Bell & Bly Travel’s 2021 Year in Review
When I think about 2021, I certainly have mixed emotions. It was both an incredible year and below the surface (though it’s hard to admit to my positive vibe loving self!), a very difficult one. I’m happy but supremely tired!
I wanted to unpack some of these mixed emotions as I reflect and prepare for 2022, and figured I’d share for other entrepreneurs on the same path.
Surprises and Biggest Lessons
Hiring Remotely Truly Works
I made my first remote hire in 2019 (Maria on our team who many of you may have worked with!). I didn’t know what I was doing and neither did Maria but we worked through it – starting off with 2-3 hours of zoom calls per day. Just walking her through everything I did, why, talking about our culture, how we interact with clients etc.
It was a big time investment but one of the best I’ve ever made. What I didn’t know, however, was whether the model truly “works” at scale. Our second hire (in March 2020, doh!) flamed out and another hire was good but couldn’t work full time. And then of course Covid hit and all hiring was put on hold.
Later in 2020 I hired a podcast manager to help with our growing podcast, Luxury Travel Insider. This time it took less time and training because I had set up a training library with all the videos I had created for Maria and the notes she had taken. I added more videos and trainings to the library before she started specific to her role and it took me approximately 3 hours to onboard her! This seemed to be working… so during our free time when we were less busy, all of us created more content for our training library in hopes of welcoming future team members more smoothly.
Fast forward to mid-2021 and we were busier than we had ever been. July 2021 revenue was more than double our previous best month ever and we were bursting at the seams trying to keep up. So we went back to the well… cautiously, given the early misfires in 2020.
This time we were more thorough in our job description, ran top candidates through rigorous “exercises” before starting the interviews, and asked partners around the world to spread the word to their trusted contacts. We made 3 wonderful hires and picked up a social media intern along the way too.
It’s been about 5 months and the team is truly humming. We have guidelines for communication, clear “swim lanes,” and are growing and learning every day.
Planning Travel During A Pandemic Takes a LOT More Time
I suppose this shouldn’t make the news, but when looking at the actual numbers I was surprised to see just how much time dealing with Covid-19 issues was taking us.
The average trip we plan now takes 2x the amount of time to plan, with some taking 3x the time. All this extra time comes from researching destinations clients can travel to, then organizing extra elements during the trip like Covid testing (and changing those plans when regulations inevitably change), researching and staying up to date on entry requirements, hand holding clients through the process, etc.
We’ve even found ourselves on the phone in the middle of the night with Caribbean countries’ Covid “visa” offices trying to get clients’ applications approved before their flights.
Then after all this work, we still get cancellations on the regular, and we have to add in the time it takes for unwinding a trip, enacting an insurance claim, etc.
18% of our trips booked for 2021 were canceled, meaning we only earn our fee (which given the extra time taken to plan, doesn’t usually cover our full cost). So for 2022 we have raised our fees slightly to make up some of the difference, but certainly not 2-3x. We’re here to make our clients’ lives easier, more memorable, and exciting – and offer amazing value along the way. Dealing with Covid-19 is a storm we’re willing to weather!
On the plus side – we’re adding additional value for clients, saving them from HUGE headaches, and are a support system for them when things don’t go as planned. And given what 2020 was like – having 82% of our trips travel seamlessly feels like a win!
A Little Press Goes a Long Way
2021 was also a banner year for us in terms of recognition! In early April I was featured in an article of Business Insider that went viral. For three weeks I couldn’t respond to the influx of inquiries fast enough – it was crazy!
Then more press inquiries came, more invitations to guest on podcasts, and a snowball developed. Today we’ve been featured in CNN Travel, Robb Report, CNBC, The New York Times, and more.
Our podcast, Luxury Travel Insider, began to take on a life of its own as well. What started out as a way to cope with the dark days of Covid (it gave me joy to talk about what I love even while I couldn’t participate in it) has grown into the top podcast on luxury travel. For our work on the show, we were also recognized as Virtuoso’s Most Innovative Travel Advisor – out of 12,000 advisors worldwide.
Great Client Relationships Bring Me Joy
We are in the incredibly unique position of having more work than we can take on, which has led to us being more and more picky about the clients we bring on.
This doesn’t always mean the clients with the highest budgets. Usually it’s the ones we work seamlessly with – it’s easy and fun to plan something wonderful for them.
Working so closely with a family, couple, or even our solo travelers means we’re actually building a pretty deep relationship – and these relationships have become a source of joy for me personally.
I hear people churning out the phrase, “don’t take it personally, it’s just business” a lot – but for us, the work we do IS personal. I have a Stanford MBA and with my objective brain… I know very well that travel advising is not a great business model! We have low margins and have to work very hard… but we do it because we love it, and we find purpose in helping our favorite clients build lifelong memories.
How I’ve Struggled to Maintain Balance
Despite feeling that I’ve found my true purpose and getting to dive headlong into my passion every single day… I too face burnout.
For months on end in 2020, all we did was work to cancel trips we had put 30 – 50 hours into planning. We pushed extra hard so that our clients wouldn’t lose money (miraculously we succeeded, but with no revenue coming in, this was all cash outflow).
I worried about my team, the business, our clients and how sad they were about missing their travels, and of course missed out on my own travels (my main source of joy).
At the same time I pushed hard to keep the business afloat, taking on all kinds of trip requests that didn’t match our typical process (what was typical about 2020?), starting a podcast, and never hitting the brakes on marketing. I didn’t miss a single day of posting content on LinkedIn!
I worked on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and through New Years to help smooth out trips for clients traveling over the holidays on this first festive season during a pandemic. Then came the Q1 busy season which was the busiest we had been in quite some time. We were also short staffed – as I didn’t know how to make sense of the fluctuations in revenue – up one month and way back down the next.
By April 2021, I was complete toast. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. I was doing what I loved every single day but I was losing the will to push myself to work. How could I complain or be anything less than 100% joyful when I had it so much better than most?
Not knowing what else to do or frankly what was happening to me (the “me” who everyone else looks up to for my capacity, productivity, innovation….), I booked a last minute trip to Canyon Ranch, one of my favorite wellness retreats, in Tucson.
I turned off all my screens, and made rest my “work” for the week. I ate well, worked with a doctor on preventative medicine, focused on spirituality and reconnecting with myself, read some books, met some fun people, stayed far, FAR away from my phone, and enjoyed the outdoors. I experienced a profound change during that week across all aspects of health, but especially in understanding that it is OK to rest.
I emerged so reenergized, that I realized our clients are actually served BETTER if I rest and give our team ample opportunity to rest. Though I know this to be true now… I still struggle with balance every day. Our to do list is never, ever complete in this business. Many nights I realize it’s 8pm and I haven’t eaten since breakfast or left my office. I think, oh it’s fine to check my phone at night just to “make sure all is ok” and then I see something not urgent but stressful and my night is ruined and my sleep disturbed. How many entrepreneurs can relate?
I suppose the first step towards living a healthier life and serving your purpose better is being aware. 2021 woke me up to the realities of burnout and the gifts of rest. Hopefully this year I’ll be able to live it a little bit better… step by step as they say! Feel free to send me your tips!
High Level Business Results
I already said that Travel Advising isn’t a “great business” from a business model standpoint, but that said, with focus and a commitment to excellence it certainly yields rewards.
I wrote a similar post in August of 2019 celebrating our first full year in business (we started in July 2018). I was so proud that year to have booked more business than average for a first year advisor (approximately 4x the average amount). That first 12 months we booked about $1m in revenue and continued to grow the rest of calendar year 2019.
In 2021 we booked more than a 100% increase over calendar year 2019. Our revenue (travel dollars that ACTUALLY traveled in the calendar year) increased over 2019 levels 137%, and our total gross profit increased over 2019 a whopping 230%. While I believe 2021 numbers would have been double this level without the impact of Covid, we will certainly take this as a huge win given the gravity of what happened in our industry.
Aside from the numbers, I am proud of a few other business wins as well:
- We doubled down our focus on the right clients and the types of trips we excel at. I already mentioned that our costs of planning travel have doubled due to Covid and all the extra work that entails. However, we’ve been able to offset that by taking on the trips we are true experts in (high end luxury) and clients that we work well with and who like our communication style, flow, and process.
- Team – we more than doubled the size of our team in 2021, providing some much needed relief to all! Not only has this team improved our quality of life and our clients’ satisfaction, but it truly brings me joy to work with such compassionate and skilled people.
- We continued to focus on improved processes – building a proprietary CRM from scratch that allows us to serve our clients better, continuing to bullet proof our trip checklists ensuring we don’t miss any hanging chads in this crazy planning environment, and massively scaling our training libraries so we can easily bring on new team members when the need arises.
What’s Next for Bell & Bly Travel
The last two years have been an incredible time of growth and innovation for our company, and I see 2022 as a year of integrating all of that change into a solid, new foundation to build the future on. That said.. Sometimes I can’t help but work on new things, so a few things to look out for this year:
- We are rolling out “Travel Experience Portfolios” to our top clients. In these presentations we meld our expertise and what we know about our clients’ wishlists and travel profiles to suggest new destinations they may not have thought of and lay out a travel roadmap for 2-5 years. This helps us get the conversation rolling and ensures that we are aligned with their travel goals so they never miss making memories with loved ones.
- As we are focusing on serving existing clients, we will be taking on just a limited number of new clients who typically spend ~$50k+ per year on travel and prefer to work with us as a true addition to their professional management teams (like their attorneys or accountants… just a lot more fun!)
- In 2021 my husband Alex and I endowed a large scholarship to fund students in financial need to study abroad (The University of Texas, Austin). This semester our first students are studying abroad in Madrid and Copenhagen! Bell & Bly Travel has a new purpose in adding to this scholarship and donates an additional sum for each referral from a current client who travels.
- Getting our team together! We are an internationally distributed team. In 2021 I had the chance to travel with Maria, our lead travel designer and it was so wonderful to be in person (sometimes you forget!). This year and into next year I hope to solidify the bonds on our team and hope to get everyone together for our first team trip!
Time will tell on these, or other goals/ideas that pop up over the coming years. I always think back on something Vishen Lakhiani says a lot – “As humans we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in one year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in 3 years.” If that’s the case here, I can’t WAIT to see what our team has accomplished, and how many people we have created life memories for 2-3 years down the road!
Regardless of what we achieve or which direction(s) we grow in, I’m so happy to have you following along on our journey and cheering us on. You know I’m happy to talk travel or business any time. Please reach out when you need me.
All my best,
Owner of Bell & Bly Travel, Host at Luxury Travel Insider, and Creator at IG: @sarahgoesglobal