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The Top 25 Travel Agents of 2013July 1, 2013 By: David Moseder, Adam Leposa, Jena Tesse Fox, Khier Casino Travel Agent
What makes a top travel agent? Is it something easy to measure — sales volume, perhaps? Or is it something less tangible — pure dedication and willingness to go above and beyond for a client? Or is it some sort of combination of the two? Looking to find answers to this query, Travel Agent invited our readers to tell us why they were the toppers in their field. Some agents are home-based and part of a larger parent company. Some are in small, independent businesses. Some are part of huge corporations. As always, everyone had wonderful stories about the challenges and triumphs of being a travel agent, making it very difficult for us to select just 25.
But we narrowed it down, and here they are — Travel Agent magazine’s Top 25 Agents for 2013.
Berta Aizen specializes mainly in European and Latin American destinations at Frosch Travel, but does not limit herself in where she can send her clients. Aizen understands customer loyalty, and guides her clients through trips that are best suited for them. Clients take her advice and suggestions, making her closure rate above 90 percent.
In July 2012, Aizen had a family of five travel to Argentina and Brazil. “One of their flights was cancelled from Cordoba to Buenos Aires due to a strike,” she says. “They had a prepaid/nonrefundable hotel in Buenos Aires where they were going to stay the night to depart the next morning to Iguazu Falls.” Aizen was able to get the family aboard a flight from Cordoba to Iguazu on a different airline, and even got a refund after communicating with the hotel and airline.
Planning a trip for a family of 35 people traveling by charter to France and Barcelona presented its share of challenges. For starters, Aizen made sure to hire two guides, one for the adults and another for the children. The family stayed at five-star hotels and a 16-room villa in Provence. Private tours were offered along with a private coach, cooking class and yacht on the Seine River. Wine tasting was available for the adults, while the children went on a scavenger hunt.
“Berta wrote the book on how to create successful relationships with both her guests and suppliers,” says Marc Télio, president, Entrée Destinations. “She understands loyalty and is a true proponent for building successful partnerships, so her sales speak volumes.”
Pacific Palisades, CA
Terry Bahri specializes in luxury leisure and corporate travel, and plans destination weddings and honeymoons as well as luxury cruises. Destinations include Europe, Mexico, Caribbean, Asia, Australia, Tahiti and South Pacific. Bahri has also been certified by Virtuoso and Crystal Cruises.
Bahri showed her resourcefulness when she booked an FIT trip for client traveling from China to Japan even though, she admits, “I was unfamiliar with Japan.” But she did her homework and was able “to craft the most perfect itinerary including tea ceremonies, fish market auction, staying at ryokan and experiencing the snow monkeys.”
Likewise she arranged for a client to stay at five-star hotel in Florence, but since the property was in the center of town, the location proved too noisy. Bahri, after first trying to change their room, was able to book another hotel ASAP where it was quieter.
Bahri has also organized dream trips for clients to travel to four countries and five cities in South East Asia. The trip included a short cruise in Ha Long Bay, shopping spree in Singapore, and ending on a beach in Bali. A French speaking guide was on hand as well.
It’s little wonder then that Bob Preston, president, Europanache, lauds Bahri’s ability to put together trips that “involved considerable customized planning. I could not have had such successful travel experiences without Terry’s incredible assistance.”
Oak Lawn, Illinois
Since purchasing the agency at which she was working in 2009, Karen Daly has managed to more than double its sales, leading MK All Around Travel, Inc. to win the MAST All Star Award for three consecutive years. Additionally, Daly’s agency has become a Golden Apple agency with Apple Vacations for the first quarter of 2013 and the No. 1 agency for MAST agencies with Travel Impressions for 2011 and 2012.
One lesson Daly has learned in her time in the travel business is the value of offering travel insurance to her clients.
“I always offer travel insurance. I was once traveling with a group and we were in Aruba during a blizzard in Chicago [our home airport] and had to arrange alternate transportation for 30 people,” Daly says.
“Twenty-three of us were able to stay three extra nights, after working with the all-inclusive hotel and the airlines, seven people opted to leave Aruba on the scheduled day and stay in Miami for a night, and all was done at no extra cost to the clients. The clients on this trip now want to always travel with their agent—me!”
“Since buying her agency a number of years ago, sales have ballooned under Karen’s entrepreneurial style,” says John Werner, president and COO of MAST Travel Network. “Karen’s agency is now consistently a top performer in MAST winning numerous awards for the agency and for Karen personally. Her focus on selling preferred suppliers has also propelled the agency to be among the agencies with the highest sales in MAST for several suppliers. Karen has had much success with growing her group business by leading her own groups each year.”
China is a booming destination, and with a fluent command of Mandarin and close to 30 trips to the country under his belt, Stan Godwyn is well positioned for success.
Godwyn has been involved in arranging China itineraries for such notables as the Governor of California’s party. “This involved several very last-minute changes; rearranging dates, number of vehicles, etc.,” says Godwyn. “My long-established relationship with the Chinese suppliers allowed me to handle these changes without worrying about getting payment to the supplier first.”
Specializing in China puts Godwyn’s trips on many clients’ bucket lists. For a client with an interest in Chinese porcelains, he was able to arrange behind-the-scenes access at museums and galleries, and opportunities to handle several very rare Ming dynasty pieces.
“I treat all of my China itineraries as dream trips,” Godwyn says. “I think the ones I enjoy most are family trips in which the parents are trying to expose their children to the world. I did a trip last year that not only accommodated the children’s comfort and interests [kite making lessons in Beijing, hands-on cooking lessons, etc.] but also explored some of the family’s specific cultural background. The family is Muslim, so we included visits to sites relevant to the history of Islam in China.”
“We would like to thank [Mr. Godwyn] for your unsurpassed professional services on our short trip to China,” exudes Arlene Wong. “The private tour guides were all very pleasant, personable and knowledgeable, attentive to our personal interests, taste in foods and overall fulfilling the expectations of our visits. The hotel accommodations were perfect.”
Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
After leaving Wall Street to raise her children, Mara Hargarther hooked up with CruiseOne and grew her home-based business into a million-dollar enterprise in just one year. After 20 years in the travel industry, she has a client base of more than 5,000.
Hargarther’s proactive approach to problem-solving saved one family of clients, who were set to depart on a cruise that was cancelled due to engine trouble, when she managed to find out about the cancellation before the line even notified her.
“I immediately contacted the reservations department and rebooked the clients on another ship departing the same day and was able to have them upgraded from balcony cabins to large suites,” Hargarther says. “The clients were so appreciative that they sent me a gift certificate to a local restaurant with a very kind note of thanks.”
“Mara has a dedication and passion that many try to imitate but they never duplicate,” says Alex Pinelo, director of national accounts at Norwegian Cruise Line.
Hargarther is especially passionate about world cruises, a trip she also cites as the most complex she offers.
“There were so many private tours and special requests that needed to be accommodated,” Hargarther says. “Details included safaris, delivery of books to the ship, social and dietary requests, shore excursions and specialty restaurant reservations…I can think of nothing better than to be able to see six continents aboard a luxury ship for four months. I have had clients that have repeated this year after year.”
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The Carol Howell Agency, an
Carol Howell is a versatile agent who has handled complex itineraries ranging from Joe Walsh of the Eagles’ 45-city Anthology Tour to movie shoots with Icon Productions. Her most challenging trip, however, was a family getaway to Europe where all the family members had different ideas on what to see.
“After the trip was booked, another family member decided to join,” Howell says. “I had to change every component to accommodate the fifth traveler—cruise cabins, dinners, hotels and more.”
In her time as a travel agent, Howell has learned the importance of building anticipation. For example, for her Aunt Eleanor’s 70th birthday, she booked a two-week dream trip to Hawaii.
“We told her six months beforehand,” Howell says. “She told me the anticipation of that trip was almost as good as the vacation. This is where I learned the importance of pre-trip excitement.”
Industry contacts help, too, especially on one difficult trip to Southeast Asia that represented many years of saving for her clients. They decided to book their own flights and “accidently booked the return two days after their cruise ended,” Howell says. “I used to work for the airline and called an old contact at the airline to ask for a favor. I spent two days with the airline advocating for my clients and was able to change the tickets without any fees.”
“We’ve used Carol exclusively for 10 years and every vacation she’s planned has exceeded our expectations,” says Linda Demmer of Plymouth, Michigan. “My trust in her is great—I giver her dates, she plans the trip and I just show up at the airport!”
A travel agent with 35 years of experience, during 24 of which she has owned her own business, Neelie Kruse is not afraid to break new ground for her clients.
“Many years ago I had a client wanting to take his spouse to Vietnam and Cambodia, to show her where he was in the war,” Kruse says. “He wanted to visit many spots that were off-the-beaten path, and this was years ago before anyone really traveled there. I was able to set up a private guide to escort them throughout their trip, with a private car and drivers. They said every moment of the trip was amazing and exceeded their expectations. I was thrilled as it was hard back then getting the proper information [no Internet!] and it entailed hours and hours of research but it was all worth it in the end.”
A member of MAST Travel Network, Kruse has won the “Million Dollar Agent Sales Award” for the past nine years and has been the No. 1 seller for most of them.
“As one of MAST’s top award-winning agents, Neelie has earned this top spot because of her ability to connect with her customers,” says John Werner, president and COO of MAST. “Based on her extensive product and destination knowledge combined with a deep personal knowledge of her customers, Neelie is able to say to her clients, I know you and I know this is what you like. This is what you should do. And her customers do it.”
New York City, New York
Being a travel agent can mean becoming responsible for clients’ most cherished moments, as Giada Lebani found out when she was tasked with rescuing her clients’ honeymoon. On the day of her clients’ scheduled departure for a Tahiti honeymoon, Lebani found that the airline was on strike and would not depart for another three days.
“No other flights were available, as it was peak season,” says Lebani. “The whole trip was cancelled and although the airline was refunding tickets, all the hotels were in full penalty and not willing to bend the rules. In a matter of hours I re-booked my clients to another destination departing the day after as they only had 10 days allotted for vacation. It took a few weeks of negotiation and discussion, and by pulling many strings I got a full refund for the hotels in Tahiti. My client had to digest the initial disappointment of not going to the destination they originally chose but they ended up in another beautiful island that exceeded their expectations. They made the most of it and had a blast!”
“Giada has been handling my family’s leisure travel for years now, one experience at a time,” says Nelson Hitchcock. “She somehow miraculously extracts the best from her personal adventures, travel resources and trend-setting publications to customize experiences we will never forget. I value my leisure time with my family more than anything, and Giada is the only person I will entrust that with.”
Julie Leech grew up in Germany, lived in North Wales, and traveled extensively throughout Europe before moving to the United States. Thus, “I’m able to provide clients with specific recommendations based on my personal experiences that they can’t find anywhere else,” she says.
“Each of my clients is different and has unique needs, so I take time to understand what it is they’re trying to achieve from their travels.” Plus, being fluent in German, French and Spanish, she has earned the trust and business of several clients who are not fluent in English.
Leech is pleased and proud that she was able to use her expertise to help a former colleague in need. The man was from Germany, and he and his wife were visiting Leech on a complex itinerary they had booked themselves, with multiple stops throughout the U.S. and Mexico. As they were preparing to move onto their next destination, Mexico City, they realized that they hadn’t booked a flight from there to get to Chicago for their flight home to Dusseldorf. “I made a couple of calls to the airline and was able to book them a flight that met both their time and budget criteria.”
Leech, a Virtuoso agent, holds certifications from numerous tour operators, cruise lines and hotel companies, a testament to her desire to stay on top of the latest industry developments. Maribel Lascalere, business development manager, Pleasant Holidays and Journese lauds Julie’s product knowledge and how she “knows how to qualify her clients to get them the best vacation experience.”
That may be one reason why Thomas Brocato and his family have been her clients for 30 years. “Now our children and grandchildren enjoy her services and we hope to continue this relationship for many years to come,” Brocato says.
San Diego, CA
“Be cheerful with clients, and do your work well and quickly” are two axioms that Connie Lemmon says have proven invaluable to her success as a travel agent. “I’m also lucky to have a good memory, which is beneficial in client conversations or if someone contacts me while on their vacation; I know where they are and can go over the details instantly.”
You can add “patience” to Lemmon’s skills, says client Gary Lungem. “She is an absolute gem to work with. I recommend her to friends and family.”
Lemmon is also an ardent proponent of travel insurance. “I always make sure to properly protect my clients’ vacation investment. I’ve had very few issues that travel insurance couldn’t help resolve,” she says. Barbara Hearn, district director, Allianz Global Assistance, tells us, “Connie has many complex itineraries that require great thought to plan, and to insure, and she’s often the one coming to us to propose coverage solutions.”
One of Lemmon’s most well met challenges was planning a trip for an 85-year-old client who wanted to see the world…in 12 days. “I arranged stops in Vietnam, India, Turkey, France and New York,” plus his flight home to Los Angeles, she says. “An around-the-world ticket is difficult as I had to pick flight dates in advance and couldn’t backtrack. I was constantly tweaking the trip to ensure my client’s wishes were completely fulfilled.”
Last year she booked an elderly husband and wife on a dream trip—two Tauck vacations back to back covering Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, India and Korea. Because of their advanced age, she kept close tabs on every aspect of the trip and was rewarded with photos and personal notes from them of every place they went to.
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Monika Leuenberger specializes in making sure that every client has “some pleasant surprises while traveling—things that they do not expect, but ones that will make it an unforgettable experience.” She also stays in touch with them as they travel, to make sure all is well.
She acknowledges that “without great staff, I could not be where I am now” and lauds Signature Travel Network for helping them “continue our education and further our destination knowledge and build a strong business. I also travel extensively to experience new destinations and services.”
An example of how Leuenberger goes the extra mile for her clients happened while escorting a small group in South America. One of her clients got ill in the Galapagos. She arranged with local doctors and the travel insurance company to get her to a hospital. “We organized a local speed boat that took us to Baltra, where a special medevac plane took us to Quito. As the group was in excellent hands with the local escort, I traveled with the client, making sure everything would work out, and it did.” That client credits her for having the entire process go smooth and easy. “And,” adds Leuenberger, “the rest of the group got to enjoy the entire trip as planned without any inconveniences.”
When clients Bob and Suzanne Golub heard Leuenberger was a “Top 25” candidate, they not only wrote an endorsement, they did it in rhyme, the last coupler reading: “Our adventurous journeys put Monika to the test / When it comes to travel, she is simply the best.”
Jim Holden, president, African Travel, stuck to prose but was no less effusive, praising her “can-do attitude” and ability to remain “unflappable under the most trying of circumstances.”
Having worked more than 21 years in the travel industry, Patricia LoBracco believes there is no substitute for experience. “I have traveled many times to the destinations [and with the suppliers] that I sell, so that I have a firsthand perspective [and] can make recommendations that can’t be found online or in a brochure.
“My clients also know that I am always there for them, making myself available 24/7 from our first e-mail or call until my welcome home phone call to them.” One example of this was a client traveling alone in Europe who, on the last day of her trip, was robbed while waiting at her hotel for the airport transfer.
“She lost her wallet, birth certificate, and passport—everything she needed to travel was gone,” LoBracco says. “I worked with the embassy to assist with getting a new passport and extended her hotel stay in France for three days while she waited for it.” She also worked with one of the trip’s suppliers, Uniworld, to advance her client €300 in cash to cover expenses. “Once we had the replacement documents, I made sure her airfare was rebooked and she was able to make it home.”
“Particia’s passion, experience, and understanding of the industry sets her apart,” says Lori Goldspiel, strategic business development manager, Azamara Club Cruises. “It is evident that she’s committed to creating extraordinary vacation experiences for her clients.”
One of LoBracco’s biggest challenges was arranging travel to Myanmar for a documentary filmmaker and his crew. She had to find hotels in very small and rural towns and arrange “transfers from location to location and be-my-guest in-home dinners. I paired the custom itinerary I created with an Abercrombie & Kent tour to give them better access to the country.”
In her eight years in the travel industry, Jamie Mussolini has discovered that, “My own experiences are key to relating to clients’ wants and needs. I have traveled single, then as a couple, had my own destination wedding, then with an infant to toddler to child,” she says. Along the way she found that her true calling was to create memorable destination weddings and honeymoons.
“I take a bridal client who has no plan, ask a few questions, and together we create the magical itinerary,” she says. “And they return with nothing but raves about how it was the best trip of their lifetime.”
She once put together an elaborate “dream” honeymoon that entailed island hopping among both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. It was all in a day’s (or several days’) work for Mussolini, but for the young newlyweds it really was a dream come true.
“When they returned, I spent one hour on the phone with them. They told me every single detail about how they were ‘wowed.’ ” She frequently gets shorter, but no less enthusiastic reviews about her services on the TheKnot.com.
That doesn’t surprise Joseph Buchwald, BDM of GOGO Vacations, who says, “Jamie is a very driven and business-savvy travel agent who is eager to learn and give her clients’ the best vacation experiences possible. [She] has flourished as a loyal travel agent partner of GOGO.”
Mussolini has also been exclusively asked to participate in upscale Bridal Shows for Ritz-Carlton and Neiman Marcus, among others.
Jeffrey Olinghouse is a Virtuoso agent who specializes in “high custom leisure” travel, with concierge services for all his clients. “I customize each trip for each client’s wants and needs.” Such planning doesn’t come easy, or cheap, so Olinghouse is a firm believer in charging service and coordination fees. “This shows the client my value to them.” And he makes sure they get their money’s worth. “I keep in contact with the clients while on their trip, showing them that they are getting concierge service.”
He also believes in learning as much about the products he sells as possible and staying on top of what’s new. He has earned several “specialist” certifications, and says he is “always looking for the new and hottest travel trend in the market. I want to be the ‘go to’ person whenever clients think of travel.”
Olinghouse also notes the importance of “taking control of the situation and gain the clients trust, so they can have confidence in your decisions on hotels, vendors etc.” For example, he says, “Just recently, I had a three-week trip for clients going to South America. The first flight was cancelled and Delta would not protect them and they were going to miss the first part of the trip.” So he contacted Delta himself and had the airline arrange to put his clients on another carrier. “I kept them in business class and they made their trip without any hitches.”
Learning that he would be one of our “Top 25” agents for 2013 did not surprise Deb Bray, Travel Bound’s business development manager, who notes that Olinghouse is “the top in the top 25 agents in the U.S to sell and promote Travel Bound.”
New York, NY
After nearly 40 years in the business and travels that have taken her to 83 countries and all seven continents, Erika Reategui is pretty sure that “I was born to do this job.” Her clients call her a walking Wikipedia and Trip Advisor combined, she says, but that’s only part of what makes her successful.
“I grew up with a family work ethic of ‘service first.’ So I try to always put myself in my clients’ shoes, tracing every detail, making sure it fits their needs—never one size fits all.” Then there is the personal touch.
“Erika ensures customers are recognized and welcomed at our hotels,” says Elizabeth Viliani, account director, Starwood Hotels. “She cherishes her relationships and makes sure she exceeds expectations.”
Erika says she gets a “rush” from solving clients’ travel problems. One client, an ancient civilization buff, decided on a whim to visit Libya, Syria and Lebanon with two buddies from Argentina, giving her only three weeks’ notice. “Getting visas to Libya and Syria last-minute is nearly impossible for one American let alone for two more South American travelers. There [is] so much red tape and room for error. I went straight to the GMs of top properties in each country to be my trusted experts on the ground. Those impossible visas appeared three days before the big trip.”
She also considers herself a romantic at heart. “So when one client wanted to propose to his girlfriend in her dream destination of Mongolia, I knew the perfect spot. The Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert are named after their surreal orange glow…perfect for capturing this moment of a lifetime.” She organized every detail for the big surprise, including the private candlelight dinner waiting for the couple at the base of the cliffs afterwards.
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Kat Rinehuls has been with Vacation.com-affiliated Bluegreen Travel for more than eight years and says, “I have had the pleasure of being a part of what started off as a small agency that has grown by leaps and bounds over the years. It has been a very rewarding experience to assist in this business that I look after as my own.”
Kat has developed many programs from the ground up, including agency standards and guidelines, training and agent development, “and I have worked to develop two departments within the agency, the group travel department, which I lead, and quality assurance. “I have extensive experience in quality assurance, which involves resolving problems as they arise, before, during and after travel,” she says, adding, “The first solution I always offer to my clients is to take a deep breath and let me handle it,” she says.
“I had a client going to Hawaii for their ‘dream vacation’ and, due to issues with their flights, they were on the verge of missing out on two nights of their seven-night vacation. I made arrangements with the airline and the hotel to extend the reservations by two nights on the end so that my clients would still be able to enjoy their week vacation, at no additional cost,” she says.
Kat, who holds more than 30 varied travel certifications, always “shows a willingness to learn more about all products,” says Jeff Caesar, BDM for Norwegian Cruises. He also observes that, “When I visit her office, I notice she is loved and respected by her team. They look to her as a leader.”
Ralph Santisteban opened his agency in 1998. “Initially, I worked solo, but have since grown the business to include nine sales associates.” Today, it ranks as a top-five franchise within the CruiseOne family.
Norwegian Cruises BDSM Ricardo Hidalgo, for one, attributes Santisteban’s success to his “professionalism, customer service. As a top producer in my territory for Cruise One, he is a valued travel partner.”
His business model has focused on corporate and group travel. “I have partnered with large corporations and organizations through our specialized websites at companycruises.com and membercruises.com to include over 40 organizations in excess of 100,000 members.” These include everything from Bacardi and banks to public schools.
Of course the larger the group, the bigger the headache when something goes wrong, but Santisteban hasn’t stayed in the business 16 years by backing away from a challenge. Case in Point: “After placing a large group of more than 100 cabins on a seven-night Caribbean Cruise, I was informed that there had been an issue on board the vessel that adversely impacted the quality of the vacation. After receiving complaints from numerous customers, I contacted the cruise line and was able to negotiate a significant reimbursement package.” More than 70 percent of those affected used their reimbursement toward the purchase of another cruise from the line.
It was a “win-win” for all, says Santisteban. “The consumer received another cruise at a discount; the cruise line was able to give those consumers another opportunity to form an opinion on the product; and our agency retained satisfied consumers who are confident in our dedication to their best interest.”
Focusing on cruises has worked well for Gary Smith: His agency’s volume has grown every year during the economic downturn, and the company is up 17 percent year-to-date. His client list includes 1.5 million employees of Fortune 500 companies.
And with discerning clients, the ability to pull together a complex tour has to be second nature: He was once contacted by an elderly man who had recently booked a cruise to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on a major cruise line with another agent. The trip was the passenger’s lifelong dream, but because of its remote location, the cruise line canceled the itinerary, and the client’s travel agent couldn’t help.
“After extensive research, I found and combined several different vendors, a cruise tour, and personal guide to take him to Alaska and Prudhoe Bay, all at a lower cost than his original trip. Once he arrived in Alaska, however, Mother Nature closed down the road leading to his destination, delaying the trip and throwing a wrench into all of his independent travel items. I was able to rework his entire itinerary to accommodate the delay and ultimately, help him cross Prudhoe Bay off his Bucket List.”
Heidi Jo Davis, Holland America/Seabourn Business Development Manager, describes Smith as “relentless in his mission to build and grow his business. He has reached out way beyond my expectations this year to promote and business. He is by far my hardest working CruiseOne Franchise in my territory! In addition to layering his marketing efforts this year he has also grown his staff which enabled him to reach out to a broader demographic.”
At a remarkably young age, Kira Solomon has already accomplished much in her field. In 2009, at the age of 22, she became a chapter director for the OSSN, a position she still holds. By December of last year, she was teaching Seminars at Sea for the OSSN, and this past May, she was asked to be a panelist on the first-ever “Secrets of the Young & Successful” panel at the Home Based Travel Agent Forum in Las Vegas. (Due to scheduling issues, however, she had to decline.)
As a young agent, Solomon is quick to experiment and adapt: “After two years of struggling to compete with online travel companies, I changed my business plan and my company took off. I picked a small handful of suppliers I trusted, in locations I’d personally been to, and became an expert in selling only those. My new business rule of thumb became ‘if I don’t know it, I don’t sell it.’ It may sound crazy, but turning down business has actually made me more successful. By becoming an expert in my narrowed-down niche, travelers personally seek out my help and I find it much easier to close the sale.”
David Roper from Sandals Resorts International praises Solomon’s “go-get-it” approach to business. “Her clever use of social media outlets has been a key element in her fabulous progression in business. At the tender age of 25, Kira attained membership to the prestigious Sandals Chairman’s Royal Club, an elite club for which annual membership is gained only by top sellers of the Sandals Resorts product line.”
Sperrazza has toured more than 67 countries, gathering personal and professional insight. “I’m called ‘Commodore Camille,’ as I am a veteran of over 50 cruises, and a certified travel specialist for Cunard, Princess, and Norwegian Cruise Lines,” she says. “It’s important for me to recommend places I have personally experienced, so I visit resorts and make personal connections every chance I get. I constantly educate myself to retain ‘certified expert’ status for cruise lines and destinations that include Saint Lucia, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and others.”
She has even been joined by clients on her travels, making it easy to attend to their needs. When not actively traveling with them, she remains in contact during their trips, assisting as needed. “For example, a client once contacted me to tell me she broke a leg, and I was able to get insurance information to her. Another time, a client had just arrived in the Caribbean for a week’s vacation—and had gotten a call that a family member had passed away. I got them on the next flight home.”
This past May, Sperrazza sent 67 people to the St. Lucia Jazz Festival. Although the tour was planned nearly a year in advance, the travelers were having last-minute doubts. “To ease their minds, I personally visited the resort, took photos, and e-mailed them to the group organizer to distribute. While there, I met with the manager to discuss the upcoming visit, and to be assured that all was in order, and that my clients’ needs would be met.”
Lorine Charles-St Jules, Regional Marketing Manager of the Saint Lucia Tourist Board, calls Sperrazza “detail-oriented, creative and empathetic to her clients’ needs. During the last two years…Camille and the World Awaits Travel have ascended to one of Saint Lucia’s top booking agencies in Northeast.”
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“In my 28 years in the travel industry I have worked all sides of the business; airline employee, reservations for a Hawaii wholesale company, front-line International travel advisor, team leader, travel manager, travel trainer, business development manager for a cruise line, and now Virtuoso Member agency owner,” Staples says. “From all this, I have gained first-hand experiences that allow me the necessary tools to stay in the forefront of our ever changing business. Upon opening my brand new agency, just over a year ago, I developed a million dollar sales revenue from zero by building quality relationships and delivering superior customer service to my clients, and now have over a 90% percent repeat client ratio.”
That repeat rate may have something to do with Staples’ ability to think quickly and solve problems: Years ago, she had clients traveling to Australia via Papeete. She offered to help the clients obtain their Australian visa, but they declined. “Departure day arrives, and I receive a call…from the client stating they were being denied boarding as they only had a MasterCard and no Visa!” Staples talked the Airline Agent into terminating their ticket in Papeete, and booked them into Moorea and Bora Bora in over-water bungalows, even getting the fees waived. The vacation was saved and the clients finally made it to Australia the following year—“with Visas in their Passports!”
Gary Bertsch, a client, says that Staples makes the most of the customer’s office visits, making sure she understands each individual’s needs, budget constraints and special requests. “She assesses pricing, amenities, and perks for each client. She recommends places to visit and arranges exquisite accommodations…She is prompt in replies and pays heed our special requests. Sandy is very knowledgeable but researches what she can’t validate, and gets back to us.”
Fort Lauderdale, FL
As an independent contractor with Regency Travel, Stewart is the travel agent for two NHL (National Hockey League) teams. “I am responsible for coordinating these two teams’ off-season camps that entail flying people in to all corners of the globe,” she says. “I am available to my clients 24/7 with no outside help from a service…I have built my bushiness on my reputation alone. I started with one team 15 years ago and it has now grown into a business generating $1.5 million dollars a year in sales.”
She once had a hockey team of 56 players divided on two flights from Toronto to Calgary. “I had to complete last-minute roster changes that the coach made and make sure the right players were on the right flights. I also had to prearrange all the equipment bags and luggage. I had to have all the proper weights and measurements of each piece of luggage, equipment bag, medical trunk etc. submitted to the airline and then have them prepaid.”
She faced an unexpected challenge when an unprecedented no-fly zone was imposed across Europe in 2010 following a huge volcanic eruption in Iceland. “At that time, I had about 10 NHL Hockey Scouts in Sweden,” she recalls. “I had to figure out how to get 10 very tired hockey scouts out of Europe. I had to reroute some through Tel-Aviv; some took a train to other countries [where] the ash wasn’t as thick.” Within two days, all 10 scouts were home safely.
Christopher Overholt, CEO and Secretary General of the Canadian Olympic Committee, has been a client of Stewart’s for the past 10 years. “She has always exceeded my expectations with her professionalism and attention to detail…She is available to me 24/7 and is always there to fix any problem I may encounter with my travel, whether it’s a quick flight to Montreal or as far away as Sochi, Russia.”
“Before I worked on the tour operating/agent side of the business, I worked as a driver guide for a small mom-and-pop safari operation based out of Johannesburg,” Tabuchi says of his start in the industry. He has attained and cultivated an insider’s perspective over the past 12 years with annual visits that run from one to three months. To help promote sustainable and responsible travel, Tabuchi also supports camps, lodges, operators and organizations that share his ethics.
Specializing in off-the-beaten-path destinations means dealing with complicated logistics, however. He has had to get an NBC crew with Ann Curry up Kilimanjaro, arranging 300+ mile walking safaris, summit-to-sea treks (Kilimanjaro to Indian Ocean), etc. He even arranged a wedding on top of Kilimanjaro. “We conducted the wedding on day seven in the crater, amongst the towering glaciers,” he recalls. “Leading up to this night, we arranged for special romantic meals and planned the journey in a way to culminate in the big finale. All my porters were asked to wear their traditional Masai shukahs and they all did a traditional Masai ceremony at 18,500 feet.” The next morning, they reached the summit and walked to Mweka camp.
Complicated logistics also leave more room for things to go wrong—and in remote areas, problems that would be easily solved in a city can become catastrophic. For example, one of Tabuchi’s client was five hours into an eight-hour trek in a remote park in Gabon when she badly sprained an ankle and broke a collarbone. “I called upon the Gabonese government to give us access to a helicopter as there were no landing strips for miles around the park,” Tabuchi recalls.” Almost a day later and $300,000 in expenses, the woman was in Europe getting first-class medical attention. Good thing I was adamant about trip insurance!”
Carrie Wallace uses her experience as a former management consultant and leadership role at conferences like ILTM Cannes, PURE and Indaba to hone in on her clients’ desires and develop deep supplier relationships that can help her when a crisis strikes.
In 2004, Wallace had three couples on their honeymoons visiting areas affected by the Southeast Asian tsunami.
“The first was flooded out of their Maldivian resort; I determined they were safe, and worked to ensure their swift departure so they could finish their honeymoon in Switzerland as planned,” Wallace says. “Another pair was in northern Thailand, one day from arriving at a resort where 150 people lost their lives. I got the couple back home as quickly as possible, and re-planned their honeymoon to St. Barth a week later.”
The third were in southern Thailand: “After 24 hours of trying, I finally established they were safe, having run from the waves to higher ground. I routed them to Bangkok and then home from there. In each case, I notified their families they were safe, and shared updates. I was just glad that I could do my small part to help in such a devastating situation,” she says.
“I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with Carrie over several years,” says Leighton Kitagawa, sales manager, travel industry at Four Seasons Resorts Hawaii. “In a competitive industry where travelers have a variety of channels to book their travel, MoonRings continues to thrive. This is the result of the customized experiences and exceptional service their travelers are provided by Carrie and her knowledgeable staff.”
In addition to her successful career as a travel agent, Lisa Zwissler has also found time to found a nonprofit organization, Beach Bum CARES Inc., which provides children and their families aid, relief and educational supplies.
Zwissler prides herself on being available and providing assistance 24/7 for her clients, such as during one problem she faced with a wedding group in Egypt.
“I received an email from the bride and groom that they had not heard from the tour guide who was supposed to contact them ahead of time for a private tour and did not show up for the tour,” says Zwissler. “Unfortunately the tour operator did not have 24-hour support.
“Due to the time difference, I had to wake up and work out the issue in the middle of the night. I called the tour company direct and after a couple hours of trying to work through our language barrier and working together as partners, we resolved the issue and for their second private tour, all went smoothly.”
Some advice from Zwissler? “A complex trip isn’t necessarily an exotic one,” she says. “It is one where I truly customize and plan out the details of the logistics so that the trip runs as smoothly and efficiently as possible: accommodation arrangements, tour specifics and, of course, providing pre-planning information to clients such as time zones, currency, visas, etc. This way the client can show up all prepared and enjoy!”
“Lisa has built her business around professionalism, integrity and knowledge in travel,” says Sue Sheehan, director of sales northeast for Travel Impressions. “She is one of Beach Bum Vacation’s top producing agents and works extremely hard for her customers. We at Travel Impressions are pleased to have Lisa as a travel partner.”