Maureen Jones, president of All Horizons Travel, doesn’t bill
herself as an agent who can sell any vacation to any destination to
any kind of traveler.
But for clients looking for specific advice on, say, island
hopping in Australia’s Queensland region, or hiking through New
Zealand’s Milford Sound area, Jones is an expert.
A destination specialist in 29 countries, Jones is particularly
well-versed in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and her native
Scotland. She visits these countries at least once a year, and can
offer up-to-date, first-hand advice about everything from lodging
to the regional lingo.
Her clients don’t complain about paying the $100 consulting fee
she charges because they know she is selling a particular level of
“I think agents that aren’t experts are not going to survive,”
That statement sums up a current trend in the selling of travel
as thousands of agents embrace the concept of specialization to
compete in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing travel
The decline of airline commissions and travel in general, as
well as the rise of consumer use of the Internet and direct
bookings, has caused agents to look for better ways of doing
And for many agents, success has come with a focus on a
A niche can be a certain type of product, such as soft-adventure
tours, or a specific market, such as gays and lesbians.
It can be broad (“senior travelers”) or narrow (“diving in
Southeast Asia”), but developing a niche specialty can give an
agency a special identity and position in the market, said Bruce B.
Tepper, vice president at the travel industry consulting firm of
Joselyn, Tepper & Associates.
It can also help agents build a solid client list and make the
most of advertising and marketing efforts.
“From the consumer perspective, it allows them to buy from a
specialist,” said Tepper. “From the travel agent perspective, it
allows you to establish expertise in something. It looks good on
the sign. And it’s true in any field.”
Specialization is growing, said Robin Fetsch, vice president of
operations at Cape Wineland Tours, a specialty wine tour company
based in Falls Church, Va.
Fetsch has been involved in niche travel since 1987, when she
started her own travel agency selling religious, cultural and
historical travel tours. She also has written coursework for ASTA’s
specialty niche marketing classes and teaches at a local community
There is growing realization that surviving and thriving in this
business requires adding more value in expertise, said Fetsch.
“That’s what people will pay for,” she said. “By specializing,
you become a travel professional and offer something that isn’t out
there on the Internet.”
Good specialists also can add features for their clients that
don’t have price tags, such as recommending a hidden restaurant
that becomes the highlight of the experience for a traveler, or
being able to arrange a special visit or side trip that isn’t
available to general travelers.
But she notes some dangers. “You cannot just concentrate on one
niche because you don’t know what the world will turn into,” she
Fetsch, for example, once focused primarily on travel to the
Middle East, which in the current political climate would not be a
good idea. So Fetsch switched her focus to South African wine
“When you have a niche you have to be flexible,” she said. “You
need to look at the trends of the population and try to stay ahead
Another danger of specializing is that you can get into a rut,
Fetsch added. And, she said, “If you niche too much you don’t get
Hot areas of specialty include soft-adventure travel, spa
destinations, food-and-wine tours, sports tours and, adds Fetsch,
book club travel, such as Harry Potter-themed trips to the United
Nice resorts also have special programs in which agents can
develop niche expertise, including health and wellness, weight loss
and smoking cessation.
For home-based agent Liz Vollan, president of Aim Higher Travel
in the Chicago area, a focus on solo travelers has been a boon.
Said Vollan: “You need a niche because, when your business is
mainly on the Internet, if you’re a generalist, you’ll get lost in