Twelve years ago, if someone told Keith Waldon he was going to head a host agency that 200 travel advisors call home, "I would have laughed and probably bet all my money that you were wrong," he said.
But Waldon's Departure Lounge turned 10 this month. And while the agency has pivoted from its original model, Waldon's vision hasn't strayed.
"The original Departure Lounge concept, by being a prime spot coffee and wine bar that was also a luxury travel agency, was a way to get the business of travel back and engaged with the local community in a highly visible and engaging way," Waldon said. "Also, our idea was to do things differently."
While Waldon didn't set out with the goal of owning an agency in an industry that he found could be reticent to change, "I felt like somebody had to do it, and do it differently," he said.
Waldon's industry roots are with Rosewood Hotels, where he started as an intern and landed on the corporate team after a stint in public relations. While there he met Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, and eventually went to work for the consortium, still named API at the time. It was Waldon who led its rebranding.
With Upchurch's blessing, he left Virtuoso after 16 years to open Departure Lounge in Austin, Texas. Rather than look to other agencies for inspiration, Waldon turned to other industries and businesses that relied on independent contractors (ICs), like real estate franchiser Keller Williams and the technology and compensation models they used.
At the time, Waldon said, travel agencies were largely invisible to consumers. He wanted to change that, and to lean into technology for his ICs. For instance, Departure Lounge has never used a GDS. The agency also employs newer technology like Sion, which helps advisors track and chase commissions.
To make the agency more visible, he introduced the wine-and-coffee-bar concept and made ICs available to talk travel with customers. Departure Lounge operated under that model for four years.
"It was kind of a laboratory for us to learn about what was working, what didn't work, what was worth the effort, what was not," Waldon said.
Selling food and beverages, as it turned out, wasn't necessary. When another storefront opened up in a more upscale part of Austin, he leaped. He kept offering food and drinks to clients, but he did it for free. By that time, however, the agency was focusing solely on travel.
Departure Lounge continued to grow through the years into a regional, then national, host agency. Another storefront opened in San Antonio.
When Covid hit, Waldon used his time to expand into Europe, launch a preferred-supplier program and secure a booking platform for his advisors to house preferred partnerships.
This past January, Waldon shut down his two storefronts, though he credits them with the agency's early success in local communities. (There is still a Departure Lounge bar in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport that purchased a licensing agreement from Waldon, offering an interesting and diversified revenue stream.)
Departure Lounge has grown from the eight ICs it started with to 195 across the U.S., EU and U.K. Waldon recently purchased a home in Tuscany and splits his time between there and Texas, helping him onboard advisors in the U.S. and abroad.
When he started Departure Lounge, Waldon's 10-year goal was $100 million in annual sales; the agency hit that in year nine and is on track to exceed $200 million this year, he said.
Waldon said he expects to continue growing at a pace of around four or five advisors per month. He still insists on meeting each of them and getting to know them, acknowledging that at some point it will hinder the agency's growth. But he says it's part of the overall culture of, and focus on, kindness.
"The only goal is to continue to stay in our lane, doing what we're doing, and have gradual, careful growth with the right people," he said.