Ileaa Swift of Swift Travel Deals.
Ileaa Swift of Swift Travel Deals.

For entrepreneur Ileaa Swift, travel isn’t just about places — it’s about people, too.

In 2012, she founded Swift Travel Deals with a vision of helping everyone, no matter their income, find opportunities to experience the world firsthand.

Since starting the agency, she and her 38 full- and part-time employees have helped more than 200,000 clients book dream trips. And many people with tight budgets have satisfied their wanderlust, thanks to her firm’s use of payment plans to make travel more affordable. Her layaway-like model has been a success; today, the business pulls in $7 million in revenue annually through commissions and fees for its services.

Swift’s passion for planning trips is rooted in a belief that one of the best ways to learn about other cultures is through travel. She feels strongly that exposure to far-off societies can break down misconceptions that some have about people who don’t look, speak or live like them.

“That was one of the biggest things for me: wanting to push travel in a way that creates a different mindset in the traveler,” Swift says. She believed that, “if I created an avenue to be able to travel and meet other people that are different, it could start changing everyone’s views.”

Getting a Venture Ready for Take-Off

Swift had long dreamed of owning her own business. “I had the entrepreneurial spirit when I was a kid,” she says, recalling an event-planning firm she tried to set up when she was just 17 years old. But those dreams fell by the wayside, and she later found work as a fund coordinator for a private college. In her spare time, she and her husband, Terrence, traveled the world.

Recounting their adventures made everyone around her eager to experience far-off places themselves. So, she began helping them plan trips “as a hobby,” and found she had a knack for finding the best deals. But as word of her talents spread, the demand became overwhelming, with research efforts spilling into her nights and weekends. Colleagues “would come over to the office and disturb me during work hours,” she says.

It was her husband who first suggested she start a travel agency. But initially, she scoffed. Her hesitation evaporated, however, after a fateful conversation on a trip to London in 2011, when a woman she happened to meet there encouraged her to go pro. That fateful interaction inspired a year of research into how to start a business.

But as she started her journey to entrepreneurship, Swift says she encountered discrimination based on her youth, gender and race — she was 26 when she launched and is African-American — from people both inside and outside of the travel industry. “It was coming at every angle,” she says, from distrust of her work to disbelief that her husband was not secretly running the show. Swift also says she fielded significant skepticism about her insistence on a business model that features payment plans.

But Swift stayed focused and centered herself in “the work that I do, and the goodness that I put into the world,” she says. And over the years she made a solid name for herself through hard work and perseverance. She has garnered accolades for her accomplishments as a young entrepreneur (she is now 31), received heaps of press attention from publications like USA Today, and taken on numerous speaking gigs.

Helping Others Access the World

Central to Swift’s vision of accessible travel — and a key to her success — has been her firm’s signature payment plans for trips. Clients can put down as little as $50 to secure a trip and then pay off their balance in monthly installments over up to a year before their departure date. “They don’t have to spend a ton of money, and can still go on vacation” at the lowest rates available, she says.

Her unwavering commitment to this unusual business model for the travel industry is ultimately what led her to start her own business. Initially, she had considered opening up a franchise with Expedia — until they rejected her payment plan idea. Instead of foregoing her vision, “I went to the bank and took out a line of credit” to turn the dream into a reality.

But things didn’t come together immediately. At first, she used the cash to finance trips up-front, allowing clients to reimburse her over time, which left her in the red at the end of her first year in business. “It was the stupidest thing I could have done,” she says, because she quickly burned through the money.

Still, she believed in what she was trying to do. So she took on an advisor who helped her establish relationships with hotel, airline and other vendors — crucial connections that cemented the deals that cut trip costs down to more comfortable ranges. Her business took off — her client database has “grown massively in the last 5 years,” she says.

Swift Travel Deals has pursued other innovations designed to make enriching travel accessible. It offers a program called Travel with a Purpose, through which clients can book passage to do good works. The company frequently assists customers with special needs as well as people who are strapped for cash but need to travel last-minute for family emergencies. And, it helps travelers navigate passport and visa issues through a strategic partnership with American Passport Now.

Changing Up the Travel Industry

Of course, even while building her business, Swift has continued to go on her own travel adventures. Soon, she will be making her way to Egypt — a beloved locale for the jetsetter — and is piecing together a “bucket list” trip that spans parts of Africa and Europe. But business ownership has forever changed how she approaches such journeys, she says. “I’m interviewing locals and immersing myself in the moment” to learn as much as possible about each destination.

And to ensure that many more people get those same opportunities, she has begun mentoring and training other travel agents, who either become part of her company as independent contractors or go out on their own, after taking part in her paid program.

In recent months, mentoring has become her primary focus — she works with both agents and other entrepreneurial women outside of the travel industry — and she no longer books travel herself. To date, she has helped over 2,000 people become travel agents, and has worked with more than 230 women on their own professional dreams.

In 2016, she created an executive board that handles the day-to-day operations of Swift Travel Deals, while she focuses on developing the mentoring arm of the business and forging new vendor relationships that can deliver more options for every component of client trips.

Wherever her work and her travels may take her, Swift says she is in this on this entrepreneurial journey for the long haul. “The next 5, 10 years down the line, we will still be an agency creating an avenue for everyone to travel, regardless of budget.”