In this episode of TravelPreneur, we explore the fascinating journey of Connie Miller, Chief Relationship Officer and Business Development Manager for Your Travel Center. The conversation delves into Connie’s diverse background in the travel industry, from administrative roles to corporate travel management, highlighting pivotal moments that shaped her understanding of the business.
Lessons You’ll Learn:
Listeners gain valuable insights into the ups and downs of the travel industry, witnessing Connie’s experiences during critical events like the 9/11 aftermath and the financial crisis. The episode sheds light on the importance of adaptability, resilience, and strategic decision-making in navigating the complexities of the travel business.
About Our Guest:
As the Chief Relationship Officer of Your Travel Center, Connie Miller brings a wealth of experience and knowledge. Her journey from administrative work to managerial roles and corporate travel management provides a unique perspective on the industry’s evolution. Connie’s hands-on experience with the challenges and triumphs of the travel business positions her as a valuable resource for aspiring travel professionals.
In this episode, Connie Miller candidly shared her experiences navigating the travel industry’s unprecedented challenges, including the impact of terrorism on travel. Her insights shed light on the resilience demanded by unforeseen disruptions, offering valuable lessons for industry professionals facing similar hurdles. The episode delved into Your Travel Center’s strategic affiliation with top-tier travel consortia, emphasizing the advantages derived from economies of scale and strategic partnerships. This approach not only enhances buying power but positions the agency to provide clients with superior services and benefits.
Our Guest: Connie Miller, the Travel Empowerment Specialist
Connie Miller, currently holds the esteemed position of Chief Relationship Officer and Business Development Manager for Your Travel Center, Inc. With a career spanning over 24 years at Your Travel Center, Connie plays a pivotal role in finding and developing independent contractors for the agency, assisting travel agencies in enhancing revenues and efficiency through hosted programs, and consulting with corporations on streamlining corporate travel policies and reducing expenses.
Connie’s journey in the travel industry began with a unique trajectory. Starting in an established travel agency on the business side, she garnered invaluable insights into the operational aspects before transitioning into roles as a travel agent, group travel specialist, and eventually an office manager. Her career took a detour into training and sales, where she collaborated with businesses to improve safety programs and comply with government mandates. This experience broadened her understanding of business operations, proving instrumental when she returned to travel as a Corporate Travel Manager and Marketing Director.
In her current role, Connie thrives in helping travel professionals grow their businesses, leveraging her wealth of industry knowledge and passion for travel. She is responsible for various aspects, including client retention initiatives, corporate, leisure, and group marketing, as well as providing account management for corporate accounts. Connie’s multifaceted experience and dedication to the travel industry make her an invaluable asset, and her commitment is evident not just in her role at Your Travel Center but also in her engagement as the Immediate Past President and PR Committee Chair at the Kiwanis Club of Omaha, Inc. With a rich background encompassing diverse roles and responsibilities, Connie brings a wealth of expertise to the world of travel and business development.
Megha McSwain: Greetings, travel enthusiast, and welcome to another episode of TravelPreneur. I’m your host, Megha McSwain. Today we’re joined by Connie Miller, the chief relationship officer and Business development manager for your travel center. Hello, Connie. Thanks for joining us today. Well, thank you very much for having me.
Connie Miller: I’m delighted to be here.
Megha McSwain: We are as well. Connie, your journey began in an established travel agency where you gained valuable insights into the business side of travel. How did this early experience shape your understanding of the travel industry’s inner workings, and how does it continue to inform your approach as the Chief Relationship Officer at your travel center?
Connie Miller: It’s kind of interesting that you ask that because my background is somewhat varied in travel. I started out doing admin work. I was doing HR, I was working a little bit with accounting. I was never going to be a travel advisor. And before I knew it, all of a sudden boom! I was working in groups, which is kind of a backwards way to start into the business. You don’t generally start in groups, you usually end up in groups. One of the things that happened, though, that was really good for me, was we were a strong agency in Omaha, Nebraska. We had a strong corporate division, we had an airport location, we had a strong leisure division. It was a very, very busy office. I got to work with the owners by actually sharing an office with them. So as the company grew, we didn’t have enough space. They had a large office, so I actually sat and worked with two owners throughout the entire business and throughout this entire thing. What happened was we acquired another agency with seven offices. We transferred them over to the same system that we were on. We also then had probably one of the biggest ups and downs that you might have in travel. It’s kind of a precursor to 9/11 and all of those types of things.
Connie Miller: There was an incident in the late 80s and that was when I was first working. I was just a young little baby, by the way. We had an incident where actually there was terrorism on American citizens in Italy. Okay. And we had reverse sales for the month of April. This was the same time we had expanded. So not only was I sitting in with these office owners, but they were making huge decisions, you know, what do we do now? We have a reversal of monies going out of the office. We had to scramble. We had extended out way too far with what was happening in the industry, which was unprecedented, like many of the things that we’ve had so far. So that experience was really kind of interesting. And through the gamut, I learned about the business side of the agency. I also then was working as a manager of the agency. I was an advisor myself. And then at that point it was like, this is really a lot of fun. But the technology wasn’t there and I made a difficult decision. I love travel, and I got out and I got into sales and had a wonderful career for the next eight years or so, and then travel called me back in. When I came back in, suddenly I was no longer an agent, but I was doing corporate travel management.
Connie Miller: I was working with suppliers and working on marketing campaigns. I was creating local events for bringing people into our office. So I had a smattering of a lot of different things going on right there. And I’m like, where’s this little bit of education? What is this really going to, and then it kind of came into fruition. And yes, I was there during nine by 11 and yes, I was there during the financial crisis. So I’ve been through the ups and downs and I’ve really had a good opportunity to see how management responds to it, what works, what doesn’t work. And then in 2012, your travel center in Montecito Village Travel joined a partnership, and I started working for Montecito Village Travel. And what we are is a large host agency. We have about 750 independent contractors as well as agencies throughout the United States. So my background is perfect. I could read profit and loss statements. I could take a look and find out where their pain points were with the GDS, all of those types of things. So what it’s really done is given me kind of a background to ask the right questions and to do further investigation and to kind of understand where everybody’s at when they come to us.
Megha McSwain: Yeah. It sounds like you had some first-hand experience over a long period of time, really learning by being on the frontline.
Connie Miller: And when you sit with the owners and you see the pain points, you see both sides of the equation, and then you also see what’s happening with clients. So I mean, it was really very, very interesting.
Megha McSwain: Your travel centers affiliation with top-tier travel consortia and agencies provides a distinct advantage. How does the affiliation enable you to leverage buying power and cutting-edge technology, allowing you to negotiate with travel companies and airlines?
Connie Miller: I’ll tell you what. The business has grown and changed so much over the past 50 years, if you want or more. What we found is economy of scale is really huge. And then align yourself with the right partners. So we chose to align ourselves with virtuoso because they really matched what our clients. And keep in mind, we had two clients. We have our independent contractors that we work with, but then their clients are also impacted by what we do and what we provide to our independent contractors. So we’re always looking for the best services, the best products, and the best offers for our advisors to provide to their clients. So working with virtuoso was an amazing adventure. There’s economies of scale exist as well. So when you work with a consortia, they can bring to you tools that you yourself can’t have. We ourselves are a fairly large agency, so what we’ve been able to do is take those associations and develop them further. A good example of this would be our hotel program. A virtuoso has an amazing hotel program. You book into a hotel, you’re going to have all these added amenities. So when an advisor uses our hotel program or the virtuoso program, their clients get more benefits, same price generally. More benefits.
Connie Miller: What we did was we sat on the board, one of our marketing individual. He really had a love for hotels. So he sat on that committee and he developed our own hotel program. So we now have programs with all of the major hotels, as well as a lot of the representation companies with the smaller properties that provide added benefits and value and service to our suppliers. So that’s just one example of how we’ve expanded on that. One of the other things we did as an agency is we had a fairly large number of advisors that were corporate advisors. So we brought into the play frosh. Frosh had better air contracts. You know, back in the day, we negotiated our own contracts with the airlines. But what’s happened as travel has evolved is it pays to be part of a bigger player so that you can leverage and get the most that you need for your advisor. So we now have some wonderful air contracts with upfront commissions and things, but it also gives us added to help desks that are above what the general public can get. So it just provides a lot of added value that way. Recently, we were established as a Forbes preferred agency, so that gives our advisors added recognition.
Megha McSwain: Definitely.
Connie Miller: That they’re booking.
Megha McSwain: With travel professionals from across the country, helping them to build their businesses. How does your travel center provide comprehensive support and resources to empower these professionals?
Connie Miller: We are very personalized. We’re very hands-on. I would say it all starts with our orientation. Somebody comes on board with us, they get a very thorough orientation. They get all of the accounting information, obviously. But then the president reaches out and welcomes them. We also because we are a virtuoso agency, we have an individual who gets them registered for virtual. So if they’re new to virtuoso shares with them all the sources and resources and opportunities that are there. Our marketing team and we have a very dynamic marketing team that will assist with a lot of different things. They share that information, and then the bulk of it really goes back to Shane Lefevre’s team, Caitlin Mertz and Shane Lefevre. We have a very dynamic intranet for our advisors where they can do their invoicing and they can see their sales, they can chase commissions, they can learn about all the promotions. They can have PCI-compliant opportunities to get credit card information, to build client forms. And that’s all done one on one. It’s done over zoom, but it is one-on-one and it is specific to the needs of that advisor. So that’s the first step in all of it. So they get to know everyone in a very short order. I should also mention we have an air team air desk will reach out to them.
Connie Miller: Our director of Leisure sales will work with them, introduce them to suppliers that they might want to know. So just a full hands on what do you need? What can we provide? This is how you do it. Call me anytime. And then beyond that, we do a lot of training and education. We have conferences. We have what we call our rapid Free Friday recaps, which will allow advisors to learn about different things. If we do a segment on social media, it might be how to create reels, how to do social media, if it’s on, how to invoice or invoice properly, whatever it might be. We provide those types of trainings that are relevant to us. And then of course we have supplier trainings. And with our destination management companies, we’ve created this whole deck. If you will sort feature, you can go on and you can say, I’m looking for an adventure traveler in Morocco, and it will pull up six DMCs in that area that follow into that. So we do a lot of hands-on showing, showcasing and helping them to build their business. And then of course we have our forum, we have peer reviews, we have our conventions, which are just amazing events for networking, and we really foster networking.
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Megha McSwain: And you know, obviously we know the travel industry is fraught with complexities and challenges. How do you assist travel professionals with navigating through those challenges? Or clearly, you provide a lot of resources. They’ve got a lot of people who have their back in helping them. But should something arise, how do you go from there?
Connie Miller: Well, the biggest thing that we can think back to in about three years was Covid. No one saw that one coming. It was an amazing year and at this point in time, we probably should stop talking about it, but think it’s probably one of our greatest examples of what we did. We, first of all, cut every fee we possibly could to our advisors. We kept them focused on the future. We did an email campaign and we helped them with the loans and all of that. How to file for unemployment in their state. We advocated very strongly through, you know, for those benefits, and we contacted everyone on a regular basis and kept them focused on the future. We lost very few. There were a few people that retired. We didn’t lose anybody to other agencies. But what we did gain were a lot of people coming to us. And that just goes back to a very proactive approach to our advisors. The CEO of our company, Colin Weatherhead, the owner of our company. As he said it once, he said it a thousand, 2000 times, whatever. You know, if our independent contractors aren’t successful, we aren’t. So if that philosophy is what permeates everything you do, then everybody in the company is rowing in the same direction with the same goal in mind. So those are the things that we do. Town hall meetings we share. We’re very public with how the company is doing, what that means to them. Those are the things that we do as far as helping them navigate the waters, and also be the first to let them know what’s going on in the industry. If there’s something shaking up what’s happening, you know, we are holding conferences on it. We are holding calls on it, we are educating. We’re working very closely with Asda on some of those legal issues, and we share that with our clients or with our advisors, as well.
Megha McSwain: As the chief relationship officer. How do you foster strong partnerships and collaborations within the travel industry, and what initiative does your travel center undertake to promote knowledge sharing? I know you mentioned town halls and different get-togethers where people can kind of compare notes, but are there networking opportunities that contribute to their professional growth and development of travel professionals nationwide?
Connie Miller: Absolutely. And it starts with the management team. I mean, I’ll talk about what we do as a company first and then what we do for our advisors. We are very active with Asda. We are very active with half the professional association of travel hosts. We are very active in CoA. We engage in every professional travel organization that there is. There’s just a lot of them, and we make sure that our entire staff and team go to these types of events and activities because that shared knowledge and this industry, you know it. Everybody shares in this industry. So the best thing you can do is put yourself with the best of the best. That’s what we do. Then taking that one step further, that information that we bring into the company, we reiterate to our advisors as to how it impacts them. So if there’s a piece of legislation that they need to write to their congressmen about, we’re pushing that information out to them. We encourage them and provide discounts to for them to join as an independent contractor. Asta, because Asta provides so much information and so much and does so much good for the travel industry as a whole, that’s really important.
Connie Miller: Throughout our conferences, we are always working with networking. We partner with virtuoso, all of the virtuoso platforms, our own conferences that we do, our own mixers. There’s just a wealth of ways that we communicate this information to our advisors, and one of the things we like to do as well is really foster connections between one advisor and another. So if I have somebody who comes to me and they want to specialize in something, we are still a small enough company. I know advisors in that arena. And I will say, well, you need to talk to so-and-so because this is what they do. Other things that we do is we hold peer educational panels, for example, we may do one-on-one groups, and we have three different people who do different types of groups, and they do this whole panel discussion Q&A at the end. Or how do you do groups? How do you secure groups? What are the biggest pitfalls? What are the biggest rewards? How do you enhance that? So again, learning from your peers is the best way. And we try to foster that.
Megha McSwain: You know, you mentioned that the travel industry has changed so much in the last 50 years. And then of course we know it’s changed so much in the last 5 or 10 years because of Covid, because of social media just really changing the landscape of everything. How do you all integrate cutting-edge technology solutions to streamline operations, and especially in such an evolving technological landscape?
Connie Miller: Oh boy. And, you know, technology and travel is I mean, when you think about it, back in the day, we had state-of-the-art technology, then this legacy technology rolled forward. So now everybody’s scrambling to find out the best way to do. And there’s so many services out there. One of the things that we have done to help cut through the noise, so to speak, is we have a really dynamic portal for our advisors so they can log in and we try to make that one stop for them. They can invoice from there, they can have their client information. From there they can collect credit information. I think I shared with that with you earlier, the promotions and that type of thing. We are doing whatever we can. We have white-label marketing that’s available there. We have inspirational and educational messaging that they can reuse for their social media posted there. So we’re trying to make that the one-stop for the majority of what they need. The other thing we’re doing as a company, we’re constantly evaluating technology. We are looking at different services out there. What’s going to work? For example, approach guides is used by a lot of our advisors, right. So we created a partnership with Approach Guides. And our advisors have access to approach guides okay. That helps them with the marketing. It’s a technology-based thing. So we have preferred programs with travel-mapped access and all of those types of services as well. The invoicing, and that’s kind of the biggest bugaboo.
Connie Miller: It seems like with most agencies is how do you invoice? Everybody has their own preferred method. So what we did because we are still analyzing maybe a different CRM or what’s going to happen with our CRM. We created an interface with our CRM. So an advisor can actually invoice in less than a minute. Other things we’ve done is we realized that our advisors are their businesses are growing and they have other needs besides, in addition to technology, they need assistance. You know, there’s just a dearth of having somebody to be able to help you in an appropriate manner. So rather than reinventing the wheel, we partnered with Lucia. And we’re doing those types of services. So we’re always evaluating. We are beta-testing numerous products for right now. We’re beta testing one that is a commission collection at point of stay for hotels. It’s a different technology. It’s really interesting. It has some really good features to it. It needs to be a little more work on it, but we’re beta-testing it. That’s part of virtual. So they have all these incubator programs as well. So we’re always taking a look at what is out there, how will it impact us, how it will impact our advisors and how it will make their jobs more streamlined. And I would say we give greater credence to anything that’s going to make the advisor more successful and have that flow work a little bit better.
Megha McSwain: It sounds like you guys are very ahead of the curve with all of this, but what is your vision for the future of your travel center? How do you plan to further solidify its position as a leader in providing unbeatable travel offers and discounts?
Connie Miller: It goes back to the same thing that a travel advisor has. The strongest thing we have is our connections with people and products and placement, right? So maintaining relationships, sharing information, keeping an eye to the future. Last year we celebrated our 50-year anniversary. And if you think back to how travel was booked 50 years ago, right, you probably can’t even imagine that. But we survived, you know, mean we made it through all of that. And the reason we did was because we kept a united future. So we were like pioneers in the hosting environment. People said we were crazy for doing it, and we did it when technology really wasn’t there. But we are always looking at to what the next step is. So keeping an eye to the future is one of the ways of doing it. You also do that through relationships. You do that through sharing. You do that through research. You do that through technology. So our overriding goal is to see what’s on the horizon, to prepare for the future and to ensure the success of our advisors. I mean, that’s kind of what it boils down to.
Megha McSwain: As a respected figure in the travel industry, what advice would you offer to aspiring travel professionals and entrepreneurs?
Connie Miller: Oh my gosh, surround yourself with the best. Number one okay, water seeks its own level. So and that is true with the fellow advisors that you hang out with, the companies that you connect with. But also it has to do with your clients. If you want to build a good client base, you need to be in their space. So if you can identify what your ideal client is going to be, then be where they are. So if you’re looking, for example, we had one advisor, her kids went to a private school and they were, you know, second, third, fourth grade. So she connected herself, first of all, with a entrepreneurial group because it was all women business owners. Right. And tons of great advice helped her with so many things. But then on the flip side of it, she was in the environment, that school environment she started with moms trips or, you know, these moms were working hard. They had kids in school. They were all about the same age. So she put herself in an environment, or she was in an environment where that is. So whether that means joining nonprofits, working side by side with people, finding out what their needs are, just put yourself in that environment. Spend the money on those types of things. You’re investing in yourself.
Megha McSwain: Right? And I think that’s great advice in any industry. So very well put probably. Thank you so much, Connie, for sharing this insight with us and your wonderful journey and telling us more about your travel center. Let our listeners know where they can learn more and where they can contact you.
Connie Miller: Great, great. Well, my email address is Connie at Whitcomb. That’s Connie, and I am at Whitcomb to learn more about our agency. It’s joint montecitovillagetravel.com. You’ll see all of the key people that will be working with you and learn a little bit about our agency there and can be found in LinkedIn as well. Well, thank.
Megha McSwain: You so much, Connie. We hope to talk to you again in the future and really keep up with your travel center. To our listeners, please follow and subscribe for future episodes. And Connie, we will talk to you again soon. Thank you so much.
Connie Miller: Thank you.