Couple Launches Business as 'Travel Butlers'

The York, Pa. couple tries to redefine the term travel agents -- and turn a profit

View Comments (
)
|
Email
|
Print

    NEWSLETTERS

    Getty

    Jeff Tipton greeted Jason Holland with a pepperoni pizza 6:30 Monday night. At the start of Tipton's manual driving lesson, he figured he'd bring a gift to his teacher.

    Tipton sat in the kitchen, near the back door. Written on the glass with erasable marker was, "Relax, everything's going to be all right ... Jude 1:2." Holland handed him napkins and a glass of water.

    "My fiancée says I'm the only man in Pennsylvania that doesn't know how to drive stick shift," Tipton, 40, told the York Daily Record.

    "That's not true at all," Holland said. "We see a lot of people that can't drive manual."

    Making time to teach a client how to drive manual is one way Jason, 32, is trying to set his business, Travel Simplicity, apart from his competition. Holland and his wife Sandy, 35, refuse to call themselves travel agents — they think that title is too impersonal. They call themselves travel butlers.

    The Hollands must convince travelers that they need a "white glove" service with extras (like a private concert abroad or assurance that a resort serves clients' favorite food). That business model hasn't made them a profit yet, and if money doesn't start coming in, Jason will need to look elsewhere for work.

    Tipton, Jason's client, will be traveling to London and Paris for his honeymoon and needs to rent a car. It's easier and cheaper to find a manual car in Europe. So, Holland made sure his client would be equipped — a service included in Tipton's price.

    In the Newberry Commons shopping center a few blocks from Holland's Fairview Township home, Tipton took the driver's seat of Holland's car and Holland told him to start the engine.

    A ribbon with the word "Peace" dangled from the rear-view mirror. Wearing orange gloves and a hat covering his hoop earrings, Holland mimed how Tipton needed to push the pedals.

    "Put it in first," Holland said. "Take your foot off the break. Give it a little bit of gas."

    Tipton stalled. He tried again. He made it to second gear. It took him a few loops around the parking lot, but he started shifting more smoothly.

    "You are driving stick shift," Jason said, sitting back in his seat.

    Sandy was the first person to suggest that Jason start a travel business. Jason planned the couple's honeymoon to Thailand, plus trips to China, Japan and Australia. The 80 to 100 hours he put into planning each trip seemed like it was his job, anyway, Sandy said.

    "Simple things like surprising Sandy with a honeymoon package and fresh fruit, were details I planned," Jason said. "We flew over the Great Barrier Reef and landed on a yacht. I surprised her with a stay in an over-water bungalow in French Polynesia. We even got traditional tattoos ... the needle was made out of boar tusks."

    Travel Simplicity is four years old but turned from a part-time passion into a full-time career for Jason two years ago.

    Jason had worked in marketing and sales for nine years — until 2011, when he was laid off from Balaton Marketing, in Sterling, Va. Sandy has worked in mental health for nine years. She, originally from Canada, works at PA Counseling Services. The two met at Cedarville University in Ohio at a men's choir concert.

    When the couple married 8 years ago, Jason was the primary provider. Roles have since changed. Before Jason was laid off, the couple made a combined $90,000; now, they make less than half that.

    "It was really hard to go from two decent salaries to one," Sandy said. "We really miss going to the liquor store and buying a really nice bottle of wine or going to an awesome restaurant ... even our vacations have stopped, unless it's for the business."

    But this is the full-time job Jason always wanted. His job allows him to make clients feel more like friends; and, the service provided hopefully leaves clients with a valued memory. Jason and Sandy both love all things travel — this is their niche, their expertise and their idea of a fun job.

    The couple sold a Mazda Miata and a sound system to get the business off the ground. But that money went fast.

    "We are still definitely spending more money than we are taking in as a household," Sandy said. "Last year, we overspent roughly $2,000 every month for marketing materials."

    Since January, Sandy estimates they overspent about $200 a month. She said their savings are dwindling, but she and Jason are hopeful their accounts will replenish, especially because she hopes to work full-time for Travel Simplicity, too.

    "If we don't turn a profit, we will probably have to take out a loan," Sandy said. "I don't think I will be able to keep working like a crazy person so that we can keep a roof over our head."

    So far, the customers are growing. They have 38 accounts, each consisting of more than one person. The couple estimates that they will need to plan at least 40 trips this year for a mix of returning and new clients in order to turn a profit. So far this year, Jason has done four and is making plans for an additional four.

    According to ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents), most companies branding themselves as travel agencies make most of their profit through tour and cruise sales, which typically come in pre-planned vacation packages.

    Travel Simplicity's business plan is rooted in Jason and Sandy's personal approach to planning trips. It's possible to book a simple trip in an hour with a few clicks using an online service or picking out a pre-planned travel agency package. The Hollands want to develop a personal relationship with clients and create a travel experience tailored to meet clients' "wildest dreams" and desires.

    "We want to know where you like to sit on the plane, where you like to shop, what's your favorite food and what kind of car you like to rent," Holland said in a recent business meeting.

    Just as if they were travel customers, Nathan and Kristy Wintergrass left their shoes at the door of the Travel Simplicity office, the Hollands' home. They walked past paintings from China, a stone sculpture from New Zealand and hand-hammered metal platter from Israel. A hairless cat named Bailey begged for attention.

    Travel Simplicity offers services that clients might need when they are vacationing, and pet sitting was one Jason wanted to add. The Wintergrasses own Furry Paws In Home Pet Sitting Service in Camp Hill.

    Sandy offered tea or coffee and served a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies, Jason's mom's recipe, to be eaten with a fork and knife.

    Jason wore a pilot's uniform. Sandy wore a flight attendant's uniform. Sandy had just finished a full shift at work, but her laugh punctuated conversation. Jason picked up with business details, down to his cost formula and personalized planning.

    "I'm overwhelmed with what you provide," Kristy said.

    Jason listened to what kind of pet sitters the Wintergrasses are — he asked about what kind of care they provided for the house and pets, and took notes.

    With clients, the Hollands would ask what they expect out of travel experience, whether it's helping serve at an orphanage in Ghana or relaxing on the beaches in Hawaii.

    One client felt so comfortable meeting at the Hollands house that Jason said he helped himself to the refrigerator on their second meeting.

    "I loved that he felt so at home," Jason said.

    As a follow-up, Jason sends clients a questionnaire that asks them what they want out of their trip, and also what kind of person they are. The questions, designed by Jason, ask everything from how socially active clients are to what they like learning about.

    "We will be your butlers for the rest of your life," Jason said, pitching the business at a recent wedding show. "You can use us for your honeymoon, but later down the road, if you want a weekend away, we can help you with that, too."

    Jason and Sandy's dream travel business is at stake.

    Jason wants to see better numbers to validate his decision to start Travel Simplicity. And, Sandy is ready to support him full-time.

    They know financial success in coming months is key to making their dream business a reality.

    Their savings is depleting and, soon, it will run dry.

    "We can't have another year of losing money and be happy with ourselves," Sandy said.