Digital Nomads: Reinventing the Travel Industry for a New Generation

Marisa Costa
Director of NEXT, Protravel International & Tzell Travel Group

Marisa Costa has been working in the luxury travel business for seven years, with one mission in mind: to shake up a staid industry. She created a new-agent recruitment and training program for one of the largest companies in the industry, and now she is looking to overturn the industry’s traditional business model to appeal to a new market for luxury travel services — millennials.

The luxury travel industry hasn’t kept up with the times. Older advis0rs have a solid book of business and little incentive to engage with a new audience. For new advisors coming in, though, it can be tough. They are all essentially entrepreneurs, building up a book of business from scratch, but it’s hard to get started when you don’t have a ton of experience. After a few years in the industry, it seemed to me that everything was backwards.

My CEO at the time, Barry Liben of Protravel International and Tzell Travel Group, always said, “Anyone who wants to meet with me can get in my door.” I knew he was open to new ideas — 20 years ago, when airlines cut commissions to travel agents and many agencies closed their doors, Liben saw it as an opportunity rather than a death knell. He built up a huge international business from what had been a small agency with just a few agents.

So I took him up on the offer. I presented him with a business plan, and he didn’t laugh at me. In fact, he gave me a budget and he allowed me to run with it, so I was able to create NEXT — a recruitment and training program for new agents.

But I became frustrated because we were bringing in great people, but the travel industry was still stagnant while the world outside had changed. We needed to embrace new forms of technology and make use of models like direct-to-consumer marketing that are central to consumer habits now.

Millennials are becoming the biggest spenders in the consumer market.

So I decided it was time to do something about it. Next month, I will be launching my new venture, Amiko, making use of cutting-edge technology and marketing techniques while focusing on immersive, small-group tours particularly aimed at the millennial market.

Everyone thinks agents are dying out again, because of online booking. But I know they are wrong. There is a huge market for this, and I have 30-40 agents that will be a part of the community when it launches.

Traditionally, travel agents were generalists — the same person would handle all of your travel arrangements, regardless of the nature of your trip or their level of knowledge of the destination. Before the rise of the internet, a trusted agent was the best way for a traveler to get information such as air timetables, hotel options, recommended activities, and so on. The agent would then book and plan the best trip for their clients based on their wants and needs. A simple booking might involve three or more middle men, including an agent, an operator and a destination management company.

Traditional agencies do not focus enough on the tech and content required to engage millennial consumers. And tech companies and online travel agencies are generally price driven, not service or experience driven. Their focus is to provide independent travelers with quick access to their negotiated rates.

Amiko combines the three middle men into one expert contact who is your all-knowing, well-connected travel friend. Your ‘Amiko’ shares your travel style and provides information based on what they think you will like. They then contact the necessary vendors directly for your trip. Each ‘Amiko’ makes use of their own specific knowledge, interests and experience.

With Amiko, we are creating a generation of advisors and influencers — and we are digital nomads. The things we see and do are the most exciting things on social media. We eat beautiful foods, visit exotic places — and we are vetting and curating that to connect clients to the right people, places, and experiences for an unforgettable trip.

Millennials are becoming the biggest spenders in the consumer market. The key problem the travel industry is facing right now is that we are allowing this generation to believe that working with an advisor is the same as booking online, which it isn’t. If we can get that message out now, we will be able to start getting that business. If we let it go 10 years, we won’t be able to change that mindset.