Community, Not Competition.
Recently named one of Luxury Travel Advisor’s 2019 Trendsetters, Atlanta-based travel advisor Laura Epstein attributes much of her success to the expertise she’s gained learning from her peers. We sat down with her to learn a bit more on what her career evolution has looked like as a part of the SmartFlyer community.
Tell us more about your background.
I’m originally from Jacksonville (Florida) where I grew up eager to expand my horizons from a young age. But, my ‘travel bug’ was truly solidified in college during my Semester at Sea program which had me circumnavigating the globe, visiting ten countries in about four months by ship. Experiencing so much diversity in landscape and culture during that succinct amount of time catapulted my curiosity around the travel industry.
With a desire to build a career that would enable me to help others share the joy of exploring new destinations, I started at a small Virtuoso agency in Jacksonville back in the summer of 2010. Fast forward a couple years into building my business as a travel advisor, I moved to Atlanta to be with my now husband, Jonathan, who owns his own hospitality company. Nearly eight years later, we remain in Atlanta with my 11-year old stepson, David, and 2-year old daughter, Isla.
Did you always know you wanted to become a travel advisor?
Looking back, it’s been a decade in the travel industry of which each passing year has taught me new lessons.
Not necessarily. After graduating from college with a degree in International Studies, I moved to New York to work at an international non-profit organization focused on promoting the programs of the United Nations. Ultimately realizing that New York wasn’t for me, I took some time off to travel. This little sabbatical found me traveling through Fiji, Australia, Senegal and Southern Africa. Returning to the states, I received Master’s in International Studies from the University of Miami, with a thesis centered around how tourism can improve the economic status for impoverished communities around the world. When it was time to rejoin the ‘real world,’ I came across Virtuoso and started exploring available opportunities as a travel consultant, starting our as a house agent for a small agency in Florida. After a move to Atlanta, I joined SmartFlyer as an independent consultant, where I’ve found tremendous support in my growth as I run my own business. Looking back, it’s been a decade in the travel industry of which each passing year has taught me new lessons.
What makes SmartFlyer the right fit for you?
I joined SmartFlyer about three years ago when I was eight months pregnant with my first child. At the time, I was coming up on the fifth anniversary of having my own company; my needs as an independent contractor and as a business owner who found herself on an upward trajectory were quickly shifting. I wanted to be more proactive and needed a human element to including airfare as a part of my offering to clients, something SmartFlyer has been known to excel in for nearly thirty years. This support has allowed me to focus my time on the parts of the job where I’m more well-versed – creating bespoke land itineraries – while also having experts to rely on for this pivotal part of a trip.
I think it can sometimes feel isolating working from home, but being a “Smartie” as we call ourselves, means it’s easy to feel like you have friends and colleagues all over who you can contact for live information in practically any time zone.
The SmartFlyer independent contractor network – made up of 175 advisors, most of whom are women – runs on a common thread of entrepreneurship. We are all self-starters and very much empowered to be creative and approach this business in a new way. With offices around the world – including New York City, Atlanta, St. Louis, Newport Beach, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Sydney – our team is tied together through the use of social media. I think it can sometimes feel isolating working from home, but being a “Smartie” as we call ourselves, means it’s easy to feel like you have friends and colleagues all over who you can contact for live information in practically any time zone.
So many of SmartFlyer advisors are working parents with children who are still at home. It’s nice to know that we are a part of a like-minded professional community, each facing the similar challenges with balancing it all at home! During our annual conference, CORE, the leadership team guides us through conversations around these topics. It’s amazing to be able to collaborate with my colleagues and really emphasize the power of community versus competition. But even beyond this event, SmartFlyer has an amazing behind-the-scenes framework to support their ICs to make their day-to-day life more streamlined so that as advisors, we can focus on our priorities: making our clients’ travel dreams a reality and bolstering sales in the process.
Tell us more about your clients. Do you specialize in anything in particular?
I predominantly work with honeymooners turned families, but I service a wide range of clients. Essentially, bachelorette weekends became honeymoons, then babymoons, followed by first trip with babies, then the next thing you know they are taking their first trip to Europe with three kiddos! I also have clients who are starting to travel with their adult children or even children and grandchildren; multi-generational are so rewarding to plan as memories are made on these trips between families that last a lifetime.
I love helping families who want to travel with their children, and we are always really excited to be a part of a child’s first travel experiences! This brings us back to the many reasons our clients travel which could be a honeymoon, a birthday celebration, a final trip with an ill family member, a first trip abroad with a child, a celebrating of completing chemo or the first trip abroad without a spouse. We realize how important our role is in making sure everything goes off without a hitch. It isn’t by chance that my team and I have titled ourselves “Memory Maker” on our business cards.
One of my dearest clients is a widow who is not letting traveling solo keep her from traveling. I so admire her for the willingness to keep exploring the world, though her experiences certainly look different now than what she was expecting. My team and I are always honored to be a part of her trips, and we don’t take lightly how important our role is to our clients. While selecting the perfect hotel for each guest is important, so is everything else that goes in to the trip which also relates to the many things in the background that are going on in our clients’ lives leading up to their special trip.
How has becoming a mom changed your approach to being a travel advisor, if at all?
I think it gives clients a confidence boost when I can personally attest to what it’s like traveling with a baby or a toddler and can also more accurately advise them in anticipating their needs…it’s super important for me to continue to travel to stay relevant in this job to keep up with my product knowledge.
I was always a very curious child and teenager and hope to instill that quality in my daughter (though I think she inherited it from me at birth!). My husband and I have committed to try to travel with her as much as we can, and we do bring her with us quite a bit! One of Isla’s favorite games to play is to play “airplane;” she’s constantly asking if we’re going to the airport. I think it gives clients a confidence boost when I can personally attest to what it’s like traveling with a baby or a toddler and can also more accurately advise them in anticipating their needs – whether its blackout curtains in the Caribbean, a quiet room in a city, a rubber wheeled stroller for Europe or needing that larger hotel space to tuck the baby’s crib at night. It’s super important for me to continue to travel, with or without Isla, to stay relevant in this job to keep up with my product knowledge.
The absolute biggest part of my professional life over the last two to three years has been trying to figure out how to navigate being a mother first while simultaneously a successful businesswoman and travel advisor to my dear clients. As a new mother, you never know how you will feel with a newborn, a 3-month-old, a 1-year-old or a 2-year-old. Every stage of our child’s lives is a new one, and with that comes new demands on me as a mother. I’ve had to adapt my business practices frequently to first accommodate my daughter and family’s needs while also not abandoning clients.
I have to now put everything I do through a family-first filter while simultaneously weighing if it works for my business…I really have had to be extremely strategic about what works best at any given time.
Now, with a 2.5-year-old who isn’t in school full time and without a nanny, it means that I have to make conscious decisions on a daily basis as to which new requests I can effectively manage and provide the best level of service to that client. This year taught me that saying no is okay, and not every request is a perfect fit to where my business and family is today. As travel advisors, we are not obligated to take every request that comes our way regardless of the venue through which the request came. I have to now put everything I do through a family-first filter while simultaneously weighing if it works for my business. This is the case not only for trip requests, but also for choosing trade shows to attend and which travel opportunities align best with my personal life. I have received a number of invitations to go on trips that are on my bucketlist, but if it’s too far from home or not a destination I really need to see for my work, then at this stage in the game I have to pass. I really have had to be extremely strategic about what works best at any given time.
It can be hard for people in other industries to realize how we work (or how I work), but when you’re trying to do this job while also being a great parent, it can be emails at 10:30pm or 7am, or almost exclusively from a phone. It doesn’t always happen to 9-5, Monday through Friday, but it takes working at any time of the day to fit it all in and make the magic happen for our clients.
When you’re not booking travel for your clients, what is your favorite pastime?
When I’m not selling travel, I like to actually travel! I get a thrill of being somewhere new for the first time and, as cliché as it sounds, learning new things. Curiosity has always gotten the best of me.
Ready to begin planning your next getaway? Contact Laura to start the process.