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ESCAPING THE 417: Owners Travis and Michelle Paquin recently expanded their travel agency to include European destinations and cruise options.
SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa
ESCAPING THE 417: Owners Travis and Michelle Paquin recently expanded their travel agency to include European destinations and cruise options.

Business Spotlight: Paradise Planners

After a 42% increase in 2019 sales, 417 Travel is waiting for COVID-19 travel restrictions to be lifted

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After years of operating as the sole employees of 417 Travel, owners Travis and Michelle Paquin grew their travel agency to a team of 13 last year.

A revenue surge followed, allowing the agency to enter markets it previously didn’t have the bandwidth to handle, Michelle says, pointing to European travel and cruise vacations.

“It’s really exploded,” she says, declining to disclose annual revenue. “We were to the point where the sales were there, but we didn’t have the capacity to handle it. We knew that when we started adding employees, we’d be able to meet that.”

417 Travel, which operates under Our Travel Agency LLC, specializes in honeymoons, family trips, all-inclusive vacations and cruises to destinations across the Caribbean. In the last year, 8% of business has been to Europe, Travis says.

Sales grew by 42% in 2019, and the agency’s goal for 2020 was to hit $10 million in sales. However, Travis says that might be harder to obtain with the coronavirus pandemic halting the travel industry.

“We sell something people love – memories,” he says. “Our business is still going to be here.”

Online competitors
Travis and Michelle say the key to competing against online travel sites, such as Booking.com and veterans Expedia and Priceline, is their hands-on customer service.

“You get a real person who’s invested in your vacation,” Michelle says of booking with a local agency. “Everything we do is for our client, and their vacation is just as important to us as it is to them.”

Most of the 417 Travel clientele are Springfield residents, with 20% of clients outside of Missouri. Travis says the agency worked with 4,500 travelers last year.

International travel from the U.S. was up 7.5% in 2019, with roughly 37.8 million passengers traveling overseas, according to data from the National Travel and Tourism Office. Of that activity, 16.6 million traveled to Europe and 7.8 million visited the Caribbean, according to the data. A market report issued last year by Allied Market Research projected the global online travel market would reach nearly $1.1 billion by 2022 because of the increased popularity of e-commerce.

“If we wanted to, we could become an internet-based travel company, but I’d rather deal with people in the Ozarks,” Travis says. “It’s really easy to sell 1,000 vacations in a day, but it’s impossible to service that many.”

Plan B
However, the first quarter of 2020 looks a lot different. The travel industry has come to a screeching halt in recent months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a March 31 advisory, the U.S. Department of State advised all citizens to avoid international travel and noted those abroad should return to the U.S. immediately. Airlines have canceled many international flights and countries around the world have restricted access. As a result, cash flow has stopped at 417 Travel.

“We’re paid when you travel,” Travis says, adding the average trip price is $1,620 per person. “When we spend an hour planning your trip, it costs you nothing. We get paid when you come home.”

Most of the vacations booked for the first and second quarters of the year will be delayed, he says.

Jessica Parker, spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Advisors, says it’s typical for travel agents to not get paid until the trip is complete.

But she said industry standards are changing rapidly across the country amid COVID-19 because of the sharp income declines at travel agencies.

Travis says clients have canceled or rebooked their trips originally planned from March through May, which is typically 35% of revenue due to spring break. The company also is allowing clients to reschedule trips booked later in the year because of the unknown length of the COVID-19 impact.

“Right now, our priorities are taking care of our clients first, and then taking care of our people,” Michelle says.

She says they’re planning to apply for a grant through the U.S. CARES Act to hold them over for the time being. The grant is available at up to $10,000.

They expect business will pick up again this summer to help recover from the first half of the year. Michelle says there will be plenty of demand post-COVID-19.

“As long as people aren’t traveling, we’re stuck. We have to maximize everything we can in July and August to make up for that speed bump,” Michelle says. “The sales should come naturally because everyone’s going to want to get out of Dodge after all of this blows over.”

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