Enjoying the journey
In 1973, Linda Long was about to graduate from Greenville Technical College with an associate degree in secretarial science when she was sent on a job interview.
“I didn’t want to go to the interview, but they told me it was part of the curriculum,” she said. She was hired on the spot as the bookkeeper at Fortson Travel.
For the next 17 years, she learned every aspect of the travel business, spending time as bookkeeper and then working in corporate travel, vacations and groups. By 1990, “I was working 85 hours a week for a straight salary and I thought, if I’m going to work this hard, I might as well be doing it for myself,” she said. “Also, I was turning 40 that year, so I realized that if I was going to do it, this was the time to do it.”
Linda Long Travel opened its doors on May 18, 1990, first in a rented location at Morgan Manor and then a year later at the current location on Laurens Road. It typically takes a travel agency about seven years to turn a profit, Long said, but she hit that mark within six months. “I didn’t try to solicit business away from Fortson, but I did put an ad in the paper every single week letting people know I had opened my own agency.”
While she estimates Greenville is home to more than 50 travel agencies now, only a handful were in operation at the time, and many of her steady clients were eager to make the move with her – a loyalty many maintain today.
“I’ve been in this business for 42 years, and I’ve been doing trips for some people for more than 40 years,” she said. “As people get older, they do longer and more exotic trips like Antarctica.”
Twists and turns
Though the recent recession put a damper on travel, nothing has approached the profound effect that occurred after the 2001 terrorist attack, when she returned $92,000 to customers who were canceling trips she had spent a year planning. “That’s hard on a small company,” she said. “I had already done all of the work, but I had to refund everything, so we lost all of the commissions.” She recovered thanks to a bank loan and a lot of hard work.
Another change occurred in 1996 when airlines stopped paying commissions, leading Long to halt her corporate travel business to focus on vacation and group travel.
“We used to deliver about 100 airline tickets per day,” she said. The 10 percent commission paid by the airlines made it worthwhile, but when that was taken away, she knew it was time to halt the service. Corporate travel was quick and simple, but she found her company’s specialty on leisure and group travel allows her team to take advantage of their in-depth knowledge on leisure destinations.
Another challenge she had to navigate is the cyclical nature of the travel business, with the vast majority of trips booked between January and June. She found a way to maintain volume during the slower months by creating trips designed with Clemson fans in mind. She and her husband Dennis – both longtime fans – take groups to away games in cities such as Boston, Louisville, Ky., and Tallahassee, Fla., with many of the same fans attending each year. She has even taken 120 fans to watch Clemson play in the Mirage Bowl in Tokyo and booked 1,700 people for a trip to the Gator Bowl in 1995. “Clemson has a big following,” she said.
Her favorite aspect of the field – its constant variety – can often be the most difficult. “Some days, I’m ready to open an ice cream store that sells only vanilla,” she joked. Each client and each trip is different, and the travel environment and preferred vendors are constantly changing.
To keep up with the industry, she and her staff of five often complete webinars and other continuing education. The team also follows up with each customer to get feedback. “That helps for the next customer,” she said.
Though technology has transformed the business, Long views the changes as largely positive, and said even her youngest and most tech-savvy clients have learned that they can’t always rely on what they read on the Internet.
“The young people don’t want their honeymoons messed up, so they come to us,” she said. “You can’t really tell what a place is like by looking at a picture.”
The Internet does allow travelers to narrow their focus. “They might come in with three options instead of 12,” she said. Her list of preferred suppliers for common destinations has been honed over the decades and is constantly updated with client feedback, allowing her to steer customers to reliable and highly rated hotels, restaurants and tour companies.
She said another advantage of working with an agent, as opposed to booking on a website, is quick access to an expert who can let you know about any rules or regulations in advance. She has many non-clients call wanting help with airline refunds, or people who booked online and didn’t know they needed their birth certificate to go on a cruise or didn’t know their passport had to be valid for six months after their return date.
“If they had gone through a travel agent, we would have told them that, and we could give them options,” she said. “Our product is our knowledge, and we don’t take that lightly.”
At 66, with 42 years in the travel industry, Linda Long said she’s old enough to retire, but “I don’t think my customers would let me. As long as I’m healthy and can do what I do, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”