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Hatching an idea

When Patricia Brusha and her business partner, Alicia Whalen, hatched an idea four years ago to take marketing online for the tourism industry, they had a hunch that it was going to be big. They were right.

"If we don't do it, someone else is going to do it," said Brusha, the Chick's E-analyst, of the trend they saw towards online marketing.

At the time they had plenty going against them. Back then, marketing was still predominantly done in print and the potential of online marketing was just a theory and social media wasn't even a term yet. These two women, guided by their passion for the tourism and hospitality industry, created A Couple of Chicks, an online agency virtually located in the Port Credit neighbourhood of Mississauga. The company creates customized online marketing solutions for the tourism and hospitality industry targeting areas that need promotion.

The brand, "A Couple of Chicks" was long in the making. The two met in 2003 when Brusha was speaking at the Search Engine Strategies conference in Toronto. At the time Whalen felt like she was the only one seeing the huge potential in understanding SEO, (Search Engine Optimization) and how it could change the tourism industry. "There she was on a panel with other non-travel industry experts -- and it seemed like she was speaking directly to me," says Whalen, who serves as E-strategist for the company.

A connection was made and the two kept in touch over email.

It wasn't until Whalen gave birth to her second child that she knew she didn't want to go back to the old way she did her job. Over lunch in 2005 the two agreed to provide a fun and non-intimidating approach to online marketing. "People really need direction. People really need help," said Brusha. "[Alicia] looked at me at that moment and said, 'If a couple of chicks like us can understand it, we can help others do it. It's not that hard'."

Brusha went home that afternoon and registered their domain. Then came the criticism: "Are you crazy? Marriott hotels is not going to sign a cheque to 'A Couple of Chicks'." "You'll never get hired." "Women are going to find it offensive."

However, they moved forward. With no investor, no loan from the bank and zero dollars (except for a small amount of their own money), they built the website, developed the brand and tried to get clients. "We didn't spend a dollar marketing our own company," said Brusha. "We marketed online for free. I guess we did market. We just didn't spend. We didn't buy an ad, a banner ad, didn't buy Google ad-words. We marketed through articles and then Alicia started a blog."

Brusha realized that people needed to understand what online marketing is before they buy it and came up with the idea to host an educational seminar. What started as a small series has quickly become Online Revealed Canada, now is in it's fifth year and staged in Montreal last month.

"In the middle of starting our business, here we are organizing and running a grassroots education conference," Brusha laughs.

It wasn't until January 2006 that they signed their first client. Today, the clients come to them.

In their first year, in 2006, the "Chicks" did $300,000 in top line revenue, had 97 clients and had a bit of part time help. In 2009, they are breaking the $1 million mark and had a total of 57 clients and a full time staff of 10 found throughout Canada and the United States.

"We moved from an average of a client spending $3,000 or $4,000 or $5,000 to the average of $10,000," said Brusha. The overall vision for both is to move towards less clients and bigger budgets that can make a bigger impact.

What makes "A Couple of Chicks" different from other online marketing firms is the way they go about recommending solutions. The "Chicks" found clients were intimidated by a package that cost a set amount of dollars, not being entirely sure what they were getting for their money. The "Chicks" decided to let the customer try various approaches and avoided just saying, 'Everybody should get Facebook.'

"We need to understand their marketing plan and marketing strategy," said Brusha.

This is why they concentrate in tourism, an area they both know well. Brusha spent 26 years working in this industry and Whalen 8 years developing search engine strategies. "There is something to be said about becoming niche focused in one particular sector -- you become known for that and it makes working with clients that see great results that much more rewarding," said Whalen. "There is a trust that is already there with our clients. They know we have done this before."

Some of their clients include Niagara Falls Tourism, Nova Scotia Tourism, Travel Alberta and major hotel groups like Marriott Hotels and Resorts, Vintage Inn and Days Inn. They've even worked internationally with Tourism Spain and Germany, though a dream client would be Canadian Tourism or Toronto Tourism.

Only four-years young and celebrating their fifth year anniversary soon, Canada's leading online marketing firm for the hospitality industry has racked up a number of coveted awards. In 2008, they have been named 38th on the Profit 50 Canadian entrepreneurial companies as well as in Profit's Top 10 "Ones to Watch" in 2009. They have also captured the 2008 Pinnacle Award for Supplier of the Year among many others.

In the future, Brusha wants to change the focus of her career from client to education oriented. She plans to move more into a keynote educator role, speaking at events and talking to current and future business owners. "Women love our story," she says. "They want to be a "Chick"."

Anna Olejarczyk is a Freelance writer based out of Mississauga

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