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For another year, travel agents in the West have honored the brands they do business with by voting for their favorite travel suppliers in TravelAge West’s 11th annual WAVE Awards. This year, more than 5,500 votes were cast for 170 companies in 68 categories.
Our WAVE coverage begins with the Trendsetter Awards, given to agents who have shown exceptional success in four categories.
We also acknowledge the achievements of this year’s recipients of the 2016 Excellence in Leadership Award, Brad and Van Anderson of Avoya Travel, as well as the four sales representatives who were picked through agents’ write-in votes.
Be sure to check out photo highlights from our WAVE Awards black-tie gala, held at The Ritz-Carlton, Marina Del Rey, in Marina del Rey, Calif.
Upward Bound, Rock Star Agent Under 40: Melissa Varela, owner of Modern Romance TravelMelissa Varela’s path into the travel industry has been quite different than most. Though she realized she was interested in selling travel at the age of 7 — taking travel brochures home from AAA offices, reading them cover to cover and then tucking them under her pillow — it wasn’t until just a few years ago that Varela finally began pursuing her passion.
After graduating with a degree in molecular cell biology, Varela became a scientist. She then went back to school to earn an MBA and became a pharmaceutical and medical device sales account manager. With five years of sales under her belt, she moved into marketing.
Finally, she journeyed into travel, buying a cruise franchise, then launching her own company, Modern Romance Travel, focused on destination weddings and honeymoons.
And though Varela has only been in business since 2015, she has been “more successful and has accomplished more in one year than most agents have in 10 years,” according to Holly Sievers, business development manager for Exclusive Group Travel.
In 2015, Varela booked 17 destination weddings, a handful of honeymoons and a few cruise groups, resulting in nearly $1.4 million in sales.
“I attribute my success to my strong work ethic,” Varela said. “I work every day, including weekends. I work when my kids are sleeping. I work 12 bridal shows per year. I strive for being outstanding in everything I do. I put in the extra hours to get it done right, giving attention to detail and devotion to excellence.”
Runner-Up: Jason Olson of True Vacation TravelAt True Vacation Travel, part of the Cruise Holidays franchise group, Jason Olson is one of the most active members of the network. He fosters positive interactions and is willing to share information and offer recommendations. Additionally, he dedicates time to regularly sharing best practices, consistently demonstrating that he values the success of the group as a whole.
Sponsored by AMResortsThe winner in this category received a five-night stay at Secrets Playa Bonita Panama Resort & Spa. The runner-up won a five-night stay at Secrets Playa Mujeres Golf & Spa Resort.
Best Group Booking Sales Effort: April Schmitt, CEO of Divine Destination WeddingsThe rewards of making a great booking don’t always come in the form of profit, and April Schmitt knows this well. In May 2015, the CEO of Divine Destination Weddings began working with an engaged couple in which the groom-to-be was terminally ill with multiple brain tumors. His only wish was to get married on the beach, but since the couple was on a very limited budget, they understood that this likely wouldn’t be possible.
Moved by their story, Schmitt agreed to take on the clients for free and make their dream wedding a reality. In just three months, she negotiated rates and planned an August wedding at Dreams Punta Cana Resort & Spa in the Dominican Republic.
“The couple called me from the beach in tears and said they had walked into their fairy tale,” Schmitt said.
The groom passed away in early October, and though Schmitt books more than 50 wedding groups per year — many that exceed $40,000 in commission — she considers this particular effort a success “beyond words.”
Schmitt, who formerly worked in the financial industry, found her niche in romance travel in 2005 and now runs a successful travel agency with 12 consultants.
“I work tirelessly, often 10 to 12 hours per day for my clients, and never expect to be recognized or acknowledged for that commitment,” Schmitt said. “To be voted the winner of this award by highly respected industry peers — people who understand that level of commitment to service — is a true affirmation that doing good work and loving what I do is respected.”
Runners-up: Nancy Bland, Jannette Dilley and Melissa Truskett of Montrose TravelAfter running into large-scale challenges while organizing an annual incentive trip for client A&A Manufacturing, Nancy Bland, Jannette Dilley and Melissa Truskett successfully booked the corporate client’s trip, exceeding expectations and solidifying Montrose’s commitment to client relationships built on trust and service.
Sponsored by Royal Caribbean InternationalThe winner in this category received a six- to eight-night Caribbean cruise for two in an oceanview stateroom from Royal Caribbean. The runners-up won a four- to five-night Caribbean cruise for two in an oceanview stateroom.
Upward Bound, Rock Star Agent Under 40: Melissa Varela, owner of Modern Romance Travel // © 2016 Volker Corell
Best Group Booking Sales Effort: April Schmitt, CEO of Divine Destination Weddings // © 2016 Volker Corell
Best Use of Social Media: David and Carol Porter, owners of Roaming Boomers Travel Services // © 2016 Volker Corell
Best Targeted Marketing Idea: Robin Hawkey, owner of Virtual Honeymoon // © 2016 Volker Corell
All of the Trendsetter winners and runners-up (clockwise from top): April Schmitt, Alexis Lee, Jason Olson, Nancy Bland, Robin Hawkey, Lora Chow, Thomas Chongruk, Carol Porter and Melissa Varela // © 2016 Volker Corell
Best Use of Social Media: David and Carol Porter, owners of Roaming Boomers Travel ServicesBaby boomers and social media might not immediately seem like the most likely pairing, but David and Carol Porter are proving that the two can go hand in hand. The owners of Roaming Boomers Travel Services completed their second year in business as an agency with $1 million in sales, and as of January had booked nearly $230,000 in sales and projected $2 million overall for 2016 — and they attribute their utilization of social media as a large part of their success.
“Most of our business is coming from folks that we’ve known for years, referrals and a social media strategy that features a large blog audience, 20,000 folks on our Facebook page, more than 5,000 folks in our weekly email newsletter and more than 5,000 folks following us on Twitter, as well as consistent sharing on LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest and Google+,” David said.
After starting The Roaming Boomers luxury travel blog in 2010, the Porters amassed a large following of boomers who were requesting travel guidance but overwhelmed with the abundance of information available on the internet. The couple decided to expand into a travel agency in 2014 to serve as trusted advisors.
“It’s quite amazing to realize that a great deal of our business is coming from our social media efforts,” David said.
Runners-up: Thomas Chongruk and Lora Chow of Travel 4 Food FunThomas Chongruk and Lora Chow count social media as the most important component of their growing online travel business. They utilize each of their channels differently, keeping in mind that each speaks to a different audience. For 2016, they conservatively estimate that revenue through social media should generate more than $100,000.
Sponsored by The Globus Family of BrandsThe winners in this category received a seven-day Barcelona and Madrid vacation for two from Monograms. The runners-up won a seven-day vacation for two in Rome and Florence from Monograms.
Best Targeted Marketing Idea: Robin Hawkey, owner of Virtual HoneymoonRobin Hawkey, owner of Virtual Honeymoon, adheres to the adage “Work smarter, not harder.” When she began in the honeymoon and destination wedding industry, she quickly found that wedding fairs weren’t going to deliver useful leads for her — plus, they were expensive and a lot of effort for minimal payoff. She then began setting up honeymoon tables at local wedding stores on weekends, offering a free honeymoon registry, then following up with those who were interested. One store she worked with was so happy with the business Hawkey was drumming up that they invited her to have a small, in-store office, rent-free, in exchange for 10 percent of the commission she booked for its brides.
Her marketing creativity also led to networking with wedding planners, who have now become a huge source of referrals. In just the first two months of 2016, Hawkey was working with six planners and had booked 20 weddings and 10 honeymoons.
“Needless to say, I don’t need to spend time in wedding stores after connecting with my wedding planners,” she said.
Hawkey also now offers an interactive honeymoon tool for couples to find their top two destination matches — a test-drive of sorts — that has delivered 100 percent booking success.
“I think I was chosen as a Trendsetter for my unique way of marketing through the wedding industry: by building strategic partnerships with like-minded wedding professionals and working together to create great working relationships,” she said. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Runner-Up: Alexis Lee of Avenues of the World TravelIn a unique campaign, Alexis Lee began working with local radio stations to get her agency’s name on the radar of citizens of northern Arizona. After one initial advertisement that stirred up some buzz, a second campaign offering a trip giveaway in partnership with G Adventures gave Avenues of the World Travel even broader access to its community.
Sponsored by Celebrity CruisesThe winner in this category received a European cruise of up to 12 nights for two in a balcony stateroom. The runner-up won a seven-night Caribbean cruise for two in a balcony stateroom.