NAME: Terri Jo Lennox, CTC, President & Travel Designer
AGENCY: Travel Time Inc.
LOCATIONS: Calgary; Fort Nelson, Kelowna, B.C.
AFFILIATION: Ensemble Travel Group
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 27
Award-winning agency owner Terri Jo Lennox has a hard time talking about herself – but get her going on the topic of service fees, talent retention and the intricate art of client care, and you’ll need to put some coffee on.
Terri Jo Lennox really hates the term “travel agent.” Instead, the owner of Travel Time Inc., a full-service agency with three offices in B.C. and Alberta, resolutely refers to her team as “travel professionals,” a distinction she believes deserves the same veneration as those of the “legal” or “medical” variety.
“I’ve been on that soapbox close to 20 years,” she says firmly, “because I believe that we can’t minimize what we do to the public. We are professionals. We go to school, we travel and train to gain knowledge. We offer intellectual property.”
Interestingly, Lennox didn’t always want to be a travel professional. She got her start in 1990, when a job as an accountant for an agency owner ended up being a crash course in selling travel. Within five years, Lennox went from being an order-taker to the agency manager – a progression that earned her ACTA’s National President’s Award for outstanding achievement in 1994.
“Winning the award meant I got to travel to Vancouver for the ceremony,” she recalls. “It was my first time travelling for work, and it completely hooked me.”
A few years and some personal challenges later, Lennox, suddenly a single parent, was looking for a fresh start. Accompanied by her three sons, she decided to try her luck in Alberta and moved to Calgary from Fort Nelson, B.C.
“I went to my former owner in Fort Nelson and told her I was going to open an agency,” Lennox explains, “and she was actually looking to sell. So, we came to an agreement.”
THE EARLY YEARS
With that, Lennox purchased the agency where she got her start in 1998, and established her head office in Calgary. It was the first step toward building the Travel Time Inc. of today; a bespoke luxury and adventure travel agency that has been recognized as a Top 25 Ensemble Canada Agency for 12 years, and has a team of nearly 25 specialists in three locations: Fort Nelson, Calgary, and Kelowna.
Like many advisors who began their careers in the 1990s, Lennox credits commission cuts for Travel Time’s shift from ticket-writing to zeroing in on high-end sales. By 2004, with commissions whittled down by airlines and suppliers, her options were clear: go down the path of high-volume booking sales, or spend more time with clients selling high-end, high-revenue travel. In the end, Travel Time chose its clients.
“We all talked about it together,” Lennox shares, “and most of the team said they enjoyed the customer-centric part of the business best.”
Lennox got to work, sending key staff on luxury cruises, to five-star resorts, and positioning the agency’s brand as having “been there, done that.” It took close to 18 months, she recalls, but over time, the team started seeing rewards in the form of happy, enthusiastic clients and what Lennox calls “commissions with commas in them.”
Naturally, the team also started charging what she refers to as “professional fees,” a necessary evil for Lennox that was unheard of at the time.
“I know people thought I was crazy to charge clients,” she laughs, adding that her refusal to disguise her fees as taxes ruffled a few feathers among competitors. “But I wanted to be honest and upfront. If people don’t like it, well, they don’t have to do business with us. As it is, our clients often tell us we don’t charge enough.”
Even in the early years, Lennox knew the difference between tire-kickers and loyal customers – and how to turn the former into the latter. The secret, she shares, is that Travel Time’s professionals are “masters of yes,” a mandate that was born not long after opening the Calgary office, when a frustrated walk-in appeared in her office following a consultation with a competing agency.
“They wanted to go to Costa Rica, and they’d only been given two options,” she shares. “They wanted a blend of both, and were told it wasn’t possible. We did it for them without a problem – now they’re lifelong clients.”
It was a light-bulb moment that set the tone for the years to come. Rather than selling as many trips as possible, Travel Time aims to build out its opportunities by working with clients throughout the many milestones of their lives.
“We look at new clients in terms of what we can do for them for the next five, 10 and 15 years,” she explains, adding that it’s a strategy that’s been paying off; Travel Time enjoys a reputation for high-end travel to far-off places.
“People tend to think of us when they think of travelling somewhere unusual.”
GROOMING THE NEXT GENERATION
Naturally, Lennox’s strong leadership and referral-heavy business is rooted in her teammates – many of whom have been with her for nearly 20 years. As time goes on and seasoned professionals begin to retire, however, Lennox has also found a new sense of purpose in mentoring the next generation. And while she understands the commitment and work-style issues that many associate with hiring millennials, Lennox is also quick to point out that finding solutions to those issues is the responsibility of business owners, not the young employees.
“[Millennials] want more flexibility, more work-life balance, and that’s good,” she says. “Our challenge as agency owners and leaders in the industry is showing them that this can be a valid career.”
Rather than leaving them to wade through grunt work and “earn” their place on the ladder, Lennox makes an effort to get their juices going by engaging, challenging and rewarding young employees based on their own professional goals.
“Young people who get stuck doing or selling the same thing over and over are the ones who get bored and leave,” she says.
Through the years, Lennox’s striking knack for business and passion for putting together unique adventures has made the travel leader a double threat of sorts. Even today, the part-time accountant-turned-entrepreneur admits she can’t decide whether she prefers balancing the back end of the business, or dominating her client sales.
“I’ve been told to pick a lane in the past,” she laughs, but she believes doing both makes her a better owner-manager. “This way, I’m in the trenches with my team,” she adds, going on to say that remaining right alongside one’s team through good or bad is the secret to talent retention.
Whether she picks a lane or not, Lennox is clear on one thing: she’s not ready to slow down anytime soon.
“People suggest I downsize, and sometimes I consider getting out, but I still get excited seeing the business grow and develop,” she shares. For now, armed with a crack team of loyal experts who are as invested in the business as she is, Lennox is content with offering soapbox-style guidance to tomorrow’s travel professionals – and keeping an eye out for any new opportunities to expand her empire.
“My team makes fun of me, and says I’ll be selling travel until I’m 80,” she laughs, “but I just don’t see any reason to stop."
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