‘Accidental’ travel planner turns hobby into highly successful business

CHIP BARKER PHOTO
This scenic image was taken in Strasbourg, France, during a scenic river tour arranged by Oceans & Lands.

By LOIS KINDLE

When Chip Barker had the opportunity to reinvent himself four years ago, he decided to give professional travel planning a shot. He’d been helping friends and family plan vacations for years, so he figured why not make a living at it.

“I kicked off Oceans & Lands in January 2013,” the MiraBay resident said. “I didn’t want any pressure, quotas or the expense of a brick and mortar building. I wanted to focus on the art of travel planning, which to me involves digging in to find exactly what clients are looking for and then exceeding their expectations.”

Barker’s sister, Kim, had worked at a couple of corporate travel agencies for years, and then became an independent contractor for Travel Planners International. The Maitland-based company with more than 3,900 independent agents provides extensive sales and marketing support, including accounting services, training and price negotiating with hundreds of hotels, cruise lines, car rental agencies, travel insurers and other industry suppliers. Thus, when Barker decided to “go for it,” he chose Travel Planners, as did his sister.

LOUIS VELAZQUEZ PHOTO
MiraBay resident Jimmy “Chip” Barker owns and operates Oceans & Lands, a travel-planning business he founded in January 2014. He specializes in high-end travel packages involving anywhere from a one-night stay to whirlwind luxury vacations.

The former information technology (IT) guy specializes in high-end travel packages involving anywhere from a one-night stay to whirlwind luxury vacations. There’s no trip too complex for him to handle.

While some travel agents charge a flat, up-front consultation fee, Barker does not. The income he makes comes totally from the companies with whom he books.

“When you buy a home, you don’t pay a Realtor to help you find one; the seller pays the agent’s commission,” said Jenn Lee, vice president of sales and marketing for Travel Planners International. “Much like that, suppliers we do business with pay our independent agents their commissions.”

And you get so much more than you would by doing the legwork yourself, Barker said.

“I often arrange for added amenities a client wouldn’t have the leverage or relationship to negotiate,” he said.

While you might book a room at the Marriott for $150 per night, Barker could get the same price with some goodies thrown in, things like free breakfast, late or early check in, maybe a bottle of wine or resort credit for a spa or restaurant.

“Where I really bring value is seeing if I can step them up to the Ritz Carlton, for example, and get a lot more amenities thrown in for an overall better benefit than the seemingly less-expensive Marriott,” Barker said.

Barker, 46, finds joy in creating memories. His eyes light up any time he talks about travel.

“My clients want an experience, and it’s my job to give it to them, and then find ways to elevate that experience,” he said. “Expedia won’t call ahead like I do and say, ‘These are my people. Take care of them.’

TRAVEL PLANNERS INTERNATIONAL PHOTO
Walking tours of any destination, including places like the Valley of 72 Waterfalls in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, can be arranged through Oceans & Lands Travel.

“I enjoy giving people ‘Wow!’ moments,” he continued. “My goal is to get raves.”

That’s why so many of the cruise lines, riverboats and hotels he uses go out of their ways to provide special, memorable touches.

“There’s always a way to make the magic happen,” Barker said.

“When you hear him work with clients, you’d think he’s planning a trip for himself,” said his other half, Chris O’Leary, a project manager for IBM. “He gets to know them and what they want. He has a way of making his clients feel special. Many become friends.”

Scott Kish, a luxury home builder in Naples, is one of them.

“We were blown away by the time and care he took to plan our first trip and every trip we’ve booked since,” Kish said. “His attention to detail and understanding of what a client wants is outstanding. Chip provides concierge service. He literally handles everything from start to finish.”

Navy Lt. Nicole Cook, a doctor serving in her third year of residency, agrees.

She said Barker, with only several months’ notice, arranged a recent hiking trip to Machu Picchu in Peru.

“Normally it takes a year or more to plan a trip like that,” she said. “It was exactly what I wanted, one of the best trips ever. I was a solo female traveler, so he connected me with a small group and planned a truly unique excursion.

“I felt very safe, very prepared with all the required documents and things I needed to bring,” Cook added. “I’m actually booking a cruise to the Bahamas with him in the next six months.”

CHIP BARKER PHOTO
This room in the Hotel Orphée in Regensburg, Germany is an example of the level of accommodations Oceans & Lands provides its clients.

Barker is also an advocate. When something unexpected occurs, regardless of when it happens, he’s on the phone immediately to make things right.

“I care more about your trip than you do,” he said. “It’s very personal to me.”

As an entrepreneur, he’s had the opportunity he said to grow his business quickly.

“I was an ‘accidental’ travel planner,” Barker said. “I had no idea this would work. I gave it six months when I began. But thanks to Chris, I was fortunate to be able to dive in and get things going.”

His passion for serving and attention to detail served Barker well. He books 95 percent of what he quotes and was recently invited to take part in Travel Planners International’s Platinum Agent Program after being named one of the company’s top 40 sellers. That means he’s among Travel Planners’ highest-performing independent contractors, with $500,000 or more in bookings during the past year.

The designation gives him the opportunity to travel with Chris to Los Cabos, Mexico, to the company’s Top Sellers Retreat at Secrets Puerto Los Cabos Golf & Spa Resort, where he’ll mix and mingle with Travel Planners’ executives, independent agents and their significant others and many preferred suppliers. He’ll also receive additional training, greater level of access to supplier executives and a dedicated concierge to assist him with his planning, rather than the company’s customer service staff.

All these perks will help him become even more effective, he said.

“If you’re looking to plan the trip of your life, an elaborate dream vacation, corporate getaway or exciting adventure of any kind, I’m your man,” Barker said.  “Travel planning is often like a big puzzle; I help put the pieces together.”

For more information, visit www.oceansandlands.com, www.Facebook.com/oceansandlands, or email info@oceansandlands.com.

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