Epperly Travel has just acquired Jetset World Travel, forging a strong boutique luxury business with a combined pre-COVID annual sales revenue of $25 million. Based in Atlanta and Chicago, respectively, the expanded company aims to grow its independent contractor model while retaining its communal culture for its travel advisors and for the suppliers it does business with.
Epperly Travel, which became an independent Virtuoso member agency in 2019, is the parent company and will retain the Jetset World Travel brand. The leadership lineup includes Lindsey Epperly, founder and CEO, Jeremy Sulek, COO; Cassie McMillion Deifik, managing director and Megan Hintz, residing COO of Jetset. Julia Pirrung is now an independent contractor of Jetset World Travel. Advisors and team members of both agencies will have access to EntreTravel, the online travel agent training program that Epperly co-founded.
The acquisition is Epperly Travel’s first since it was founded in 2014. Jetset World Travel, previously a member of the Signature Travel Network, has rejoined Virtuoso, the luxury consortia it was previously a part of when Pirrung launched her agency in 2005.
We caught up with Pirrung and Epperly (pictured above) just prior to the official acquisition to find out how the transaction transpired and what the future holds for them.
A Meeting of Two Minds
Pirrung, whose Jetset World Travel pulled in $15 million in annual sales in 2019, says that she found it challenging to scale as a single owner. When the COVID crisis hit, she mentioned to Dr. Robert Joselyn of the Joselyn Consulting Group that she was exploring her options. “I was open to either acquiring another agency or being acquired,” she said. “I think every agency owner was trying to figure out what life would look like on the other side of this and how we could innovate and adapt.”
Epperly Travel, meanwhile, had just become a full-fledged, stand-alone Virtuoso agency in late 2019, pulling in $10 million in sales that year. It was already sitting in a good place; Lindsey Epperly and Jeremy Sulek, CEO and COO respectively (and wife and husband), had been saving money steadily for the future. The agency had already begun evolving into a virtual travel business, using Zoom to more easily communicate with suppliers and clients. Zoom was also the key piece to keeping the agency’s independent contractors connected so they wouldn’t feel as if they were alone on an island.
There was no doubt that 2020 was going to be its big year, but the pandemic changed all that. Instead, Epperly, who was five months pregnant with her daughter, Mila, went into a hunker-down mindset with husband, Jeremy, and focused on holding on to the team of three employees and 11 independent contractors. The savings that were going to go toward a house now had a more immediate use for keeping the business alive and thriving during a trying time.
“We knew that if we could weather the pandemic and keep our team in place instead of going into hibernation and having to ramp back up once bookings came back, we’d be in a much better position to take advantage of future opportunities within the industry,” says Epperly. And there was certainly plenty to keep everyone busy; the team was continuously navigating cancellations and refunds, undoing bookings it had taken months to build.
Epperly, whose key mantra is to support and train travel advisors, saw that the pandemic was certainly taking its toll on the entire team’s morale and mental wellbeing.
“Jeremy and I did everything within our power to support the team, not just from a professional standpoint, but on a human-to-human level,” says Epperly. “Silence breeds insecurity, so we over-communicated and leaned into our already existing virtual culture.”
That Zoom strategy they had set forth before the pandemic was now in full swing as the agency used it to meet regularly with its advisors.
“We provided continuous opportunities for our team to laugh together, cry together, and problem solve together to mitigate the challenging season we were all in,” says Epperly.
Along the way she also created “Nourish,” an online community for all travel advisors and agency owners, not just those who were a part of Epperly Travel, to share the challenges of the pandemic. That program stemmed from Epperly Travel’s mission throughout COVID: to be a beacon during the industry’s darkest hour.
Lindsey Epperly shares the company vision with members of the Jetset World Travel team. From left to right: Gabrielle Eichstaedt, Jill Taylor, Megan Hintz, Lindsey Epperly, Caroline Sprunger, Courtney Wyckoff, Sunni McBride and Peter Tibble
As the COVID crisis ensued, Epperly and Sulek realized that business was hanging on; many of their clients were traveling domestically and they began seeing signs of a light at the end of the tunnel. With the launch of their hosting program, the agency had more than doubled its headcount. Today, the agency consists of 32 independent contractors, including their affiliates, along with four employees, including a recently added in-house marketing manager.
They knew they were in a good place to acquire another agency, but only wanted one that fit into their supportive culture.
They knew Pirrung from meeting her at industry events over the years and had always felt a strong connection. When Bob Joselyn suggested the two agencies speak, sparks flew.
“When we began talking to Julia about Jetset, we felt strongly that this relationship was exactly what we had been working toward,” says Epperly.
Pirrung was intrigued by joining forces with Epperly Travel as she saw how the agency handled the COVID crisis. She only wanted to align with an agency that would celebrate the Jetset culture and the character of its advisors, and she saw that with Epperly and Sulek.
“Jetset has a really strong team,” says Pirrung. “We were never an agency for hobbyists or people who wanted to sell travel part-time or enjoy the perks. It was really intended to be a team of producers that exceeded a million dollars each a year with their book of business. There were high expectations. Everyone was expected to contribute.”
Pirrung was also a big believer in supporting her team of 10 advisors. She saw that in Epperly, who is a strong component of mentoring independent contractors so they are empowered to run their own businesses and in turn, produce strong revenue. She also nurtures mature ICs, so they can continue to evolve and grow as well.
“My vision with Epperly Travel was to create the hosting program I always wish that I had,” says Epperly, who founded Epperly Travel in 2014 as part of a team within Century Travel. Epperly had been in the business for five years prior to launching her agency, but during that time hadn’t found a formula that helped to fuel her success.
“There were always these milestones that I would hit in my career, and I would look around and wish that I had the leadership to help me get to the next level,” she recalls.
She says she knows what she does not want Epperly Travel to be, which she learned early on when she started working for a mom-and-pop agency in her hometown of Columbus, GA at the age of 19.
“I walked in for a brochure and I walked out with a job,” she recalls. She worked at the agency through college, selling Sandals Resorts honeymoons to bridal show clients. While Epperly appreciated the opportunity, she says she also learned a lot of things not to do when it comes to leadership.
“It was a bit of the school of hard knocks,” she says. She wasted no time establishing her own brand and created Vacations by Lindsey at the young age of 20, a bold move she now recalls with a smile. She stood out as a young agent and was so frequently asked for advice by those in her age group she decided to build her own team of agents and mentor them. She renamed her company Epperly Travel and joined Century Travel in Atlanta seven years ago.
“Century was wonderful,” recalls Epperly. “They gave me the freedom to run my own show and as a very entrepreneurial spirit, that was what I needed. They were such a great launching pad for me.” Century Travel sold to Travel Edge, which Epperly also enjoyed being a part of, but she knew she wanted to be truly independent with her own IC business model because she believed that if she were able to teach her ICs the right skills to run their agencies like a business, the sky would be the limit.
“The attraction is that you get to write your own paycheck at the end of the day based off of how much you’re putting into it; that is the future of the industry,” she notes.
Pirrung feels that Jetset has found a good home because of this underlying belief. She says that luxury travel advisors across the board need support, whether they’re bringing in $5 million in revenue a year or are just starting out.
“How do you continue to grow and break through those glass ceilings that you experienced along the way? And for those newer to industry, how do you market yourself? How do you cultivate referrals?” says Pirrung. “There are unique learning opportunities, whether you’re one year in, 10 years in, or 20 years in.”
As Epperly Travel was expanding its IC roster during COVID, it appointed a manager director, Cassie McMillion Deifik, to help with the growth. Fueling that growth is a separate company under the Epperly umbrella called EntreTravel, an online training course for newer ICs or for those who are struggling to get their business off the ground. “It teaches them to run a business,” says Epperly. The 12-module certification program is open to any travel advisor in the industry.
Pirrung says that EntreTravel really works for a virtual advisor “who wants to take their business seriously and up-level everything. Whether they choose to align themselves with Epperly Travel or not is an entirely different conversation. But Lindsey has created the infrastructure and framework to nurture success within the industry.”
Pirrung says she came into the industry much like Epperly; at the age of 24 she was aligned with a local host agency out of Arlington Heights, Illinois. She had strong destination expertise (she had lived in Europe for seven years and traveled nearly every weekend) and a strong book of business amongst her well-traveled peers.
To the future! The Jetset team and Epperly share a toast in honor of the future of the travel industry. From left to right: Megan Hintz, Peter Tibble, Jill Taylor, Sunni McBride, Lindsey Epperly, Gabrielle Eichstaedt, Courtney Wyckoff, Caroline Sprunger and Julia Pirrung
Like Epperly, she had no fear about going out on her own. She recalls meeting Susan Spain and Matthew Upchurch of Virtuoso in 2006 at the ASTA trade show in Orlando, who said something to her along the lines of, “Wow. OK. You’re coming into this industry post-9/11 and you don’t have any travel industry experience. You’ve never worked at another agency. You’re just coming in and you’re doing this blind.” Pirrung cheerfully concurred, but the fact was, she had a plan. Jetset charged service fees from the outset and delivered in-depth consultative services to those seeking luxury experiences. Jetset World Travel joined a Virtuoso host agency, Travel Experts, and branched off two years later in 2009 as an independent Virtuoso agency and grew from there. By 2020, Jetset World Travel had grown to 16 advisors; the company had blossomed strategically and organically, thanks to its great success in appealing to new talent with great potential. Because Pirrung was an owner who also sold travel, she found it was a challenge to dedicate time to training and developing her advisors.
She says that a major attraction in linking up with Epperly Travel is knowing that Epperly has the strength in training, developing and motivating advisors (all while being the face of the business), whereas Sulek has a strong background in finance and operations.
“Lindsey has great energy, enthusiasm, vision and tenacity,” says Pirrung. “She didn’t look at 2020 as a period of defeat or setback, but really as an opportunity to emerge stronger and build back better.
“I mean, this is a woman with a plan and I want to be on her team,” she says, grinning.
The admiration is mutual; Epperly says she has known Pirrung for seven to eight years now and has truly benefited from the relationship.
“I have learned so much from Julia, and the fact that she is trusting us and stewarding us with Jetset’s future is an honor beyond belief,” says Epperly. “And I’m not just saying that. I never would have dreamed something like this could have happened, and it really means a lot.”
More to Come
There is future growth for Epperly Travel, but the goal is to retain a boutique culture and spirit, says Epperly, who says that Jetset will be treated as its own team, as an affiliate agency. She says that “boutique” can be defined in many ways, not by the number of advisors it has, or through its annual sales volume, but more so by its culture.
“We would be very open to acquiring more, but we would do so extremely intentionally,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor, “Jetset just happened to be the most perfect lineup with culture and community, and everything about it has been kismet,” says Epperly. “We are going to grow very thoughtfully though, because we never want to jeopardize our culture, which is our secret sauce.”
Pirrung and Epperly both believe the combining of their two boutique agencies speaks well to the future for smaller travel businesses that don’t want to be part of a mega-merger.
“Leveraging buying power is key to remaining competitive in this climate, and I’ve observed the stresses placed on entrepreneurs,” says Pirrung. “The idea of losing our identity and selling to a mega-agency never appealed to me.”
For Epperly, the transaction is a bellwether for luxury businesses coming out of the pandemic in 2021. “This is what rebuilding better looks like,” says Epperly. “With this acquisition, I’m confident we can breathe life into the entrepreneurial spirit of the travel industry so that it supports and celebrates the innovation that small businesses bring to the table.”
A Welcome Addition: Lindsey Epperly and Jeremy Sulek’s family also grew during the pandemic. Pictured here, the couple with daughter Mila, 10 months.
Luxury Agencies Linking Up
Epperly Travel and Jetset Travel have many similarities, working with clients in the 25-to-65 age range. “They’re typically a bit more of the intrepid traveler,” says Lindsey Epperly. “They’re looking for experiences versus traditional travel. They don’t want to be in the lobby of a hotel in Athens that looks like a lobby of a hotel in New York.”
Both Julia Pirrung and Epperly got their start working the bridal market and then got into family travel as their clients matured.
Epperly, who is a Millennial, has found that age group to be a profitable one.
“I have found that Millennials are much more likely to hire an expert,” she says. “As long as you’re articulating your expertise correctly, they don’t mind paying a fee.”
Pirrung, who has been on the Travel + Leisure A List for family travel since 2012, started with a bridal market as well, advertising in Chicago’s Modern Luxury bridal publication. “We did a number of their shows that were more intimate along Oak Street in Chicago,” she says. Jetset benefitted through publicity in the high-profile publication and the business took off.
Once Pirrung had her own family, she traveled with her children extensively and grew to intimately understand the needs of a new mom vs. one with toddlers or teenagers. With each successful trip planned for a client, the agency grew by referral through social circles, where a client would brag about the great African safari Jetset had planned for them, for example.
“The best business always comes through word of mouth,” says Pirrung. “But it also means your business relies on doing your best every time and providing the highest level of service.”
Epperly Travel today specializes in four- and five-star customized itineraries across the globe.
We asked Epperly for an example of an over-the-top trip and she brought an especially romantic challenge.
“My personal favorite is actually the story of a client relationship: Several years ago, we had the honor of planning a destination wedding in Aspen over New Year’s. This wasn’t a typical wedding-planning process; these were two widowed individuals in their 70s who had dated in high school and reconnected years later. It was an incredible story of rediscovering happiness, joy and love and bringing two beautiful families together.”
The best part was that the agency’s internal team got to know the couple so intimately that they have ever since then been able to send them on some even more special trips. “The most exciting one has been an A&K private jet itinerary that took them around the world,” says Epperly.