How A Niche Travel Agency Flies Above Online Competition


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At a time when booking travel online is second nature, Chicago-based MoonRings corners the luxury travel market with tailor-made trips for high-end clientele. Here, Co-Founder Carrie Wallace discusses staying relevant in an evolving industry, the importance of firsthand expertise and how social media is shaping travel trends.

What inspired you to launch a luxury travel agency?

Carrie Wallace: My business partner, Howard Green, and I started the company together. We were inspired by his mother who was a very high-end travel agent. People from London were calling Deerfield, Illinois to get her help. We realized if people as far away as London are looking for help, there must be people in America who need it. There’s a gap in the marketplace and let’s address that need. We’re both avid travelers and lived abroad.

Honeymoons are the step-child of the wedding industry and the travel industry and we recognized an opportunity to fill a void. We started within honeymoons and engendered tremendous loyalty that allowed us to expand and grow with our clients and move into other types of travel like annual trips, baby moons, anniversaries and family travel. But honeymoons are very much at the core of what we do.

Today most people book travel online without utilizing an agent. How do you compete and differentiate your offerings?

Carrie Wallace: There are many different parts to the travel industry. There’s the Vegas weekend or the Expedia trip to see your parents, but if you’re doing something special or high-end that costs a lot of money, you as a consumer want validation of what you’re planning. You don’t want to go to Expedia and spend $15,000 with the click of a button.

Even with economic tumult, people do want expertise and guidance, which is one of our strong points. We get to know our clients and make recommendations based on what they’re interested in. It’s not an off-the-shelf package; it’s customized to them so they get value out of it.

Compared to other methods of booking, we’re proving creative ideas and solutions. The Internet can generate too many questions, and we cut the wheat from the chaff to address specific issues important our clients. Even amidst the so-called demise of the travel agent, I have clients that book their own domestic travel but come to me for complex international trips. They value our expertise and experience. We make it faster, simpler, more transparent and often a better value than booking on their own because of our connections and our knowledge of how to best make reservations. Most people wouldn’t buy a car online without having reassurance and oftentimes we’re dealing with a similar magnitude in terms of what people are spending on their travel. They want someone they can trust with the purchase.

What marketing tactics have you found most successful and why?

Carrie Wallace: Trust marketing is very much what we strive for and finding channels to reach potential clients that they find trustworthy is important. In Chicago, we have actively marketed to wedding planners because they’re trusted advisors to couples who are invariably asking for their recommendations. If we’ve done our job right, they’re a natural channel to make recommendations to us and bring clients our ways. We have a program designed for wedding planners based on this to drive referrals.

The other thing is to try and get our name out to the press. It’s a wonderful way to reach many people at one time. To be in a publication that people like and trust confers that back to us.

We have done advertising, but what’s interesting is that it’s not terribly actionable so we focus on other things in lieu of that. What else has worked really well is search marketing and Google AdWords. We tightly define the searches in which we want to appear so we can reach the people that value the luxury services we provide.

What are the advantages of being Chicago-based and what are the challenges?

Carrie Wallace: It’s really interesting – to do our actual jobs, where we reside in the country isn’t that important. But at MoonRings we live in a cool, urban, up-to-date environment so we’re in tune with trends and young trendsetters. It helps us evaluate offers, things to do, places to eat and what to see when our clients travel overseas. It gives us a lens for our clients to evaluate the rest of the world and how it applies to our high-end urban clientele.

We receive a lot of visits from suppliers which is important for education and relationship building, and help us craft amazing trips for our clients. However, they don’t always come to Chicago. They visit New York and California, but they might fly over the Midwest. As a result we have to work to maintain those contacts by either visiting them in-country or attending important tourism events around the world.

What separates MoonRings from competitors, including luxury travel sites?

Carrie Wallace: We have a personal high touch. We spend an incredible amount of time with our clients brainstorming, creating, and designing. What differentiates us is that we’re willing to put in time and effort to make sure trip is phenomenal and it shows at end of day.

At end of a luxury trip, we might have 400-700 emails sent and received in the planning and coordination of the trip. Working at this level, we manage all the details for our clients.

We are also very realistic and honest. If a client wants to go to Australia and the weather at that time of year at the Great Barrier Reef is bad, we will question the timing because we want to ensure they have a trip of a lifetime. Rather than just sell something that’s easy, I’d rather take the time and provide honest feedback and make sure they’ll have an experience they’ll enjoy. The most important thing we can do is set proper expectations.

We’re fanatical about execution. There’s a dreamy beginning to the travel process and then once decisions are made, it’s incumbent on us to get it right. We need to micromanage the behind the scenes planning process and mitigate risk of anything going wrong. We do our best to make travel as easy and seamless as possible for our clients.

How do you keep your business modern and relevant?

Carrie Wallace: Staying up on trends, and for that, we are fortunate that we have young, under-30 people in our business. Miriam Geiser was just named one of the top travel professionals in country under 30. We stay up-to-date on social media, trends and tips that help us seek out relevant options for our clients. We also get out there ourselves and visit the places we recommend and bring back new ideas that we can explain firsthand.

In the past months, people in our office have visited Cambodia, Thailand, Bhutan, Chile, Puerto Rico, Barbados and St. Barts — diverse places and new experiences to share with our clients.

One of the most important ways to stay relevant is to attend experiential travel conferences around the world. At these events we’re networking with key hotels and experience providers, and also in the mix of everyone identifying the next trends to help benefit our clients.

What is the next big trend in travel?
Carrie Wallace:
I would say one of the biggest ongoing trends is experiential travel. Everyone has heard about luxury travel and posh hotels, but there’s a shift away from the niceness of where you stay to how you spend your time and who you meet when you travel. It’s about what you do every day. It might be that you’re with your family on the coast of Chile at a private reserve where you can explore the ocean in zodiac rafts, go horseback riding or pick organic produce from the garden. It’s what you do during the day that creates the memories and warm feelings to make it special. Now people are looking for what’s different and new.

Travel is something people wear as part of their lifestyle. It gives us personal pride. There’s an interesting convergence of travel and social media since it’s a statement about who you are as a person and what you value, all posted on Facebook.

Since people are traveling and sharing as they go with their friends online, more luxury brands are tapping into travel opportunities. Lexus offers cars for test rides at certain resorts, there’s a Tiffany suite at the St. Regis hotel in New York, and branded Champagne bars at luxe hotels in Paris. Travel, social media and luxury brands are converging.

Rachel Gillman has an insatiable appetite for dining out and an obsession with the restaurant industry. She’s also fascinated by entrepreneurs and enjoys uncovering the story behind building a business from scratch. You can follow her on Twitter @RachelGillman.

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