STUDIO MUSE: KATE SULLIVAN, ANTHOLOGY TRAVEL
Sometimes it just takes a little nudge to realise what we really want out of life. That is what happened when Kate Sullivan felt stuck at her 9–5 job yet couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Today, she is a travel advisor curating incredible itineraries that take travellers to places you can’t find in a simple Google search. Kate sat down with me for a frank discussion about how she started and grew her business, how she balances work and travel, and how to plan a memorable holiday.
When I was working with Kate on her new branding, I admired how hard she works to create unique experiences for her clients. Enjoy her story—and I cannot be held accountable for any travel expenses you incur after reading her travel stories and tips!
Starting a travel business is the dream for so many people! How did Anthology Travel come about?
Prior to starting Anthology Travel, I spent about 15 years working as a paralegal, most of those at a huge Washington, DC law firm that specialised in antitrust litigation. The work was fulfilling and interesting and my colleagues were delightful, but the hours were really long and, eventually, it took a toll on me.
I remember being at brunch one weekend with my husband and two friends—I was complaining about my job (as per usual) and one of them challenged me with ‘Well, what would you do if you could do anything?’ I instantly replied, ‘I'd plan travel for other people, but I don't really think that's a job anymore.’ The friend challenged me further to look into whether that was true; I did a little research and realised it was still a job, just a very different job than what we traditionally think of travel agents doing.
From there it became a question of learning as much as I could about the industry and how to get started—it helped that virtually all of my friends were either management consultants, who love to dig into business problems and were pushing me to really think about what would differentiate my business from other travel advisors, or lawyers, who were focused on potential risks. When it came time to make the leap, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to go about it.
I think it's important to note, though, that just because you love travel and travel planning, it doesn't mean you can build a successful business as a travel advisor. Planning a trip for someone else is completely different than planning a trip for yourself—there are risks to mitigate, and industry standards and etiquette to understand and adhere to. The learning curves are steep and many—I'm simultaneously learning how to run a small business, how to market my services, about different products and partners, and how the industry is structured.
It seems so easy to book a holiday online now, but that's not always the case! So how do you curate travel experiences for your clients?
The internet can be really overwhelming to people, though. I just had a conversation with a woman who's clearly capable of booking her own trip, but she feels overwhelmed by the choices and wants it to feel special.
There are times when booking online is the right solution—if you just want a five-day trip to a resort in Cancun, then head straight over to Expedia, as that's precisely the kind of problem online travel agencies are designed to help you solve. If you want a really exceptional, unique experience? Come to a travel advisor.
My process involves getting to know my clients really well, so I can create an experience where every aspect is personalised—my list of intake questions contains items I think you'd expect, like ‘tell me about a hotel you loved staying at, and why,’ but I also want to know what kind of restaurants they go to for a special occasion when they're at home; what kind of restaurant would they go to in order to grab a quick lunch; how they spend a typical weekend; what's the best travel experience they've had and why; what's a travel experience that didn't work out, and why. If I can get a good feel for who they are and how they like to spend their time, then I can work with my partners to craft a trip they'll love every aspect of.
My clients are coming to me for dream trips that cover multiple European countries, for summer sabbaticals or for honeymoons... I'm not saying I won't book you at a great resort in Cancun for five days—I'm just saying that's not the focus of my particular business.
Before starting your business, you worked in a corporate job. How did you build Anthology Travel up to the point where it became your full-time job?
I try to be very frank about this because I don't want people thinking that I built up my business in six months of working on it part-time and was then suddenly able to quit my job. My husband is a partner at a consulting firm—he joined the partnership about two years before I launched my business, and it made a huge impact on our personal financial situation. I have the luxury of being able to build my business exactly the way I want to, even if it takes a couple of years for the profits to equal what I was making before. I realise that's a tremendous advantage not everyone has.
What is your approach to travel research?
I have access to a lot of resources that consumers don't have—number one being a lot of other extremely talented and experienced travel advisors. My first step, when dealing with a region I'm not familiar with, is to hop into some private Facebook groups and canvas other advisors that I trust. I also have access to incredible destination management companies (a part of the industry I didn't even know existed before I started my business). Destination management companies specialise in one geographic region and have stellar on-the-ground contacts and resources. If I'm booking something especially complicated, like a safari, I want to know there's someone on the ground who my clients can interface with if they have a problem.
For consumers, I'd say start on the outside and work your way in—if you have an idea about a part of the world you'd like to visit, begin with a very neutral source like wikitravel.org to gather basic information. Many countries also have great websites put together by their tourism boards to help with research. Once you know a little bit more about where you'd like to go and why, decide what's most important to you about your trip and dig into that. Whether it's hotels, food or experiences, find a couple of sources that you trust.
For hotels, I recommend The Telegraph's travel section and goop's travel guides as good starting points.
For food, my first stop is usually Eater.
I'll also pop in a plug here for my blog, The Anthology Edit, which attempts to be a distillation of my favorites in all of those categories.
How has your business evolved since you started it?
When I first started my business, I was operating under a model where I was only looking for clients who wanted to travel a lot and were willing to sign a retainer for a year's worth of travel planning. I still have a few clients like that and I love working with them on a plan to envision travel planning similar to financial planning (rather than a ‘bucket list’ of ‘someday’ experiences); if there's something they want to see or do, I want to help them figure out a way to make that happen.
I found during my first year of business that that's not a model that works for everyone, and there are clients I love working with for whom that didn't resonate. So I'm happy to do one-off trips as well, but I think it makes sense to involve me when it's more than just a run-of-the-mill vacation.
I've also really ramped up the number of honeymoons I'm planning, and I love those. It's such a great feeling to be able to give a bride and groom exactly what they need as they start their life together—and it's often the only part of their planning where they don't have to take other people's wishes into consideration.
I've recently started doing special events for corporate clients such as fundraising events, board retreats, etc. I love doing that kind of work and am actively looking to grow that stream of business in 2019.
You now travel a bit for work—how do you balance travel with work and everyday life?
Last year I really struggled with figuring out how much travel was too much, and I got a little burned out. I'm trying to be more mindful this year of having stretches of solid time at home to get work done and reconnect with friends and family. For instance, I have a lot of travel in February and early March, but then I have about five weeks at home before I have anywhere else to go. I'm still figuring out how to efficiently work while on the road—even when I'm travelling for pleasure, I'm constantly evaluating and analysing, as well as taking photos to use for future marketing content, so it can be hard to find time to check emails and keep things moving forward. I recently hired a virtual assistant, which has already been tremendously helpful.
For those who don’t want a generic travel experience, what is your number one travel tip?
Use a travel advisor! No, seriously, hire a professional—especially if it's an important trip. If you've absolutely got to do it yourself, then focus on getting away from the well-trodden path. Some places and things are justifiably on every traveller's list—Santorini is a great example of this. But you know what else is amazing? The rest of Greece! If you're somewhere like Paris and you REALLY want to see all the monuments, buy a ticket for the hop-on hop-off bus for your first day. You'll likely be super jetlagged, so ride the entire loop without getting off—you'll see all the things and be able to decide what looks interesting enough to return to for a closer look, all while gaining an understanding of how the city is laid out. And you won't feel disappointed that you didn't get to see the Eiffel Tower.
I'm personally a fan of slow travel and feel like most big cities warrant at least four or five days to properly explore them. Please don't try to pack in five stops in seven days—that's basically guaranteeing that you'll only have time for generic touristy things and you'll be TIRED. Assume you'll be back if you like it.
What destination are you dying to visit?
New Zealand is really high on my list right now, as is Australia—such beautiful landscapes and so many great luxury hotels! I loved visiting Portugal in 2018 and am scheming how to return there this year—I'd tack on a few days in the Azores this time.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to leave their 9–5 to start their own business?
Make sure you really want it. Running a small business is incredibly rewarding, but suuuuuch hard work. If you're someone who likes having a boss, or even having someone to bounce ideas off of, it can be really frustrating and lonely. I'm really lucky in that everyone I've met in the travel industry has been open and generous with their knowledge, time and friendship, but not all industries are like that. I'm also someone who really chafed under the strict hierarchy of a traditional office environment, so being able to make all the decisions about my business—for good or bad—aligns well with my personality.
How do you stay creatively inspired?
I'm constantly in a state of learning—about new destinations, new properties, new suppliers—and am absorbing travel-related information all day long, whether or not I'm working on a client proposal or itinerary. So it's easy to get inspired, but it's hard to get and remain focused.
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