Private, exclusive experiences will be more popular, and the industry will provide more of them. And people will be willing to pay for these experiences for their travel bubble. An example might be a private VIP, celebrity-style tour of Disney’s theme parks, with front-of-line access and behind-the-scenes stories. Another might be a private dinner under stars on beach at a resort in Maui.
As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Karen Shelton.
Dr. Karen Shelton is the founder and owner of two travel agencies — My Path Unwinding Travel and Luxury Travel PhD. She earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Alabama and has more than 20 years of experience working with children and families. Travel is a lifelong passion that turned into a natural second career. In 2015, Dr. Shelton started My Path Unwinding Travel, an agency dedicated to family travel and Disney destinations. After four years of growth and success, she started Luxury Travel PhD, an agency that boasts expert travel advisors dedicated to serving travelers who appreciate the finer side of vacationing on land and by sea.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m a licensed psychologist and was in private practice for more than 20 years. I also have a lifelong passion for travel, which eventually led me to this second career. As my husband and I traveled with our two children, my love for family travel grew, and I became a later-in-life, avid fan of Disney. I loved experiencing Disney through the eyes of my kids. And I enjoyed talking and networking with other Disney super fans and planning Disney travel. I even had a travel blog devoted to Disney; it was called “My Path Unwinding,” after a line in “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.”
I became the mom other moms would ask for Disney advice. One day, six years ago, at one of my son’s soccer matches, a mom thanked me for my Disney Cruise Line insight and then apologized for not booking that family vacation through me. I laughed. “I’m psychologist,” I said. “I’m not a travel agent.” And she said, “Well, you should be.” So, I sat down and thought about what it would take to open a travel agency. Because I’m a PhD, I like to research, so I spent the weekend digging into the travel industry and by the end of that weekend, I’d registered my LLC and started my first of two travel agencies, My Path Unwinding Travel.
Can you share the most interesting story that has happened to you since you started your career?
It’s hard to top my origin story. But here’s another interesting story: One of the trips I took to Mexico last fall ending up taking an unexpected turn. My goal was to encourage a safe return to travel and experience return-to-travel COVID protocols first hand. Well, it turned out that I had the “bonus” experience of hurricane protocols because of the surprise visit of Hurricane Zeta. I returned home safe and sound — and was impressed by all safety measures.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Not sure if this is the funniest mistake, but looking back it is funny to me how much I underestimated what this business would become. When I entered the travel business, I had no idea that mine would turn into the thriving business that it is. I thought I would just take a momentary step back from my psychology practice. I fully expected to be a one-woman show, with a travel agency side business.
But this is not a side business. And it’s not something I can do by myself.
I quickly realized that in order to thrive in this industry I needed connections and relationships. And I realized that making industry connections and building important relationships required volume — and that volume comes from having a team. Now I have a team of 16 travel advisors across two travel agencies. In 2019, I added Luxury Travel PhD, named for my first career and specializing in high-end, luxury travel. My Path Unwinding Travel continues to focus on Disney vacations and family travel.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
This can turn into a 24/7 career, because we are competing with the Internet, which is always on. It is important to be timely and responsive to clients’ needs. But it’s also important to carve out time for yourself and your family, just like you would hopefully do in any job. If you don’t, you will burn out. And who wants to book a vacation with someone who is so burned out that it sounds like they have never actually taken a vacation?
It’s important to build up a support network — a team — so that you can take a vacation and experience what you are selling. The best way to sell a destination is to experience it first.
I joke that I work 24/7 so that I don’t have to work 9/5. I enjoy flexible hours. I enjoy reading about travel and talking about travel, so it doesn’t always feel like work. But it is important for me to turn off the computer and, when I am traveling, to focus on the destination from the point of view of a traveler and not someone in the industry.
None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person whom you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Well, there’s the soccer mom who sparked the entire idea with a casual comment about how I should be a travel agent. I’m super grateful for her life-changing observation.
I’m also grateful for a small group of industry colleagues and how we support one another as women business owners. We all started our travel agencies around the same time, and each of us also became Authorized Disney Vacation Planners around the same time. It’s a trusted, go-to group for problem solving and support. While we are all in the same business, we don’t feel competitive with each other; we know there is room for all of us to grow and thrive. I am so thankful I found this trusted tribe.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
We are building relationships via our social media channels. These are two-way conversations rather than one-dimensional, self-serving selling tools. Relationships are always innovative, because they work. People want to do business with other people, not machines or apps. And they want to work with subject matter experts, not order takers. So this is how we approach connecting with our clients through social media. My team has Facebook groups to chat about specific vacation hopes, dreams and goals — like Disney Cruises or Four Seasons properties.
We aren’t just marketing to clients or advertising to clients. We are developing relationships based on shared interests and experiences. We are sharing information freely and openly, even before people are our clients and even if they might never become our clients. Our biggest success has come from creating communities from these Facebook groups. Clients come organically to us this way, without us always having to directly sell to them. And it’s more fun, because like I said, I love to talk about and write about travel.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
Some of my colleagues in the travel industry think you shouldn’t help people or give them travel advice until they are your client. The feeling is people will take the free advice and then go book everything themselves. But I am willing to take that risk, because over time — and during events like a global pandemic — our value becomes evident.
It’s about planting seeds. And the pandemic has helped demonstrate the value of having a real person to serve as your travel advocate, someone who will answer phone calls, emails, texts, Facebook messages. My team and I are proud that we know the little things that really aren’t so little — like the family who has a child with a severe peanut allergy or the spouse who hates crowds. We are able to anticipate, recommend, problem solve. You can’t get that from an online booking engine; only a real person who knows you can give you that level of service.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
It comes back to customer service and relationships. People don’t want to DIY everything. And artificial intelligence is great and all, but it will never replace the empathy required when working with travelers who have to cancel a dream vacation during a pandemic and don’t know when they can rebook that travel.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
- Private, exclusive experiences will be more popular, and the industry will provide more of them. And people will be willing to pay for these experiences for their travel bubble. An example might be a private VIP, celebrity-style tour of Disney’s theme parks, with front-of-line access and behind-the-scenes stories. Another might be a private dinner under stars on beach at a resort in Maui.
- More flexible terms and cancellation policies will be in place for some time. Travelers are going to require that peace of mind — to confidently plan a vacation, knowing they are not locked in. Resorts that used to require payment in full upfront and allowed fully refundable cancellations only 30 to 60 days in advance are now allowing you to cancel up to the day before. We will see a rise in cancel-for-any-reason travel protection like that.
- Closer-to-home, driving distance luxury experiences will continue to be super popular, particularly for the next year or two. For example, in the Charlotte, North Carolina area, where I live, the Montage Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, South Carolina, is a hidden gem for both adult-only and family vacations. Consumers are going to continue to crave five-star resort experiences not far from their own backyards.
- In terms of the cruise industry, smaller ocean-going ships and river cruising will be more popular. Having smaller groups of passengers allows for more private and exclusive experiences. And with river cruises, being closer to land at all times makes many travelers feel more comfortable — and that will be important as the world starts to open back up.
- You will see more private villa options, even at resorts. Resorts will look to position themselves as having the best of both worlds — private accommodations and full access to robust resort amenities. An example of this is the Villa Maroma, a private villa at the El Dorado Maroma at Riviera Maya. The Villa Maroma is a five-bedroom beachfront villa with private pool, and you can have a private chef and butler service. And you get to take advantage of the full resort. You will see more hybrid resorts like this in order to accommodate travel bubbles.
You are a “travel insider.” How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience?”
Oh, wow, that’s really hard. There are so many perfect vacation experiences. I am happiest traveling with my family and being on the water, especially on a cruise. There is nothing more relaxing than being on the ocean, staring out over the water, glass of wine in hand.
And I love the luxury touches — a private dining room and butler service. I enjoy being on a vacation that introduces me to other like-minded travelers who appreciate the finer side of vacationing or cruising. We have met some of our best friends on our vacations. I love the opportunity to be spoiled and to meet other travelers and am looking forward to being able to do that again as soon as possible.
Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
One of the things I really enjoy the most is being able to connect people with each other so they can make new friends to share their vacation experiences. People in my Facebook groups have ended up meeting in real life and traveling together. That really has happened. I love knowing that I helped introduce and connect people and create wonderful travel memories.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
There is a voluntourism movement. It’s small. Some resorts are building that in — where you can spend some of your time at your destination giving back to the area. I would love to see voluntourism grow. I would love to see more offerings for families and even socially conscious teens wanting to combine vacationing and volunteering. Imagine the entire Spring Break party scene being transformed into a more positive and enriching experience for all.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am an early adopter/member on Clubhouse: @luxurytravelphd
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!