Editor's note: This article was excerpted from our Travel Services start-up guide, available from Entrepreneur Bookstore.

Downturns in the economy can't stop it. Weather conditions can't shut it down-at least, not for long. Even the catastrophic events of 9/11 couldn't derail it. It, of course, is the travel industry, and while the economy and unforeseen incidents that tragic day in September have tended to slow down the pace of travel, the industry continues to enjoy robust activity despite challenges that are enough to send other industries into tailspins. No doubt that's because people will always want or need to go places, whether it's to a business meeting or conference, to spend the holidays with Grandma in another state, or just to enjoy some much deserved R&R.

This overall need to travel that's shared by average citizens and corporate denizens alike means that this is an excellent time to launch a travel services business. The travel industry is huge. Research by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) indicates that the travel and tourism industry generates $1.3 trillion in economic activity in the U.S. every year. That's equivalent to $3.4 billion a day, $148 million an hour, $2.4 million a minute and $40,000 a second. No wonder the opportunities for aspiring travel services business owners abound.

Today's travel services experts offer a wide array of valuable and time-saving services to individuals, groups and corporate clients. Besides acting as ticketing agents for the airlines, cruise lines, railroads and other modes of transportation, they also engineer complex itineraries. They suggest exotic destinations that might appeal to adventurous customers, then dole out advice on how to get passports and visas. They offer timely information about important travel advisories. They help coordinate all the details necessary to stage a special event, like conventions or weddings in tropical locations. And they know exactly who to contact to arrange a lei greeting at an airport or to have the body of a client's loved one shipped home.

Different Paths
Here's a brief look at the five different types of travel service businesses covered in this article, and in Travel Services start-up guide:

1. Homebased: If you want to keep your overhead low and your profits high, this could be the type of business for you. Thanks to the internet, homebased agents have at their command all the same tools that used to be available only at a traditional brick-and-mortar travel agency. The internet also has delivered another important advantage to homebased travel services: Such businesses are no longer expected to be brick-and-mortar. After years of buying books online, bidding and selling in online auctions, and paying bills online, customers today are very comfortable buying all kinds of services via the internet-and in fact, they look rather askance at companies that do not have an internet presence since they want to surf for information day and night.

It's also important to note that it's possible to run any of these five types of businesses from the comfort of your home, although specialty/niche businesses, corporate businesses and franchise business are the most likely to be based in a brick-and-mortar facility.

2. Independent contractor: If you like working in a traditional travel agency but love the freedom of being your own boss even better, then working as an independent contractor in the travel industry could be the right move for you. Independent contractors make their own hours (with the needs of the travel agency in mind, of course), build their own client list, and are solely responsible for paying their own way at tax time. At the same time, they benefit from having a physical office where they can meet with clients, pick up walk-in business, and drop the name of an established agency when they make cold calls or follow up on leads. That gives you the type of credibility that can be very valuable when you're just starting out on your own.

But you don't have to be present physically in someone's office to be an independent contractor. Some travel agents, like Bill Jilla, an independent contractor in Florida, handles travel arrangements and other services for an established company right from the comfort of his home office, although he also has worked as an independent contractor in a brick-and-mortar travel agency.

3. Specialty/niche business: Since leisure travel makes up 80 percent of total sales in the travel industry (according to Plunkett Research), there are plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs who want to offer specialty travel services. You can get into the field in more than one way. First, you can offer tours and packages tailored to the interests and needs of particular groups. Second, you can choose to offer very specialized niche services that will appeal to a very narrow demographic. For example, California entrepreneurs Michael Chu and Ying Liu offer a highly specialized set of services to business travelers to China. Third, you can offer luxury travel services. For example, on entrepreneur we've met offers charter airline services to top-level business travelers and another arranges stays in luxury villas in both the United States and abroad.

4. Corporate travel: Actually a type of niche travel service, corporate travel has been singled out in this book because of the various opportunities it offers. But beware, it can be difficult to break into this particular field. A lot of companies already have their own in-house staff or have been dealing with the same travel agency for eons. However, new companies of all kinds with no previous travel agency ties spring up all the time and may be open to the idea of having their own travel service, while others may be looking for a new company because they aren't entirely happy with the job their existing travel agency is doing. Conversely, you might be able to land a spot as an independent contractor or homebased agent on a travel agency team that already has an established clientele. Either way, there is money to be made for the right entrepreneur.

5. Franchise: If you like the idea of launching a "plug and play" business that is ready to go right out of the box, then a travel services franchise could be your ticket to success. With a franchise, you purchase the rights to use a tried and true concept, as well as the name recognition and business procedures that come along with it. However, you do have to conform to the franchisor's established methods of doing business. In addition, the best franchisee is a person who has been successful in a previous career, because, of course, franchises don't run themselves and a basic knowledge of established business practices is necessary.

How to Start a Travel Service

Prospective Clients

No matter which type of travel service you choose to start, you'll find that your clients will come from many backgrounds and from across socio-economic lines. Among those who are likely to use your services are:

  • Families
  • Honeymooners
  • Singles
  • Retired people and snowbirds
  • Spring break and summer abroad students
  • People who want to arrange specialty group tours (i.e., physically challenged, gay/lesbian, Christian, etc.) and are looking for services designed specifically for them
  • Business travelers
  • People who are relocating due to a change in job or other circumstances

In addition, others who are likely to turn the wheel of their trip planning over to you include:

  • The internet-challenged, who don't have the knowledge or are unwilling to navigate through online reservation websites
  • People who need help planning the many facets of a complex trip
  • First-time cruisers who don't know where to begin
  • People looking for adventure on an ecotour (i.e., ecologically or environmentally focused tours, like a trip down the Ganges river or through a Brazilian rain forest)
  • Anyone who wants to save time and money by taking advantage of travel agents' insider knowledge

Earnings Potential
With so many people potentially clamoring for your services, you would think it would be a cinch to earn a living in this industry. But the reality is, it takes time to build a clientele, and as a result your earnings could be a little low in the beginning. For this reason, travel industry experts recommend working on a part-time basis until you've acquired enough regular clients to keep the business afloat. Alternatively, if you have a spouse or significant other who can cover the household expenses and provide the health-care insurance while your business is in its infancy, you have a better chance of surviving those lean early years.

As you may know, today's travel services earn their living from two sources: Commissions paid by travel-related bookings and service fees charged to the end-user (aka client). Unfortunately, though, it's not unusual for a travel agent to spend a lot of time planning a trip, coordinating details and ticketing, and otherwise toiling on behalf of the customer, then earn just a $40 fee for their trouble. It should be clear that volume-as well as sales of higher-end products like all-inclusive cruise packages-is key to success in this industry. On the commission front, the industry standard is 10 to 15 percent of the net cost of the product. Very high-volume cruise companies pay as much as 18 to 20 percent, although this is relatively rare.

As for what you might be able to earn annually once your client base solidifies, the OOH reports that the median annual earnings of travel agents is $27,640, while the lowest 10 percent earn less than $17,180 and the top 10 percent earn more than $44,090. It's important to note, however, that these figures reflect earnings for travel agents in traditional businesses; OOH does not collect information about homebased travel services. But it's probably safe to say that because homebased agencies have much lower overhead, the potential to earn more exists.

"After a few years, you can easily clear six figures. It just depends on how good a salesperson you are," says Evan Eggers, a New Hampshire online cruise business owner. "Your number-one indicator of success is a proactive sales personality. You can't just sit back and take orders-you have to do things like follow up with clients and send 'thank you' notes after their trip. Once you have the train rolling down the tracks, you'll be OK. But in the beginning, it can be ugly. You need to assume your cash flow will be delayed by a year-and that's a conservative estimate."

In fact, a recent Travel Weekly magazine article indicated that some homebased travel agents, including some who work just part time, earned well over $100,000 a year. That could be you, too, with some hard work and determination.

How to Start a Travel Service

Types of Services

The types of services typically offered by a travel professional include:

  • Offering one-stop shopping for all travel arrangements
  • Creating itineraries and travel schedules that mesh with clients' interests
  • Ferreting out the best prices and schedules
  • Booking airline tickets and reserving seats
  • Booking cruises and cruise/tours
  • Reserving hotels and other accommodations
  • Arranging for rental vehicles and other ground transportation
  • Creating specialty tour packages and possibly serving as the tour leader
  • Arranging customized events, like conventions or destination weddings
  • Offering travel insurance
  • Advising clients about passport/visa requirements, travel advisories, inoculation needs and other domestic and international travel requirements
  • Acting as a travelers' advocate (fighting for consumers' rights; assisting travelers with special needs, intervening with suppliers when problems arise)
  • Coordinating the million or so other details necessary to ensure clients' satisfaction

A Day in the Life
No matter which types of services you decide to offer, there are certain tasks you can expect to do regularly, if not daily, in the course of running your new business. In addition to booking airlines and reserving hotel rooms, both of which are the mainstays of a travel business, those tasks include:

Qualifying clients: Done either by phone, online or in person, you'll find out where your clients want to go, what they want to see, and what they want to pay, then determine whether you have the right product or service available to fulfill those needs. Other pertinent info you'll want to gather includes how they want to travel (air, rail, etc.), how long they'll want to stay, when they want to go, how many people will be traveling, and whether there are any seniors or children who might qualify for travel discounts.

Maintaining records about clients' travel preferences: It's helpful to use a database to track information about clients' preferences (including transportation seating and hotel smoking vs. nonsmoking preferences), as well as frequent flier number(s), hotel amenities needs, and other factors you can refer back to so you can provide a customized travel experience every time.

Researching travel destinations: Regardless of whether you've visited a particular destination or not, you'll need to keep up with the changes (both good and bad), attractions and innovations in the most popular tourist areas, as well as explore the new ones your clients mention. Of course, the internet has made the process of researching a breeze.

Managing your website/online leads: Speaking of the internet, pretty much every business owner needs to have a website these days, and it needs to be fresh and updated regularly so it continues to attract traffic. While you may decide to use a contract web designer/administrator to look after your site, you may also be able to do the updating yourself. Additionally, if your site is your travel business, you'll need to check e-mail often to keep up with requests for information, brochures and those all-important travel reservations.

Handling office administration: This includes answering the phone, opening mail, reading e-mail, handling accounts payables/receivables and paying bills.

Reviewing business reports: You need to keep track of income and profit and loss statements and the other paperwork that keeps you apprised of the health of your business.

Purchasing: There are always office supplies to buy and brochures and travel guides to order.

Overseeing staff: When you're just starting out it's almost always better to hold off on hiring staff, but if it's unavoidable because of the nature or anticipated volume of your travel business, you'll have to spend some time managing your employees. Tasks may include creating work schedules, managing payroll and refereeing when disagreements break out. This also applies if your staff is not onsite, in which case you may have to make site visits from time to time to check things out.

Pursuing professional development opportunities: This can run the gamut from taking a seminar at your local community college to pursuing a degree in hospitality services.

Networking: Besides hobnobbing with other travel industry professionals, you'll want to get involved with local organizations like the chamber of commerce, the Rotary Club and other civic organizations, both as a way to pick up tips and advice that can help you do business better and as a way to generate leads and referrals for new business.

Taking fam trips: OK, so we downplayed the likelihood that you'll be able to travel on someone else's dime. But you'll still need to travel from time to time on these "familiarization" trips to learn firsthand about what's new and exciting in travel, what popular destinations offer, and so on. Seasoned travel business owners try to lump a few destinations into one trip to limit the amount of time they spend on the road (and away from the business, where the money is made). Others, like Susan Tindell, a Wisconsin travel franchisee, allow staff to take the trips and report back on their findings. Tindell offers such trips as a job perk and actually earmarks a certain amount of money every year per employee for this purpose.

How to Start a Travel Service

A Closer Look at Specialty/Niche Travel Services

Now is really a great time to enter the specialty travel market. Americans have a lot more disposable income than ever before-and women, in particular, are spending it on travel. In addition, by 2010 the oldest of the baby boomer generation will reach age 65, and those who have hung onto jobs until then just may jump onto the travel bandwagon to see what they've been missing during their wage-earning years. The Travel Institute, a leading travel trade association, estimates that travel and tourism is a $1.3 trillion industry in the United States-and it's growing. That means there's many opportunities for you.

You can start this business as a homebased venture, which will keep your overhead low, or work as an independent contractor for another company. Whichever way you go, it's important to note that experienced travel business owners emphasize that specialization is imperative if you want to have the best chance at success in the travel industry. "Finding a niche is very important. Offer a specialized service like skiing or foreign incentive travel-anything that's not available in a tour book," says Bill Jilla, the Florida independent contractor. "That's how I built my business. I used my expertise and knowledge to create specialized products, then I was able to charge higher service fees for them."

Evan Eggers, the New Hampshire online cruise expert, concurs. "Just type 'vacation' into Google and see what your competition will be," he says. "[Over] 11 million hits later you'll see why you need to specialize. You need a focus-or you won't be successful. The key is to find your strength and make it into a competitive advantage. Our strength [at SureCruise.com] is that we're 'propeller heads,' and when cruise lines quietly drop their prices, we tell everyone, and [our customers] love it. As a result, we have lots of traffic on our website."

Paths to Entering the Field
There are two main ways to get into the specialty travel field:

  1. Specialize in tours and packages tailored to the interests and needs of particular groups, either as a travel agent advisor or a tour operator. Commonly offered tours include honeymoon packages, cruise or European tours, as well as student travel and family-focused trips. Or you can deviate from the prepackaged offerings from your suppliers and get creative by offering packages of your own making, including everything from eco-tours (i.e. expeditions to the Arctic or archeological dig sites), to tornado-chasing, golden-ager expeditions and other excursions created for specific demographic groups, such as physically challenged or gay/lesbian travelers.
     
  2. Offer a very specialized niche travel service that appeals to a very narrow demographic. The trick is, of course, to find a niche with big sales potential, either because it's attached to a demographic with high-income levels or because there could be a lot of demand. One such niche is luxury travel. We've already met two entrepreneurs who have been very successful in this arena. Whether you want to offer specialized travel services like they do or you simply wish to handle travel for the rich and famous, as Filip Khan, a Detroit travel agent, does, there's a wealth of opportunity in this arena for the right services.

Cruise-Only Travel Service
While you can come up with a travel itinerary for just about any niche group, there's no question that the niche with the most sizzle is cruises. They're definitely the fastest growing segment in the travel industry. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) forecasts that cruise passenger levels will be up by more than half a million people this year, or 4.1 percent, over the previous year. And of course, the 12.6 million cruise passengers who will take to the seas this year will need to buy their tickets and packages somewhere, which means that specializing in a muy caliente market could be a very savvy career move, indeed.

Eggers recommends keeping your costs down if you start a cruise business by either building a very strong website that induces potential customers to call you (which negates the need for a team of salespeople) or establishing an online cruise service as he did. "We serve more than 2,000 customers annually and have experienced 50-percent growth without staff, all because of technology," he says. "Have your home computer system built to [the cruise lines' specifications] so you can get a commitment from them to share information about their specials, then pass it along to customers."

Startup Costs
Depending on whether you work out of a home office or in a brick-and-mortar facility, your startup costs can vary widely. As mentioned before, it's recommended that you establish your new business at home to keep costs down. Otherwise, you'll find the startup costs will mount quickly.

You'll find a sample startup expenses chart in the Travel Services start-up guidethat lists the costs for two fictitious travel service businesses: Roaming With Russell Tours, a homebased sole proprietorship that specializes in European travel, costs $4,644 to start. Sea Cruise Travel, an online cruise specialist with two agents (the owner and an independent contractor who works part time) that has higher startup costs of $21,293.

How to Start a Travel Service

A Closer Look at Corporate Travel Services

Leisure travel may make up 80 percent or more of the $1.3 trillion travel industry, but if you want to make big money, starting a corporate travel service could be the way to go.

Even though the economy cyclically ascends and plunges like a careening roller coaster and companies slash their travel expenditures in response, the corporate travel industry manages to remain strong. The National Business Travel Association's Business Travel Overview and Cost Forecast indicates that even though corporate travel managers will continue to try to contain costs and push for value for the companies they work for, nearly 68 percent expect their companies' traveling executives to take more business trips, and nearly 46 percent think their companies will send a greater number of people out on the road. In addition, nearly 38 percent anticipate that travel management company (TMC) contracts will open for bid in the near future as a way to trim costs.

Ways to Enter the Field
You have several viable options for building your corporate travel business. Your choices include working as:

An independent contractor who is part of a corporate travel team: Corporate travel departments often experience highs and lows in business travel and may need someone knowledgeable to step in during the peaks. Because you're a contractor, you could actually be on call for more than one travel department. But as a professional courtesy, you'll want to let your clients know you're working for others. It's possible to work either onsite for these departments or from the comfort of your home office.

An independent contractor with a TMC: You'd pretty much have the same arrangement as you would with a corporate travel department. The difference is you're likely to work on bigger accounts (since TMCs often have a big stable of large clients), which means your take after splitting with the house could be much higher. You might work onsite for the company or in a home office.

A homebased independent contractor: In this manifestation you would have to land your own clients and service your little heart out to keep them happy. This is the way both Khan and Bill Jilla, the Florida homebased travel service owner, operate. Often, when you're first starting out, you will have to make cold sales calls to find clients, which can be difficult if you don't naturally have a gift of gab or you're on the reserved side. In addition, cold calling can be demoralizing: a 20 percent success rate (2 out of 10 calls) is considered fantastic when it comes to cold calling, although your rate will probably be much lower-5 percent or less-because that's just the way it goes with cold calling. The important thing is not to take rejection seriously and to soldier on, but sometimes that can be difficult.

Responsibilities
Corporate travel service business owners often handle a wide range of responsibilities. In addition to booking airline tickets (and adding a service fee to them to offset the zero commission rate) and performing all the other booking services that go along with being a travel agent, corporate travel agents may also offer additional services:

  • Finding last-minute deals for last-minute bookings
  • Offering assistance with visas and passports
  • Coordinating airport transportation
  • Researching destinations for company fact-finding missions
  • Handling executives' special requests (i.e., having cardio equipment delivered to a hotel room, arranging for limousines, etc.)
  • Making all the arrangements necessary for a company to hold or attend conventions or conferences
  • Providing other meeting and group planning services
  • Providing custom travel management and expense reports to help companies keep travel costs under control

By the very nature of the corporate business model, many of these services may be requested with little notice. But rather than being a nuisance, rush jobs are an opportunity to charge higher fees, including expedited service fees, although you should play that one by ear. You may not want to ratchet up fees for a valued client who gives you a lot of business unless the work is always on a rush basis.

Clientele
Virtually any company is a potential client, although larger companies with a lot of employees on the road are probably more likely to be open to the idea of contracting out their travel service needs. Your clients are mostly likely to include:

  • Companies that are too small to have their own travel staff and too busy to spend much time doing it themselves
  • Corporate travel departments that can use an extra hand from an independent contractor
  • Travel management companies that need ongoing assistance
  • High-level executives who travel so much they need a dedicated travel services person to handle their arrangements
  • Entertainers, musicians (including bands) and professional athletes

How to Start a Travel Service

Low-to-No-Cost Promotional Techniques

So now that you've probably spent all or most of your startup capital-on paper, at least-here's some good news: There are a few more things you can do to promote your business that are free or virtually cost-free. Public relations tools like newsletters and feature articles, as well as tactics like public speaking and networking, won't necessarily replace word-of-mouth and good old-fashioned advertising techniques. But they do have a place in a marketing campaign because they can generate extra exposure for your business and increase goodwill among prospective clients, both of which can drive new clients to your business. Here's how to use these powerful public relations tools.

Newsletters
Newsletters are a great tool for business development. In addition to giving you a forum where you can talk at length about the services and specials you offer, you'll find that newsletters are easy to produce and light on the budget, especially if they're digital rather than print. Most commonly, travel services owners use newsletters to prospect for new business, keep previous customers informed about current specials, and generate interest in new destinations and packages they're offering. All you need to become a newsletter publisher is a computer, software like Microsoft Office (which has a number of newsletter templates you can customize), some colorful adjectives and a little imagination.

There are two kinds of newsletters most commonly used by travel services businesses. Informational newsletters usually contain info about new travel packages and destinations, travel tips, advisories, bios of the owner and/or staff, if applicable, and anything else that might be interesting to a traveler. They may also contain profiles of selected destinations ("What to see on Wednesdays in Kuala Lumpur"), fun things like checklists ("Top 10 things to do in Fiji with chewing gum and a ball-peen hammer!"), and easy quizzes ("Name that volcano goddess!"). In addition to using them to prospect for new business, informational newsletters can be used to touch base with your existing clients on a regular basis, especially around peak vacation periods.

Hotsheets are another type of newsletter favored by travel professionals. The equivalent of a newspaper "extra" edition, hotsheets are usually used to provide "breaking news" about tour operator and airline specials, in-house specials (including gimmicks like offering a free flight bag with a paid booking), and other time-sensitive information. While you can certainly create a printed hotsheet that can be mailed or faxed, people are now so used to booking trips at the last minute through online consolidators like Expedia.com and Hotwire.com that e-mailed hotsheets often work best.

Feature Articles
Even if you're new to the travel industry, the mere fact that you own a travel services business, no matter how freshly minted it may be, automatically makes you an authority in the eyes of anyone who doesn't own a travel services business. So capitalize on the perception that you're in the know by publishing feature articles.

Even if you've never been published in any way, shape or form before-not even a letter to Santa in the local newspaper-it's not impossible to get published, especially in local publications. Editors love getting material that's suited for their lifestyle sections, especially when it comes in over the transom (journalism parlance for "unsolicited"), it's free (because it's promotional in nature), and it covers a hot topic that everyone is talking about. You don't even have to worry excessively about grammar and punctuation-copy editors will fix up the small boo-boos, slap a headline on your story, and splash it across the lifestyle section-or if you're lucky, the travel section. Of course, do not attempt this at home if you don't have at least rudimentary English skills. A story that's full of usage and grammatical errors will quickly wing its way to Shredder Heaven.

As with newsletters, informational articles, how-tos and checklists are always popular with both newspaper and magazine editors. Make your submission stand out by giving it a sexy headline, like "Naughty Valentine's Day destinations" (for a honeymoon cruise) or "Take a flying leap into the Grand Canyon" (for a southwest parasailing tour) to capture editors' attention. Putting a negative spin on a headline can also be provocative, as in "The top 10 most dangerous cities to visit."

Public Speaking
Public speaking can help you quickly make a name for yourself as a travel expert-and if you leave enough business cards at the registration table or on the podium, guess who they'll call when they need to book a trip or buy airline tickets? So look for organizations whose members fit the demographics of the customers you're seeking and offer your services as a speaker for their membership meetings. As with feature articles, you may receive nothing or a small honorarium in return for your time. But when the calls start coming in later, you'll find the public appearances were well worth the time.

Some of the membership groups that are always looking for speakers include the chamber of commerce, the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis Club and Soroptimist International. You might also check to see whether there's a startup entrepreneur group, as Michael Chu and Ying Liu of ChinaStar101.com did, and offer to speak about your own startup experience. Local libraries are also great places to speak on destination topics, as are groups like garden clubs, hospital auxiliary groups and any other organization whose members mirror your target market. Just be sure to slant your talk to the audience. For instance, if the membership of the local chamber of commerce is largely composed of men who are aged 60 and up, don't give a talk about family-friendly vacation spots.

How to Start a Travel Service

Editor's note: This article was excerpted from our Travel Services start-up guide, available from Entrepreneur Bookstore.

Downturns in the economy can't stop it. Weather conditions can't shut it down-at least, not for long. Even the catastrophic events of 9/11 couldn't derail it. It, of course, is the travel industry, and while the economy and unforeseen incidents that tragic day in September have tended to slow down the pace of travel, the industry continues to enjoy robust activity despite challenges that are enough to send other industries into tailspins. No doubt that's because people will always want or need to go places, whether it's to a business meeting or conference, to spend the holidays with Grandma in another state, or just to enjoy some much deserved R&R.

This overall need to travel that's shared by average citizens and corporate denizens alike means that this is an excellent time to launch a travel services business. The travel industry is huge. Research by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) indicates that the travel and tourism industry generates $1.3 trillion in economic activity in the U.S. every year. That's equivalent to $3.4 billion a day, $148 million an hour, $2.4 million a minute and $40,000 a second. No wonder the opportunities for aspiring travel services business owners abound.

Today's travel services experts offer a wide array of valuable and time-saving services to individuals, groups and corporate clients. Besides acting as ticketing agents for the airlines, cruise lines, railroads and other modes of transportation, they also engineer complex itineraries. They suggest exotic destinations that might appeal to adventurous customers, then dole out advice on how to get passports and visas. They offer timely information about important travel advisories. They help coordinate all the details necessary to stage a special event, like conventions or weddings in tropical locations. And they know exactly who to contact to arrange a lei greeting at an airport or to have the body of a client's loved one shipped home.

Different Paths
Here's a brief look at the five different types of travel service businesses covered in this article, and in Travel Services start-up guide:

1. Homebased: If you want to keep your overhead low and your profits high, this could be the type of business for you. Thanks to the internet, homebased agents have at their command all the same tools that used to be available only at a traditional brick-and-mortar travel agency. The internet also has delivered another important advantage to homebased travel services: Such businesses are no longer expected to be brick-and-mortar. After years of buying books online, bidding and selling in online auctions, and paying bills online, customers today are very comfortable buying all kinds of services via the internet-and in fact, they look rather askance at companies that do not have an internet presence since they want to surf for information day and night.

It's also important to note that it's possible to run any of these five types of businesses from the comfort of your home, although specialty/niche businesses, corporate businesses and franchise business are the most likely to be based in a brick-and-mortar facility.

2. Independent contractor: If you like working in a traditional travel agency but love the freedom of being your own boss even better, then working as an independent contractor in the travel industry could be the right move for you. Independent contractors make their own hours (with the needs of the travel agency in mind, of course), build their own client list, and are solely responsible for paying their own way at tax time. At the same time, they benefit from having a physical office where they can meet with clients, pick up walk-in business, and drop the name of an established agency when they make cold calls or follow up on leads. That gives you the type of credibility that can be very valuable when you're just starting out on your own.

But you don't have to be present physically in someone's office to be an independent contractor. Some travel agents, like Bill Jilla, an independent contractor in Florida, handles travel arrangements and other services for an established company right from the comfort of his home office, although he also has worked as an independent contractor in a brick-and-mortar travel agency.

3. Specialty/niche business: Since leisure travel makes up 80 percent of total sales in the travel industry (according to Plunkett Research), there are plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs who want to offer specialty travel services. You can get into the field in more than one way. First, you can offer tours and packages tailored to the interests and needs of particular groups. Second, you can choose to offer very specialized niche services that will appeal to a very narrow demographic. For example, California entrepreneurs Michael Chu and Ying Liu offer a highly specialized set of services to business travelers to China. Third, you can offer luxury travel services. For example, on entrepreneur we've met offers charter airline services to top-level business travelers and another arranges stays in luxury villas in both the United States and abroad.

4. Corporate travel: Actually a type of niche travel service, corporate travel has been singled out in this book because of the various opportunities it offers. But beware, it can be difficult to break into this particular field. A lot of companies already have their own in-house staff or have been dealing with the same travel agency for eons. However, new companies of all kinds with no previous travel agency ties spring up all the time and may be open to the idea of having their own travel service, while others may be looking for a new company because they aren't entirely happy with the job their existing travel agency is doing. Conversely, you might be able to land a spot as an independent contractor or homebased agent on a travel agency team that already has an established clientele. Either way, there is money to be made for the right entrepreneur.

5. Franchise: If you like the idea of launching a "plug and play" business that is ready to go right out of the box, then a travel services franchise could be your ticket to success. With a franchise, you purchase the rights to use a tried and true concept, as well as the name recognition and business procedures that come along with it. However, you do have to conform to the franchisor's established methods of doing business. In addition, the best franchisee is a person who has been successful in a previous career, because, of course, franchises don't run themselves and a basic knowledge of established business practices is necessary.

How to Start a Travel Service