Finding an Opportunity & Fill the Need Bark Up the Best Tree

By Cindy Bertram

What is the best way to find the “best tree” and fill that need? 

The term “barking up the wrong tree” was a phrase that came about in the 19th century when dogs were used to chase prey up a tree. Sometimes the prey escaped and leaped from one tree to another. The phase has evolved now meaning that if you bark up the wrong tree, you are pursuing the wrong course. And if you focus on finding the right, best tree, you’re on the right track to be successful. 

When I look at some very successful travel professionals I’ve been very fortunate to know over the years, they’ve found their particular niche, created that expertise and are known for what they do best. One travel professional colleague specializes in groups and a part of her niche is professional singles who have very successful careers. She customizes her groups, and one transition has been moving into river cruises. It’s now becoming the “best tree” for her business.


Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea — Successfully filling a Specific Need

Since beginning in 2007, Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea has successfully grown and has won special awards, along with becoming a valued resource for the traveling public. With the partnerships Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea has developed with cruise lines, peoples’ opportunities to travel have expanded in new ways, thanks to their streamlined process for the equipment delivery. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Andrew Garnett, President and CEO, and he shared more about the company he started along with how things came about.

How Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea started

Although I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Andrew Garnett for several years, I had no idea how his company evolved. So first I asked Andrew if he could share a bit more on how the idea for Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea came about. Andrew explained, “It was all by accident. I had been downsized from a job and could not find work. There was a travel agent who was asking for help with this and asked if I would be interested. I figured since I couldn’t find work anyway, I would give it a shot. So, I literally started in my bedroom, making deliveries with my personal car, and learning everything the hard way. As things progressed, I rented a storage unit and rented vans on busier days. Next, I rented a warehouse, purchased a van and started hiring some staff. In order to keep the momentum moving, I would wake up at 3:00 AM and drive from Miami to Port Canaveral to make deliveries. That same morning, I would then drive across the state and make deliveries in Tampa and then drive back home to Miami the same day.”

As far as Andrew’s background and expertise prior to starting Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea, he mentioned, “I worked staffing AT&T call centers. When AT&T went out of the call center business, I was downsized; thus the journey of searching for a new job began.”

Seeing a need and demand for this type of Service

Andrew and I then talked a bit about how this all evolved, focusing on his seeing a need and demand.  Andrew explained, “Honestly, as I had stated earlier, it was all by accident. I needed to do something and there was a demand for this type of service. Once I saw the opportunity, I figured out ways to scale it internationally very quickly along with some new concepts that many travelers and travel agents now take for granted.”

Then Andrew went on and said, “It can be challenging to be a trailblazer; however, being able to say that you have created a new industry/niche is very rewarding. Additionally, we created our SNG Accessible Certified Accessible Travel Advocate® (CATA®) program out of the necessity of the travel professional community lacking the tools to speak intelligently to this space. Our certification is quickly closing in on 5000 Certified Accessible Travel Advocates since its launch in November of 2011.”

More on starting the business, challenges and overcoming them

As far as starting Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea, Andrew shared a bit more about steps, dealing with challenges and overcoming them. He mentioned,  “We started running once I decided to give it a shot. The timing was right for me as I did not have many responsibilities at the time. My rent was cheap, my car was paid off, and I didn’t have anyone to report to. So, I could devote 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year and did. Today, I have a mortgage, a wife, a son, car payments, etc., so starting this business now would be more challenging. The most challenging aspect of starting this business was having to create everything as we went along because no one had done this before. Therefore everything was trial and error. Thank goodness most of our decisions were good!”

How Andrew has managed to successfully grow the company

Then Andrew and I talked more on how he’s been able to grow Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea.  And he said, “The company has grown from making deliveries in only two ports to servicing 215 metropolitan areas in 68 countries over a span of 10 years. We have grown this quickly by standing by our mission of making travel not only possible but also enjoyable for anyone who wants to go. By reinvesting in ourselves, we ensure sustained and manageable growth.”


Special recognition and awards

Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea has now been recognized with awards, and I asked Andrew if he could share more about this. He explained, “We have been recognized by many entities over the years. CLIA asked Special Needs Group to assist with creating content for courses that will empower travel professionals when speaking with clients who may require some special assistance. To name a few other of note, Porthole Magazine, SeatradeInsider, American Business Awards, and Travel Weekly have all recognized our efforts with awards like the coveted Magellan Award.”

Successfully building relationships with cruise lines

With the growth and expansion of Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea, another area that Andrew has focused on is building strong relationships with the cruise lines themselves. He explained, “I try to keep relevant in many different circles through creating, keeping, and growing a good reputation both as a company and personally. Because of our (my) good reputation for doing what we (I)  say and doing the right thing, we are and I am recognized and referred to as the leader, and ‘the go to’ in our fields of special needs travel, medical equipment, and logistics. I also live by the motto ‘It’s not who you know. It’s who knows you.’  So, those referrals keep coming.”

Where Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea provides services

Since first starting in 2007, Special Needs Group/ Special Needs at Sea has grown expansively. Andrew shared more and said, “We provide services in practically every corner of the globe with current services in 215 different metropolitan areas in 68 different countries.”

Another advantage that Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea provides? People don’t have to rent equipment to be used for the same pick-up and drop off location. Andrew provided more details, and explained, “Additionally, going one way with our equipment is also not a problem. You can receive a mobility scooter in Miami and leave it behind in Barcelona. You can travel from Venice to Sydney. We make it happen. The key is that we never outright say no. If the client is going to a place that is out of the ordinary and/or has the need for something out of the norm, we will offer, for a small fee, the opportunity to have us research how to make it happen. If the client moves forward with the order, the research fee is credited toward the service cost.”


Suggestions for Travel Agents – focus on a niche, being recognized as an expert

Having found a particular niche and then developing a company to fill it along with being seen as an expert, is something Andrew has done well himself. Then we talked a bit more, and I asked him if he had any suggestions for travel professionals. First Andrew said, “I recommend three major things. First, every travel professional should become certified through our SNG Certified Accessible Travel Advocate®(CATA®) program. This will get them well on their way to speaking intelligently to travelers who have some sort of special need. Next, I recommend that an agent not suffer from paralysis by analysis. Reach out to Special Needs Group for help. Don’t look like a deer in headlights when a customer asks about a mobility scooter or oxygen equipment. We are here to make you successful.”

Andrew went on a bit more and said, “Finally, don’t treat this as a niche. If you ask every customer ‘Does anyone in your party have difficulty walking long distances or standing for long periods of time? Does anyone require oxygen?’   You will find that your groups will grow. That is because your customer has already assumed that someone with a special need cannot go. ‘We told Aunt Betty that she was too slow, so she cannot go.’ You could say, ‘Well, if I give her a scooter, she would be faster than you.’ ‘Uncle Bob sleeps with oxygen so, we told him he could go.’ So your response can be, ‘What if I had oxygen equipment delivered to your stateroom?’  If Aunt Betty and Uncle Bob are now coming, their kids may be going too.  Additionally, remember that 20% of the US population has some sort of a special need. One in five is not a niche to me…”


What Andrew loves best about what he does

What came up as seeing an opportunity and filling a need has evolved into something even more for Andrew. He explained, “I really love that fact that I can support many families through a successful business while also helping people and hopefully making my mark on mankind for the better. In my opinion, the world was meant to be seen in person not just on television or through the internet. Special Needs Group is making it not only possible but also enjoyable for people to explore the planet.”

Some great takeaways 

Seeing a need and then finding an opportunity to fill it really ties in well with Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea. Also when Andrew mentioned that the world is meant to be seen in person, and with his company he makes it possible for people to do that?  It’s a true inspiration to what travel professionals do as well.