NAME: Deanna Byrne, president/owner
AGENCY: The Destination Experts
LOCATION: Windsor, N.S.
AFFILIATION: TL Network
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 6
Outspoken industry maverick Deanna Byrne, president of The Destination Experts, shares how her host agency succeeds by valuing data analysis over sales fads, fliers over Facebook followers, and calling suppliers out on commission fees.
When it comes to managing her host agency of home-based travel advisors, Deanna Byrne, former agent turned founder and president of The Destination Experts, has a lot of strong opinions in the name of agent advocacy. In fact, improving on agents’ employment opportunities was how she got her start.
Frustrated by a lack of support from business development managers (BDMs) for home-based agents in 2011, Byrne was considering starting her own agency in Windsor, N.S. She published a job posting for a home-based agent position and had 700 resumes within the week.
“I thought: OK, there might be something here,” she recalls.
After speaking with a few applicants, Byrne decided that rather than open a home-based agency, what she – and those hundreds of applicants – really needed was a host agency.
“People wanted more flexibility,” she says. “They wanted to spend more time with their families and provide better customer service to their clients. But they couldn’t do that without more support.”
Within that first year, The Destination Experts grew to 100 independent contractors. By offering its members access to virtual office solutions, on-demand digital boot camps and a strong corporate support team, the host agency continued to grow and quickly gained recognition within the industry for its outstanding service of Canadian travellers. A mere six years later, The Destination Experts now hosts 142 home-based agents across seven provinces and has been honoured with Manulife’s Highest Growth award, Vacation.com’s President’s Elite Award, and an A-plus rating with the Better Business Bureau.
“I had no idea we were going to grow so quickly,” Byrne admits, although she believes her strength was giving agents something they weren’t getting elsewhere, such as low overhead, better flexibility and more travel opportunities – in addition to the support of a bricks and mortar agency.
“Being a home-based agent can be isolating; we need to feel part of a team, to be rewarded, to be recognized,” Byrne explains. “For me, this means offering my agents more sales solutions, communication, and constant communication.”
It also means ensuring her agents are kept on a level playing field with traditional agencies by taking every opportunity to be a voice for home-based professionals – something that seems to come naturally to the business owner.
As such, Byrne sits on the International Advisory Board of TL Network,, where she makes a point of promoting the importance of things like better home-based sales recognition from supplier BDMs, and more respectful practices between tour operators and agent clients – an issue she identifies today as a serious bone of contention.
“If a supplier is marketing its brand to an agent’s client without [clearly encouraging] them to call their travel agent, they’re stealing that client. Plain and simple,” she says, explaining that The Destination Experts will not support suppliers who they feel practice “client harvesting,” and she doesn’t care who knows it.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” she continues. “I understand tour operators are trying to get market share, but don’t take it from the person who’s working to put people in your airplanes, on your cruise ships.”
On the flip side, Byrne takes a similarly resolute stance with her agents on the topic of service fees, which she feels are necessary in securing a client’s commitment and respect, and are not met with as much resistance as many agents may expect – as long as clients are properly educated.
“Agents need to get revenue from somewhere, and it’s not coming from the tour operators,” she states. “They need to charge retainer, FIT and service fees because it allows them to earn what they should be earning.”
While The Destination Experts doesn’t mandate service fees, preferring to leave it to agents’ discretion, its training sessions do put a lot of emphasis on the power of knowing one’s value.
“When an agent sits in front of their clients and presents a service with confidence, clients sense that professionalism and have no problem paying fees,” Byrne says, adding that she also believes it’s the responsibility of the host agency to give agents the tools to build that confidence.
THE HUMAN TOUCH
In addition to supplier practices and service fees, marketing – social media in particular – is another area where Byrne holds a contrarian outlook. While a large majority of agents are being schooled on the importance of original content and digital engagement, Byrne tries to remind her agents to look beyond their number of followers, and let the data speak for itself.
“Social media is an extremely powerful tool, but only as powerful as the sales ratios that follow,” she says. “You can have an amazing Instagram page with thousands of followers, but if you’re not closing the sale, those numbers are irrelevant.”
Byrne’s preferred method of building a clientele is more direct: print off 100 fliers detailing your services, and hand them out to human beings.
“Based on feedback we’ve gotten from our agents, those who physically put themselves in front of people are the ones who get business,” she says. “Anybody who thinks they can become a home-based agent by sitting behind their computer are very misled. You need to get on the ground, you need to meet people.”
When it comes to sharing her outlook on business growth and practices, Byrne doesn’t mince words. As a former agent who built her company on a foundation of meeting the dire needs of her professional peers, she believes that when it comes to deciding what’s best for business, there’s value in trusting your own instincts.
“I’ve sat in boardrooms where people say, ‘You know, Deanna, you shouldn’t do such and such,’ and I just say, ‘whatever,’” she laughs, adding that she fully intends to grow her business by continuing to buck trends and following the data.
“I think the reason we’ve been so successful in the industry is that we push against the grain,” she states. “I don’t care what other host agencies are doing. I don’t care what other industry professionals are doing. I look at my numbers, and decide where I want things to increase.”
At the moment, Byrne has set her sights on developing a professional mentorship program for agents, and has hopes to one day expand into the U.S., as well as into B.C. and Ontario – although, according to the self-made agency owner, the latter all depends on whether TICO can revamp its “archaic” policies.
“The best advice I can leave any travel agent coming into the business is: you can do it,” she shares. “Be strong, be different, be competitive and be professional… After all, travel agents aren’t going anywhere.”
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