After being an investment banker and an Uber exec, I knew the corporate world wasn't for me. I launched a private luxury travel business and have never been happier.

  • Sarah Groen is a luxury travel advisor and business owner based in Houston, Texas.
  • After working in finance and tech, in 2018 she launched a company to help busy execs plan luxury vacations.
  • Groen’s fees usually start at $500 per week of travel, and most of her clients spend over $1,000 a day on their trips.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

My love of travel started young – now as an adult, I’ve been to 100 countries. But back then, I never believed I could turn my passion into a business.

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Instead, I built a solid career in finance as an investment banker. Then I pivoted to tech and cofounded Houston’s first startup accelerator program, and later launched and managed two early markets for UberEATS in Houston and Phoenix. But the more time I spent in the executive world, I just knew it wasn’t meant for me.

Meanwhile, my friends (other execs, entrepreneurs, and investors) and I loved traveling in our very limited free time, but we didn’t have a true advisor to help make the most of those trips. We paid wealth managers, lawyers, accountants, and personal trainers, but didn’t have an expert at our side to plan for what’s most important: leisure time with our family and friends.

I knew so many executives at companies who would take the same trip each year, even though it was repetitive, because they didn’t have the time to plan something new or they feared disappointment.

I started planning travel for my friends as a side hustle.

I quoted my first two friends a rate of $1,000 per trip, and to my surprise they jumped at it. Slowly, more and more people were interested, it became more and more fun, and I realized the business might have legs.

After a year, in late 2018 I officially launched Bell & Bly Travel Design. As a travel planner, I look at everything my clients have coming up for the next five years before planning trips. Even if it feels far away, we begin mapping out trips based on future important dates. Do you have a milestone anniversary coming up? A trip you want to take with your kids before they go to college? A bucket list trip that you’re ready to cross off? We help busy executives and entrepreneurs turn those dreams into realities.

One of my favorite trips I planned that first year was for a family traveling to the Arctic Circle just before Christmas. I was determined to make the experience absolutely magical. Before they left we found a calligrapher to write a letter to the kids from Santa, sneakily referencing their teachers and friends. Then on the trip, we arranged for elves to take the family into a forest to read bedtime stories, and then planned a personalized meeting with Santa in a specially built “command center” covered in snow in the forest! The parents were over the moon, and the kids convinced all their friends that Santa was, in fact, real.

I finally realized the business had legs when we hit $1 million in revenue in our first year of business.

In that year we planned all types of trips, from ultra-luxury safaris, to treks in Patagonia, from classic Italian itineraries, to off-the-beaten-path jaunts in Bhutan. Generally we’re working with clients who spend $1,000 per day and up, depending on the destination.

For our traveler, “luxury” means a lot of things – some stay in the finest hotels in the top suites, while others like small family-run establishments where they can meet the owners and have guides who feel like friends.

Just like other professional services, we charge fees to clients based on the number of weeks of travel and number of travelers. Generally it comes in at $500 per week of travel.This covers all the nuts and bolts of a complete trip, including on-the-ground support and changes as needed.

The other big chunk of business revenue comes through commission – hotels for example, pay commission to travel advisors out of their sales/marketing budgets (meaning the client doesn’t pay any more than they’d find online).

With planning all these trips, of course, came a need for support. I hired my first employee in July 2019 to help with trip planning and research. I now have two full-time employees and a team of freelancers helping with marketing and the production of my podcast, Luxury Travel Insider.

When the pandemic hit, I wasn’t sure if the business would survive.

We were stressed, facing the extreme disappointment of cancelling trips we worked so hard to plan, and putting in extreme hours to manage everything and negotiate better outcomes for our clients. When the dust settled, I’m proud to say that none of our clients lost money.

Luckily, we were able to plan some incredible, socially-distanced, international trips, including a $125,000 trip to Norway for a family of six that included a full buyout of a manor in the fjords, a private chef, and a scenic helicopter transfer from hotel to airport.

Amazingly, we still grew our revenue in 2020.

We planned about 55 trips in 2020, with a mix of old and new clients. Once people could travel safely, we began to plan more trips, like a private yacht charter to the Bahamas for a family over winter holidays. For another client, we planned a road trip through the western US stopping in Zion, Santa Fe, and Sedona.

I feel very lucky to be a luxury travel advisor who grew revenue through a global pandemic. But I feel even luckier knowing that I’ll never again take this business and how much I love it for granted.

I typically work Monday through Friday, eight to 10 hours a day, and am on call over the weekend if clients are traveling.

Not two days are alike, but typically I start the morning by checking in on my team, getting status updates, and designing new itineraries. Then, for clients traveling within the next month, I’ll also check if any destination COVID-19 guidelines have changed. Later, I might have some discovery calls with new clients, where we find out their likes, dislikes, favorite past trips, and anything else that’ll help us plan a memorable travel experience for them.

The day usually ends with me doing some work for my podcast, Luxury Travel Insider. Through my travels, I’ve gotten to know so many of the top visionaries in the industry, and the podcast helps me share their unique stories and what I like to call “un-Google-able” experiences. We’re currently releasing two episodes a week, so I’m usually recording or chatting with our guests at some point during the day.

For anyone interested in turning a side hustle into a full-time business, focus on something you’re passionate about.

When you’re an entrepreneur, being enthusiastic about what you do keeps you going through the longer and harder days. Whether in luxury travel or any industry, starting something on the side to test the market and feel comfortable before diving in head first is always smart.

Start first with friends and colleagues, and do your very best work. They’re your friends after all, but they’ll also be your best source of referrals.

Every day I learn about a new facet of a destination, learn about a new trend in travel, or plan a new adventure for a client. And while the pandemic was challenging for us all in 2020, in 2021 I think it makes the need for a quality travel advisor more helpful than ever.

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