Bell & Bly Travel’s Year One in Review

by | Aug 1, 2019 | Services | 1 comment

I’ve been on a winding entrepreneurial journey for a few years now. 2017 was a year of hits and misses for me personally. I spent most of my time investing in other people’s businesses, when what I really wanted was one of my very own. Though I was working on several different ideas, most didn’t fit, and the ones that did never came to fruition.

In 2018 I finally hit an “F* it moment” and decided to focus less on money and more on what really interests me. A year ago this week, I set my ego aside and dove in to see if I could make a “real” business out of my passion for travel.

One year in, and I’m reflecting on all the ways I’ve grown since getting started.

Read on for more about my Year 1 journey growing Bell & Bly Travel and what I’ve learned about the industry. I’ll cover the following:

  • Surprises along the way 
  • Finding product market/fit 
  • High level business results, and 
  • What’s next for Bell & Bly Travel

Bubbling over in Helsinki, Finland

 

Surprises along the way

I am often asked “what was most surprising to you starting this business?” There have been innumerable lessons, big and small, but these three are probably the most interesting.

 

I love it… WAY more than I thought I would

That pretty much sums it up. I was excited to go down this path but still apprehensive about what a service business would feel like after working in tech. Specifically, how clients would treat me, how I would manage balance, if I would lose interest when my passion became my work, and if the compensation would be worthwhile given my other opportunities. 

Turns out when you run your own company, you get to pick your clients. I’m happy to say that today I have FANTASTIC clients. One of my core values is to “love our customers.” I strive to treat clients like family and work with clients who return the favor. Because most of these relationships are more than transactional, I get to do what I love. I can act as a true advisor and help people maximize their time with family, relaxing, exploring, or whatever it is they need to accomplish with a personalized trip. 

As far as balance goes – hey, I’m not the best at that. But I love the work, can work it into my own schedule, and can do it while traveling. So, though I’m always working, you may get responses from me at weird times of the night because I’m in Botswana or Mexico, or Chile checking out the latest lodges and resorts for you. I may make balance a priority in the coming years but I’m happy working hard to build the business now.

As far as opportunity cost, I thought about this a lot in the beginning. When you’re born a Type A person and are surrounded by highly successful people all the time, your mindset can get a bit skewed. I often had self-defeating thoughts through this process – like “what am I doing being a travel advisor, when xyz classmate of mine just sold a company for a billion dollars!? Am I wasting my potential?”

I call these thoughts my “ambition creeping up on me.” I just continually reminded myself that I don’t need a billion dollars because I would just use that money and time to travel to the great places I am already enjoying. After some time, and seeing the business flourish – I was able to set my ambition loose on goals I actually want to achieve (like being the best darn travel advisor out there!) rather than on outside comparisons.

Exploring rooftops in Leon, Nicaragua

 

Offline relationships matter in travel

Perhaps that seems like a silly thing to be surprised about, but I’m from the generation who never knew anything BUT booking travel online. So accordingly, I was surprised how much my relationships in the industry matter to client experiences. Within months of starting I already had amazing partners help by changing room rates for me, placing special gifts in clients’ rooms, and more. Travel is an inherently personal thing – so personal touches begot by relationships go a long way.

One of the best things I (somewhat unwittingly) did in the early stages of the business that has allowed me to build these relationships, was to affiliate Bell & Bly with Brownell Travel.

Brownell is what the industry calls a “host agency.” The basic gist of a host agency is that it acts as an umbrella organization for many independent advisors. Together we have a lot of buying power with the largest travel brands, which has allowed us to develop partnership deals with them. These partnerships mean I can offer perks for clients like upgrades, resort credits, free breakfast, and more. Host agencies also provide some back-office support like accounting.

When I applied to Brownell, I really had no idea what a host agency was or what qualities to look for in a host. All I could tell was that Brownell was the “Harvard” of host agencies, so I applied. I didn’t know at the time, but Brownell’s acceptance rates are notoriously low – so I was quite lucky as a brand new advisor to have Bell & Bly accepted.

The benefit of this exclusivity is that the Brownell name really holds a lot of weight in the industry. Not because of our size – but because of how professional each of our affiliated advisors are. When I meet a new hotelier or tour operator, at least 50% of the time they are gushing over me and telling me how much they love advisors affiliated with Brownell!

Since relationships matter so much – this “resume” factor really makes my job easier and my clients’ experience so much better.

In summary, I have a great “brand name” in the industry, I get to know and treat my partners well, they treat you well, and we all repeat! 

Zodiac in Antarctica

Enjoying the best trip ever, Antarctica

 

Much of the industry is arcane, but my clients are young

For an industry and topic that has so many fans, and garners so much interest – I was surprised to find that the systems that still run much of the travel industry are so arcane! Expedia and the like were so successful early on because they laid a web interface over the old school booking systems, and thus made them accessible to the general public.

The systems I’ve had to train on (but barely use) for booking hotels, airfare, and managing client info still look like DOS. Or Windows 97! They remain sticky in the industry because they are directly “live connected” to hotels and airlines’ booking systems. They also allow travel agents to save time by importing their client records into their CRM directly.

I personally use these systems as little as possible. In some instances – like with hotel bookings, it takes me more time to contact the hotel directly than booking via GDS, but I just don’t trust these old systems! Plus as I mentioned before – reaching out to my partner at the hotel directly puts my client on their radar and will enhance their stay. Instead I’ve been seeking out new startups focused on travel for my CRM. There aren’t many! At the moment, though, I’m really enjoying Travel Joy and they are adding functionality quickly.

Despite the old systems, my clients are young! When I started the business, I got a lot of comments like “who uses travel agents anymore” along with expectations that I would only serve boomers. The majority of my clients are millennials and Gen Xers. They are a group that is traveling more than ever, is busier at work than ever, and values expertise.

Enjoying a sundowner in Namibia

 

The travel perks are insane

I knew there would be perks like writing off my travel expenses for business, but I was surprised about how much opportunity there is for me to travel to places and in ways I never had before. 

I’ve been to nearly 100 countries, but in order to stay fresh on those destinations I have to keep up to date. One of the best perks is getting to study travel all day long. Even when home in Houston, I have meetings with hoteliers or tour companies passing through town, I attend webinars and online trainings, and I’m in constant communication with my network of other advisors sharing inside destination info. Reading Conde Nast now counts as “work” and I’m thrilled about it! 

Because of my relationships, I also get invited by suppliers to travel with them. These trips are called “educationals” or “familiarization trips.” The hotel or tour operator fills our schedules to the brim so we can see, do, taste, and experience just about everything. It’s great for building deeper relationships and I get to meet more advisors too! These trips are usually free aside from flights in and out. 

All this education (whether in person or remote), makes me a better advisor. Let’s be honest – my clients are high end travelers and the average TripAdvisor reviewer is not. It’s difficult to tell which reviews are relevant and takes time and expertise that many of my clients don’t have. In addition to having proprietary sources of checking quality (other advisors, Brownell, and my past clients), during my travels I also learn in depth about special features of each hotel, special events, why certain decor was used, the historical significance of different items, what unique experiences are available – really nitty gritty stuff. I can match the right client to the right experiences this way.

In terms of actual research travel – I’ve gone a little punch drunk. In year one, I visited St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Germany, Thailand, Taiwan, Riviera Maya, Sedona, Grenada, Nicaragua, The Maldives, Sri Lanka, Antigua, Ecuador, the Galapagos, Turks & Caicos, Las Vegas, Mexico City, and Grand Cayman. Whew!

maldives vacation turquoise water

Visiting resorts in the Maldives

 

Finding product market fit

I’ve worked in companies that did not have product market fit before, and ones that do. I’ve invested in startups on both sides of the fence as well. A startup founder asked me the other day – how will I measure/how will I know when I’ve hit product market fit? It’s a complicated question – but for the most part, I think you just know!

When Bell & Bly Travel was launching – I had friends, family, and colleagues who immediately sent me trips and trusted in me. Yet I was still unfocused as to who my ideal client was and where I was really adding value.

A personal passion of mine is encouraging people to travel widely. If you’ve never left the US, that may mean visiting Canada or Mexico. If you’ve done Europe, maybe explore South America. From my own experience I know that collecting a breadth of different experiences helps grow your brain (expands your neural pathways) and I believe it helps promote tolerance. 

I thought I was going to be planning all these exotic trips to Uzbekistan, Mongolia, off the beaten path spots in Latin America and to all the places I’ve discovered and loved. I quickly realized that most of the population hasn’t traveled so widely that they are ready to skip Italy and jaunt off to sleep in a yurt. You can still see some of this early passion for the esoteric in my website photos and design, which I’m slowly updating to be more applicable to who my client is. 

From that realization, I just kept planning the trips, and focused on tailoring them to what each client really wanted. I took on several projects that were good fits and several that weren’t. I learned what budget ranges really work for my business and allow me to “wow” my clients. Over a few months, it just became really clear who I’m great at working with. There’s a type of client who gets it, is willing to pay for my expertise, and fully trusts me to plan their most precious (non-renewable) asset – their time. 

Today most of my clients are entrepreneurs, executives, families, and couples – who want elevated travel experiences but have neither the time nor connections to make them happen effectively. They also come to me as an advisor, not an order taker. Usually our first call for a trip is a deep dive on getting to know them so I can make suggestions based on pattern matching between my expertise and their likes/dislikes/needs, etc. I have clients who have no idea where in the world they want to go, all the way down to clients who know they want a particular hotel in a certain city. But even then, they know I’ll have input if I think they should choose a different spot. 

The “feeling” I got when I hit product market fit, was that of ease. When I talk to new clients who are a great fit, things just flow. I’m excited to “sell” them on my services because I know I can do a great job and truly add value. I feel incredibly lucky to have found this fit so early on!

Staying with a village family in remote Tajikistan

 

Business results

Did you secretly start reading this post because you’re wondering how much money I can possibly make doing this? I was pretty interested in/skeptical about that in the beginning too, so I don’t blame you 🙂

I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will say that I got indications that a “good” first year goal would be to book $250,000 of travel (the sum of the cost of all your clients’ trips plus any fees you charge). Advisors take home a % of a % of that number – which goes into covering personal business expenses, staff, and finally profit. $250k wouldn’t be anything to write home about, but hey for the first year it would probably be enough to break even and be a good base to grow from. 

Bell & Bly Travel booked four times that much in our first year from clients traveling in 2019 and 2020. Timing played a huge role in our early success. There’s been a confluence of more people traveling and looking for unique experiences + too much bad information online + the trend of outsourcing that has set us up well. I also waded into this business at a good time in my career – after I had already grown a large network and had built the confidence to invest in myself. 

The monetary downsides of the business (at least the way it’s set up now) are that margins are low and cash flow cycles in slowly. Many of my clients are booking trips well into 2020 and looking at 2021 now. Most of our income even if earned, won’t flow through until after they travel. That means that year one of this business is a cash flow investment even if you’re killing it in bookings.

I’m also proud of a few other business wins:

  • Process in this business is VERY important – when planning bespoke trips for many different clients you need to be organized, attentive, and generally on top of your sh*t. As the business has grown, I’ve upgraded our processes twice. I’m also working on more automation so we can expend effort on value added service. 
  • I hired a team member! My time is best spent on client service and using my expertise, not formatting documents. I found someone who is a stellar addition to the team and who is helping me up-level our game. I’m building our team remotely, because people who love working on travel… love traveling! It’s huge to be able to offer remote work as a perk. 
  • I made the mindset shift from solely doing marketing, to actively working on “outbound” sales. It’s scary when you start a new business to feel like you’re bugging your friends. But from that process, I’ve helped so many families have memorable experiences, that I now feel good about it. Sometimes you just have to start and the comfort will come. You’ve been warned if you get an email from me!
  • I’m starting to have the head space to think bigger, set aside “CEO time” and vision for what the company can become.
gates of hell turkmenistan

Camping at the Gates of Hell, Turkmenistan

 

What’s next… 

Do you listen to podcasts? I’m a podcast and kindle junkie. I love listening to details about other types of businesses, ways of thinking, and how other entrepreneurs think about life and business. What’s next for Bell & Bly Travel and my wider travel “brand” is in nascent stages and is constantly influenced by these ideas, ideas from my network, and my own experiences.

I have some tighter short-term goals for Bell & Bly Travel and some lofty thoughts about what I want to contribute to society over my lifetime. Here’s what I know/can share now:

  • I’d like to double sales for Bell & Bly Travel this year, while continually improving quality and wow-ing our clients. We’ll be counting this next “sales” year from October to October due to seasonality in the business and to align with Brownell’s reports. 
  • I will continue saying “no” to clients who aren’t right for us so I can double down on our current clients. Our mantra will be to cultivate fewer, better clients and go above and beyond for them. 
  • Alex and I have set aside a large sum of personal funding to donate to study abroad scholarships for low-income college students. I am committed to getting this fund set up in the coming year and starting to make a difference. 
  • Beyond that, I want to continue to find ways to drive my purpose (inspiring and enabling more people to travel widely) forward. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to quantify this and whether I should set an audacious goal around it (or if that’s my ambition creeping up again!).

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 this all looks like in 2-3 more years.

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,

Sarah

Founder of Bell & Bly Travel, The Traveler’s PhD, and creator at IG: @sarahgoesglobal

Limin’ in my home away from home, Turks & Caicos

 

1 Comment

  1. Aaron

    Love your story!

    Reply

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