Jennifer Doncsecz

Jennifer Doncsecz, President of VIP Vacations Inc.
Plan your next romantic getaway with Jennifer! She is an entrepreneur and an expert of love. Hear from her about overcoming great disruptions in the industry, starting a business, and how she found her niche with destination weddings.

Steve: What is your professional background?

Jennifer: I’ve been a travel agent since I was 19. I started working in a store front office while going to college. I was assigned corporate accounts. After I finished school, I went on location to some of the companies that were doing their corporate accounts at our agency and worked remotely at those companies.

When I had my son, he’s now 26 years old, that tells you how long ago that was; I was put on bed rest. I think that was around the time the email (service) Prodigy was out. That’s how long ago it was! I was able to work from home. I created a home-based business because I couldn’t be at the corporate account. It worked from there. Within three years of starting my own home business it was a very different thing. Home-based businesses for travel was not something that everybody did. We’re talking 1992, 1993, there were still a lot of store fronts. I created a corporate business where I would do corporate tickets for smaller companies that didn’t have the need for being on site. That’s how I got my introduction to doing travel. They would come to me for family vacations, incentive trips, and for honeymoons.

Following 9-11, a bunch of the accounts I had agreements with, stopped flying. The only people who were flying, from that fall through January, maybe February, were honeymooners. I kind of dodging something by going right for the honeymoon market.

It was just me. I didn’t have an office, I didn’t pay rent. I didn’t have advertising. I was able to survive just by doing honeymoons. Obviously, the travel industry bounced back. The romance business was even really a thing yet. What we call elopements or destination weddings, during 2001 through 2003, people were looking on how to do that, and there wasn’t a lot of agents doing it. All I’ve been doing is destination weddings since; about 16, 17 years.

Steve: What inspired you to choose the travel industry?

Jennifer: It was not something I set out to do. I was in a public speaking class at Cedar Crest College, in Allentown. I don’t know where you live, but, where we live, there’s an auto mile. It’s one after another of car dealerships. At the time, in the late 80’s, early 90’s, there was a travel mile, one after the other of travel agencies.

In one of my classes, ending in May, in public speaking, we had to sell something. I failed miserably. The professor asked me what do I like. I said, “I like babies, I like Disney and I like dogs.” This is what a typical 19 or 20-year-old says. The professor said, “So, you can’t sell babies, and selling dogs is not something I think you can make money with. Why don’t you come back and sell us a trip to Disney?” So I did, I got a redo. Afterward, my professor said, “There’s travel agencies left and right here. If you’re looking for a summer job, just walk right in. I’d buy a Disney trip from you.” And that’s what I did. Funny enough, one of the very first agencies was right outside the school. That’s where I got my job.

Steve: That’s incredible!

Jennifer: Within the first week of working there, having no experience, I hadn’t been sent to a GDS (global distribution management) class, which I did have to do. I sold $20,000 worth of travel, that first week. This was when we didn’t have air caps. This is when we could get a roundtrip air ticket to Disney for $190. People were talking in the door, buying things. I have been to Disney many times, and I loved it.

I had a background in travel, per se, because I wasn’t born in the U.S. My father was an import/exporter. My passport was already full of stamps. I loved it. When I had that added competence with people in front of - this is before the internet, they trusted me - it was a good thing. That’s why they moved me right away to work in a corporate environment, because I knew what I was talking about. They sent me to do the good old GDS training too, it was Apollo.

I have that background, pre-Internet, and I always loved the internet. It allowed me to work from home, it allowed me to start my business. Beyond that, it can create a smoke-and-mirror effect. When it was just me, I had a website, so people could find me. It made my business legitimate, even more so, because with destination weddings, couples are from all over the world. We’ve got couples from Australia, from France, from the U.K., all over Canada, from Mexico, from South America. The Internet is powerful.

Agencies thought that the Internet was going to be the demise of the agent. I stood up proudly, and said, “No, we should use it. It’s going to allow us to be better.” I think the tide has risen. What you see now are experienced agents doing well and thriving.

Steve: At what point in your career did you realize that this was right for you?

Jennifer: You know, I second guess things all the time. After 9-11, it was tough. But I will tell you that at 28, having three million dollars of corporate business, being one person before there was airline commission cuts or caps, that’s a lot of money for a 28-year-old. That was when I realized that was something I could do and do it well. After 9-11, I questioned a lot. As I was going into 2001, it was going to the best year ever. That’s always how I was looked at it. Then, all of a sudden, nothing. I was very lucky in that I didn’t have overhead. That auto mile or travel mile, that was right by my school, within two years, there were two agencies left. At one point, there used to be fifteen. I saw the business just tank. Then I noticed too, in 2007, 2008, when the recession was going on, the honeymoon, the romance, the wedding destination, that was recession resilient. I was again on Cloud Nine. I saw a lot of big, high end agents saying these were bad years.

We expanded, and we grew. We bought a building in a pretty town in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 40,000 cars go by every day. There’s 10 people who are employed here. I feel that this is the small business or entrepreneur’s American dream – this is the dream that people coming to America have. Then the Zika virus made the news! That had an effect on the honeymoon and destination bride. There’s a ton of times where you think, “Phew, this is wonderful!” and then drop back down again. Then you stand back up again, you think, “Phew, this is wonderful!” then have drop, again. It’s a wonderful business!

I have my children that work for me. They went away to college to get degrees, not thinking that they were going to go into this business. Yet, it pulled them back. It’s addictive to get that travel bug. It’s addictive to feel that you matter to people – especially when you’re doing something so secretive as a destination wedding.

It’s a great business to be in when you learn the numbers that hospitality generates. Especially for females; there’s a lot of females in the hospitality business. I’m very proud of it. So when you ask, when did you know that this is it, I don’t know, I question myself sometimes. You get to ask me what year. (laughing.)

When I first started I loved it. When I first started doing corporate I loved it. When we moved into this building, five and a half years ago, I loved it. Like everything else, there are days when I think, “Geez, it would be nice not to have to be here at nine o’clock at night.” There’s times when I think, “I’ll be hitting my last continent next month and my hundredth country.” I get to think, “Wow! Who gets to do that? That’s awesome!”

Steve: Where are you going for your seventh continent?

Jennifer: Australia! I wanted to make it monumental!

Steve: You certainly earned it.

Jennifer: Thanks!

Steve: Let’s talk about your company. Could you elaborate about your firm’s specialization?

Jennifer: We are romance specialists. Our claim to fame, is focusing on destination weddings. Back in 2001, 2002, they were called elopements. Maybe, a few friends might come with (the bride and groom). We got the jump on it, because the one corporate account I was working with had a lot of young salesmen. They came to me saying, “Hey, she made me in charge of the honeymoon,” and “we want to run away and get married.” I had a nice pool of clients that were right in that age group and demographics. It was interesting when the Internet did become more of a pull for people to do their air trips or to book their tickets to Vegas, no one booked a group wedding. It’s not that no one knew how to do it, they just didn’t want to mess with it. There weren’t a lot of people who had any knowledge of it. It became more sought after. Having a website early on helped. I was also very lucky too. I was recommended by Bridal Guide, Destination Weddings, and Blogger. Martha Stuart made me her destination wedding travel expert. That was big at the time, that was 2009. This was around the time when Martha Stuart was going to jail. Either Sears or Macy’s were saying, “this is never going to work.” It was October, I remember booking 10 weddings within a week of that magazine coming out. I remember thinking, “Wow! I was wrong.” Martha Stuart is still what people are looking for. Having some notoriety also helps. I employee all millennials. Which I also think is unique about our company.

Steve: Tell us more about the millennial workforce that you have.

Jennifer: I did have some employees that had been in the business for a while. I think millennials want to work with millennials. I think the social media thing, we were again, we were on very early. I think because my kids were in high school and going to college and I wanted to get on and see what they were doing. I’ve done Fox News as their travel girl since 2006, 2007, somewhere around that time. In 2008 I remember the anchors telling a couple of celebrities and they always had celebrities on Friday and I would be scheduled to come in every Friday morning. They would tell the celebrities, I still joke with them, to take a picture with me that I have “book face.” So, the 2008, 2009 pictures that I had on my Facebook with the celebrities were crazy, they were crazy, because not everybody had it.

I think that was also a draw in terms of hiring people that they knew about us in their own circles because of social media. You hire one or two, then you hire, they recommend a friend. You want to have the culture here be very similar. It’s a small business we look very much for how you are going to blend. I had someone we hired come back for three interviews and she said it was harder than getting into the CIA; because we are so careful. We are so very careful about how we try to fit. It’s like a family here. We do look for that and it’s true. I feel that when you train you can train right; rather than fix bad habits, so it is a little bit of me as well looking for that. I think with the internet people think they can do travel, so I think it is more teaching them some more in the skills in selling and finding what they are passionate about that they want to talk to their friends about.

Steve: What are the most popular romantic packages that your company offers?

Jennifer: Wow, lately a lot of places in Europe have been Italy and Greece have been super popular. Iceland is very hot as well. The Maldives is something we hear about once a week too. Not that we book it, but they inquire about prices. Greece and Italy have booked more in the past two years than the five years prior total.

The Caribbean is still popular in terms of destination weddings. So, the big three. Jamaica, Mexico and the Dominican Republic are the places where we do the most weddings.

Zika has had an effect though where honeymooners want to travel. So, the Caminos, Bermuda have been popular because it is not where you have Zika. In terms of a closer warm tropical place to go to. It’s funny when you have done the destination weddings for so long its no longer 70% per of business were these big groups. But, now you make a connection with a bride she comes back to you and says can you do Disney, do you do Europe can you, do a cruise? The mix is no more like 50 or 52 are big group weddings the rest are individual bookings or non-weddings that are groups like group cruise, a reunion or sorority trip, not necessarily the romance aspect of the group.

We changed our marketing. Last year, we started a campaign called “Destination Everywhere.” We found that people were thinking of for just sun and sand. I have been close to 100 countries. We know about lot about other stuff. That has really paid off. We saw a lot of our efforts come through. We are doing a lot more guided vacations, river cruises because of our marketing efforts because changing some things, simple things; but changing it to get it out there.

Steve: How has your professional experiences changed your perspective on tourism?

Jennifer: Goodness, my professional experiences. I have served on a lot of advisory boards over the past 5 - 6 years. What I have realized as a female, it is very rare to have a seat at advisory board where you are running a company and selling. Which is probably why I think there is a great need for the home-based agents to have more business training than just training in travel.

As I reflect back, just into our conversation that we’ve been having about, when I first started and those agencies that were the brick and mortar one after another. Normally the sales people were in front and the office manager or the owner were in the back. The owner or office manager rarely sold. So when those brick and mortar closed the doors and the sales people went home if they were now hosted agents or quick got into IATA or clia, and started their own business. what they had that was fabulous for their business was the sales experience and destination knowledge and working with a customer.

What they lacked was maybe the forethought in the budgeting and creating a business plan. Realizing what advertising marketing opportunities there were, how to negotiate. What I have seen lately is are lot of smaller home-based business doing very well; but lacking the direction and knowing what the business has to get done. They don’t know what a KPI is and they don’t look at metrics. They don’t analyze their data or realize how important their client list and how valuable it is that and how it is the only intellectual property they own. How to market and how to effectively market and branding.

I didn’t go to school to become a travel agent, I don’t think a lot of people went to school to become a travel agent, very few. But what I did have a marketing and PR background. The branding of my company is something that has been there for me for a very long time. People know me more by my color, pink, and that I stand for love and romance than they know where I am located. I think that is something that I learned over the past couple of years even more vividly that there are a lot of tour operators, resorts to know the destination. But, not a lot of how you should market and create a business plan. I think that is where we need to move forward in our business. Because we’re not going away. Home business agents are probably one of the reasons travel agents are even still around.

For me, as soon as I started to hire, and we were working out of my house, we had people knocking on my door, on a Sunday, for a walk in appointment, I knew I had to move out. What was more apparent, when I was working at home, how desperately the community needed to see travel agents. They need to see them, to know they’re still around, to know that they are viable. As many home-based agents work from home, they have a social media presence as well. Even if it’s just a small website. That’s great because they’re still there. What I think that they need is a little more business training. They need to set some sites on becoming store fronts. Everyone wants to work virtually, but, there definitely is still a need for that. Just my opinion.