NAME: Linda R. Burndorfer, Owner and Operator; Lynne Robidoux Burndorfer, Owner and Social Media & Numbers Boss
AGENCY: Out‘n About Travel Inc.
AFFILIATION: TL Network
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 23
After 23 years of serving the LGTBQ community, Lynne and Linda Robidoux Burndorfer are proof positive that a business built on passion can still turn a profit.
Earlier this year, Linda Burndorfer sat down with a new client, and quickly found herself in tears. “He had been referred by the [Rainbow] Resource Centre here in Winnipeg,” she says of the meeting. “He’s transgender, and because of the nature of his career, he isn’t always able to be himself, but he could be with us. He was getting teary-eyed just sitting in our office, so of course, I got emotional, too.”
Selling travel is an emotional business, to be sure. Fulfilling dreams is one of the best parts of the job, and any advisor worth their salt will have more than one touching client story to share. But at Out’n About Travel, the goal isn’t just helping clients achieve their travel goals; it’s to ensure they feel safe and respected throughout the journey. For Burndorfer, who runs Out’n About with her partner, Lynne Robidoux Burndorfer, it’s the reason she opened her doors in the first place.
It was the early 1990s when the Winnipeg-based advisor began seeing a need for better representation within the LGBTQ sector. Widely considered as a niche market of comparatively minuscule proportions, the number of openly gay travellers looking to go abroad was beginning to grow. But as some agencies tried to rise to the occasion, Burndorfer saw a lot of room for improvement.
“[Travel agents] wanted to sell to the gay market, because they recognized the monetary advantage,” she shares, adding that her own list of LGBTQ clients was steadily growing. “But I found they weren’t interested in getting to know – or really, respecting – the clientele.”
Sensing a unique opportunity, Burndorfer decided to venture out on her own, opening Out’n About Travel in 1994. In spite of the obvious need for an LGBT-focused travel agency, Burndorfer admits that some colleagues were skeptical of the move; her boss even offered to hold her job for a year, as she would most likely need it.
“More than 20 years later, I’m still laughing,” she says. “And he’s retiring.”
Today, Out’n About Travel is a fullservice, bilingual agency whose team includes Burndorfer and Lynne as well as advisors Crystal Peterson and Marie-Sehly Coly. A modern, brick-walled space with music, coffee and a convivial ambience, the office is a reflection of its owner, who has always eschewed traditional corporate environments.
“I wanted to provide a space where travellers could sit down, be open, and feel safe and comfortable,” she says of her agency’s mandate, which offers its clients valuable expertise in the realm of accommodation, restaurants and destinations. It also takes pride in its strong supplier partnerships, which ensures consistently respectful experience throughout a traveller’s trip.
“Italy isn’t always the most gay-friendly destination,” Burndorfer says, citing a past challenge posed by clients who wanted to openly celebrate their honeymoon in the romantic country. “We worked with a tour operator to provide an independent trip, and at every hotel they visited, there was a hotel manager and prosecco to greet [the honeymooners], and make them feel welcome.”
While serving the LGBTQ community remains Burndorfer’s passion, she is also is quick to point out that Out’n About’s business is made up of only 30 per cent leisure clients – and about 70 per cent corporate travel.
“We opened right before commission cuts were introduced by the airlines in 1995, so we had to reinvent ourselves pretty quickly, and we found that corporate clients were our bread and butter,” she recalls, sharing that her connections within the LGBTQ community resulted in some valuable leads, and that business grew steadily from there.
Of course, it wasn’t quite so straightforward as diversifying services; as the cuts took their toll and OTAs circled overhead, Out’n About took another courageous step: they introduced service fees.
“It was scary as hell,” Burndorfer says, remembering the day she wrote the letter notifying her clients. “But we had no choice.”
In the end, she adds, it was a wake-up call that helped her realize the agency’s true value; when offering skilled and dependable service, the right clients won’t be galled by fees; they’ll respect the expertise.
“We don’t nickel and dime,” Burndorfer asserts. “We keep our fee structure simple, and offer good value… That’s what kept us going – the personalized service you can’t get online.”
In addition to being a firm believer in the power of knowing your worth, Burndorfer is also an advocate of another unconventional trade tactic: competitive co-operation.
“I always say we’re not the experts of absolutely everything,” Burndorfer states, explaining that when faced with ambitious projects outside their wheelhouse, Out’n About will turn to other agencies for guidance.
“Yes, we’re competitors,” she says of the approach, which she feels is a two-way street, “but sharing information with one another ultimately benefits all of our clients.”
Burndorfer also clarifies that despite popular belief, resource-sharing does not result in client theft. After all, in an industry where a business is only as valuable as its expertise, sharing resources is good for everyone in the long run.
“The last thing I want is for anybody in the LGBTQ community to [not be sufficiently served],” she states. “You hear horror stories about agents who don’t know how to service LGBTQ travellers, who just say, ‘I can’t help you.’ Well, how is that supposed to make them feel? I’d rather help teach an agent to retain that client.”
STRENGTHS & WEAKNESSES
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is key to any business’s success, so when it comes to the future, Burndorfer, a self-professed diehard for old-school business tactics, relies on Lynne, who came on board as a co-owner in 2008, for all things digital.
“Lynne is the tech-savvy one,” she shares, adding that while she much prefers in-person and telephone communication, the younger travellers representing the clientele of tomorrow prefer other ways of doing business. Thus, the agency is enthusiastically active on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
“Millennials are social media people,” she says. “They don’t want to wait for things, and don’t want to talk about a booking too much. Lynne is better at targeting that group than I am, but if I can get in their faces, talk to them and show them I’m serious, that works too.”
And while Burndorfer has no qualms about obliging the ever-changing needs of her clients, she won’t be completely reinventing the wheel. She’s been evolving in her own way for 23 years – and it’s worked out pretty well so far.
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