Meet Anna Shannon, The Travel Agent Advocate!
Owner and Operator of Travel Agent Finder, helping connect Australian travelers with the right travel expert for their needs. Travel Agent Finder combines my passion to help small businesses succeed, with my marketing career and personal experience as a Travel Advisor in Australia.
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Table of Contents
Thank you for joining us, please introduce yourself to our readers.
Anna Shannon: Hi, I’m Anna. After working in marketing for large corporations, I threw it all away to become a travel agent and everyone thought I was crazy! I had a great job in a fashionable industry with a good income, yet I didn’t feel fulfilled. Something was missing in my work life and I think in hindsight now at the corporate level it is hard to see how you individually make a difference to and that was probably it, I just didn’t realise it at the time. I felt like my role was to make people buy things they didn’t need (yes, probably the essence of marketing in many companies, at a baseline), but it didn’t sit well with my morals and the person I wanted to be every day.
I loved working in travel! It was great to start at the bottom again and work my way up within my organisation and within 5 years, I had a full and large portfolio of wonderful clients. I soon after began to transition to being a home-based travel advisor working only with those repeat clients and their referrals. When so many around me hated their lives and jobs, I felt like the luckiest person alive, making people’s travel dreams come true—spending my days talking about travelling, helping people elevate their travel planning experience and have amazing journeys, as well as being able to regularly travel and have some incredible travel experiences myself.
Within 10 years, I had built a successful agency business that finally matched my pre-travel income but more importantly, was fulfilling work that I enjoyed doing. Every morning I jumped out of bed, ready to tackle the day, talk to my clients and see what exciting itineraries or challenges would unfold. And then the pandemic hit, and everything came crashing down. I watched my business disappear virtually overnight, and the longer things went on, the more I had to accept things were not going back to normal anytime soon.
As Australia’s borders closed to the rest of the world, travel companies all had to downsize, and unfortunately for me, the company I worked for had to cut their home-based agent department. With no other jobs available in the industry and so many travel colleagues flocking to other sectors, I went back to my previous career in marketing. I had vowed never to do this! But this time, I decided to work with small businesses in my local area to help owners/operators with their marketing activities, and I found this rewarding. Again, I was helping others and seeing my contributions make a difference in their life, this is what drives me, and I realised it was never about leaving marketing. It was more about leaving the corporate world marketing.
While I was grateful for the work with local businesses, I missed the industry and wondered how I could use my skills to help travel business owners improve their online presence and digital marketing, knowing that the industry was in shambles and would take it time and need help to rebuild. So I set to work building the Travel Agent Finder platform.
Can you tell our readers in what ways you are disrupting your industry?
Anna Shannon: The traditional model of how Australians usually find a Travel Agent is no longer ideal. Let’s say you are a mum who wants to take her family on a safe, child-friendly Africa Safari. What are the chances that you walk into your local travel agency and happen to find an expert on family holidays and African Safaris? Slim-to-none, which is why many travellers feel underwhelmed with this process. Don’t get me wrong; agents are incredibly talented. They have the resources to put together an excellent itinerary for anywhere in the world. Still, they make a client for life when they truly know with first-hand personal experience because they add so much value to the journey and booking process.
Furthermore, with the pandemic forcing the closure of so many bricks and mortar stores (who can afford rent on premises for two years without any product to sell?), the high number of agency stores has disappeared. How will people find their new travel agent? My local shopping centre had 3 agencies, now there are none.
Travel agents are professionals who have spent years (many on our site, decades) honing their craft through personalised travel for their clients and personal trips and training.
We now need to consider choosing an advisor the same as we would choose any other professional we outsource to for that expertise. Select by knowledge, specialisation, credentials and experience in the industry, verifying this through social proof with other client reviews.
When we need a new service provider, we don’t generally drive from office to office comparing them. We head online to find the information we need quickly. We are accustomed to having this information at our fingertips and searching, filtering, and comparing what we need. Why should the process of choosing a trusted travel professional be any different? We need a platform that allows us to do all of this and compare client testimonials, all in one place. There was nothing like this available. Usually, any websites with Agent finders are run by large travel companies and of course only promote their database of agents and don’t really showcase the individual talents and expertise well. Travel Agent Finder would be a neutral platform allowing travellers to see professionals agent profile and make an unbiased informed decision, regardless of company affiliation.
Did you become a disruptor by choice or by necessity? Tell us more about the journey.
Anna Shannon: Possibly a bit of both. It was always something that had struck me as a missed opportunity, but in a way, it was the perfect time to change things; with Australian borders being closed for 2 years, the industry was hanging by a thread. When government assistance was coming to an end, it was estimated that only 10% of travel agents were still operating. Diabolical for an industry that would be responsible for rebooking the $8 billion+ worth of travel credits Australians were sitting on once things opened up.
My own old clients kept calling asking me how they could find someone exactly like me if I didn’t get my job back when things opened up again. I didn’t know what to tell them.
But I did worry, travelling was getting trickier with all the rules and booking with a trusted advisor would be more important going forward. In 2019, 70% of Aussies booked with a travel agent (Source AFTA, Australian Federation of Travel Agents), this would now increase with the additional restrictions and rules in place, as travellers struggle to decipher what is needed. How would these new people find the right person when there were only 10% of us left? And more importantly, for those who always did use a travel agent, how would those 90% of Aussie travellers who no longer had their favourite advisor onhand find their new match?
I knew I had to make it happen. It would help travellers find the right travel expert for them, AND help those agents who remained, rebuild their business. A crucial time to rebuild in a new way, that made more sense to everyone. There would be more than enough business to go around, but wouldn’t it work best for travellers and agents alike if the right person was matched with the right expert from the beginning and everyone could just get back to doing what they love – travelling and planning client’s travels, without all the shopping around that might have been needed before?
Now for the main focus of this interview: Many readers may wonder what are the biggest challenges women entrepreneurs must overcome to be successful?
Anna Shannon: Empathy is a quality I possess, which is said to be present in women more often than men. Empathising what others were going through during this time motivated me to help. Perhaps this is why we saw so many more women stepping up and creating change in Australia during this time? That empathy is a driver to motivate and effect change.
On the other hand, the lack of empathy in others, can be a huge challenge to overcome when you are doing something new in a very close-knit and small industry and community.
Even though most travel agents in Australia are women, the governing bodies and many companies that support agents are led by men. This is not unusual of course but can present barriers and disparity when working towards a common goal, especially during the challenges of a global pandemic.
When I was building Travel Agent Finder, though not employed in the industry I loved, I was highly motivated to help in whatever way I could. I offered assistance to industry heads and colleagues from my desire to be of service and use the ‘downtime’ to be productive.
I wanted to help an industry who was suffering, who was under-resourced, without income and trying to find a way to navigate this new world. My motives at offering assistance without revenue were at times questioned, and other times refused, which didn’t make sense to me when we had a common goal and I was willing and volunteering. One of my favourite quotes which I found very relevant throughout this pandemic (those affected in the cruise industry will especially resonate with this) is ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’. Why wouldn’t we work together as a collective effort for the greater good? You can only try for so long before it feels like a wasted effort. So I went hard, on my own, and launched the site.
How did you overcome these obstacles? Who helped you during these difficult times and how did they?
Anna Shannon: Networking was difficult during a 6-month lockdown and a pandemic, as I’m sure you can imagine. However, it was the key to everything in some ways. People found new ways to connect, and the move to more online spaces and communities suddenly allowed us to network with colleagues from across Australia, instead of just locally.
I found a few wonderfully supportive and engaged communities of people going through exactly what I had been through, and we helped each other get through it. It was also the best forum to find validation for my idea and the right experts for my site, and through our small but strong networks, the platform grew quickly. Despite the initial challenges by people at the top, I received incredible support from the people who mattered most to me, the agents whose expertise I wanted to highlight and showcase. It was a good reminder of why I started this, too – to help others.
I also took the time to enrol in the TIME program (Travel Industry Mentor Experience), which has been invaluable in the progress of Travel Agent Finder. Having scheduled time with a veteran of the industry as a mentor has helped me bounce ideas around and improve my offering.
How did these lessons shaped the way you conduct business today?
Anna Shannon: These lessons remind me that you will succeed when you are of service to people. Those who criticise you or want to know how you will make money ‘helping others’ are welcome to do things their way. While I love feedback and advice, I no longer take every little thing on board, and I listen to myself and what has helped me succeed in the past.
I have never been good at doing the hard sell. When I was first training to be a travel consultant, we went through a rigorous sales process, and it never sat well with me. I watched all my classmates skyrocket their sales and bookings very quickly using these methods, but it didn’t resonate with me, and when I tried it, things were harder. However, when I followed how my heart and soul like to do business, I always won in the end with a people-first, service approach. I learnt a long time ago that, personally, slow and steady wins the race. I am the tortoise, and I am OK with that. The hares have their way, I have mine, and I will no longer try and be a hare; there are too many of them to outrun!
I will continue to provide the platform for free to both travellers and agents to help them rebuild their business and connect the best match as quickly as possible, without any barriers.
What advice you wished you had received when you started, that you’d like to share now with aspiring women entrepreneurs?
Anna Shannon: You have to back yourself. If you don’t, how will others?
Surround yourself with other people in your field who have a common goal and are open to working together. You don’t have to see each other as competition; support each other and lift each other up.
Don’t go chasing people who aren’t on the same page with what you’re doing; it’s a waste of time and energy. Contrary to many entrepreneurs of today, it doesn’t have to be a constant hustle and sell. Nurture those who want your skills, over chasing for bigger, better and vanity metrics.
Be of service to your audience. Share your expertise, work out how your skills help others and offer it to them, persevere and you will see success.
Success is a metric YOU set, no one else. Success might mean making $1 million to some people. Or it might mean creating a platform that helps small businesses and your community, improves the way consumers find what they need, and lights you up inside, helping you get through a very difficult and hard time in your life. You decide your success goal, don’t use other people’s benchmarks.
Out of all of your proudest moments as an entrepreneur, is there a particular one that stands out the most?
Anna Shannon: A travel advisor who had recently joined Travel Agent Finder phoned me. Not only had she gone through the same hardships we all had with 2 years of no business, but she had experienced some extreme personal losses in her life and was very unmotivated to keep her business open and keep moving forward.
After all she had been through, she (and all of us in Australia) were finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel with our borders opening but we’d been burnt too many times and at the mercy of government restrictions to be too hopeful yet.
Within only a few weeks of having her agent profile on the site, she rang to tell me she secured a $25k booking through a new client lead from Travel Agent Finder. She had an agent profile listing on her company website for over 5 years and never received a new client lead. I was so happy that I had created something that helped this one person (well two considering the traveler was overjoyed at her service and already planning to book other trips with her again), with hopefully many more to come after that.
What do you plan on tackling during the 2022 year? Share your goals and battles you expect to face.
Anna Shannon: I think the only way is up for us here in Australia. With such a reduced workforce and a nation of people who love to travel, it is inevitable that the rebound will be quick, and huge.
Goals.. I am looking forward to helping more travelers find and utilise the wealth of knowledge and expertise available on Travel Agent Finder, so they can travel knowing an expert is just a phone call away. They can elevate their trip planning experience and have incredible journeys.
Battles… As agents become so busy they can’t take on new clients, the website may shift in focus and being able to access knowledgeable agents in more remote areas of Australia could be a huge opportunity for travelers being turned away from busy city agencies. Over time, the range of agents on the website may reduce or change, which I am interested to see shift, but I’ll be ecstatic that the industry is alive and buzzing again.
I am worried about the workforce shortage and hope that some of the talent we have lost during the pandemic will return once there is more certainty about jobs and income. Its a serious issue in Australia at the moment for the entire industry and other sectors too.
I’m sure our readers will be very thankful for the insights you have shared. What is the best book you’ve gone through lately and please share some take away lessons from it.
Anna Shannon: I’ve been re-reading Blue Ocean Strategy and it’s a timely reminder that disrupting your industry with a new model is a much more effective strategy than doing the same thing as your competitor and trying to find a way to beat them at it.
There are very few ‘new’ ideas in life anymore. Most things have been done before. The key is thinking about a new way to take an idea you have, do it in a different way. Apply it to a different industry. Find a new way to use it to serve a group of people.
Choosing to play in the same part of the ocean that your competitors have conquered is very hard for a start up with no funds. Instead of competing with the sharks in the red ocean, find a section of blue ocean where there are no sharks. I like to think of it as my own beach. Do things differently at your beach and you’ll keep your beach-goers there with you, they won’t be distracted by others trying to lure them away.
Thank you so much for your time but before we finish things off, I do have one more question for you. When was the last time you did something for the first time and what was it?
Anna Shannon: Actually, one of the things I have loved most about creating Travel Agent Finder, is that EVERY day I’m learning, EVERY day I’m doing something new for the first time.
This week alone, some examples of things I’ve done for the first time was be featured in a local newspaper, be invited to collaborate on an industry project for International Women’s Day (as a woman helping other succeed in her industry), reached a milestone of members and learnt how to build out a new section on my website.
You can’t get bored doing what you love when you are constantly learning new things. It’s part of what keeps me going.
Mike Weiss, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Anna Shannon for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Anna Shannon or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin
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