NAME: Shalene Dudley
AGENCY: Latitude Concierge
LOCATIONS: Greater Toronto Area
AFFILIATION: The Travel Agent Next Door

How this travel advisor's experience in project management has shaped the way she operates as a destination wedding specialist.

When Shalene Dudley studied interior design at Michigan State University, pursuing a career in travel wasn’t even a thought… at least, not a career as a travel agent.

Her first job was as a junior designer at Walt Disney World – “right in the heart of the hospitality and tourism industry,” she says – from which point, she moved on to get her PMP certification (project management professional) and spent 12 years implementing her design knowledge as a construction project manager.

She’s now a destination wedding specialist at her self-managed business, Latitude Concierge Travels, which operates as a member of The Travel Agent Next Door. How did she go from project management to travel planning? It’s not as much of a leap as you might think…

In 2009, Dudley and her husband were married at Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, Jamaica, an experience facilitated by an excellent travel agent. From there, friends and family who then were planning their own destination weddings would refer to Dudley for guidance – something she quite enjoyed. The rest, as they say, is history, and Dudley went on to get her TICO licence and establish Latitude Concierge in 2013.

It’s a story she tells all her clients when they get started with the planning process, and Dudley believes that her passion for the job has been her main selling point thus far.

She made her first major push for clients by attending Canada's Bridal Show, partnering with another just starting out travel agent to invest in a booth. She had hoped to walk away with one client (to balance the cost of being there), but by the end of the weekend, she had six lined-up.

“I think it’s because I was just so excited,” she says. “I love the idea of a destination wedding; I love how much money people can save and I love how much fun they have. And, I think it’s a little more memorable than a wedding at home, when you breeze through and you’re catering to everyone around you.”

Canada's Bridal Show is a twice-annual investment Dudley continues to make after four years in the business, now typically partnering with a resort such as Hard Rock All-Inclusive. It’s a big expenditure, she admits, but she believes getting to interact with people is a good investment, “because people like me for me and my presence.”

The Bridal Shows – which Dudley calls her “best bet” – continue to pay-off, and even if some prospects don’t always follow-through, often people she meets will share her information with other prospects. “Some travel agents aren’t as lucky, but I think it depends on your location. I’m lucky to be in the GTA and have Toronto as my market.”

It’s also a place where Dudley has met a number of other wedding vendors of different specialties, who she has since parlayed into somewhat of a joint venture whereby they recommend each other’s services to new clients.

“The photographer I work with, Heather Windsor, she’s worked with three of my clients and my friends,” Dudley explains. “I’ve booked her travel for these weddings so she knows I know what I’m doing, and she can then report to anyone that ‘Shalene’s great.’ I also have someone from the show who does invitations that I’ll recommend to people.”

As this wedding specialist updates her website, she plans to have a list of preferred vendors to establish herself as a one-stop-shop – in true “concierge” style.

“I want to say, ‘Here are your people. You don’t need to go anywhere else.’ Because that’s how I’m branding myself. Right now, these recommendations are in my e-mail and I’ll share with my clients as we’re talking, but it will soon be on my website. That’s what I’d prefer – these people support me and I support them.”

It’s a strategy she learned from her days in project management; the person who sold furniture told Dudley how she had a “leads group” – a telecom guy and a mover, for example – with whom she would always share new clients who might need these other services. “That’s what I thought I would mimic,” Dudley says. “It just makes a lot of sense to keep business moving; it keeps our names out there.”

This project management background has dictated a lot of how Dudley has built her business over the past few years, looking at each client’s wedding as a project (“even if I don’t say it to them in those terms, because it sounds too technical.”)

“I’ve definitely kept my project management methodology in the back of my head. It helps with templates, it’s helped me with managing my clients’ expectations, it’s helped me manage budgets.” And, she says, it’s helped her to juggle multiple weddings, as she’s currently doing 12 to 15 every six months. The main component to success, though? Communication, “which is 90 per cent of project management, anyway.

“I make sure my communication is open and honest, and I make sure that’s reflected on both ends,” Dudley tells CT. “You can’t communicate unless both sides receive the message, and it has to go in a cycle. Some people only want to e-mail, others want phone calls, and some people actually want it in writing.”

A contract has been part and parcel of this open communication, though one that is fluid and can be adapted to various circumstances. It typically starts out as the same contract provided by tour operator partners (“…so they know what I’m dealing with,” she says) and then is built-out from there.

“It’s pages and pages now, and sometimes I laugh at how long it is, but when I read through it, I see it’s there because there are so many different scenarios,” she explains. “I try to make it so I can filter it down if it’s a land-only group or a package, but it’s still pretty much the same thing.”

Scheduling is also an important part of Dudley’s process, making expectations clear on both sides. “You get to understand which groups are going to be more high maintenance than others, and I try to set expectations at the beginning now,” she says. “Some of my clients want to call me every day, and their wedding is a year and a half away. Some of them, I wouldn’t hear from for months. So, I have set-up a schedule to say we’ll talk every ‘x’ number of weeks, or months, or days at different stages in the process, so they know when we’re going to talk.”

She says that some people ask every day for an update on who has paid and often there is no change, so the schedule helps to streamline the process. “Not that I’m not there if they need something additional,” Dudley clarifies. “It’s just that if I’m managing this many clients, I can’t focus on those who aren’t going anywhere versus the ones who need to leave this week.”

As we speak, Dudley had 19 confirmed weddings through to January 2019 and 17 more in the works, so, needless to say, her operation has to be a well-oiled machine. She’s now seeing past clients – whether former couples or guests – coming to her to book personal holidays, which is a natural extension of the business, though destination weddings will always be her core.

Perhaps one day she’ll add associates to the mix, but for now, she continues to go out of her way to ensure she is an asset to her clients, making their special days all that much more memorable.


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