New Deal Europe Weekly Update on Tourism to the Balkan Region, Week 21

News from the markets: United States

In the week when the momentous events in the USA were top of the news agenda, we cross the pond to get the perspective of Ashley Metesh-McCoy, owner and founder of Kinship Vacations, a California based travel agency. She tells us about the challenges faced by travel agents in the USA this year, how she thinks things may change under the new administration, and the implications for sustainable tourism and travel to Europe.

“Montana is called the ‘big sky state’ — you can see why’. Ashley Metesh-McCoy grew up in the beautiful state of Montana (photo: Visit Montana Facebook).

NDE: Hi Ashley, thank you for doing this interview with us today. Can you please tell our readers what Kinship Vacations does, which areas it focuses on, and what your role is there?

AMM: Hello! I am the owner and founder of Kinship Vacations, a full-service travel agency that serves two very important needs: 1. We are a network of talented travel advisors helping people plan unique travel experiences, creating new memories and deepening connections; and, 2. We provide fun, fulfilling, and long-term career opportunities to military spouses and veterans, providing them unlimited income potential in a portable business model that can go wherever life (or, the military) takes them.

Each of our independent travel advisors has their own specialty, for example, girlfriend getaways, fun & sun family travel, accessibility/special needs travel, and bucket-list travel for empty nesters (to name a few). As the agency owner, I coach my subagents while serving my travel clients. I specialise in long-term travel planning and small-group, culturally-immersive travel. My favourite destination to send people is Slovenia. Slovenia is the hidden gem of Europe; it truly has something for everyone. It’s small enough to enjoy during shorter periods, and it’s not overly crowded like other European gems.

Ashley’s favourite destination to sell is Slovenia. She is also a destination specialist for selling Slovenia to the US market (Photo of Predjama Castle, Slovenia: AMM personal library).

NDE: I see you also have a special programme dedicated to military spouses and veterans. As a former ‘military brat’ as you call it, you must have real life experience with this yourself. Can you tell us just how important this is to you and the size of this market in the US?

AMM: Yes, I am a US military veteran, a current military spouse, and a former military brat (child of a service member). Given that military service is so entwined with my life, I find it important to give back to that community. My business offers scholarships to people in the military community to start their own travel business. Working as a travel advisor is a perfect fit for military spouses especially, because they move frequently (every 2–3 years), so it is necessary to have a portable career in order to stay employed long-term. There are approximately 690,000 military spouses in the US alone.

NDE: So taking of the military, I’m curious to know, if people have served in the Balkans are they keen to return now and see how different it is to their earlier experience?

AMM: I can’t speak for all, but my impression is that many military members that served in Bosnia and Herzegovina, specifically, would be very keen to return. The veterans I know that served there in the late ’90s recall the beautiful landscape, the good food, and the friendly people. Those are all ingredients of a pleasant vacation!

Many US veterans recall the beautiful landscape, the good food, and the friendly people of the Balkans (Photo: Visit Sarajevo Facebook).

NDE: We know that you work as part of a network of talented travel advisors. How does this differ to the concept we have in Europe of travel agents and tour operators?

AMM: Most travel agents in the US operate as independent contractors with a majority of their income derived from commissions paid by suppliers, rather than getting regular wages or a salary as employees of travel companies. There are many implications for this model, but most important to note is that travel agents in the US are most likely small business owners, rather than employees relying on their own business acumen in marketing, operations, sales, and financial management to make a living. Many agents’ only source of income is derived from commissions paid by travel suppliers which range from 8–18% per booking. If you can imagine, a travel agent must wear many hats and hustle a lot to make a living this way. We are the first touchpoint with travellers, matching them with the correct tour operators and suppliers, so we serve a crucial role in advising Americans where to go, and how to go, on their next vacation.

We (travel agents) are the first touchpoint with travellers, matching them with the correct tour operators and suppliers, so we serve a crucial role in advising Americans where to go, and how to go, on their next vacation.

NDE: Thanks for clarifying that. Not only do you wear many hats, you’ve had to deal with many challenges. Between the wild fires in your area, California, and the 2020 pandemic you’ve had several major crisis to contend with recently. How have you managed this and what is the latest situation in the USA, and in California?

AMM: Personally, it has been a crazy year! On top of the pandemic and the California wildfires, I had a baby on April 26th.

NDE: Congratulations!

AMM: Thank you. Of course, the pandemic has all but completely eliminated our travel agency’s bookings. We had a number of cancellations, and future bookings have been extremely limited. Americans are very hesitant to make plans at this point, even for 2021, as there is no real end in sight to the pandemic. My agency was in the midst of our biggest year yet in January and February and then in March it went completely quiet. We have been working for nothing essentially, as most of our income is from commissions paid after our clients travel. We have had to work doubly hard to cancel trips and get absolutely no income from this work! My story is not unique though. Almost all of my colleagues who are independent travel advisors have had the same challenges. Some of us are getting by but pivoting to other income generating activities.

‘Future bookings have been extremely limited’ (Photo PJ photo).

I have almost fully focused on my business coaching activities. We are also getting by with some assistance from the US government in the form of small business loans, grants, and unemployment insurance. The fires in California in August and September were awful. I live on the Central Coast and left my house for a week in August to escape the extremely poor air quality, but thankfully my house was untouched. Some of the tourist areas around here though, such as Napa Valley, Big Sur, Yosemite National Park, were completely shut down by the fires. As far as I know business has resumed in these areas but many businesses were destroyed, especially wineries in Napa Valley.

We have been working for nothing essentially, as most of our income is from commissions paid after our clients travel. We have had to work doubly hard to cancel trips and get absolutely no income from this work! My story is not unique though.

NDE: And of course we have just had the USA elections and we know that a change is coming in the White House. How do you think this will influence our industry, and life in general in the USA?

AMM: This is just my opinion of course, but I am hopeful that the new administration will make many positive changes for the USA, and that they will take a more hands-on approach with handling the pandemic, at the very least, issuing federal guidance in areas such as school attendance, travel, and mask usage. I am also hopeful that our country will renew its promises to engage in curbing climate change by rejoinng the Paris Climate Accords, etc. I believe the travel industry has a fiduciary duty to take care of the earth as we so often benefit from its resources. These are just a couple of issues I believe will improve for the US with the new administration.

I believe the travel industry has a fiduciary duty to take care of the earth as we so often benefit from its resources.

NDE: I can see from that answer that sustainability in tourism is important to you. At our conference we had operators saying that we can expect to see a rise in popularity of more remote places, and off the beaten track destinations? Would you agree and if so how can the Balkans region benefit from this?

AMM: We are seeing this in America already. Travellers are increasingly interested in rural vacations to places like National Parks, Dude Ranches, and glamping experiences. I can see that people will want to experience locations that are less populated worldwide as well. For that reason, places like Slovenia will be a perfect fit. Slovenia offers many rural activities and even the urban experiences in Ljubljana and Maribor will be more socially distanced than an experience in say, Rome.

Places like Ljubljana in Slovenia will be the perfect fit for Americans in the post Covid travel era(Photo: Visit Ljubljana).

NDE: You are clearly a passionate advocate for Slovenia and we also know you have some Slovene roots. How familiar are Americans with Slovenia and the Balkan region in general?

AMM: Yes, my father’s side of the family is from Črnomelj, Slovenia and immigrated to the US in the early 1900’s. I think a majority of Americans are unfamiliar with Slovenia, often confusing it with Slovakia, and probably have a very outdated idea of what the Balkan region is. I would say the most recognisable locations are Greece and Croatia, but in the minds of many Americans, places like Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are still associated with Civil War and instability. The good thing about this is that there is a lot of room for growth! As travel professionals, we have the opportunity to educate and enlighten Americans to the beauty of the Balkan Region.

Ashley with a distant relative in a small village outside Črnomelj in Slovenia (Photo: AMM personal library).

NDE: Thank you for taking on that important role. When do you expect Americans will return to Europe again and what do you think they will be looking for from their European trips?

AMM: I think Americans will gradually return in Spring 2021 if there is a vaccine and if, of course, the international borders re-open. I don’t think anyone will return en masse until Summer 2021 when kids are on school break, borders re-open, flu season is over, and a vaccine is widely available. Even then, I believe Americans will travel in smaller groups or privately rather than large groups.

As travel professionals, we have the opportunity to educate and enlighten Americans to the beauty of the Balkan Region.

NDE: And beyond that, how do you see the future of the travel industry in the USA and worldwide?

AMM: I am hopeful that this pandemic will create positive change through its decimation of the status quo of the industry. I believe that the potential rise in small-group tourism will be less detrimental to ‘over-touristed’ locations socially and environmentally. I am optimistic in thinking that the forced digital environment we found ourselves in will compel suppliers to modernize their business systems, for example, eliminate antiquated practices like faxing clients’ credit card and personal information for payments and reservations. I am also hopeful that this pandemic will have compelled all of us to get very clear on our niches so that we can better serve our ideal clients and match them with the right travel experiences.

NDE: And finally - we know you are familiar with our marketplace and forum New Deal Europe as some of your members were participating as buyers. How do you perceive an event like this for the US agents?

I heard very positive feedback from some of my colleagues who attended! I think events like this are crucial in educating agents and suppliers of the many unique opportunities for travellers in the Balkan Region. As we discussed, it is imperative for travel professionals in the US to educate consumers on the beauties of the Balkans. Events like New Deal Europe equip travel agents to do this better with US consumers.

NDE: Thank you for your time today Ashley. It was great to get your perspective on this huge market at such a momentous time.

AMM: My pleasure! Thanks for considering my viewpoints. Na zdravje!

Ashley Metesh-McCoy, the owner and founder of Kinship Vacations (Photo: AMM personal library).

Questions by Tine Murn and Robert Dee, founders of New Deal Europe, the only travel market platform dedicated to generating business to the Greater Balkan region of Europe. Apply to New Deal Europe Marketplace and Forum 2021 at www.newdealeurope.com.

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