If you could live in the country you love the most, work on a flexible schedule, and make a living talking about the place you adore, would that be appealing? As today’s guest post author Madeline Jhawar of Italy Beyond the Obvious tells us, if that sounds good to you then you might consider a future as a travel consultant.

Over the past four years working as an Italy trip planner, I’ve created hundreds of travel days for clients, with a 90% “delighted” client track record. I also get pretty regular requests from people asking about becoming a travel consultant, because they want to do it, too.

My advice? Go for it! It’s a lot of fun, there is plenty of work for everyone, and it’s the most flexible job ever: it doesn’t matter what time zone you’re in, just that you are available to your clients; and once you get rolling, you can accept as many or as few clients as you want. I always ramp up to accommodate spring and autumn trips, and I’ve taken months off at a time: last year we took our kids to India for the month of November; the year before that, we sold a house and moved 3,000 miles, my full-time project for about 8 weeks.

The people I’ve coached about becoming a travel consultant are usually thinking about a significant career change, one that would affect their income and their families. They want to know:

  • Can I make a living?
  • How can I be successful?

I am happy to share what has worked for me.

Can I make a living as a travel consultant?

You can make a living, if you approach this as a business and not as a hobby.

I have a business background and worked in corporate operations for almost a decade before starting Italy Beyond the Obvious (my travel consulting business), but I’d been planning trips to Italy for family and friends for years for free – and the hobby-to-business mental transition was challenging. People knew me as the go-to person they could ask for free Italy information, since I’d been enthusiastically giving it out for years, and I had to start explaining that I was now charging for time and expertise in this area. These days, if anyone asks my advice about Italy that would take me time to research and reply, my standard response is that I would love to help and then I ask whether I should put together a proposal for consulting services.

Apart from the mental shift, treating it like a business means you need to give several things careful consideration:

  • Think about who, specifically, your customers are, and how you are going to find them. You need to start thinking about this right away, and keep it at the front of your mind while you’re thinking about your products and your pricing. Are your clients going to be budget travelers? Honeymooners? High-end luxury travelers? Gay 40-60-something couples? Brainstorm points that describe your clients and another page with ideas on how to reach them. This is not an if-you-build-it-they-will-come type of job.
  • Define your product. For example, you could: give overall itinerary advice via email or phone/Skype; sell/recommend day trips or classes; book hotels, guides and restaurants; create a written itinerary; provide on-trip support; and more – including any combination of those things. I have three products – Coaching, Gold Itinerary Planning, and Platinum Itinerary Planning. The high-end Platinum Itinerary Planning is soup-to-nuts, with bells and whistles, and was created to serve a type of client I know very well from my days as a Butterfield & Robinson guide (here’s a sample of a Platinum Itinerary). The Coaching is my fun, quick, lower-end service I can offer to people who just want good tips and then can take it from there. And the Gold Itinerary Planning is my in-between. Start thinking about what you are going to offer, what it includes, and what it doesn’t include. Then…
  • Figure out how long it takes you to create your product. You need to include all time spent here, starting with the amount of time it takes to answer a potential client’s first email all the way through creating their final invoice. You’ll likely end up with an average time rather than an absolute time it takes you to create your product, and that’s fine.
  • Decide how you are going to make money, AKA your business model. You could charge your clients very little or nothing, and make money from commissions you earn from booking hotels and tours (if that’s your product). You could book everything for your clients (with or without commissions) and send them one final invoice that includes everything on the trip, which you mark up 15%. You could charge for your time per-hour, as a consultant. You could charge for your product, which you might create once and sell once, or you might create once and sell many times. There are travel consultants who earn money each of these ways. I chose to charge by product (my coaching service and itineraries), for several reasons: I didn’t want to keep track of my hours and I didn’t want to work from commissions – I want to tell my clients I’m recommending the best solution for them, not the best solution based only upon my portfolio of commission-earning options.
  • Decide what to charge. Here you need to do the math. You could, of course, start with a market analysis, look at what the competition is charging, and spend a lot of time deciding what the “right” price is. I didn’t do very much of that, but I asked myself one question: how much do I need to charge in order for this to be worth my time?

So, if you figure out how much you can charge and how many customers you can handle, you can figure out how much you’ll earn. Now subtract expenses. Can you make a living? If not, maybe you need to think about a different business model, or figure out a way to work more efficiently so you can create more products in the time you have.

But wait, there’s more, so keep reading…

[stextbox id=”info” caption=”Important note!”]If you’ve read this far, you may have noticed something: just because you’re working to create other people’s trips, you’re not necessarily traveling – or at least the bulk of your time is spent serving the client and creating your product, as opposed to spending money at hot new restaurants or hotels or scouting out new locations. People often have an “a-ha” moment at this point, because they’ve assumed that being a travel consultant means they will get to travel frequently to their destination of choice.

This doesn’t mean you don’t get to travel, it just means you need to maximize time spent serving the client and minimize expenses. If you already live in the place you’ll be consulting about, or will be moving there, that’s even better. Maybe just going about your daily life will be enough for you to give great advice to your clients. Either way, you need to either know your destination(s) very well before you start.[/stextbox]

How can I be successful as a travel consultant?

I’m going to assume that the definition of a “successful” travel consultant is someone who has happy clients, as much work as they want, and is earning a living. To get to that stage, I recommend:

  • Understand your clients’ interests. Being a travel consultant is not about sharing only your favorite places or hidden gems with every single client, though many will appreciate that. It’s about listening to what the client wants, not about what you think they should want. You may love opera and have a client going to the best spot in the country for opera at the best time of year for opera – but they don’t like opera. Let it go. And remember that your clients are going to be foreigners while on vacation, so put yourself in their shoes. When I go to Italian restaurants in Italy, I am not treated like a tourist because I speak Italian. However, I will only recommend restaurants where my clients – people who don’t speak Italian – will be treated well. If you listen to what your clients really want, you’ll give good advice. And if you give good advice, the word will spread and you’ll get more clients.
  • Hard at work on a client’s itinerary

  • Establish work processes and tools to help you work efficiently. You need to be able to create your product again and again, with a high quality. You’ll need tools to keep track of each project, so you don’t forget details, and you’ll need to be able to trace the process back that one time you dropped the ball. Maybe you’ll subscribe to an online project planning tool; maybe you’ll use an Excel spreadsheet; or maybe a pencil and paper and checklist will do. Whatever it is, you need to rely on your processes because it will soon become impossible to keep all the details in your head. In addition, identify skills you have or ways you’ll work that will make you work efficiently. (For example, I do 90% of my research and planning in Italian, which gives me access to lots of information that English-only speakers don’t have.) Think about what tools you’ll use to keep current, since you won’t be able to visit every hotel, restaurant, or location you’re recommending to your clients every year. Maybe you’ll rely on bloggers’ reports, your Twitter feed, or glossy travel magazines; maybe you’ll have people on the ground; maybe you’ll cross-check online review sites in four languages; or maybe you’ll limit your recommendations only to places you can physically visit frequently.
  • Set your clients’ expectations. As a tour guide, I was physically accompanying my clients, in control over what happened when, and there to problem-solve if necessary. As a travel consultant, I give my travelers advice and then I let them go, so it’s really important to set expectations – in a diplomatic way – to prepare them for things that could go wrong. For example, I brief my clients about Italian transportation strikes; I tell them that if they don’t have good maps, they will get lost (which is sometimes fun and sometimes not); I tell them not to expect to be able to eat between about 2:30 and 7:30 pm; and if they are renting a car, we have a long conversation about driving in Italy. I’ve found that setting expectations is crucial to how clients perceive their trip – and how they perceive the competence of the person who planned it.

I’ve found clients very open, in general, to the idea of a travel consultant – many work as consultants in other industries so the concept resonates with them. If what I’ve described resonates with you and you decide to take the next step, please send me a note and keep me posted!

About the Author: Madeline Jhawar is the founder and owner of Italy Beyond the Obvious. She regularly shares great Italy tips on Facebook and heads over to Twitter every now and again, too.