Confessions + Lessons: Tales from a female vendor; thirty years in the travel industry agency trenches.

By: Jennifer Barbee

Thirty years ago today, I walked into my internship as a receptionist and I did not even know how to work the phoneline.  I have neglected to apologize to all of those agency clients, I hope I didn’t transfer you to Kathmandu! 

Once I got my rhythm, I was ravenous for everything advertising and travel clients, eventually working my way up to agency President at the age of 26. Assistant, web developer, SEO marketer, Media Manager, Account Manager, butcher, baker, candlestick maker, I touched it all.  I had a very progressive female CEO who valued talent over tenure. It was the explosion of digital, and I loved every minute.  I’m blessed enough to have worked in all aspects of Destination and Travel Marketing and corporate and private businesses.  It seems only right to pay forward my lessons to the women who have the temerity to do the same.

So, keep your shoes on, ladies.  There’s a lot of broken glass in my recollections.  And a lot of exceptional male executives that supported this journey. Enjoy this quick synopsis of my takeaways from 1990 – 2020, Thirteen “things” from thirty years in the agency trenches:

  1. Solve for the client, not the industry
    1. This is my takeaway from working inside the big agencies to crafting my own boutique style.  One size does not fit all.  Though, it’s mostly sold that way to this day.  Prescriptive solutions based on experience yields more durable results and is a much more rewarding reflection of your talent. 
  2. The biggest failures came from being too early, not too wrong.
    1. Considering I started my journey at the dawn of the internet, let me tell you, it was not a cakewalk.  Having unique ideas was not always rewarded.  I have been criticized for not being an order taker and have lost business for pushing inevitable evolution too far, too fast.  If you are lucky, you’ll have that one client who will follow your push to the future.  A few of my fondest examples are launching the first personality-driven website in the industry and the first web reality series for a destination marketing organization.
  3. You’ll most definitely be called the “B” word for telling your truth, but never for revealing facts.
    1. I found myself at the table, mostly surrounded by men (as was commonplace in tech.) In the early days, I made sure to teach myself code and understand the components that went into mar-tech.  At the table, I was always armed with the facts I needed to express my place.  Stick with the facts, underscore with the human connection that binds the facts, not vice versa.  No one cares about your opinion without that. And you should not take advice from someone who has not done what you want to do!
  4. What one (wo)man can do, another can do.
    1. It is easy to feel intimidated by other’s accomplishments. I’ve learned that study and practice allow you to accomplish anything that someone else has.  To that end, feel the fear, buckle down, and do it anyway.
  5. Give the man a fish!  Then, teach him how to fish.
    1. If someone is hungry, are you giving them a fishing pole or feeding them?  Hungry people can’t accomplish for themselves.  It’s the difference between “done for you” and “done with you.”  If your client is in crisis, stabilize them first.  Then, “open the kimono.”  Proprietary is a nasty word that denotes snobbery and insults your clients’ intelligence.  Everything I know and have learned, I pass on freely.  Which brings me to my next takeaway…
  6. Never pay to speak.
    1. It’s now a common practice to pay sponsorship to speak in the industry.  This is a complete lose-lose.  For the event organizers, all paid speeches undermine the perceived value of the information for the audience.  For the speaker, it’s a mind shift from being an educator to being an investor.  You know, that little sales pitch at the end?  You’ve earned the knowledge the audience needs.  Free is OK if the cause is worthy, and your intentions stay right to help, not sell.
  7. Celebrate other women as often and as much as you can.
    1. Maybe it was a lack of team sports women were involved in, but historically, women tend to compete and fail to celebrate others’ wins as openly as we should.  What I have realized (especially the tech space) is that every accomplishment of your sister is YOUR accomplishment.  And, our young female workforce is watching you.  Create a commitment culture around you by celebrating other women all. the. time.
  8. Your real customer is not who is paying you.
    1. Take two on not being an “order taker.”  To be successful for your clients, you must create for the end traveler/planner/customer.  Fill their needs, stoke their desires.  It’s your job to present the facts to your paying client and illustrate the difference between what they want and what they need.  You have to be a good persuader and intimately understand the end-user.
  9. It would be best if you learned how to deal with pigs.
    1. Confessions that plague my female colleagues:  Yes, I have been approached to trade “favors” for business, notably by an unnamed Governor and other men in power.  Yes, I have been called “little lady,” infantilized and marginalized.  Simple answer:  find your tribe: the like-thinkers, the respectors, and the ones who aid in your career.  Treat them like gold; they are lifelines.  Forget whatstheirname who disrespects you in any way.  Walk away, and if it’s not a polite walkaway, that is on them, not you.  Do what you gotta to protect your self-respect.
  10. Stay in the weeds.
    1. You are never, ever on top.  Not really.  Once you move up in your career, it’s tempting to shed the tactical prowess that got you there.  Especially in digital, you snooze .. you get dumb.  Stay a practitioner, gain new skills.  Keep your sleeves rolled up and do it yourself before you hire.
  11. Pop culture is your best friend.
    1. Your client may not be on TikTok, but the consumer is. Trends, fads, and viral snippets are valuable tools to understand the language of now.  Never stop watching commercials, fashion trends, global societal shifts in thinking.  Swim in your end user’s culture so that you can effectively usher narrative psychology to your brand.  This key area helped our clients achieve more in the dumpster fire of 2020 than in the year before. 
  12. Good strategy is difficult to copy.
    1. Good strategy is unexpected; the “A” plan might seem counterintuitive and even a little crazy. It is difficult to copy, because it is rooted in a futurist perspective; seeing what can be and not what is. And, I cannot stress enough that strategy is not tactics in work clothes. Here’s where the “truth” divides the facts.  Great strategy brings about what people don’t even know they want yet.  Do not shy away from cultivating a great strategy as a woman or in any title you may hold.  Great ideas come from all walks of life, all perspectives.  If you execute it flawlessly, the competition won’t even know what you did for a very long time.
  13. It’s not personal; it’s business.
    1. But, if it’s not personal – you probably shouldn’t be in this business.  I have shed tears in frustration, pride, angst, anger.  It’s not weakness; it’s caring.  But, don’t take it home.  Never let it steal your relationship with those you love.

In the end (but it’s not anywhere near the end for this gal!), being a vendor can come with all sorts of funny, embarrassing, and sometimes magical experiences.  It’s not what you know; it’s what you carry that makes a long and rewarding career.

Dedicated to all the men and women who believed in me when I might not have believed in myself.

All my love,

Jenn