that people find me on my website. And what you said is true. People find me and they're ready to go. And I really spend a lot of time trying to put some personality in there. And so I write about my background and I'm, you know, I stuck my neck out. This was a transition for me in the early days. You know, I was the person that would always give free Italy advice and I loved doing it. And so for the transition for me to say, "OK now you have to pay me for this advice that I've been giving out for free for years." I was a big transition to say, "this is now a business." And now I'm very comfortable with that. I used to be like, "Well, now I have to charge. I know I used to do it for free but now ... ". But now I'm like, "Okay, if I can answer this off the top of my head, no problem, I'll answer it. If it requires me to take the time to spend time to go into my files then I need to charge for it." And that kind of comes back to your point earlier—I'll get back to the website in a second––but I didn't want to forget to address this important point earlier where you said you know, people might keep their information close to them because they don't want their clients to go book it. And I think
here you just have to showcase how kind of nuanced the options are. And so let's just take Rome and let's just take the Vatican and Rome as an example. And let's say that your client was like, "Oh, I saw a great Vatican tour." Well when I talked to my client about a Vatican tour I'm like, OK do you want a private guide or do you want a small group tour? Or do you want a large group tour? Or do you want to visit it on your own with the headset. And if you do, here's what you should know. And do you want to add St. Peter's to that tour? And you should know that it's a three hour tour. It's a four hour tour. And do you want to do anything else in Vatican City? And do you want a lunch reservation? Would you prefer a morning tour? Would you prefer an afternoon tour and oh, by the way, did you know that there is a Friday night tour? And did you know, that you can take a train to the pope's summer palace, in addition? And by the way you shouldn't do the Coliseum on the same day as the Vatican or your brain will explode from historical information. Right? So, I think yes, maybe you have that one guide or that one tour or that one thing that you absolutely love. But there are so many options out there and so many shades of gray. And once you start talking to the client and give them the opportunity to have a personalized recommendation, that's where the value is. Like anybody can go into Viator and be like oh, 1,200 five-star reviews. Great! And then you get to the tour and you're like, there are 30 people on this tour, I can't hear the guide. You've spent thousands of dollars to come to Italy and you have a reservation for the Vatican that, you know, you booked a month in advance and now all the tickets are sold out. And so this is the only option. You just have to make people understand that you're picking the best option for them.
And so you know, my post about Uffizi gallery, it's actually a really good example of a post on my blog where I'm like here are all the ways to see the you Uffizi gallery, here all the ways to buy tickets to the Uffizi gallery. Great, go do it. But you're in Italy for two weeks and the Uffizi gallery is gonna be a two and half hour tour. You could spend an hour figuring out the best way to visit the Uffizi gallery and you've covered two and a half hours of your two week trip. Or, you could just hire me. I could get to know you. I could get to know all your personalized recommendations and I could be like bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. This Vatican tour, that Uffizi tour, this cute little you know, winery in the countryside this awesome off-the-beaten-path little town.
So, I think you can confidently approach it like that and really show the client the value that you bring and not be scared of giving away secrets. I think there is a lot out there and there's a lot of different solutions.
Madeline: [00:39:30] But back to the website because it's super, super important. I've spent a lot of time ... I actually hired, I actually recommend having a SEO person if you if you're not familiar with SEO. Google works with this . . . they Use the acronym EAT and I think it stands for like Expert Authority Trustworthy, or something like that . . . and so Google will direct people to websites that are have a high EAT. So demonstrate that their experts, demonstrate that they're an authority, and demonstrate that they're trustworthy. So the more people you help, the more people that are gonna, you know, find the information on your website useful, the higher you're going to rank with this Expert Authority Trustworthy thing, the more people that are gonna find you organically.
Steph: [00:40:39] Mmm hm. Yeah, I mean that's exactly, if anyone's ever checked out Host Agency Reviews, which I'm assuming you have if you're listening to this. But you know, that's the exact same thing, we just write really in-depth content on what we know. And you know, Google recognizes that people really like the content and they share it and they stay on your page for a long time. They're not bouncing off of it right away. So...
Madeline: [00:41:05] Yeah, it's exactly what you guys do. Yeah. Yeah. And I love your website.
Steph: [00:41:10] Thank you very much. We'll link to your article on the Uffizi gallery so people can take a look at that too, to get an idea for the nuances that they can show clients. And, I mean it's worth noting before we jump into the next question, that I recognize, you know, you're a special case and a lot of ways because you're specializing in Italy and only booking Italy and doing it really in-depth. Versus, you know, someone that's selling more of a mass market product. you know, they may think, it's a lot easier to do if you're doing custom but if you're doing mass market you can't. But I think there is like a happy medium. Check out Madeline's site and to check out these blog posts to get ideas for how you can do this for mainstream travel. Because I think that there's a way that they can come together and benefit the agent, and then you'll be able to get organic links from that.
Madeline: [00:42:14] Well and even you know, I know all agents have areas of expertise. So even if maybe you have five countries that you do on a regular basis or maybe you did a trip uh you know, and you can write about your trip and you can give details about where you stayed and what you did and you know, and any kind of specific details that you can put on your website that people can find helpful and can find, it's going to position you as an expert for that area.
Steph: [00:42:51] Now when you guys visit Italy Beyond the Obvious which you'll notice is will be a pop up that happens and it'll be an opt in offer for an e-book on how to drive in Italy. And as I was exploring the site I was like, "Oh I know I'm a bad enough driver here in the States, for the safety of all, I read up on how to drive in Italy." And so I was taking a look at your e-book Madeline and it's... you can imagine my surprise and delight that I learned that I actually wasn't driving bad, I'm just actually driving Italian.
Madeline: [00:43:31] You're an Italian driver at heart.
Steph: [00:43:32] Yes! It turns out that Italians don't believe in stop signs. They believe in roll through signs, which makes total sense to me and what I practice on a daily basis. But seriously how successful has that . . . because the book is really attractive looking and as I was going through it there was of course loads of great information, how successful has that been in helping you build your email list?
Madeline: [00:44:01] That's been the biggest factor in building my email list. I think probably two thirds of my people on my e-mail list come through that book.
Steph: [00:44:15] Wow.
Madeline: [00:44:15] And the only thing I did to put together that book is I strung together a bunch of blog posts that I'd already written. I've been writing about driving in Italy for years and I just took all my blog posts and put them together in a PDF. And that was the drive. And I formatted it a little bit and added chapters and stuff but that was, that was basically it. Yeah.
Steph: [00:44:37] So if you if anyone listening wants to download it to check it out to get again some inspiration for their agency, or just some Italian driving tips on how to properly drive, um, you can go to her site and there will be a pop up. And Madeline also said we could link to the PDF in our show notes so that you'll be able to download the e-book without signing up for the newsletter. But you know, if you're interested in kind of seeing how Madeline markets, make sure to sign up for her newsletter, or if you're interested in learning more about Italy.
Madeline: [00:45:12] I would also say about driving in Italy there is just for agents that want to look good and give their clients a heads up, read the chapter on the ZTL zones. So, Italian historic city centers have limited traffic zones and they're all monitored with cameras. You cannot drive across them unless you have a registered license plate and so you know, the camera will snap a photo of the license plate and send a fine to the car rental company who will then add a processing fee and take it off the credit card of the person who rented the car. So it's very efficient and the fine arrives, you know, six months later and there's nothing you can do about it.
Steph: [00:46:00] That's very efficient!
Madeline: [00:46:03] Yes. And it's not a scam. I get questions all the time you know, this is a scam for tourists. No not a scam. Italians that drive by these cameras get fines too. But the problem is that the signs are, you know, easy to read by the Italians and they know what they look like and they can read them. And foreigners are looking around at a million signs and don't know that they should pay attention to this one sign that says 'Do Not Enter'.
Steph: [00:46:29] And you're thinking it says 'Come check out this beautiful historic portion of the town!'
Madeline: [00:46:36] Yeah exactly. Because the 'do not enter' is also a different symbol than it is here in the US.
Steph: [00:46:42] Yeah. There's a lot of pictures in the e-book of the signs and what to expect and, you know, talks about that zone. And I know you did this probably a couple of years ago but did you use Canva for formatting it or you just kind of like did it in word or something?
Madeline: [00:47:04] I don't remember you know, I do use Canva. For that specific e-book, I don't remember. I do not like Word. I know it's more cumbersome. I actually PowerPoint.
Steph: [00:47:21] It's horrible for design!
I know, I know. I love Canva. I do use Canva for like Facebook banners and all that. But yeah the e-book. I don't remember.
Okay. We'll we'll link to Canva for those of you that haven't heard of it or aren't using it, it's a great way if you're doing your own marketing materials, to make it look professional but really nice. And so for your pop ups, you use Sumo is that right?
Madeline: Yes. I love it Sumo.me, and I love Sumo. It's just a plug-in, I guess you'd call it a plug in. I just signed up for it and I pay for it now because it allows you to do A/B testing if you do the paid version. For anyone that doesn't know what A/B testing is you kind of look at version A in version B and see which one was more successful. So you do a pop up and let's say the pop up has Travel to Tuscany and has a picture of a Tuscan farmhouse and then it says enter your email here to sign up for a newsletter and then that might be version A. And Version B, you change one thing. So maybe you just change the photo and the photo is, instead of a Tuscan farmhouse, maybe it's a beach or something like that. Then it shows different pop ups 50 percent of the time and then you just see which one has the best conversion. So, do people prefer the beach do they click out of the beach one and enter their email for Tuscan farmhouse or vice versa? Do they enter their email and sign up for the newsletter when they see the beach and they click out of the Tuscan farmhouse? And then based on that you can you can stop one and go with the one that's more successful. So I found that valuable enough that I pay for it but there is a free version.
Steph: [00:49:18] Perfect. Well, we'll link to it too for those that are interested but it is a WordPress plugin. So if your site isn't on WordPress you'd have to find something else but I'll also link to our website article so if you're in the process of deciding what type of website to make––if you want to do a third party app, or custom, or do it yourself, or hire it. We have an article all about like website options for travel agencies that will link to the show notes.
Well, let's see on your site you have client testimonials. But during my stalking of you, I saw that you have a nice collection of reviews pretty much across the board so you have it on Facebook, you have them on LinkedIn, you have them on Google. How do you get these glowing reviews across a wide variety of platforms? Because usually I see when I see a company with reviews they're usually focused in one place but you kind of have them spread out. So how did that happen?
Madeline: [00:50:23] So I used to only have reviews on my website. Because I work with people for so many months, I really get to know them really well. And so when they get back from Italy, I mean people write me essays about their trip. They write me you know, 10 pages and they open up their Flickr albums to me and I get two hundred photos and so I get a lot of feedback. So I always wish that there was a third party place so I would kind of lift sentences from their feedback and put it on my website testimonials page for years.
And I did this for years and then I was really you know, I always wanted to be on-TripAdvisor or something but that's just not . . . there's no Italy category on TripAdvisor. There was no category that I could use. So I can't be on TripAdvisor and I always thought like a third party place for reviews would be better. So yeah I have a business page on Facebook and I just kind of solicit it when people get when people get back from their trip. I just say you know, small businesses like mine it's really really––you know, 50 percent of my clients are finding me online, and in this day and age everybody does their due diligence. I just say you know, a review is really important for small businesses like mine and would, you know, if you're on Facebook, would you leave me a review please. People you know, they've been great about it. Although I will say that I ask every single client for review and I would say, you know, not every single client takes the time to . . . I mean if they if they can just write me a sentence and an email hundred percent they're all happy to do that. But it's amazing, I'm like "All you have to do is click this Facebook link, like that's it." And that seems to be a big step for some people. But you know, I get it. They're back from their trip. They're jet lagged; they're behind on their laundry and their mail, and they're reminiscing and their memories and they paid me. So I don't you know, I don't nag them. But I do I'm quite persistent. And so you know, over the years I've gotten you know, I get one Facebook review here and there and I've recently started collecting Google. Google isn't ideal because it puts me on a map. It's only it's linked to my spot on Google Maps and so it's not––I mean it's fine but it's it's not because I'm really an online business––being in Google Maps isn't isn't kind of the right place but it it allows me to have online reviews and so great I'll take it.
Steph: [00:53:10] Do you ask them for specific, like, will you say could you review me on Facebook and then every third one you say can you do LinkedIn? Or no, you just focus on one platform at a time.
Madeline: [00:53:23] Well I usually ask them if they're on these platforms first. Like I'll usually say like are you on Facebook? And if they say yes, then I'll say here's the link to the review. Or I'll just say you can review me on Facebook hyperlink, Google hyperlink. LinkedIn is a little bit more tricky because like you and I are connected on LinkedIn so you can see more reviews but you can't see them unless you're connected to the person. Which is annoying because I wish people could Google me and see my reviews on LinkedIn, but they can't unless they're connected to me. So LinkedIn is left less effective in terms of reviews.
Steph: [00:54:04] Yeah especially when you're doing B2C. In my line B2B it's you know, it makes a lot of sense which I actually yeah I hope no one goes on there because I barely have any reviews or anyone giving a recommendation because I always forget to ask for that but anyhow... it's hard.
Madeline: [00:54:25] I know, you have to remember to ask and follow up.
Steph: [00:54:33] It's just so hard to remember everything in life.
Madeline: [00:54:36] I know, I know.
Steph: [00:54:38] I can't even keep track of my dog.
Well let's see. It's that time of the podcast again. And for those of you longtime listeners know that it's time for our warm fuzzy segment. And those of you that are new to the podcast, we end each episode with a warm fuzzy segment with the idea that it just leaves people with this––well, you should be leaving this anyhow if we didn't have a warm fuzzy segment with this nice warm feeling as we just learned tons of great marketing information from Madeline, but––the idea is that hopefully you can go out there and have a better day and hopefully pass along the kindness to some other people.
So, Madeline you've given given us so many great tidbits already today and I'm going to ask you to give us one more. So help us close out with a warm fuzzy client or otherwise whatever you'd like yeah.
Madeline: [00:55:41] The warm fuzzy that I was thinking I would share as something that one of my most recent clients told me when we were doing our debrief. I should back up a little bit and kind of say the reason that I love what I do is I think that understanding other cultures is so, so, so important. And travel is definitely a way to do that. And if you can connect to another culture then I think that just like helps bring world peace. In my teeny, tiny little way, I love it when my clients come back and have that connection to that culture. And this one client came back and she said I have to tell you that this trip opened my eyes and she said it made me realize that I want to retire and when I retire I want to move to Europe. And she said 'I just couldn't believe it. The food, the art, the architecture, the culture, the energy in the piazzas... the interactions between the people.' And so it was so much more for her than a family vacation.
Steph: [00:56:56] Life-changing!
Madeline: [00:56:56] Yeah. And I was just like thank you, this is why I do what I do! Connection between people across continents. Now how awesome is that? You know, it's not just I'm going to go, you know, spend my money and come home. It's like there's an additional deeper connection between humans. So yeah, that just made my made my week, my month...
Steph: [00:57:28] My year, I don't know.
Madeline: [00:57:28] My year. My career. No, that's why I do what I do, really. So, yeah.
Steph: [00:57:38] Well I hear that! Thank You. Thank you for sharing. Well folks, it's that time again. It's time to bid adieu. Well, actually, I suppose I should be saying arrivederci. Er, can you say that for me Madeline because I think I just massacred that.
Madeline: [00:57:55] Arriverderci!
Steph: [00:57:55] That was so much more beautiful!
Steph: [00:57:58] So if you like the show, make sure you don't miss out on any of our future shows and subscribe to us on iTunes or SoundCloud and you can find us by searching for a Travel Agent Chatter. Um, and I'm not quite sure if they do smoke signals or they send a newsboy but somehow the smarty pants at iTunes and SoundCloud will automagically deliver the newest episode to you.
So Madeline thanks so much for joining us today and sharing so openly with us.
Madeline: [00:58:31] You're very welcome. It was really fun for me too. I love talking about all this.
Steph: [00:58:36] Perfect. Well, thanks again and I'll chat with the rest of you cats later!
Steph: [00:58:41] Find more details about Madeline's training on how to comfortably charge fees as well as the special deal just for TAC listeners in episode 8's show notes at HostAgencyReviews.com/TAC.
Host Agency Reviews is a review site which means we really, really love us some reviews. If you have two minutes and like the show, it'd make me happy as a clam if you jumped on over to iTunes or Stitcher and left us to review with your thoughts.
And I'm not sure if you listened to our last episode but I told you there was a surprise. And if you haven't seen it, all I'm going to say is that the surprise involves me ordering and wearing an inflatable T-Rex suit. To find the link to the video, go back and have a listen to episode 7.
If there is a type of agent you'd like to hear more about on an upcoming show, we'd love to hear your thoughts. Drop us a line at [email protected] We'll make sure to get back to you . . . unless you're picking up Rigel at the police station for trespassing again. That's all for now. Until next time.