The past 20 years have been hard on travel agencies, with airlines eliminating commissions, customers flocking to the Web to book their own travel arrangements and small businesses consolidating into mega-agencies.
Through it all Aspen Travel in Wilson has managed to thrive as an independent agency by finding a specialty — film production crews and music bands — by learning about its clients’ businesses and by bringing in new clients through word of mouth.
“We’ve grown by relationships,” owner J. Randle Feagin said. “It’s all been about personal relationships. We don’t advertise, and we don’t market.”
How close are those relationships? Darius Rucker sang at Feagin’s wedding, and Feagin will tour with Aerosmith in Europe in June as part of the band’s management team. But that came later.
Feagin started working at the agency in 1984, when it was 5 years old. There was no such thing as e-tickets then, so his assignment was a humble one.
“As a 20-something-year-old I spent my time handwriting tickets,” he said. “That was the entry-level job.”
The agents booked flights on computers, but that was the only thing they could do on the terminals. And the early 1980s “was even before the fax machine,” Feagin said. “The only communication you had was hard-line telephone and mail.”
Feagin bought the agency in 1986. Nearly 10 years later the airlines, led by Delta, began phasing out commissions, forcing travel agents to look for new sources of revenue, namely service fees.
“From a business standpoint, that was a fundamental change when Delta did that,” Feagin said. Hotels and car rental companies pay commissions these days, “but nobody expects that to last.”
By the early 1990s Aspen Travel was already working with film production crews, a business segment that, combined with musical groups, makes up about 70 percent of its business these days. That too began with a personal connection.
“My mother was on a trip to Nepal and shared a tent with a location scout,” he said. “They hit it off.”
The scout was bringing a commercial to Jackson Hole, and “we helped them out of a jam. They said, ‘We’re based in LA. Can you be our travel agents?’”
Production companies “tend to be mostly freelance people who float around,” Feagin said. Aspen Travel’s agents — there are 25 — work with them and other clients on the move by Skype and telephone. Time zones make the job tricky, and the bookings tend to be “super-last-minute”
“I literally had a crew of 14 two days ago that was in Hanoi,” Feagin said. “The next day they were going somewhere but they didn’t know where: Marrakesh or Shanghai.”
A recommendation brought Hootie and the Blowfish to the agency, opening the door to its music speciality.
“We had a good relationship through the film business with the Four Seasons LA,” Feagin said. “Our person there said, ‘I have this new band that’s really taken off. They need someone. Can you help them?’”
The band “was using a travel agent from Columbia, S.C., who only worked 9 to 5. She was trying to do their tour, and it wasn’t going well.”
Word of mouth worked for Aspen Travel as well in the music business as it did with film production.
Crews move from band to band, Feagin said, “and if production managers are happy they will take you to the new band. Aerosmith had six travel agents in six years, and we came along.”
Today Aspen Travel works with more than 20 bands.
“Rather than say, ‘We’ll do your travel,’ we learned a lot about their business, just how they function,” Feagin said. “A lot of agencies aren’t tuned into that.”
The world of a band, especially a big one like Aerosmith, is different.
“Their workday finishes at midnight,” Feagin said. “They’re definitely on a different time frame.”
But if the words “band on tour” conjure up images of trashed hotel rooms and weird requests like bowls of M&Ms with all the brown ones picked out, the reality is different.
“Over the years I’ve been surprised at how normal the families and kids are,” Feagin said. And in bands, even the young ones, “people work, people work hard,” he said. “A tour is a lot more physically demanding than anybody not in it realizes.”
Tours do present challenges: People are hired and fired, shows cancel and family emergencies arise. The personal connections help.
“We’ve tried very hard to make it about relationships,” Feagin said. “It’s important to me to get to know the band members. It’s good for the business, but it helps me take care of them. … If they’re happy, they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing.”
It’s the same with a local Jackson Hole client as it is with a rock band, Feagin said. The agency handles corporate and leisure travel for valley residents, and he said he is as proud of the relationships he has with people like mountaineer Jimmy Chin as he is with any of the bands.
Feagin spends a lot of time in California. Five years ago he married Melissa, who runs a restaurant in Tiburon, and they have a 4-year-old daughter named Whitney.
Would he recommend that a young person become a travel agency owner?
“No, it’s a terrible business,” he said. “You have to have a niche. The business as a whole is just a poor industry. It’s not well managed, not well run, not very logical.
“But there are places for the right people with the right interests,” he said. “The people in my office have a good job in Jackson.
“It’s year-round work for people, and the relationships in the office are as important to me as the relationships with the clients.”