Don Capparella, the CEO of Quality Travel Solutions, joins Small Biz Buzz to discuss how he adapted his travel agency through the hardships of COVID-19 when the travel industry took a major hit.
“We're going to save this industry. We're going to save our business and we created five pivots that we had to do to make sure that we were going to survive,” said Capparella. “We had to pivot our marketing. We had to pivot our client communications, pivot our offerings and destinations. We had to pivot our own internal process. And then we also had to pivot our mindset, which sometimes was the hardest.”
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You sounded so exasperated when you said, "Hey Crystal." You definitely sounded like a little brother, really annoyed.
Oh gosh. I had to quit Safari and open it up again.
Oh lord, I'm-
And now some video is playing somewhere.
I'll tell you, Don did the right thing. He planned a business that you can just work from wherever you're at. He was answering our crazy emails while we were traveling through Portugal. And he was, I forget where you were Don, but you were-
I was riding an elephant in Zimbabwe and I'm like, I got it covered, just give me two hours Crystal. I got it. I got it. We'll get you. We'll get you. Yeah. Yeah, totally. I love it.
For a while. I thought we were going to be stuck in the Algarve and I really kind of was like, ah, I mean, it's not that awful, but we do kind of want to see Lisbon.
There's worst fates you could have, but yeah, let's get going.
Yeah. A lot worse.
Welcome everybody to Small Biz Buzz. This is Dusey Van Dusen and I am joined by-
Hey, how's it going?
Good. How are you?
Thought I'd give you a long lead there to-
I know. I could see on your face on this Zoom, as we're recording this, you looked concerned I wasn't going to pick it up, but I am ready today. I'm here and focused.
Awesome. I didn't talk about it beforehand. So I thought I would do that. So today we have a guest with us. Our guest is Don. Don, do you want to introduce yourself a little bit? Tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Yeah, absolutely. My name is Don Cappella and I am the CEO of Quality Travel Solutions. We're a boutique travel agency based in Mesa and we have just been going through some interesting times the last few months-
...but overall it's an amazing business to be in and I can't wait to share some of the lessons learned that we've had.
And I too want to be really transparent to say this, Don is my travel agent and he's the best in the business, if you ask me. He's always answering emails at all times. So I just want to say he's definitely a great travel agent and I can't wait to hear, I've seen some of the stuff you've been doing in my emails, but I can't wait to hear you share some of the ways you've been adapting to everything going on right now.
Yeah. That's exactly what, we're bringing on some small business owners to talk through exactly that. The times they are a-changing and we want to give some examples to all of you, our listeners of, here's some small businesses that have been doing awesome, adapting to COVID and just all the stuff that's going on and how, hopefully give you guys some inspiration about some ways that you can more than just weather the storm, but continue to grow your business and really thrive. Right? So-
There's a lot of challenges out there. So hopefully, that's kind of what we want to address today. But first I want to ask or maybe tell a little bit of backstory here. Crystal, sometime ago mentioned a trip she was going on and said something about calling her travel agent. And I kind of looked at her and I said, travel agent?
Yeah. I'm not going to lie. I'm not going to lie. You were hesitant. You didn't understand why and I think I schooled you right then and there. Don, you can help me out here. But I was like, I don't know why more people don't use travel agents. The truth is for me, it makes it so easy to travel. I work. I mean you know, Dusey, I work long hours. I'm really passionate about my job. And the last thing I want to do is fight through 200 travel websites to find the best deal, figure out where the best places to go, the best hotels that I want to stay at based on what I'm looking for. And I'll tell you, Don is really, Quality Travel Solutions is really known for tours, but he has done two different boutique real, real boutique for my group.
This last one was a doozy. There was four of us ladies and we all have different needs and wants. We're pains in the butt. Don got in there, he masterminded everything, found out the things we like to do planned really awesome excursions. He had everything nailed down for us. We stayed in the best hotels. I think it was four- and five-star hotels across Spain and Portugal. And he made everything happen. And all we had to do was collect our tickets and get going. So, when I say I love using a travel agent, it just makes everything simple. All you do is get excited about your trip.
That was so awesome. And when you were explaining that to me, I was like, wow. You know, now that I have a family and that I'm busy and I've got a career, I'm like, yeah, I don't want to spend that. I want someone to do it for me please. [crosstalk 00:04:57] That was awesome.
Don, once I was telling him the ways of the world, when you work with a travel agent, I could see his little wheels turning. Like, yeah I would use a travel agent.
Well, I mean here's the thing. It's like, great. We don't charge any fees and we're here to save you time and money. Now why not use us, right? Now, if you want to go to Vegas for the weekend, I get it. You go online, you book your ticket, you book your hotel, knock yourself out. But if you're going to Tahiti or Italy or Spain or wherever you're going, why not use my services? It's free. And I've been to almost all the places. And if I haven't, somebody on my team has.
That's so cool.
So it's like a win, win. Right?
So I've got to ask if, this is my ignorant self and then we'll move on to actually about your business, but so if it's a free, what's the revenue model? How does that work?
So we get paid by the suppliers we use. So the hotels that we book, the cruise lines, the tour companies that we use. And so-
Oh my gosh.
...that's how we get paid and you're not getting charged any more than if you booked direct with them.
They just take a slice of the pie and send it over to me for doing business with them. And yeah, it's a great revenue model that people don't know about.
Don, I am in. That is awesome. That is so great. Oh my God.
Maybe I should have started with that Don, that you don't charge us anything.
Nothing. Nothing. You do not get charged.
Well, your team does a really good job too. I mean, you guys are really, like I said, he's attentive. He was riding an elephant. We had a problem while we were on our trip and he's answering us while he's riding an elephant. I think you were in Africa now-
I was, yep. I was down in Zimbabwe and we were playing with the lions the tigers oh my, and yeah, but you know what? We're always on in this profession, but, come on, we can travel the world live anywhere and we get to make people's travel happen. It doesn't get better than that.
That's so great. That's so great. So how did you start getting into all of this?
So I was a corporate executive before any of this, right?
I got my MBA. I did all the things that I was poised to do growing up and with my parental influence and for, I don't know, I guess it was 12 years, 13 years, I climbed the ladder and I was managing very large call centers now contact centers. And it was an amazing career, but I wasn't feeling fulfilled. I said there has to be more to life than working that daily grind. I need something that's creative and I need something that gives me freedom and flexibility. And 11 years ago, I decided to take the plunge and leave a very, very lucrative job but I had an 18-month plan. It wasn't okay, I'm going to quit tomorrow.
Yeah, I had an 18-month plan to start Quality Travel Solutions. And we started off slowly. There was two of us and now we're a team of 20.
Oh, wow. That is so cool.
Yeah. It's cool to see on your Facebook, as you keep growing and getting excited about new milestones [inaudible 00:00:08:37]. So I guess what I really want to know is before coronavirus hit, what were some of the big goals you had coming up to consider, what were you trying to do to keep growing?
So this year we brought on five new travel advisors, which was really exciting. They were leaving other careers and we said, no, come on over to the travel industry. Which in hindsight, when you look at saying that in December, and then two months later, you're like, hmm, I'm not sure I spoke so well, but leading up to it, the business was growing. I mean, we were growing by the million dollar mark each year and it was amazing. We were adding new tours. So we're a combination, we're a travel agency, but we're also a tour operating business and so we create our own custom tours that you can't find anywhere else. And it's great. And so we were poised for this year to be the best year ever.
You had so many tours, [crosstalk 00:09:56] so many, one every month you were going somewhere.
So many. I was looking at the schedule and I was like, okay, I'll make this happen. But they weren't, they were so exciting. We picked destinations that we're infatuated with. Not necessarily ones that we've been to when we lead our tours because I can't do the reconnaissance work ahead of time on everything. But yeah, we had rented a private yacht in Croatia for three weeks.
Oh, that one was making me jealous.
I mean, yeah. This year was supposed to be epic. Epic.
Well, it turned out to be epic in other ways, right? I mean who could have seen this coming.
If there was one, before we kind of move on to the adapting part of it, if there was one or two things that you could just encapsulate that you would say, this is how we got successful. Obviously, there's not this one small trick, but what would you credit your ability to keep growing to?
Customer service through and through. I mean, I believe that, everybody needs to, we drop what we do and we take care of our customers. We are not in the business of treating anybody like numbers. You know, there are a lot of travel agencies that are online and you dial and you sit there and you wait 30 minutes. No, you call me, I'm answering the phone. And so we really prioritize our travelers. I mean that is why we're in it. And frankly, that's why we love it. So, that has been the key to our success and also staying a small business has been the number two key because I've had the opportunity to either sell the business. I've also had the opportunity to merge and grow into a much larger business and I've said, no. I want to keep the boutique intimate feel and I think that's the most important for us in terms of longevity.
That's awesome. I love that. Absolutely love that.
Isn't that? I was telling Dusey that it was word of mouth that led me to Don through Lindsey Roberts first. That's one of my friends who told my sister about it for a birthday party and it was such a great experience. There was even more girls on that trip and just nailed it. It was so easy. And you just show up, we were in the Dominican, it was like overnight.
No, and I won't name names, but yeah, I was thinking this morning, it is five degrees of separation of how Crystal you came to QTS. It was somebody who worked with somebody who worked with somebody who worked with somebody and I'm still working with everybody. I love it.
Exactly. It's such a sign of having great customer service is that that word of mouth is really such a great way to grow. And then through that now three other of my girlfriends have now used you and loved the experience. So I just think you're killing it with the customer service. And you really, you made the trip of my dreams. I had been planning to go to Portugal for, I don't even know how long. My only complaint is that I don't treat myself enough to travel and I wish I could work with you at least once a year.
I know. Well, we all have to give ourselves the gift of travel. I really believe that. I will forego other expenses. Now there's going to be lots of travel value and bargains coming up. So you just hit me up.
Oh I will. I need a beach.
Yeah. So talking of what's coming up, I imagine there's not much if any travel going on right now. There might be places where it makes sense that someone's going from here to there. But I would love for you to walk us through, there's some of the obvious challenges, and then what you're doing to make it through.
Yeah. So, and you guys just shut me up if I get too chatty, because-
We'll will jump in Don.
Yeah you jump in. So I was leading a tour in South America. We were in Ushuaia, Buenos Aires and it was the beginning of March and the COVID virus, it was happening, but it really wasn't as prevalent or in the news. And then we got a notice on Friday that Sunday morning they were closing all airspace from Argentina back to the United States. And we were only halfway through this amazing tour that I had had planned for three years. [crosstalk 00:15:04] And so we scrambled, we had to do everything, got everybody back to Buenos Aires and got everybody back to the U.S. And then I live in Mexico and so I was the last flight out before they closed the borders and I got home and I was feeling a little shell shocked. Well, okay-
How candid can we be? I had to have a glass or three or five of wine.
Yeah. Because it was like, wow, what just happened? What does this mean for the business? And-
To be fair, if I remember from your Facebook, you actually started drinking on the plane. Because there was a picture of you that was like, we made the flight. We're on our way back to PV and you were sitting there with a drink.
Yes, there was one at the frequent airline club where I'm sitting. There weren't any seats. What does this mean? We didn't know what it meant and then we got home and within a week the phones started ringing and the texts and my 20 agents, again, several of them are new so they didn't really have any clients, but at least 10 of us were rocking and rolling. And we had an amazing year lined up and yeah, we saw the fallout immediately in terms of everybody was canceling. Everything that we had planned going forward was done. We went through a period of, okay, this is not looking good. It reminded us of the 2008 housing crisis. It reminded us of 9/11. And then a few days later we realized this was so much worse for the travel industry.
Yeah. I mean, I have to say, you say you went through a period, but it's a lot shorter than a lot of people in your place would have. I mean, you were rolling with it real quick. I mean, I felt like you adapted quickly. You knew what it was, but I mean, you've done a lot to really get through it and kind of keep people with the travel bug. So do you want to share some of what you've been doing?
Yeah, absolutely. So I worked with some of my other travel agency owners and we were really quick. We're like, okay, we're going to save this industry. We're going to save our business and we created five pivots that we had to do to make sure that we were going to survive. And so we had to pivot our marketing. We had to pivot our client communications, pivot our offerings and destinations. We'd have to pivot our own internal process. And then we also had to pivot our mindset, which sometimes was the hardest.
So which did you tackle first, the mindset or did you tackle some of the processes?
The first, so once you get over the shock, for me it was looking at the destinations. So I said, okay, we still need to sell travel. We need to survive. What are places that travelers are still willing to go to? And we came up with, let's focus more on domestic travel within the United States. There are several river cruise companies in the U.S. that do an amazing job. We also looked at doing three and four day city packages just to get people out of their hometown but be able to get away for the weekend and just have sort of a change of pace. And then we also looked at Caribbean and Mexico for the all inclusive resorts for people that you know what, they want to just, at this point, sit on a beach. They want to eat. They want to have some adult beverages. They want to socially distance. They don't want to spend a fortune. And that has been what the mainstay has been for me the last two months.
Okay. I heard you, before we started, something about you doing a lot of webinars now. What does that part of it look like?
So I am just really involved in the travel industry and we're doing a lot of webinars and training other travel professionals on how do you move forward? You know, this has been, it really has been tragic for the travel industry. We've seen people who, they were poised, they've lost 95% of their income. And so I'm trying to do whatever I can to make sure that people can rally back, even if it's in small increments, but not to give up and not to leave the industry.
It gives me the chills to hear you say that because as someone who loves to travel, I just feel like it's really quite awful what's happened. And you were actually one of the first people I thought of when we were thinking about all of what happened with all of this change and all of this. Morgan, the first thing my roommate said was basically, imagine if our trip was this year. Thinking of how disappointed we would have been. And I mean, you're balancing a lot. You have to keep your team motivated. You have to keep your clients motivated and interested in traveling. You've got a lot on your plate. So how are you balancing some of that? It sounds like you're being great to the travel industry, but how do you keep your own team going?
So that's a great question. That's the first time in all of the webinars that I've been focused on, that somebody has asked that question. So with my team, we had been doing monthly webinars via Zoom that would last for three hours and it was trainings and we'd bring in special guests. And I realized, well, everybody's sitting at home and we can take advantage of this time to train, show different travel tools. So we've been doing two or three meetings every week, since the start of this.
That's so great.
Yeah. And it's really brought the team together and then we also do a weekly happy hour on the weekends where we don't have an agenda and it is, let's just get together and talk about what's going good or what's not working. Right? Let's vent, let's have it. So, and then the other thing is we have an annual summer camp for Quality Travel Solutions where we bring all of our agents together and we bring suppliers and guest speakers and-
Sounds so fun.
Oh, yeah. Well it's a party and a half. And I got all the costumes all lined up in the other room. And they're coming down next Saturday and we're still moving forward with the summer camp because we don't believe that travel should stop. We do believe that some destinations, we need to put a pause on for just a little while, but we also believe that travel is not stopping. And so I have my team coming down and that's going to make us get, be a bit closer.
Yeah. I love those regular happy hours. Right? That's something that we've done on our team. We're saying, you know what, every Friday let's just get together and just chat, grab a drink, whatever. And still having that connection. Right? I've heard some people talk about, okay, the social distancing, maybe not being the best phrase, maybe it's physical distancing because we still need those social connections. Right?
I like that a lot.
Oh, I like this. Yeah. Not social. Yeah. I'm going to use that. I'm stealing that from you.
Okay. I stole it from some random Twitter user, but feel free.
We're just going to keep stealing. I like it. I like it.
Keep the stealing going and then it's all sharing really. It just becomes sharing.
So, okay. It sounds like you've got a great grip on like your team then, I've seen your emails. So I want you to really dive in for any other travel agents out there struggling. How are you keeping that travel bug alive in me? Like you really are making me, I told you this last week, I was ready to email you because I was like, I need to get out of here. I can't take it.
I'm going to interrupt here. I want you to think on that, Don, this is a tease. We're going to come back to that answer of what he's doing-
But we are going to take a moment for a brand new sponsorship. All right.
I can't wait.
This is a new segment that I don't believe you've all have heard before and we were calling this the Unsponsored Sponsorship. So here it goes, Tanya Merritt is the co-founder of Junk Right. [crosstalk 00:24:41] Yes. Tanya is fantastic. We here at Keap know her. We did a video with her you can go check out. She's fantastic.
She's no stranger to being a woman in a male dominated industry. She also runs in addition to her junk calling, Priority Pumping, which is a septic tank service company and a third company called Grayhawk Home Services.
She does it all.
Yeah she does. So-
She and I were supposed to be getting a cocktail when this ends and we're still having to wait.
It's still on. Yeah. It's still on. Yeah. So she knew that to stand apart from local services that she had to provide customer service, just like Don was saying, right? That is paramount. So she does her best. Does her best? She does amazing at going above and beyond customer service while running all these three businesses. She also knows that she's got to wear a lot of different hats, keep track of a lot of different moving parts. And it's easy to get stuck in the day to day of running your business.
She looked to Keap to automate and streamline a lot of those daily to do's. It's freeing her up to work on her business, not just to work, here's that I'm supposed to say it, to work on her business, not just in her business. Right? So she put it in a system in place that makes it easy for her customers to leave positive reviews. She knows instantly if there's a customer that needs some extra attention. So we just wanted to take a moment to celebrate Tanya Merritt and Junk Right. They exemplify the entrepreneurial spirit. We are happy to sponsor them. And in case it wasn't clear exactly what this is, they didn't pay for this. We just wanted to shout out to Tanya because we think that she is awesome. So go check out Tanya from Junk Right. So yeah. That's-
Great job Tanya.
Her focus on customer service really mirrors what you were saying to me, Don, that both of you are great examples of that. It's just so important to be thinking about how you can serve them. Great. So, well, thank you for that little break and now Crystal was asking about, okay, we're going through all these tough times and she's been getting some of your emails and would love to hear some of the details about things that you're doing. Did I get that right?
Yeah. Something like that. I was just saying, he's really keeping his clients bitten by the travel bug. The emails he's sending sometimes they, I think I saw a couple Don that where virtual tours of places and really just trying to get you excited and pumped up to go places either now or right when all of this is a little safer.
So yeah. We have a multilayer approach. At first, we were just sending emails as well as social marketing messages. Just reminding people like, hey, we're still here. Right? Like we haven't, we're not gone. And then we decided, you know what, people not necessarily ready to travel just yet. And so we were sending out recipes from around the world-
...or cocktail recipes from around the world and people were getting a kick out of it. We were getting a lot of response. They're like, Oh my God, I love that. I'm going to try that. Thank you. And then we went into soft marketing and we were just saying, when you're ready to travel again, here we are. Or if there's a destination you have in mind, but you're not ready, let us know, and we'll put some information together. So it's been sort of a multi-phase approach. And now we are back at the approach of saying, "Hey, do you want to go to the Caribbean for four nights, for $600, including airfare?" And we're getting a tremendous amount of response because the one thing I see is, some travel agencies they're promoting the world and I would like to do that but from an integrity perspective, I'm not ready, but I will sell destinations that I feel comfortable about. So yeah, like I'm ready, Caribbean, Mexico, Costa Rica. If anybody wants an all inclusive for five nights, we got it for you.
Yeah. And I was reading that article I told you about, and they were saying, how many cases per each of these different Caribbean islands? And they have very low cases.
It feels so much safer than being home. Really.
Yeah. So I have a link to a company that gives me an update on every island and when they open and we know that there's some wiggle room, right? Everything's changing in these times. But I know which destinations, if somebody is like I want to go to Antigua in August, or I want to go to Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao in September, we know exactly when you should or should not go. And the great thing is that these resorts are offering specials that are, I mean, I've been in the business for 11 years and I'm like, what do you mean you're offering an all inclusive rate at 59 a night? Okay, let's do it.
I know I can drink and eat at least $59 worth. Without even taking advantage of the resort stuff. I can drink and eat that.
It's been great, so.
You were saying to Dusey and I, that you've been seeing some growth because new people are experiencing the need to find the help of a travel agent, because kind of what you were just saying, the rules are all different, different places you're traveling to. So tell us about how you've kind of seized opportunity and are taking advantage of some new business.
Perfect. Thank you. So for my millennial clients who I love, love, love, there was just a lot of apprehension of, oh, should we use a travel agent? Like, what's the value, what's the benefit? And we talked earlier about the no fee structure, but it goes beyond that. Our values statement at Quality Travel Solutions is changing one, changing lives, one travel experience at a time. [crosstalk 00:31:21]
And we do a whole session with anybody who comes on my team. We do a, let's sit down and we're going to talk about what it means to change a life via travel. So, we're finding that many folks through the last three months, they've had some really bad situations in terms of, they had booked online or they'd booked with big agencies and they couldn't get a hold of a live person. And so we're really doing well in that folks are coming back to the small business owners and it's helping us. I mean, we're not where we were, but we are seeing a very big uptick in people that, they're just like, you know what? I'm not going to go online and book via name unsaid. We want the personal attention.
Yeah. It's needed right now. And I think the hope of that, at least for me, as someone who loves using your company, I would say the hope of that really is that right now it's hopefully sustaining you. And in the long term, I think it'll lead you to growth once the traveling picks back up again, even more than it already is starting to. Because you'll have new clients that experienced how great it is to travel with more like a hand picked feel, you know? [inaudible 00:32:59] I tell you, these are the kinds of things we like to do. I'm not sure which cities I should do them in. You were like, okay, we're going to do a, flamenco show, we're going to do some wine tasting. He had it all laid out and it was so easy.
It makes that personal connection, I think, is even more important in this time. Because like you said, if another company is freaking out and they're not sure how they're going to deliver on everything and you can't get a hold of them, people are going to leave. Right? It makes me think of a It's a Wonderful Life and the run on the bank, right? Where the ones that kept their heads cool and said, we're going to work through this and I'm right there with you. I'm talking with you. We're all in this together are able figure that out. But if a company like that shuts down and doesn't keep that connection with their customers, they're going somewhere else real fast. When a customer is coming to you in a place of anxiety, that's got to be, you've got to be right there on it, ready to help them and I can see that that makes a huge, huge difference in the way that you operate. That's fantastic.
Well, thank you Don, for spending some time with us, for sharing your story with us, for sharing, how you're adapting through COVID and just all the difficulties that come with it. We're very, very grateful for your time. And I can see that you've got grit and determination to make it through this. It's fantastic to see.
Thank you. It has, it's been a pleasure chatting with you guys today. Yeah. Keep Quality Travel Solutions in mind for future travel but otherwise, yeah.
Don, tell them where they can find you.
So qualitytravelsolutions.com is the best way to find us. And then we have all of our social media links and a direct phone number and email and all that. So yeah, that's www dot Quality Travel Solutions with the S on the end there, dot com.
And I just want to do kind of a bundle here of what I heard as far as like what you're taking to adapt. I think we've heard that you're really a great leader. You're practicing great leadership, both for your clients, your team, as well as the industry as a whole. So I think that's definitely one of the things you've done that has been successful. And then you talked about your multi-tier and I think being able to be nimble the way you have been and be able to, as one phase passes, you're not staying stuck there. You already know what the next phase will kind of look like. So you're planning ahead and you're adapting quickly. You're not just taking a one and done approach. So, that's kind of the two main things I heard just to kind of sum it up. Dusey, am I missing anything you heard?
That's the main stuff. I think just have a great attitude like Don. That's the biggest thing that I get out of this. So yeah.
Well, thank you so much, Don. I really appreciate you coming on today. I appreciate all the help you've given me traveling. And I think Don, I only have one favor to ask you, are you ready?
And I've asked you before, I'm asking while we're recording now. Get me like a singles tour that is with some men, new social distance meeting or physically distance meeting. I can't find a man right now. I can't travel. I need to be able to travel and find a man.
Oh we'll make that happen.
You just tell me where in the world you want that to be and I can make it happen. Would you like a little Aussie man or like little Spanish man? You know, the Italians are always good, too. So you tell me where and I got you covered girl.
Perfect. Thank you, Don. Thank you. Thanks so much for being here.
Well, that's a wrap.
Yeah. This has been Small Biz Buzz. Dusey Van Dusen, Crystal Heft, and Don. Thank you all for joining and listening. We will see you next time.
Speaker 1 (37:01):
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