Grow smartly — If the right infrastructure isn’t in place to handle growth, it will lead to poor customer service. As mentioned, I’ve been strategic in growing this agency only to a certain point. I don’t need 50 agents. I just need 5 great ones.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Norfolk, president of Shoreline Destinations.
Andrea always had a passion for travel outside of her home base of Maryland. After a career in the Telecom industry, Andrea decided to follow her passion for travel and started Shoreline Destinations, which is a boutique travel agency. Since 2013 the agency has quickly grown and now multiple agents specialize in destination weddings, group travel, luxury vacations, and family travel all over the world. Andrea is a member of the American Society of Travel Advisors and a member of the Destination Wedding & Honeymoon Specialists Association. To learn more about Shoreline Destinations, please go to www.shorelinedestinations.com.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Iwas always drawn to travel because I didn’t travel much outside my home state of Maryland growing up. After doing a stint in the corporate world, I decided to follow my passion for travel and started looking for something different. I began working for a local travel agency and had a great mentor, who had been in the industry for over 15 years. After a year or so of working with her, I knew that I wanted to make a name for myself and decided to open my own travel agency. I built a great client base and have never looked back. Today, I have a great team of women and an incredible network of clients, who believe in what I do and value my expertise.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Deciding to start my own travel agency slowly came over time, but my “aha moment” came when I was trying to come up with a name for my business. I spent so much time trying to find a name that I loved and where I could still obtain a URL. I remember making lists of names, variations of those names, and spending so much time making sure my name and tagline would represent the company I envisioned. I’m still partial to a beautiful beach, although we manage vacations all over the world, and had an “aha moment” when I came up with our name Shoreline Destinations. The overall feel of our brand is a light, fresh, and Caribbean feel.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I’m a perfectionist, which great for clients, but not so great for me all the time. Any mistakes I’ve made along the way, I’ve probably been overly hard on myself about them. I know I can’t get it perfect all of the time and I do my best to fix what is in my control and take any mistakes as a lesson learned.
How does Shoreline Destinations differ from travel agencies that also promote knowledge, experience, low rates and customer service? Isn’t this the language franca of the industry? Where does Shoreline Destinations feel it stands apart?
While other travel agencies might focus on the latest deal, our team keeps our main focus on customer service. We treat every vacation like it is our own and have had to turn clients away when we know their budget won’t get them the experience they want. People initially have a certain dollar figure in mind for a trip, but as soon as that plane touches the ground, the budget goes right out the window. They realize it’s precious time away and they are going to make the most of it. We would rather not take on clients who give us an unrealistic budget because we know it’s going to lead to a sub-par experience. It’s not worth our reputation when 98% of the business we have comes from referrals. Therefore, if we let down a new client, we’re also letting down the person that referred them. We are not here to compete with the internet.
Is there a niche audience on whom Shoreline Destinations focus?
We cater to many different types of vacations, but have also put a lot of focus on creating a brand image that focuses on luxury without being stuffy. Our website is very personal and engaging. We want someone to feel as if they know us right away through our pictures and blog. In our experience, we’ve found that women are the ones usually planning the trips and we have tailored our website to a female-based audience. While we don’t necessarily have one niche, we have positioned ourselves to cater to clients who have the money to travel well. Whether it’s a family vacation or European river cruise, we specialize in experiences that most would categorize as luxury vacations. We also consider ourselves experts in destination weddings, which is a whole other segment in the industry that has taken off in recent years. We are well versed on properties that can take on large groups of people and understand the contractual process.
Have you found over time that your service appeals to a particular type of traveler based on any demographics or even psychographics?
While Shoreline Destinations focuses on many types of travel, our agents have their own specialties. For example, I specialize in destination weddings, group travel, and luxury vacations while some agents focus on Walt Disney World or Universal vacation packages. During my first year in the travel industry, I learned that it is impossible to be an expert at everything. I have worked with my agents to help them find their focus and to become an expert in their area of travel. The great thing about our team is that there aren’t many places that one of us hasn’t been! Our agents trust each other and often share recommendations with the team.
How does Shoreline Destinations handle overseas emergencies? For example, I once lost my passport in Prague. Although I eventually found it, during the interval process I found the US consulate was not to helpful; I had to scramble with overseas calls to get things handled. How do you handle such a situation?
Wow!! Losing a passport overseas would put anyone into a panic! What is great about working with us is that we book our trips through suppliers and tour operators, who have a lot of clout in the industry. We have a 24-hour help desk available to our clients through our supplier, which they always have access to. We’ve worked with clients on things such as missing a ferry in Greece, needing an extra night at a resort, flight schedule changes, missing scheduled excursions, etc. If the hotels or resorts are booked through us, our clients have access to this free 24-hour help desk and the issue is resolved in a timely manner.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My vision was to provide premiere concierge-level service to clients from beginning to end. I don’t think that vision has changed. Booking a trip isn’t rocket science, but having someone to answer every single one of your questions along the way is invaluable. We are extremely responsive (sometimes to a fault) and our clients appreciate our dedication. I recently had a client ask me how many trips I was working on. He tried to guess and said, “12”. I told him that I am working on well over 100 trips at any given time and am personally involved in them. He was in shock. Our clients feel like their trip is the only one we are working on. I consider that a great thing.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
We focus on giving clients a personal experience and we don’t like “cookie-cutter” vacations. Each vacation we plan is different. By the time our clients go on their trip, they feel more like friends to us. Many times, trips are 18 months in the making and we’ve spent a lot of time emailing, talking, and finalizing details over that time frame. We are 100% invested in each of the trips we plan. There is nothing we love more than getting pictures from clients while they are away and hearing that they are having a great time.
The idea of providing a personal experience guides us in our marketing. Our social media posts, website, blog, newsletters, etc. are all very personal. We love sharing our pictures with clients and our reviews of resorts.
We also consider ourselves a team and while I may be the leader of my own “dream team”, I try as much as I can to use the word “we” and that I work “with” my agents. Those two words are important. I don’t want my agents to feel that I’m their boss. We have a great dynamic and that resonates throughout all our social media and with our clients.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My number one principle is to surround myself with good people. We continue to double our volume since starting in 2013. There is no way that I could do it on my own. While there are times where I feel like I need even more people, I stop myself and remember it’s about quality, not quantity. I have been very selective with who has joined our team. That has led to a strong team dynamic and we are dedicated to what we do, and we have fun doing it.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There are days even now where I’ve considered throwing in the towel and finishing out the client trips I have. As I said before, this isn’t rocket science, but it’s hard to ever turn off. When one client travels, there are 100 more waiting to go and 20 quotes to get out the door. It feels as if I’m on a locomotive that isn’t slowing down. Everyone wants your attention, your response quickly, and a quote faster than going on the internet. That leads to a lot of pressure. However, I still wake up excited to see what the day holds and where I’m sending people. When that stops, I’ll know it’s time to cut back on the types of trips I do and be extremely selective.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
We are busier than ever! Our referral base is 98% of our business. That is how I measure success. While internet business is a segment we are going to focus on in the future, it’s not our main goal. When a referral comes to us, we know that the trust factor is already there because a friend or family member has already worked with us. Our “close rate” is very high because we don’t have to convince new clients to use us. I don’t ever want that core business model to change.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business?
Please share a story or an example for each.
- Grow smartly — If the right infrastructure isn’t in place to handle growth, it will lead to poor customer service. As mentioned, I’ve been strategic in growing this agency only to a certain point. I don’t need 50 agents. I just need 5 great ones.
- Build a brand, not just a business — I love my business name, my logo, and my marketing materials. It’s cohesive and professional. Not every travel agency exudes professionalism. I want to stand out in the crowd.
- Network — You have to ensure you have strategic relationships in place for many reasons. I have incredible relationships with my travel suppliers and peers. When an issue comes up, I have a person I can turn to if needed. It’s key in this industry, which spans the globe.
- Be Confident in saying no — I consider myself an expert and I’ve done this long enough to know my worth. I will turn clients away if I do not feel it’s a good fit (i.e. unrealistic budget or expectations). It’s important to be confident to say no.
- Teamwork- There isn’t a successful business out there that doesn’t have strong people behind the leader. You cannot grow without a good team. Find your “right hand” people and always appreciate them. I try hard to thank them and to make sure my clients know there is a team behind what I do. I couldn’t do this alone and I’m vocal about that.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My family has been the key to my success. There have been so many long nights (and there still are) where I’ve been pulled away from a “normal” life. I set a goal every year of finding a good work/life balance. I still struggle every day with it. For some reason, I feel I always have to do more, do better, work harder. Yet, deep down, I know I’m doing more than most out there in the workforce. It’s hard and something I will continue to work on personally. Thus, I have to thank my family for putting up with my obsession to be the best at this.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
There are some brands of resorts out there that have their own foundations to assist with impoverished families in the country where their resorts are located. They have begun incorporating travel agents in their mission by having us bring school supplies when we come to a destination, going on a mission to read to kids at a school, etc. These are such great movements in their own right. I’d love to piggyback off of that and each time I visit a destination, collect supplies from my clients or collect donations that I can deliver first-hand. There are so many countries that rely on tourism and have been hit hard by natural disasters, diseases, etc., which have deterred people from traveling. Families need the support of tourism more than ever and I would love to personally find more ways to help when I visit these countries.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Readers can follow us on the following sites:
Facebook — www.facebook.com/shorelinedestinations
Instagram — www.instagram.com/shoreline_destinations