Some people enjoy cocktails or watch sports socially, but Jo Ann Baird plans travel socially. She’s planned dozens of trips all over the world where friends, new and old, can meet and share adventures that create lifetime memories. As a travel agent, Jo Ann has created her own unique niche — but it’s not based on the destination or travel style as much as the community she’s built.
Simply put, she plans trips for friends and acquaintances she meets, and goes with them. In actuality, these are her clients — but they’re really more like a community of like-minded travel buffs. She’s defined her specialty by redefining the typical agent-client relationship, and we believe she’s struck gold on this idea of social travel planning.
Jo Ann has been working with us as her Africa consultants for about 20 years. Up next for the Baird group? A trip to Namibia for 20 people in June 2017, and we’re excited for many more to come.
So, how did Jo Ann begin planning these group trips?
It all started when her husband Lowell was working part-time at United Airlines, and well, I’ll let Jo Ann finish telling you the story…
My husband, Lowell, and I lived and taught school in the same community for several years. [Our friends] always said we should open a travel agency, because Lowell was always doing favors for them at the airport. Eventually, after he retired early from teaching and from United we did just that. We had the agency for 18 years before selling it to our manager.
Lowell joined The Rotary Club, and one year some of the members asked him about planning a trip to an international convention in Singapore. That was one of our first group trips. Also, he went on a fam trip to Seoul, and I went on one to Hong Kong. Those were the years when shopping in those cities was at its height, and we each came home telling the other we should go back. I was still teaching, and Lowell started taking groups to either city for shopping. That was quite popular. One thing led to another; when I retired from teaching early, then we started branching out to other parts of the world.
How do you build a following? How do you decide who goes with you or how do you reach out to people to join the group?
We lived and taught in the community, had a good reputation, and as I said, Lowell did favors for friends at the airport. We first sent out about 400 letters saying we were opening the agency. We gave good service, always tried to get the best price and people thought well of our agency.
We put posters about trips in the office. We sent out newsletters to the mailing list. We put an ad in our church bulletin. The very best advertising is word-of-mouth. I did all the planning, handled all the details; they are custom-designed, not brochure trips. We try to do things the group wouldn’t get to do on a brochure trip.
We’ve had special tours just for us, i.e. a Bodega in Spain which opened on a Sunday afternoon just for us. We’ve also chartered a whole small ship in Panama and the Amazon—maximum 28 pax – that was a lot of fun!
Lowell has negotiated group prices with airlines. We have always accompanied the groups. People liked traveling with us, and we’ve always had congenial, fun groups, and we keep them relatively small, usually 20 – 25 more or less. They tell their friends and relatives, and then they want to go also. Note: We always try to have one or two get-togethers in our hotel room on the first or second night of the trip so every gets to know each other. They do like our parties. Eventually, we stopped mailing newsletters and other notices and I made an e-mail list. I send out e-newsletters and flyers advertising our trips on a regular basis. Practically all of our communications with clients going on a trip with us are done by e-mail. When someone new goes on a trip, I put them on the mailing list. Also, clients send us names of friends to add to the list. And sometimes someone we meet at a social event or even at the next table in a restaurant wants our business card. This is not a closed club – we take anyone who wants to go.
How do you decide where to go and what to do?
To be honest, from the beginning I was choosing places I wanted to go. In the last few years I have also listened to clients and picked up on things they want to do that give me new ideas. I read the travel journals, advertising that comes in the mail and e-mail, and watch for something new and interesting. All our trips are to other countries. We try to go to places that people don’t want to go by themselves and don’t want to plan and deal with the details. Also, they have made friends and acquaintances on previous trips and enjoy seeing them again. They will often ask who else is going.
What is one of your most memorable trips and why?
This is an impossible question to answer. We’ve never really had a bad trip and every one has been memorable. We love Africa, and every trip has been wonderful (I think we are on number 10.) We did two different trips to Antarctica, and they were spectacular. The latest trip, we took 24 on the Trans Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing. It was challenging, exhausting, and a lot of fun. Clients are always reminiscing with me about a trip (“remember when”) that was special to them. They are all special to us!
When did you begin traveling to Africa and how did you connect with Alluring Africa?
I think it was in 1996 that we began to explore African safaris. We called a company that Sunit’s family founded in East Africa, and we have been working with Sunit at Alluring Africa ever since. I can hardly describe the value of all the help and advice we have received from Sunit, and now Susan Neva. Every question is answered, every detail is attended to.
What’s the best part about working with Alluring Africa to plan your trips?
Alluring Africa knows what we want for our clients, and they make it happen. There are always special treats and surprises, i.e. bush breakfast, bush dinner, little souvenirs, etc. Last year every passenger received a safari duffle bag on wheels made to specs for using on the charter flights in Africa, and they were great! I have received phone calls and emails while traveling if necessary. One year our air was delayed and I called Sunit from Amsterdam. By the time we reached Nairobi, having missed our hotel the night before and breakfast, he had it all rearranged. The guides met us with box breakfasts, and we were on our way.
What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way?
Check every detail of the trip; ask every question – we don’t like unpleasant surprises! Keep in touch with each client; make sure they get all the information for the trip, i.e. visa application, air schedules, pre-trip info such as packing, vaccinations, etc. Answer every question thoroughly and pleasantly, no matter how many times you have sent it out or how unnecessary – and research it if necessary. Bottom line – it’s all about service.
What level of success has this brought to you, and did you intend for it?
I’m sure it brought more business to the agency, but that’s a long time ago. Now it is just something we love to do. We have made so many friends across the country and it is fun to see them when they travel with us. Our groups almost always include a few clients from across the country – maybe Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa, Michigan, Colorado, California, Idaho, Washington, Hawaii, and more, even a few Canadians.
What advice do you have for other agents who want to get started planning group trips like you?
Reputation is important, as is word-of-mouth. Honesty, dependability, etc.
If you could, would you do anything else?
No, travel is our thing, and we have really enjoyed these group trips. We’ve met so many great people, watched them make new friends, watched them be thrilled with what they are seeing and doing, etc. And we get to travel ourselves. What more could we ask?
Would you like to plan a group trip for you and your friends? We’d be happy to chat with you and help brainstorm. Email Susan, and she’ll be in touch shortly.