Logistical Challenges in Growing a Niche Travel Business, with Dina Farmer

Episode Overview

Episode Topic: Niche travel businesses are great for serving edge-case travel clients who have unique needs. However, gaining market visibility to target clients, enabling travel payment processing and picking the right CRM for these niche businesses present unique challenges which must be overcome for niche travel businesses to thrive. We speak about overcoming these challenges with the founder of Lily and Magnolia Travel, a niche Travel business catering to families with autistic children.

Lessons You’ll Learn: Travel Payment Processing is essential for travel businesses to be able to accept credit, debit and ACH payments from customers. Unfortunately, it’s a surprisingly complicated issue for many niche travel businesses. Additionally, reaching a niche audience of customers as a small company poses unique challenges which require alternative methods of advertising such as through credentialing organizations.

About Our Guest: We’re speaking with a pioneer herself, Dina Farmer. She’s not just the founder of Lily and Magnolia Travel but a mother of two autistic boys. Autism and travel may not be common partners, but guest Dina Farmer is changing that narrative, but having to overcome logistical challenges along the way. Her personal experiences have fueled her vision to create an inclusive travel industry. And she’s not stopping there. She’s dreaming big, with plans to expand and mentor more travel professionals in this niche.

Topics Covered: We dive into the challenges Dina faced while establishing this unique travel business. Dina’s journey has been exciting and challenging, from overcoming a lack of awareness in the industry to finding the right tools for travel payment processing. We also explore how she uses platforms like Travel Joy, a comprehensive CRM system, to streamline operations, and about how a niche business can effectively reach their ideal customer base. Finally, we look into the future, as Dina envisions further evolution of the industry and more inclusivity for all travelers.

Who We’re Speaking With: Dina Farmer from Lily and Magnolia Travel

Meet Dina Farmer, founder of Lily and Magnolia Travel. Dina is a trailblazer in the travel industry, not just any travel agent. As a mother of two autistic boys, her experiences led her to create a unique business model for families with autistic children.

Lily and Magnolia Travel stands out for its personalized services for these families. Recognizing their specific needs, especially sensory sensitivities, Dina crafted travel experiences catering to these unique requirements. This vision has seen her become a Certified Autism Travel Professional, a testament to her dedication and expertise.

Lily and Magnolia Travel ensures an enjoyable travel experience for every family member, regardless of cognitive abilities. The aim is not just to plan vacations, but to empower families, enabling them to explore the world joyfully and easily.

Episode Transcript

Megha: Welcome to Travelpreneur, the weekly business show for the travel industry. I’m your host, Houston based travel journalist Megha McSwain. Each episode, we’ll be exploring what it takes to thrive as a business owner in the travel industry. From conversations with leading travel business executives and industry focused venture capitalists to exploring the innovations that are shaping the next generation of travel business, if it impacts the travel industry, we cover it here on Travelpreneur. Welcome to Travelpreneur. I’m your host, Megha McSwain. Today we have the pleasure of speaking with Dina Farmer, founder of Lily and Magnolia Travel. Lily and Magnolia Travel is a pioneer in providing joyful travel experiences specifically designed for families with children or family members with autism. Dina’s expertise and dedication in creating exclusive travel opportunities have earned her the title of certified Autism Travel Professional. Hi, Dina. Thanks for joining us today.

Dina: Hi, Megha. Thank you so much for having me today. I’m super excited.

Megha: It’s a pleasure. So I want to hear the story behind Lily and Magnolia. What motivated you to start a travel business specifically geared toward parents or family members of autistic children?

Dina: So I am a mother of two autistic little boys, and I had my travel business prior to my oldest son’s diagnosis. And while we were on the journey of getting him diagnosed, I noticed just little intricacies of challenges in regards to travel. Remember I told this story before that a trip to the Walt Disney World Resort that resulted in kind of a difficult journey for my oldest son, which really made me think about my business in a different way and say, Wow, if I’m struggling with this, there must be other families that have children out there that are also struggling, especially with regards to sensory needs and autism and other cognitive disabilities. So I went to Walt Disney World, and then I went to a travel conference. And at that travel conference, I started talking about my experience with other travel agents. And it was at that conference that I said, Oh my gosh, why isn’t anybody else doing this? Why aren’t other people helping families with autistic kids? And from those two experiences together, I decided to pivot my business and really in a way, helped my own family, but also helped families, you know?

Megha: You said you were in the business already. You were a travel agent.

Dina: Yes.

Megha: Okay. So let’s discuss, like you mentioned, Walt Disney World, for example. I mean, I can only imagine because going there is already such an overwhelming experience for families. So I can only imagine. But let’s discuss the special needs and considerations of travel planning for families with autistic children that might not come to mind immediately.

Dina: Right. Especially if you don’t have that experience or you don’t think about these things all the time necessarily. Some of the big things can be struggles with elopement because a lot, which means running away or walking away without letting anybody know, especially if a child is there’s so many different terms nowadays, but level three, autism or lower functioning autism, it can be a very scary experience. So being able to walk through those steps with your clients prior to them going on a trip, considering things like loud spaces, colors can even be very overwhelming to some autistic individuals. And there’s a whole like laundry list of things to really think about prior to that trip and how much prep that needs to be involved before you even get on the airplane or get into the car.

Megha: For example, if you’re working with a family and I know this can vary, but what kinds of timelines do you guys look at or are you starting months before their travel, weeks before? How often does that play into it? When do they get started with you?

Dina: Typically, it’s about six months to a year prior to their trip. And that’s so that we can go over dry runs. Like I have several clients that have children that fly on a plane is terrifying, like they’ve had a previous experience. And then thinking about it again like, how do we help prime that child to be able to be comfortable in airport when that’s with programs like Wings for Autism that has dry runs at airports. And I know there’s a bunch of other airlines like United, Allegiant, JetBlue, all have different practice to go to the airport, get on the plane, go to baggage claim. And that’s just amazing that we can take those steps prior to their trip so that although I can’t guarantee it’s going to be the smoothest trip on the planet Earth. Right. But at least we’re practicing for it. So that way they know what to expect and love having that large amount of time so that we’re able to do that rather than saying, Well, next week we’re going right, we’re going on.

Megha: So it sounds like you have resources for this type of business, but what were some of the obstacles that you faced when you started this kind of business where you sort of like, where can I look? Who can help me with this specific target audience?

Dina: I decided to pivot my business in 2020, so that was already a challenge within itself. But then when I did pivot, it’s been almost three years now. Oh my gosh. And it felt like there wasn’t a whole lot out there and there wasn’t a whole lot of other certified travel autism travel professionals. So it was just really like asking a lot of questions. And then I joined the organization, the Ibcs, which stands for the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education. I know that’s a big.

Megha: That’s a mouthful. Yes.

Dina: And I’m surprised that I remember it because I frequently forget. But they’re kind of the pioneers in getting not just the travel industry certified and trained in autism awareness and autism training, but also other sectors. Like hospitals and police departments and other attractions. And it took me a while to find them. And when I finally did, I felt like there is somebody out there besides myself who is also actively providing and working in the community to get resources to help autistic individuals travel and their families.

Megha: That’s great. Do you have. I’m sure you do. But if you could share, I would love to hear some success stories. Maybe people you’ve worked with that this really made a difference for them in their travel plans. Yeah.

Dina: Oh, my God. I feel like there’s so many.

Megha: Yeah, So that’s a good thing. That’s a great thing. Yeah.

Dina: I think the biggest thing that it’s been is after the trip has gone on and thankfully a lot of the clients, we’ve started to build a rapport and become more than just clients. It’s become friendships. Hearing them tell me the confidence that their children are building, like after each trip has been amazing. Something like speaking more or advocating for themselves more because they’ve been put in a situation during travel that kind of forces them outside of their comfort zone because you know how you get in your bubble and you do the same thing every day. You have your schedule, but when you’re traveling, there’s all kinds of different things that you’re put into different situations. So something as simple like, I need to go to the bathroom and I want to ask somebody and my parents may not know or an adult to I just need to know where the bathroom is and how can I advocate for myself to say, where is the bathroom? Something big like that. But there’s just been a lot of confidence building, which I’m just like, okay, I think I’m doing.

Megha: Do you have a place where people can, like provide you testimonials and like feedback and just like thank yous for the service that you’ve offered?

Dina: So I’m a part of a travel consortia called Travel Leaders, and that’s where most of my reviews are at, where people have shared their stories with me, which I’m so thankful to read those because I’m just like, I see each and every one, you know? So it’s been amazing. And then of course, Google, but mostly it’s been travel leaders. And because I feel like that’s you have to do a little bit more work to put your review in there. It’s been amazing seeing the kids because I mostly work with families and seeing their confidence growing and then hearing different things that some families that have children that are in therapy, not only have they worked on those things in therapy, but then to see those skills translate during travel, it’s just like.

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Megha: So you mentioned you have two sons that are autistic. This is obviously a part of your daily life beyond travel. But how do you promote awareness and understanding of autism within the travel industry with people that you work with? Or I mean, because you were already in the business? Before?

Dina: I talk about it a lot and I have my own blog that I talk a lot about my own personal travel and the challenges that I have as a parent myself. And it’s not always rainbows and butterflies with traveling for us either. So I share the challenges that we face when traveling. I’ve been on a lot of podcasts to talk about traveling as well, and I have my own podcast and I just talk to other travel professionals that might be interested in learning more about becoming a certified travel professional because there’s not a lot out there, right? Yeah, I wish there was. I know a handful, which is sad. I would like to know like 40, 50 of us.

Megha: Yeah, well, hopefully if they’re out there, they’re listening and y’all can connect. And that’s what we want. And you have to be loud when it comes to these things. So. So the right people can hear and then there’s more awareness across the board. Do you think that the industry is changing to better accommodate travelers with autism?

Dina: Since I started, like I said in 2020 with pivoting, a lot has happened in the last three years and it’s been kind of amazing to see because maybe, maybe because of the pandemic, there was a stop for the tourism and travel and tourism industry to look at the world and go, Hmm, we have more than just typical travelers. There’s people with disabilities. There’s so many different people that are willing and want to travel the world. How can we better tap into those sectors to be able to make travel more inclusive? And a lot has been done, I will have to say the country of Dubai like, well, you guys are amazing. They’ve done a lot in the last year to make Dubai an autism friendly destination, which they just got certified with that, which I was like, Wow, that’s very cool. You’re the very first one in the world. So that’s amazing.

Megha: Yeah. So this is obviously a very niche travel business. What are some of the ways that you went about defining this in the travel industry as far as like, I mean, obviously word of mouth, doing the work on the podcast, you’re talking to people. What about marketing or networking? How does that play into this?

Dina: It’s really been like word of mouth marketing and then talking with other travel agents and different Facebook groups and creating guides to talk about like my niche, because.

Megha: Personal media plays a big part of it because you’re able to connect easier, right? Exactly. Yeah.

Dina: And don’t feel like it would be nearly as easy, especially with my niche because it can be pretty isolating sometimes being an autistic parent and then having nowhere to really talk to when you’re in your daily life. So that can be a struggle. But I feel like with having social media, that’s been my biggest place to have my soapbox.

Megha: You know, social media can be a lot of people complain about it sometimes, but it’s such a savior when you’re looking for what you feel like is a small group of people. All of a sudden they’re all there on social media. That’s always very helpful. Is there a service provider or software that you use in your travel business that you would recommend to other travel businesses?

Dina: Every travel agent, regardless of where you’re at, even if it’s like day one, everybody needs some kind of CRM. And my favorite CRM is Travel Joy, because not only does it have like payments, it accepts client information, but they also have itinerary builder built all in one place. So I’m not pulling a bunch of different places. I have it in like one convenient place and that’s so easy. Yeah.

Megha: Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs looking to carve out like, let’s say someone wanted to do something like this, but they’re like, Well, where am I going to get my customer base from? Or do you have any advice for someone who might want to do something similar?

Dina: Trust in the process. I know that’s so cliche, right? But I think that’s the biggest thing is it feels so wrong until you just get into it and you start really finding your reason why you’re doing it. And my why, of course, are my kids. And then through them, it’s been other people’s kids who also are becoming yeah, my kids, you know. So I think it’s just really finding that reason why and then continuing to push because there’s people out there that do need you. And I’ve been finding that through the business that hearing the stories or talking to clients that are like, Oh my gosh, before you X, Y and Z happen. And now that I’m working with you, it’s just like I just don’t have to worry about it anymore, right? And and they can talk to me because I get it. Like, I get it. When your child is having an autistic meltdown in the airport. Totally get it. I get it. And sometimes people.

Megha: Don’t know that there might be a need for a certain business until it’s there.

Dina: 100%.

Megha: What’s the future of Lily and Magnolia? What do you see? What’s your vision moving forward?

Dina: Oh my gosh, I have so many ideas. Someday, of course, like I would love to branch out and have my own travel agency myself and then have. Agents underneath me. That would be like the dream, right? Somewhere in the future. That would be fantastic. I have plans. I’m slowly writing a book. It’s just not. It’s not out there. And it’s just to help families that maybe they don’t need my services. But they do. They do want to DIY their own trips and having a book out there to really help you get started on your own. And I’m working on a YouTube channel.

Megha: You’re a busy gal. Yeah.

Dina: They’re all here and on paper. I just have to get them out into the world.

Megha: Yeah, well, I’m sure you will. I have a feeling that you are on the right track for listeners who want to get in touch with you or listen to your podcast or watch your YouTube channel or keep up with Lily and Magnolia, please share your website and social channels and all of that.

Dina: Absolutely. So I’m on Instagram and now threads.

Megha: Oh yeah, threads.

Dina: Oh my gosh. I feel like we’re just shouting in the dark with threads right now.

Megha: But it’s it’ll get there and you will be one of the first ones that were there.

Dina: But you can find me. My handle is @LillyandMagnoliaTravel for both of those. And then I’m also on Facebook with the same handle @LilyandMagnoliaTravel. My YouTube channel is also the same thing. Everything. It’s all the same. And then my website is W-w-w, Dot Lily and Magnolia Travel.com and that’s only two L’s, not three. So.

Megha: Okay.

Dina: Lily Well.

Megha: Thank you so much, Dina. You are really doing some amazing work. Good luck to you. I will definitely follow along and wait for the copy of the book when that’s ready. It was wonderful getting this insight. We look forward to speaking with you again on Travel Preneur.

Dina: Thank you so much. It was so fun talking.

Megha: Yes, definitely. We’ll have to talk again. Catch up.

Dina: Take care. You, too.

Megha: You’ve been listening to Travelpreneur by TravelPayments.com. Make sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast listening platform so you never miss a new episode, and we’ll see you again soon on Travelpreneur.