Lindsey has been in the luxury travel industry for over eight years, three of which as the owner of Epperly Travel, a boutique agency that specializes in customizing 4 & 5-star vacations across the globe. While she currently serves as the Wendy Perrin WOW List expert specifically for the Caribbean, she enjoys planning trips for clients across the globe - although she tends to prefer personally inspecting the beach destinations. She has been recognized nationally by Travel Agent Magazine as one of their top 30 Under 30 and locally in Atlanta as one of Jezebel Magazine's trailblazing 10.
After launching Epperly Travel at the end of 2014, Lindsey has built a team of 13 independent contractors who represent the agency across the U.S. At the same time as she manages travel planning, she balances the growth of her company through a recently launched training program, aiming to educate new and existing agents on the core values of how Epperly Travel does business and what it takes to succeed in the travel industry.
Part of her story has been to establish a strong balance between work and home life, even to the point where she has been invited to educate other business owners on her tactics of working smarter not harder. Speaking of home life, Lindsey is recently engaged and looking forward to her wedding this July at the brand new Park Hyatt in St. Kitts!
Shantel: Hi, Lindsey. Welcome to the Imagine More podcast.
Lindsey: Hey, Shantel. Thank you so much for having me. I'm happy to be here.
Shantel: Of course. We are excited to learn more about Epperly and your journey of becoming an entrepreneur. I suppose to kick things off and let's talk a little bit about your love for travel and how you started this company.
| MAKING A CAREER OUT OF TRAVEL |
Lindsey: Yeah. Absolutely. So the love for travel was definitely something that was ingrained in me from a very young age. Actually grew up, funny enough, my parents owned a cruise agency and they actually sold it when I was six or seven. So I really don't remember it a whole lot, but I grew up, I was the most well cruised 11-year-old on the planet. I grew up knowing that I loved travel, but having no idea that you can make a career out of it. I actually when I was ... I think I had just turned 20, still in college, had just studied abroad at the Cannes Film Festival where I fell in love with traveling again. That same summer I walked into a local travel agency for a brochure for a cruise that my family was going on, and was talking to the owners. I had no idea I was talking to the owners. I was just telling them how much I loved to travel, and they offered me a job on the spot. So that's how I fell into it. It was that season of college where you say yes to everything. So I was like, "Sure." Who's going to buy a honeymoon for me? I'm a 20-year-old, unmarried, college student, but let's try this. So fell in love from that point, did it for about five years of my own. I was recognizing things in the industry that I felt like I could definitely do this, I could definitely make this better. Then I launched my own company from that drive.
Shantel: Wow. Well, I have to say I also grew up with that family that loves to cruise. We're from Florida, so super easy to get around there. But I think it's so interesting. So your parents owned this company and you saw them from the beginning to the sell. What did they do after and did they encourage you to continue to be an entrepreneur?
Lindsey: Oh my gosh. My parents are my number one influence when it comes to my profession now. So funny enough, my dad actually owned a travel ... My dad owned a tire store well before he launched the cruise store. So at the same time that he launched this cruise store he had a chain of tire stores that were his baby. He actually decided to launch the cruise store because he was going on a cruise in my hometown of Columbus, Georgia, and he was calling local agencies and no one would call him back because he was going on such a short cruise. They just didn't want the business. So he got frustrated. He found his own cruise, and then he came back from that cruise and he opened a franchise to sell cruises to people because he thought, "Well, geez. If they're missing out on this business, I'll do it myself." So that was where that was born. I obviously then grew up with this very entrepreneurial father, and my mom essentially worked for herself out of the house as well. So every single conversation that we would have at the dinner table was usually about his business and what he was doing. It was my MBA and I had no idea.
Shantel: That's amazing. Now you touch a little bit on okay, you noticed somethings that you wanted to change. What is so different about your company, and I'm sure that's continue to evolve, but what was that immediate thing that you're like, "I have to change this," or, "This could be better."
Lindsey: Gosh. Absolutely. So I earned very much what not to do in the travel industry from kind of the school of hard knocks in seeing other people doing it wrong from an ethics perspective. Honestly, that was my first and core driver was I saw situations where clients were not treated very nicely, suppliers were not treated very nicely, employees were not treated nicely. It was just kind of a situation where it was very negative tailspin, and I would look around and be like, "Ah, man. If I had this opportunity. If I could serve my clients, my suppliers, my employees like I want to serve them, that could be a win." So that was my first drive, and a lot of that, again, is from the ethics that I had around the dinner table with my family about what my dad did in his business. It was always how do we do right by others. So it was that that was my first kind of wake up call of, "Huh, I think I could start something that would at least treat people nicely." So there's that. Then the other part was when I entered into the travel industry, it was this very funny time and it still is a funny little shift in the situation where the internet had put so many people out of business. There was this great gap of people between the ages of 20 to probably 45 years old who had never considered being a travel agent as a career because it as jus not a viable option or it seemed like that. So it put a lot of agencies out of business except for the ones that managed to maintain relationship driven cultures. So it's a matter of them serving their clients versus being a transaction for their clients. So when I came in at the age of 20, I mean, people looked at me like, "You found the wrong room," at the conference. "You're not supposed to be here. You're 20 years old. There's not young person in this business anymore." So that was my other selling point was I thought, "Well, I can make this a modern approach. I can build off of this relationship driven aspect and I can make it more modern by really making it accessible. So pretty much everything we do at Epperly Travel is over phone and email. So it's making it to where I serve a national client base. Actually international at this point because we can do it all for someone and they don't have to leave their office or drive to see me in Atlanta or anything like that, which is really fun.
Shantel: Yeah. That's such a good point. When I imagine the travel agent, I imagine the pamphlets and having to sit down at that table to tell them where you want to go. The digital age everything moves so fast.
Lindsey: Absolutely. Yep. That was the image that I wanted to subvert by using that youth and using that excitement over what this industry was becoming, and that's really the wave that we've ridden the past three years since I've launched Epperly Travel.
Shantel: That's amazing. Let's talk about the team a little bit. So when was your first hire, what was that structure look like?
| GROW INTENTIONALLY |
Lindsey: Oh my goodness. Okay, this was the funny thing. This was actually probably my biggest mistake in owning a business in the past three years was that is as soon as I opened an agency, I grew just to grow. I didn't grow intentionally. I grew because kind of like what I just old you. I was so excited about being able to serve employees well and salespeople well, independent contractors that I was like, "If you will have a cup of coffee with me, I will make you a travel agent." It was so eager and I hired way too many people way fast. I did have a situation where I just hired like one or two at the very beginning, but that quickly turned into two months later and I had 10 agents. I made the mistake of not getting my own book of business in line and in check, and trying at the same time of running a very sizable, personal book of business, trying to get 10 brand new people into the industry off the ground and there is a huge learning curve in this industry. I mean, your product is the world. So first of all, you're trying to learn all that while trying to learn the business aspect of it. I was way too bright eyed and bushy tailed and didn't put a plan in place. So when I did that round of first hires, there were a lot of mistakes that I made. It was really difficult season where I had to go back to several people and tell them, "Listen, I can't be the leader that I told you that I would be and I've got to own up to that. I feel like for that reason I'm not going to be the right fit for you moving forward." It was a complete I have to own this mistake. So I was actually very gun shy about hiring again. But the coolest thing in the past about year, year and a half has been I've had several people approach me and say, "I want to work for you." I'm like, "That's fine. I'm not hiring." That's okay. It just kept happening, and I live a life of faith and I really believe when you hear something a few times that you should start listening. Maybe pay attention. So I heard it a few times, "I want to work for you. I want to work for you." I'm like, "Fine. Okay. Let me figure out how to let you work for me." So I actually built a training program, and the training program was a very intentional, again, correcting those mistakes from the first time, intentional groundwork for being able to onboard people who were one, brand new to the industry, but two, maybe they've been in it and they feel like they've reached a plateau, they're seeing what we're doing and want to be a part of something a little bit different. So this training program has been really to bring people in, get them used to our culture, and also teach them the ropes.
Shantel: That's amazing. Are they still all independent contractors?
Lindsey: Yeah. So our team is 13 independent contractors, not including myself and then I have Becca who works alongside me in the office as well. Peyton who works out of office who does our graphics and marketing. So we have a couple of kind of employee style, but mostly independent contractor.
Shantel: Okay. The training program, do new independent contractors that are interested in working with you have to go through this program and invest in it themselves? Like they have to buy the training.
Lindsey: Exactly. Yeah. So it's first an up front initial investment, and it's also competitive. We don't take everyone that reaches out because I want to make sure that we're bringing the right people on board. So my growth at this stage and learning from my past mistakes is slow and intentional, more about quality than quantity.
Shantel: That's great. I mean, I feel like having them invest in themselves and their future in that way creates a different paradigm almost. Like they can control their future and they, I imagine, feel just so much more invested in Epperly right away because they've put in that time.
Lindsey: That's right.
Shantel: So are you at all needed in that training program, or have you completely ...
Lindsey: Yeah, so I would say that's a big part of my role right now because we've gone through the training program. We've had two sessions of it. I actually offer it seasonally, spring and fall. So I am still very much involved as the person that's leading them, that's teaching them because what I promote the training program as, and you're so right that they feel a sense of investment, not just financially but personally they're pouring a lot of their hearts into it and what I'm seeing because I'm offering a training program that's all about mentorship and helping them learn how to run a business because that's essentially what you're doing as an independent contractor. People are coming at this job because there's a lot freedom in it. It's so much fun. You get to be your own boss, make your own hours. You get amazing travel benefits when you actually start producing, so that's a huge perk. But I think I saw a lot of people come in and just drop like flies for other agencies because they weren't being trained properly. So I wanted to set the right expectations and help mentor my team so that they would understand I want you to overcome the hurdles that it took me the past eight years to overcome, and let me teach you what I did wrong, what I did right because I've been there. I run the type of office where I get agents calling me crying because they lost their first sale. I'm like, "I'm here. I'm listening." That's the kind of business that we operate because have been there. I know exactly that feeling in their gut that they're feeling. So that's why I feel like I'm very necessary to actually being hands on and involved in that program.
Shantel: That's great. Well, let's talk about that mentorship, if you don't mind us diving in a little bit deeper into that. How do you do that with a remote team, or do you create ... I guess, second question to that, have you found it challenging to create a community with a remote team?
Lindsey: Great question. So I would say this is still a learning process for me. So what I'm doing is kind of throwing things out there and seeing what sticks. So for the training program, it is a complete ... For our entire independent contractor program, it's all a remote team. So we have recently invested in Google Suite, which allows to really community much more efficiently over a team message board. So I've seen that be a real big improvement that people feel a little bit more connected in that way on the existing team. Now when it comes to the actual training program, every single session we have is conducted over Zoom. So it's all in person, live, everyone's able to see each other's faces, ask questions, and I feel like that's a way that brings kind of the isolation that you can feel when working remotely together. I know you actually had Shannon Miles on your podcast a couple weeks ago, but I would say I just read her husband's book Brian Mile's Virtual Culture. It's eye-opening because that I think is the future of our world. So the fact that we have this business plan and platform that actually can support remote workers is a really cool thing, and it's something I'm still trying to learn and harness and figure out what works best.
Shantel: Yeah. I can imagine. Especially with the technology these days, there's absolutely possibility with Google Hangouts and Slack and Google Suite. So I'm certainly glad to hear that. So are you still in love with travel planning or has it at all been tainted because you're kind of living it and breathing it every day?
Lindsey: Gosh. That's so funny. So I would say I actually did reach a really bad phase of burnout toward the end of the year before last. It's actually a big part of my culture and my passion and kind of what I consider a passion project of myself is that I manage to get myself out of that burnout phase. Then I actually was invited to speak to a few different groups of entrepreneurs on the same thing about learning to set business boundaries and learning to work smarter, not harder. So I would say at this point I feel revitalized. Although just because I've gotten out of burnout once doesn't mean that it could happen again. So I am so passionate about the actual travel. I'm so passionate about the actual people involved, and I do enjoy the travel planning aspect. But I would say that I have made the mistake of biting off way more than I can chew, and just driving myself into the ground and having the most ... That was the thing I had to learn from the burnout experience was this job is fun, this business is fun, and if you're so concentrated on taking it all, being everything to everyone and running yourself into the ground, then that takes the fun out of it. So that was what I really had to rediscover at that point in my life.
Shantel: Yeah. It could certainly ... I mean, every day you're pulled in a ton of different directions, and I can certainly relate to that as well that the list never ends. So how do you create those boundaries and unplug a bit to actually revitalize and refresh? Speaking of boundaries, is there anything that's still on your list that you're like, "I cannot wait to pass off one day so soon."
Lindsey: Yes. So it's funny, and Shannon would get on to me for saying this because it's her first thing she says when you hire an assistant you should have them do, but I'm sick of living in my email inbox, which I have even created boundaries around but I find myself still doing it. I become victim to my own worst habits. If I can pass off my email inbox just because it's such a constant response to people balling back and forth, I think I would have a lot more time and capacity to grow and do what I need to do at the business. So I recognize it, I just haven't done it yet.
Shantel: Well, I am so interested. What are some of the techniques that you put in place because I absolutely struggle with that as well?
| SHIFT YOUR THINKING |
Lindsey: Yeah, absolutely. So to me it was a matter of actually put in a a few different parts. The first part is shifting your thinking. So it was I had to learn that just because I was drawing boundaries, didn't mean that I was a bad travel agent, that I wasn't going to do a good job. It was I was afraid if I started putting up some of these things that it might make me feel unapproachable to clients or like I wasn't doing a good job. But the focus really had to be I'm actually going to be serving clients better because I'm focusing on managing the right capacity. Whereas, I was skating on such thin ice before that they weren't getting the best version of me. Then conversely, that whole work/life balance thing. My family wasn't getting the best of me either. So I was seeing myself spread so thin that no one really could enjoy me and I couldn't enjoy me either. So it was shifting my thinking and knowing that these changes are really going to be beneficial, not negative, and it was a lot of drawing the boundaries in terms of you teach people how to treat you, like Dr. Phil says. So it was teaching people that okay, I'm not going to respond to an 11:00 p.m. text no Friday. They ask about when your dinner reservation is in five months. That's a boundary. I'm going to draw a line there that I'm not interrupting my Friday night to go look at something that's not an emergency. So all of these, of course, the emergencies are the exceptions, but I was living in a world where the exception ... Every day was an emergency. I treated every single situation like I was a neurosurgeon and this was a patient on the gurney forgetting, "Hey, I'm a travel agent. Our job is fun. Bring that fun back. Handle actual emergencies when they are emergencies." Those times we definitely step in and do it. Yeah, so it was those types of things, and then I also learned too, this was really cool because when I entered in the Season of Life, I thought, "There's no way I will make more money than I did last year. There's probably no way I'll break even because I'm scaling back." Actually what wound up happening was we increased our profits by 40% through doing these things. So I saw that something was working. So the last part of kind of managing that was learning to increase our capacity. It was learning to create different revenue streams, learning to explain our value even better. We actually identified our company values during this time as well. That's just been a really cool outcome of everything. Obviously, making ourselves more profitable. So I do feel like there's something to stepping back, figuring out have I created a small monster that owns me in my business, and if so, how do I tame that and make it my business again?
Shantel: I love that. Yeah, it's definitely just a paradigm shift. I also just recently saw in someone's email signature they just mentioned how they only check emails once a day because they're human centric and they're going to try their best and they'll respond within 24 hours but it may not be immediate. Even maybe just kind of helping set some better expectations is something that I'm trying in my email inbox as well of just I'm not going to look at it because you get so distracted and you actually lose focus on what you're supposed to be doing. So I'm glad that you have ...
Lindsey: Absolutely. Yeah, I think that was part of my whole thing too was just if you're constantly setting expectations, no one's going to get mad at you and chew you out because you didn't live up to whatever they were expecting in their head of you. I think that's where a lot of businesses done incorrectly is that ... I mean, when a client comes to us for the travel world, most of the time they haven't worked with an agent before. So they have no idea how it works, who's job is what, what's the next step. So you're absolutely right. If you can set the expectations, if you can say, "It's by appointment only," or the email inbox thing, I might have to steal. That's amazing. But I don't know that I would ever get anything done if I did that. That kind of stuff is so good because you cut that person some slack and give them grace, that's how they do their business. If I were to see that in someone's signature, I'd me like, "Cool. Good for you," and understand.
Shantel: So you sounded super pumped about the core values. I think having core values in the company and living them out every day and finding a way to take them off just the poster that lives on the wall and truly ingrain them into your culture is so impactful. But I'd love to hear from you how did you develop the core values, and what are the ones that resonate with you the most?
Lindsey: Yeah, absolutely. So that was actually one of the most fun projects I've ever gone through, and it was during a time that I mentioned Shannon Miles earlier was mentoring me. So it was this cool mentorship program where I realized, "Do I even know what we stand for? I know why I started this company, but is that even still there and still evident." So the core values was to process of I feel like it's everyone's got their values, and kind of everyone has their company culture. It's going to exist whether you like it or not, but it's a matter of whether you're intentional about it. So I think of this process as like kind of squeezing out the values that were already there and figuring out what makes us us and what do we want to focus on moving forward. So, for us, the number one was that we are grateful. I'm a big person when it comes to gratitude because I believe that our suppliers, our clients, each other, we don't hear it enough, and I think that was one of the number one things that I would see in past companies was that a client would come to them with maybe a budget that they couldn't meet or something like that. They'd make it feel like ... They make the client feel like it was their fault. They walked in here with this bag of dreams and they were laughed out of the agency. Whereas for us, if there's something that we can't do, that's on us. We're still grateful that we had the opportunity to serve that client. If we can ever point them in the right direction, we absolutely will. Our next value I mentioned we had to reestablish the fun. That was so big. So our next value was that we create fun and we celebrate constantly. We hold the keys of making this a really fun experience for our clients. They're booking trips to Africa and Bora Bora, and amazing places. If we're just saying, "Here's your booking, here's your itinerary." Boo. That's a wasted opportunity. So we try to make it where we're celebrating with our clients. We're celebrating with their wins and just as much ... I mean, it's been a really impactful thing to see, but people travel for last trips. They travel for really heartbreaking reasons as well. So if we can find a way to craft an experience around them and what their occasion and what their milestones are, that's huge. Our third value is that we genuinely invest in our people, and that's threefold. That's exactly what I came from and saw people were not being invested in. It's for our suppliers, it's for our clients, it's for one another on the team that we believe in the value of relationships. Then the fourth value is actually that we believe in the value that we add as agents. So the number one question that you're asked when you become a travel agent is, "Oh my gosh. Those even exist? Well, why would I use you and not the internet?" So it's almost like you've got this negative uphill battle against people that are saying, "Well, what value do you add?" There are times when you kind of start thinking like, "Gosh. I hate that I have to defend myself constantly." So for me it was important to add that we believe in our value and to teach everyone on my team this is our value, this is how you articulate it. You have access to things that Expedia does not have. Here's how you can go about letting people know that we can serve them. So if you believe that from day one when you start as an agent, whereas I did not necessarily believe that. I had to teach myself the confidence. I think you get a lot further a lot faster and your clients really trust you more too because you are confident.
Shantel: Mm-hmm. Now did you inquire ... I love those core values. Thank you so much for sharing.
Lindsey: Yeah, of course.
Shantel: Did you integrate those into that training program?
Lindsey: Absolutely. I would say that they are probably, to me, they're the most important part of the training program, and I'm always pointing back to them as well.
Shantel: Yeah. That's amazing. I imagine to some of the prequalification of who you select every year to ... Do they have to kind of show how they live the core values beforehand?
Lindsey: Absolutely. I wish that I had a more defined way of quantifying it other than just it's a gut feeling. But the core values are truly what I uphold within the company. So it's both within our team and seeing who we're bringing on, and like I mentioned, it's all about quality and not quantity. It's finding the right people to bring on to the team, but I also use those core values to uphold whether or not we take on a client. I mean, we stay very busy and we have a pretty long list of people who are demanding our services, which is excellent and awesome. But if someone comes through the door and they're kind of hateful or mean to us, that goes against those core values. I know that we're not going to be the best fit to serve them because they don't respect us or appreciate. So it goes both ways. The core values we really use to slate against everything and make sure that we're focusing on what we do best in serving the people that we serve best.
Shantel: Mm-hmm. That's great. So it sounds like you've, in addition to Shannon as a mentor and your family as entrepreneurs, you're surrounded by super smart, innovative people. Do you have other groups that you tap into for knowledge sharing and experience sharing and just how do I be an entrepreneur continually learning in that sense?
Lindsey: That's a great question. I really do have the best people in my life who have been mentors, and then I also ... I'm very fortunate to be surrounded in my personal life as well. I've mentioned my parents. My dad is still my greatest mentor. My finance Jeremy has his MBA as well. A lot of times it's these continued dinner time conversations of, "Here's what happened today, what do you think?" Bouncing around ideas and really sharpening one another. I do have a group in Atlanta of just ... We call ourselves like it's just a little master minds type group, but it's everyone either has to have a hustle or a side hustle. So everyone's got their business that they're growing. You relate in that matter, but they're all different fields. So that's just something that came about. We all just randomly had one connection or another and brought together a team of about seven to eight people that meet on a monthly basis and talk about what's going on in those hustles. So that's been very helpful for me. Nothing really in terms of an established business group otherwise though, but I think that's because it's all relationship driven.
Shantel: Absolutely. There's so much value in just meeting with other like minded folks when you're starting something or continuing. Okay. Couple more question for you before we wrap up, Lindsey.
Shantel: Where do you see the company going? What is your big hair, audacious goal?
Lindsey: Absolutely. So my goal for the company is I really want Epperly Travel to be known within the travel industry and outside of the travel industry as a team of agents who people respect and people trust. So to me I feel like we are already there in that level, but I only see it growing and scaling larger from that point. So my whole goal is we have a very boutique feel to our agency where everyone has very easy access to me, to the team, to one another. So what I'm being very conscious of in our culture is making sure that when we do bring on groups of new agents through our training program that we still maintain that boutique feel. So I see us getting to be a 50 plus agency but still keeping these core values and that core culture very, very true to who we are today.
Shantel: That's great. How can people get in touch with you and learn more about the company? What is that booking for actually ... Actually one more question before we get into that one. What is that inquiry process look like for most of you customers?
| TURNING DREAMS INTO REALITY |
Lindsey: Yeah. So this is the fun part. This is where we actually we show off those skills of that expertise of the building relationships. So basically the way that we work with clients is every single trip is customized. We only special in four and five star-getaways, which doesn't necessarily mean it's more expensive. It just means that's where our knowledge is and where our relationships are with our suppliers. So a client will come to us and we typically will either start with a phone call or an email that involves a questionnaire. So we get to know them because it's all about learning what that dream is in the back of their head, what their expectations are based off of their past travels. We're really, really diving in deep and trying to figure out what makes them tick and what they're dreaming of so we can turn that into a reality. So they go through that questionnaire process. From that point we put together a game plan, whether that's immediately jumping in and giving them options or if that's kind of comparing destinations on broad level. Then we're walking it through it. It's super conversational until we find them the perfect spot, the perfect hotel room, all of it. Then we book it for them and we're there from start to finish in managing that booking. So they don't have to ever worry about communicating with the hotel or making payments. We're doing all of that on their behalf. Right before they go to, what's really fun is we get their preferences. So it's not just, "Hey, do you have dietary restrictions?" It's, "What do you like? Can you tell me about yourselves? Are you leaving behind your dog that you're going to miss? Could I have a picture of him? I know that's weird. Don't ask." So we always incorporate these things that we found out and when they arrive to their hotel, if it's a hotel that'll work with us and do this, there might be a photo of their dog on the nightstand or something that will remind them of home.
Shantel: Oh, I love that.
Lindsey: Yeah. So we want it to be really fun and really customized to them. Then even if it's not a hotel that would do that, we're still trying to find ways where we build our documents around them to incorporate a little happy birthday message, whatever it is to kind of create that fun and celebrate constantly, like I mentioned.
Shantel: That's amazing. Do you have any trips coming up?
Lindsey: I actually leave on Friday for New Zealand.
Shantel: Wow. That sounds amazing.
Lindsey: Super pumped. That ones a pretty big one. That's a bucket list for me. So I'm really, really excited.
Shantel: Well, have so much fun, and how can people get in touch with you to learn more about you or your business?
Lindsey: Yeah. Yeah. I would definitely invite people to go to EpperlyTravel.com. Also, our Instagram account is Epperly Travel as well. If anyone wants to follow along on that New Zealand trip, that's where we'll be posting all sorts of stories and photos. If they want to get in touch with me personally, my email is Lindsey@EpperlyTravel.com. They're welcome to reach out directly or fill our our request a trip or contact more information on our website.
Shantel: Great. Well, thank you so much for being on the podcast. We really appreciate it.
Lindsey: Yeah, of course. Thank you so much for having me. It's been fun.