How do you build a successful travel agency? The foundation never changes: The best agencies provide top-notch service, build strong relationships, and rely on word-of-mouth marketing. But in an ever-evolving industry, agencies also need to be able to adapt. To me, the definition of a great agency comes down to this: I’d go where they tell me to go, and I’d do what they tell me to do.
In this, the first story in our series on successful agencies all over the world, we talk to the women behind Valerie Wilson Travel, Inc.
While living in London with her family in the late 1970s, Valerie Wilson could not find a travel agent with the expertise she wanted. So when she returned to New York in 1981, she started her own company with “three people and a leap of faith.”
Today, Valerie Wilson Travel, Inc. (VWT) has become an industry powerhouse. The company employs more than 300 advisors, associates, and employees and generates nearly $320 million in annual sales. The second generation of VWT has been place for more than 25 years with Valerie’s co-owners and two daughters, Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg and Kimberly Wilson Wetty. “I am most proud of being able to work every day with my daughters,” she says. “I take pride in the unparalleled personalized service all of us offer at VWT and how we handle our clients’ most precious commodity: their time.”
We talked to all three of them about how they turned VWT into an industry leader and how they continue to find success in the industry today. (And in case you’re wondering, both Kimberly and Jennifer have come to call their mother Val, one way to separate their personal and professional lives while at the office!)
When did you know that your agency would work?
Valerie: My first clients were friends who were looking for travel advice, and it all started through word of mouth.
Jennifer: Valerie always sent amazing holiday cards detailing her travels. Many of those friends and acquaintances wanted to go on the same trips she wrote about in her cards. It was like Facebook in the 1980s. Today, 95 percent of our business is word-of-mouth referrals.
Valerie: 1984 was a turning point. We were asked to plan Dun & Bradstreet’s first international board meeting in Paris in the spring of 1985 for 65 people. I advised the board to stay at the Ritz!
Jennifer: For me, this story highlights her commitment to her clients and to luxury travel. The customer recommended her for something that was out of her comfort zone at that time, however, there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for this trip and this client. She provided seamless customer service and attention to detail and got them perks like private access to museums, historical landmarks, and private venues. No detail was too small. This level of service didn’t exist in the 1980s and was a trail-blazing concept back then. That board member is still a leisure client today.
Valerie, were you always entrepreneurial?
Valerie: I was entrepreneurial without knowing I was. I was working in fashion by the time I was a teenager and in my early 20s, I opened the first ladies division of Gant Shirtmakers. We lived in London for three years, and I was one of two people who said we need a Junior League chapter. So we started it and collectively wrote a book called Living in London: Guidelines. It is now in its 13th edition. When we lived in London, women were not supposed to be heard. I found it irritating that everything was written by men, so I changed the dialogue. Additionally, as part of a small group of women expats, we raised money to bring the New York City Ballet to London. It was a joy to dance with Balanchine and Peter Martins at the Savoy!
Ten years after its inception, Jennifer joined the family business in 1991, and Kimberly shortly after in 1995. Jennifer and Kimberly, how did you decide to join and how did you help expand the business?
Jennifer: I was a sales manager at the Westbury hotel at 69th and Madison [now closed]. VWT was one of the many travel agencies I visited for sales calls. When Valerie’s right-hand person was transferred to Paris, she asked if I would join for two years. I truly thought I was joining for two years—the naiveté and innocence of being in your 20s and thinking that anything is possible! I signed my first $1 million corporate account my first year, and then came our first $10 million account, and our first $15 million account.
Kimberly: I swore I’d never join the family business, and now it has been 25 years. I spent summers as a teenager working in every part of the business, from tearing apart travel magazines for reference material, to writing newsletters and articles. In college, I worked for Jennifer one summer as her assistant. After college, I tried hotel marketing, but when the company sold to ITT Sheraton and moved, I did not want to move to Boston.
Valerie said “Start on Monday.” I wanted her to write a job description and wanted it to be different from what Jennifer was doing. Since the beginning, we try to find our own areas of focus and our own voice. My focus became cruise and leisure, plus brand strategy and marketing. We’ve done that by being all about access in our marketing and daily life, such as programs we have created called The Power of Access, Air Access, Suite Access.
[For example, with Suite Access, clients book a minimum of two nights in a qualifying suite and receive a minimum of $200 on-property credit, a complimentary VIP experience, and more benefits.]
We’ve taken a well-respected brand and watched it grow to the next level.
Valerie: This company wouldn’t be the success it is if Kimberly and Jennifer hadn’t joined. They always bring creative, new ideas to the table.
Is it a challenge to work together as a family?
Jennifer: A few years ago, Kimberly and I learned to separate our personal and professional lives. Email is professional, text is personal. It is OK to say, “I love you, but I may disagree with you.”
Kimberly: On our recent family trip to Africa, ironically, our three kids kept bringing travel up as a topic. They used to avoid the subject at family dinners, but now they have a great respect for travel and passion for understanding the world. We love seeing them understand what it means to travel together and share experiences.
I love that you have built a successful, women-owned company, especially at a time when there is a movement to support more women in this way.
Jennifer: We have a really structured summer intern program. I was blown away by how many young women said that it is so empowering to work at a woman-owned company in their final presentations.
Valerie: These women are going to be leaders in whatever field they go into. Our inherent goal as women leaders is to make sure we can help mentor young people and grow our industry in a meaningful way. We hope they can take the empowering learning experience of working for a women-owned company and carry it with them no matter what they do.
Jennifer: We are hands-on owners. We are doers, and we are mentors, and we all still sell travel. Our team sees that.
Kimberly: We have the confidence to not be in the office and leave VWT in the hands of those we have hired. We spend 30 to 45 percent of the time traveling, about 100 days a year.
Can you remember moments of failure, or times where you didn’t think it was worth it to continue?
Jennifer: I still it take it personally when we lose an account after years of incredible service. There might be a new C-level executive, or they want to go all online and forget about high-touch service. Of course, we always leave the doors open to come back.
Kimberly: On 9/11, the world and our industry changed. Valerie and Jennifer were on a sales call, and I didn’t know where they were. Within two to three days, we had to go through our first reduction in workforce; 49 people were let go in one day, but we saw Valerie’s ability to have compassion and grace in the most difficult of times. Valerie had her heart attack two months later, continuing a streak of challenging events. Whatever is thrown at you, you figure it out and get through it.
Valerie: You have to persevere with grace and compassion, as well as honesty and a tactfulness. We will always tell it like it is but will always be kind.
What are the biggest challenges you face today?
Jennifer: We are seeing our employees grow their own businesses and wanting to become ICs [independent contractors]—we see their success and understand that they want to be entrepreneurs under the VWT umbrella. We now have more than 175 ICs, but we do not just take anybody. We have an incredible brand and need high-caliber talent. A passion for the business is a must! Not everybody has that, and that is OK.
We have a new Associates [what the company calls ICs] Program, where we train, mentor, and provide them with the tools they need to learn and succeed. We give them a year with a lot of mentoring. It takes time to understand our relationships with preferred partners.
Valerie: The hardest thing about the travel industry is that you are at the mercy of circumstances you cannot control. We are advocates for our clients, which can be a challenge when you must negotiate and work with their fear or frustration.
Another challenge is the overwhelming amount of information available. Clients seek our expertise but then question it after they “saw something online” or “talked to a friend at a cocktail party.” They expect more from their travel advisors: special pricing, value and amenities, insider access, concierge services like dinner and spa reservations, etcetera. Everyone is time starved, our clients and our advisors. I wish I could add a few more hours to each day!
What are your most popular destinations?
Jennifer: The U.K. is number one, followed by France, Italy, and Mexico. Everyone has a love affair with London, Paris, and Florence. Seventy percent of our airline tickets sold are both international and in the front of the plane.
What do you love about hotels and travel?
Kimberly: When there is a new build or huge renovation, it is so much fun to see each hotel develop their own personality. I especially love how excited our clients get about it.
Valerie: I truly believe that the last place I visit is always “my new favorite.” However, Paris has my heart and Africa my soul. I absolutely love to cruise and do it at least once a year. Sightseeing, shopping, and antiquing relax me, so I do it around the world.
Do you ever feel like life and work are too intertwined?
Valerie: For me, that is a very fun part of the job. We are always sharing travel stories, something I have always been passionate about. I love talking to people about planning their life’s major trips. From their honeymoon to a trip before their first child, to their 20th and 25th wedding anniversaries, it is a wonderful life journey of memories.
Kimberly: I have no regrets there. Sometimes, I wish I could call in sick for a day, but we are always in it. I cannot remember the last time I took a proper vacation day. You are always on, but that is the trade-off when you own your own business. You put your heart and soul into it.
Valerie: There are so many incredible people that make this industry special, like Matthew Upchurch [CEO of Virtuoso]. I feel really sorry for people that go to work and do not absolutely love their job.
There have only been a few days in my entire career in travel where I have not loved my job.