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Travel Agent’s 8th Annual 30Under30August 24, 2015 By: Joe Pike, Natalie Maneval, Kate Jansen, Michelle Krol Travel Agent
Here They Are: The future of the travel industry, the next generation of agents who will discover new places to go and new ways to connect with travelers. They exist in a 24/7 world of nonstop information, and communicate with each other, with other industry professionals and with clients through multiple platforms. They tweet. They share. They snap pictures and chat about their experiences. And they sell travel in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
They are Travel Agent’s top 30Under30 for 2015, which represents the eighth year of the program.
Over the past several years this feature has created a buzz in the industry and also helped fuel a community of young professionals who enjoy being a part of a special growing niche in the travel industry. This year’s list of young agents, all of whom were under 30 when the year began, is a testament to our combined success.
Candidates for 30Under30 nominate themselves for the program. Nominees must be currently employed at any level as a travel consultant, have completed a significant project for his or her travel agency, and be recognized by heads of his or her own organization as an emerging leader.
When Lindsay Barrie graduated with a Masters degree in Italian from Ohio State University, she never thought that she would find a job that would incorporate her love for both teaching and travel, which is why, “The setup of Bliss Honeymoons was instantly attractive to me,” she says.
Barrie also currently teaches introductory and intermediate undergraduate Italian courses at Ohio State, and in the past served as a study abroad resident director for students. Her responsibilities included conducting weekly meetings, onsite student evaluation and accompanying students on excursions. Her experience traveling internationally has helped her to succeed as a travel consultant.
“I love that this job always keeps me busy,” she says. “A lot of time goes into putting together itineraries, talking to the clients, revising options, and then booking.” Booking is not the final step, she adds. “I still check with clients, go over their travel documents and continue to answer all questions that they have.” Even with all of her preparation and attention to detail, Barrie still has to deal with the occasional crisis, which she has become adept at handling.
“We had a client e-mail us from Thailand, stuck on a beach-excursion-gone-wrong,” says Barrie. “We were on the phone with our supplier’s office in Thailand in the middle of the night organizing a private transfer out of there.” From this, and other similar situations, Barrie has learned to anticipate her clients’ needs and grown as an agent.
“Lindsay came to us as a seasoned traveler, but with no industry training,” says Bliss founder Laura Frazier. “She not only immersed herself in training with us, but studied independently as well [and] went from rookie to rock star travel agent. Her knowledge of Italy and Asia has made her an invaluable resource for her clients.”
Kristin Bartkus once got a frantic call from a client who, after boarding a ship, discovered there was no record of her onboard amenities. Calmly, Bartkus assured her it would be taken care of. One hour later, everything was fixed.
“Typically, when a client calls with a challenge while traveling, they are upset, panicked and stressed,” she says. “Utmost important is to listen, remain calm and reassure my client that I will take care of their needs. Once I understand the situation, I secure the assistance of my managers and we resolve the issue in the best possible outcome for our client.”
As full-time employee at CTA Travel, a Signature Travel Network member, Bartkus wears a few different hats. She is primarily an advisor, working with Justin Dolan, the agency’s director of sales in luxury travel. She partners with him from the initial contact with the client and is involved in every step of the sales process from research, to custom proposals, to confirming the travel. She also oversees itinerary and document preparation and follow-up with the client.
“They are on target for a $4 million year,” says Cathie Lentz-Fryer, the agency’s president, who points out that “Kristin knows the value of listening and understanding clients’ vacation expectations,” one of the many assets that led her to be selected by Signature to attend an Education Journey for the Young Advisor Community. Lentz-Fryer also lauds Bartkus’ “tech savvy” and “person savvy” as keys to her success.
Another key, according to Bartkus, is learning from one’s mistakes. “The most important lesson I have learned … is to double check all aspects of my client's final travel itinerary,” she says. “This includes travel components confirmed by my associate travel advisors and vendors. I learned that errors can be made at any given time and that I am 100 percent responsible for the final itinerary I present to my clients.”
Emma Brumbaugh made the switch from financial advisor to travel agent because the latter gave her the opportunity to sell something consumers are excited to buy.
“My brief experience in finance did help me with my position [at VIP] because in both careers, I’m not selling a tangible object,” says Brumbaugh. “Clients can’t hold what we are selling in their hands or try it on. Finance taught me that my clients needed to trust me and trust what I am selling, because they wouldn’t reap the rewards until later. Travel is the same principle.”
Brumbaugh — a Romance Travel Specialist, Wedding Group Specialist and Karisma Resort GI Wedding Consultant, among other accreditations — works in the Destination Wedding Department at VIP where she helps couples select a destination, negotiates for the lowest possible group rates, and books clients’ family and friends.
Brumbaugh has been able to creatively incorporate skills she attained while studying finance at Juniata College into her current position at VIP, creating a program for the agency’s groups department. “This program allows us to enter the number of travelers and their ages and an invoice auto populates, as well as an entire group manifest, without leaving us to figure out the math and the dates. It has cut down our work significantly and [given us] the ability to work remotely without the actual wedding file,” she says.
These skills have had “a profound effect with streamlining processes as well as pushing other team members to become more efficient business people,” says VIP’s President Jennifer Doncsecz.
One trend Brumbaugh has had to deal with is clients asking about Airbnb. She is quick to point out what sets her apart from online booking sites, explaining to clients that Airbnb and similar services cannot assist them with their travels if something goes wrong, guarantee the best price, or even recommend the best restaurants and activities in their destination.
New York, NY
Whether she’s organizing private jets for Fortune 500 CEOs or planning an extravagant, month-long vacation for the Saudi royal family and staff, Natalia Chelnokova can handle almost any client demands. “Quite often a client [calls] late at night on a weekend asking for a last-minute travel arrangement or tickets for an event for the next day,” she says.
Chelnokova’s background is telling of her sophisticated, detail-oriented, over-the-top itineraries. Growing up in Moscow, where her mother was a travel agent, exposed her to the benefits of world travel from a young age. Since then, Chelnokova has lived all around the world, working with high-profile clients in London at startup villa and apartment engine IAVRA.
Her most recent career moves have taken her stateside to Boston and New York City, where she met Karen Schueller, director of Private Client Services and Chelnokova’s “true mentor,” who says, “Natalia’s experience with high-net worth individuals, combining her business-to-business and social media acumen, makes her an invaluable asset.”
Speaking of assets, Chelnokova says that, “Beginning in graduate school and throughout my career, I have gathered an extensive circle of friends from around the world. I can always approach them for insight about their home country and places of interest.”
She is often on the lookout for new and up-and-coming hot spots. Her most recent bookings include boutique hotels in the U.S., such as New York’s Crosby Hotel and Petit Ermitage in West Hollywood. From original iPod playlists to movie nights and honesty bars, these hotels are changing the luxury hospitality scene, she says.
If asked about Airbnb and Uber, Chelnokova tends to steer clients toward upscale rental service One Fine Stay and pre-arranged car services. “One of our main challenges as travel agents is that our clients often rely too much on technology and become frustrated when it fails to deliver,” she explains. “These gadgets and apps do not always work abroad.”
It’s safe to say that Brian Chima has the knack for planning travel running through his veins — his family has been running a successful travel agency, Chima Travel, in Akron, OH, for 97 years. Brian is fourth generation to join Chima and is a critical member of the team, serving as the marketing director.
“Brain can sell anything to anyone with his excitement and enthusiasm. He is always explaining to his clients the importance and benefits of using a travel agent,” says Lance Chima, president and owner of Chima Travel. Case in point, Brian was able to help a group of 10 travelers overcome a travel crisis with ease. Three days before the group departed for Thailand, Brian noticed the airline had changed the time of the last leg of their flight, meaning they would miss their connection. Brian worked for 72 hours straight to find an alternative flight for all 10 people, and when he found another suitable flight he drove the tickets to the client’s home personally. This attention to detail and high level of service is probably one reason Brian was able to increase his sales from $20,000 in 2013 to $1,000,000 in 2014.
His goal for 2015 is to achieve $1.5 million in sales, and he is well on his way by booking stays for his clients in properties such as Sandals Resorts, AMResorts and Hotel Artemide. Helping him toward his goal is Chima’s discovery of “the value of our travel agency consortium, Ensemble. Through Ensemble I have credibility as well as an advocate any time I need assistance and have booked through an Ensemble preferred supplier. Through Ensemble I have been able to get my clients perks and amenities they would not have received if they booked online themselves, such as free breakfasts, shipboard credits and complimentary room upgrades.”
“Morgan Colony is an asset to AAA,” says Connie Springer AAA Nebraska’s agent development specialist. “She put together a PowerPoint presentation on travel and spoke at the Omaha Chamber of Commerce Tips group. She came back to the office with six leads.” Ever since her presentation, Colony has converted several Tips group members to clients and has added new referrals to her client base.
In college she studied abroad at Oxford University, an experience that “strengthened my love for travel,” she tells us. “I have always been interested in the travel industry. Being [an] agent allows me to combine two of my passions — travel and sales.”
A smart businesswoman, Colony understands the dos and don’ts of selling a particular destination or accommodation. Whenever her clients propose a location that she is unfamiliar with, she uses her extensive research and travel tools to map out the best possible itinerary. “I always prefer to work from personal experience,” Colony admits, but “new destination requests have been great opportunities to make me a better agent.”
AAA Travel Agency’s vacation benefits are also a major incentive for clients who consider booking travel through Airbnb and other online pages that promote “dream vacations.”
“When people see these travel packages offered at an extremely low rate, they often don’t understand that the package isn’t what they think,” Colony says. “I put together pricing for something similar that covers all costs, and explain how I can provide the knowledge and services that online travel companies can’t offer. Once I explain the value of what I can offer … there isn’t a strong opposition.”
Trendy lodgings are popular bookings for her Millennial customers. “For my clients looking for trendy hotels in good locations, I refer them to properties like W Hotels and Aloft Hotels.” She also recommends Starwood properties to clients in her age range.
New York, NY
As the director of NEXT, a joint initiative of Protravel and Tzell Travel Group, Marisa Costa is charged with retaining new agents as well as re-educating Millennials about the values of working with travel professionals.
“My responsibilities fall under several multiple categories — travel agent, human resources, training, marketing, business, development, industry relations, and matchmaker,” says Costa. “I recruit new talent into Protravel and Tzell, train them on how and what to sell in our unique six-week NEXT training program, find a placement for them within the company, and help them generate leads and get started with new clients, often using my friends’ trips as test subjects.”
Before beginning her career in travel, Costa spent several years teaching English abroad and upon returning to the U.S. decided to change vocations.
“I was fortunate enough to meet with CEO Barry Liben [Travel Leaders Group] and share some of my ideas with him,” says Costa. “Barry then tasked me with solving the industry-wide issue of how to recruit new talent. Through our research we determined the interest in working in travel was certainly there, it was simply the lack of formal training that was preventing new talent from getting a foot in the door.”
Costa says she feels very strongly about specialization when it pertains to designing a trip for a client. Costa also stresses the importance of requiring planning fees to ensure a client is serious about working with a travel professional, saying the Internet has opened doors to a range of options for clients when it comes to planning trips, which can become a challenge since an “enormous amount of work goes into creating a proposal.”
“If your client has paid you for your expertise, they are generally committed to working with you,” says Costa. “Your time is valuable, and locking down committed clients ensures that your time is spent wisely and not wasted on shoppers.”
Meredith Dauksz didn’t ease into the post-grad life as fluidly as she expected. “Nothing clicked,” she says, “I worked in a boutique and said, ‘That would look great with boots and leggings’ way too often.” After a bit of soul searching, she realized it was time for a “big-girl job,” so she walked out of the boutique and into the office of Caroline Wallace, a move that was the “best twist of fate” Dauksz could have asked for.
Flash forward four years and Caroline Travels the World, a Brownell Travel affiliate, has nearly quadrupled their business under what Wallace calls Dauksz’s “sophisticated understanding” of the luxury travel industry.
She notes that staying calm and connected throughout the travel planning process can lead to huge rewards. “By equipping clients in advance by including every phone number and piece of contact information possible in their itinerary, you avoid a minor problem that can quickly turn into a crisis,” Dauksz says. In the event of a travel fluke, she suggests to “stay in touch with your client, but keep the details to a minimum until the problem is solved. The last thing someone needs on vacation is a play-by-play of who is working on what.”
Dauksz admits that fees are a tricky territory for her. “When you become a rock star travel advisor like my mentor/boss, Caroline, then clients agree to the fee before we even have to mention it. If, however, you’re a ‘rock star in training,’ building a reputation worthy of fees can be tough.” However, fees can also strengthen the client-advisor relationship. “Always remember and remind clients that the fee protects your time, your experience and the connections you’ve worked so hard to build,” Dauksz says.
Los Angeles, CA
At Altour, Mark Dorenfast works with one of the world’s largest litigation law firms, coordinating day-to-day corporate travel along with the company’s more unusual (and often last minute), “over-the-top” vacations.
“[These trips] range from something like a basic overnight trip to Minneapolis, to a month-long trial, to a two-week vacation driving around Iceland,” says Dorenfast. “This sector of the travel industry keeps me constantly motivated to be informed about the world. Global and domestic politics, union strikes, and corporate mergers all play a role in what goes on day to day.”
Dorenfast’s particular specialization in the travel industry also gives him access to a wide network of resources — including over 1,100 agents across the U.S., London, and Paris, as well as partners like American Express — which he uses to help overcome the daily challenges of planning trips for clients, including his “constant battle” with services such as Airbnb and TripAdvisor.
“The Internet has tricked people into thinking they have a mega understanding of travel,” says Dorenfast. “They can go to the farthest corners of the Earth and as long as they have a smart phone, everything will be fine. People don’t realize they could be traveling better and without overspending.”
To combat the overwhelming amount of information available to his clients on the Internet, Dorenfast focuses on constantly “being curious” about the destinations and experiences he sells, valuable advice he acquired from Jenny Cook, his manager at Legal Travel.
“[Cook] has been in travel for over 30 years and still admits to learning new things,” he says. “She encourages my drive and motivation.”
“Mark is the whole package in an industry that still mixes old school philosophy with new age technology,” said Cook. “His ability to embrace everything makes him an invaluable asset on my team and for Altour as an agency.”
“I just didn’t enjoy going to work,” says Amanda Foshee about her steady job as certified public accountant, and when she decided to switch careers, she followed her passion — travel. She set her sights on Brownell Travel, a member of Virtuoso based in Birmingham, AL, and checked its website every day for six months before they finally posted an opening. “Now I truly feel I’ve found my dream career,” she says.
In her current position, Foshee works both in direct sales to leisure clients and in training new additions to the Brownell team. She instructs trainees in the company’s best practices for handling a file, how to vet vendors, and the art of using companies like Sabre.
Foshee’s dedication to her clients has earned her the MVP for Excellence Award from Brownell, and she has also been selected to be part of the Belmond Bellini Club Bravissimo trip for top producers of Belmond products.
Meg McGriff North, the agency’s owner, speaks highly of Foshee: “I have no doubt that Amanda will be a powerful influence in the travel industry in years to come. In just a few short years she has blown me away with her ability to negotiate, price, and manage complex FIT itineraries. Her background as a CPA and the business acumen she brings to the travel industry are exceptional — and exceptionally unique.”
So what’s next for Foshee? She reports a growing trend of clients seeking travel to lesser-known destinations, or what she refers to as a struggle against “FOMO” (fear of missing out). “When clients are constantly seeing photos of friends’ trips on social media it not only inspires them to take a trip of their own, but also causes them to second guess that what we have planned is the best option,” she says.
Woodland Hills, CA
Chelsea Goldstein’s educational background is in fashion design and merchandising, but everything changed for her one day when she met Deborah Deming, a travel consultant with Frosch Classic Cruise and Travel, a Signature agency.
“I was in the right place at the right time, [as a sales associate] in the Nordstrom Designer Handbag department, when I met Deborah,” says Goldstein. “I have learned patience, listening skills and resolution management from my two years working alongside Deborah. She has helped me to develop a client base, resulting in close to $500,000 of personal sales” so far this year.
Goldstein’s reviews from Frosch have given her high praise, including a recent commission raise and being selected to host a Crystal Cruise, where her pre-agent experience as an assistant cruise director with Carnival and Princess will no doubt be an asset.
“Goldstein has been a bright star since coming aboard in July 2013,” says Susan Reader, a managing partner at Frosch. “Being an experienced traveler … gave her a distinct advantage allowing her to engage with clients much quicker than others. She has excellent communication skills, is always friendly and best of all is never shaken when situations arise that are out of her control. She truly has an amazing future in this industry.”
Goldstein has seen much success in her last two years as a travel consultant; she has also seen her share of challenges, particularly when it comes to swaying clients to pay a higher price for a quality travel experience that she can provide. "Airbnb and similar services have become a real thorn in my side, and are a pretty scary proposition,” she says. “I hope that showing clients the value of working with an agent … will sway them to pay a bit more for their overall travel experience. The insurance of having someone covering their backs is a message I try to strongly convey.”
New York, NY
Eric Grayson is the CEO of Discover 7, a travel company he founded in 2013. Since entering the industry he has worked extensively to develop strong relationships with new clientele. “If I’m unfamiliar with a destination, I reach out to a contact who I think might have significant firsthand knowledge of an area or property,” says Grayson. “Generally I gain a very good feel for the destination through this process.”
He has also developed a network of guides around the world called Local Foot Steps. “I rely on these guides to provide me with accurate local knowledge I might lack and to give me firsthand insight about their respective cities,” Grayson says. At 26, he says his age has presented some unique challenges when selling travel.
“Being young in this business comes with its own set of issues, the biggest one being trust. I find that some of my clients have an issue trusting my experience and advice because I am so much younger than they are,” he says. “That fear is quickly put to bed after the first trip I plan for them, but that initial hurdle can be challenging.”
For example, for a recent trip to Costa Rica, he had booked two suites, one for the client and another for her brother, requesting that the rooms be adjacent. Upon arrival, the client called him, distraught because her brother’s suite was at the other end of the hotel, and it would be difficult to spend time together as their schedules were different. Grayson immediately called the reservations manager and was able to move his clients’ group into an upgraded three-bedroom villa for no additional charge.
“I think what I’ve learned from my mistakes is to always coax clients to explain what they really want and need as clearly as possible,” he says. “Additionally, I try to get responses in writing whenever I can, because it saves confusion later on.”
As a child, Erin Green spent time living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which she says allowed her the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Southeast Asia. In college, she participated in a study program in Madagascar focused on ecotourism and her graduate studies explored “the impacts of tourism and how travel can be used to support destinations in a sustainable manner,” she says. Her travels and education eventually earned her the position of travel associate with McCabe World Travel.
Her recent expeditions brought her to Cuba, where she developed and led a study abroad trip, and with the information she gathered there, wrote a research article that will be published by the Journal of Tourism and Hospitality.
When it comes to the business side of the industry, Green’s focus on “the crossover between luxury travel and sustainability” remains constant. And even with her extensive personal travel experience, she says she still strongly relies on McCabe’s Virtuoso partnerships to sell destinations with which she is unfamiliar. She is currently a candidate for the Virtuoso Certified Travel Advisor program.
Green’s list of accolades includes being named a Travel + Leisure Rising Star at ILTM Cannes in 2014, earning a position as a judge for Virtuoso in August 2015 on sustainability, and being selected by McCabe to attend the Travel Academy in Mexico with Travel + Leisure last November.
McCabe President Anne Morgan Scully says Green is the epitome of what agencies are looking for as a career travel advisor and, she adds, “I was so proud in Cannes last December when at the Travel+Leisure luncheon, Erin presented information on sustainability to so many of the top leaders in our industry. They were in awe of her knowledge.”
New York, NY
Laura Hanaford was “miserable” working as an account executive in the fashion industry. However, she says working in such a competitive, high-paced environment taught her the necessary skills to multitask and switch roles when she needed to. After five years, she decided to call it quits and took a year off, embarking on a Birthright trip to Israel.
“I was amazed that out of 30 people, I had the smallest suitcase [and] was saddened to watch my fellow travelers navigate Israel so awkwardly,” Hanaford says. “For many of them it was their first trip out of the country and they were in their mid-20s. I wanted to help Americans become better and more comfortable travelers, to not feel that travel is daunting.” So she founded The Trip Trotter, specializing in custom, bespoke FITs.
During a recent trip Hanaford planned, a client was flying to Nice, France, to attend her daughter’s wedding. “[The client] was undergoing cancer radiation, so there was a finite time that she could be away,” Hanaford explains. “One of the meetings ran long and caused her to miss her return flight.” Hanaford was able to purchase tickets online for the only service available the next day, despite the fact that the person she was using for ticketing told her the seats were sold out.
“This experience taught me the value of having a great team and thinking outside the box [and] that sometimes the best thing that I can do for a client is to pass them on to someone who can better help them than I can.”
Hanaford, a member of the Young Travel Professionals Global Events and Fam Team, is passing on what she has learned to other aspiring travel consultants. She spoke at Travel Fest 2015 about her company and how she came into the industry, and has also spoken to a class at Baruch University about customer acquisition.
San Jose, CA
If any Millennial could run his or her own successful Cruise Planners agency, it would be Julia Jakkaraju. She began her career in the industry as a travel sales consultant at Classic Vacations, which taught her another side of the business and prepared her well to take the lead and buy her own franchise.
“I thoroughly enjoy wearing all the hats, starting with marketing and accounting, over to customer service and, of course, my favorite part[s], sales and consulting,” Jakkaraju says. Her greatest motivation is to provide her clients with memories of a lifetime and worry-free travel experiences, which she does well.
Jakkaraju’s main client base is mostly Millennials, and she knows how to communicate with them effectively. “Calling my Millennial clients results in no answers. Messaging them gives me instant answers,” says Julia. She also knows what her clients want, which makes her the ideal agent. “My Millennial clients are most interested in very central hotels but not big chain hotels,” she continues. Julia explains that her clients want to meet other young travelers from all over the world, so that they can exchange experiences and make a connection for their next trip.
While she has not found it necessary to charge fees for her planning services, she does charge a change and cancellation fee of $75 per person after final payment. “My clients are very understanding and accepting of this charge. I also charge an airline ticketing fee if a client is just looking for an airline ticket,” she says.
Jakkaraju is skyrocketing into the “Superstar” category based on her “impressive” sales, says Michelle Fee, co-founder and CEO of Cruise Planners. “She has a positive ‘Cruisitude,’ which will keep her motivated to serve her clients.”
New York, NY
Luxury Travel Specialist Jesse Katz has excelled in the travel industry in several ways. For example, he is creative when it comes to learning about a destination he’s never been to that a client may be interested in. Not only does he make it a point to speak to experts in the region and complete research online, but he also uses his vast Instagram network.
“As an active user of Instagram, I engage with travel consultants at a variety of different agencies, and we share tips and feedback on various destinations that we have traveled to,” he says. Katz also uses his education (he is a Masters candidate in hospitality industry studies at NYU) to stand out among others agents. “Because much of my position involves working with a variety of hotel partners to ensure client satisfaction, I have found having a hotel background extremely beneficial,” he says. Katz doesn’t just share his insights with his clients; he has offered his expertise in two articles about travel in Forbes and has spoken to his peers in his Masters program about his experience in the agency sector.
Katz knows that staying on top of the latest trends is crucial. For example, he says he is quite familiar with the likes of Airbnb and therefore “well-positioned to provide my honest feedback of what the platform provides,” but it has not been an issue for him as a luxury specialist. “For those individuals looking for the absolute lowest prices, Airbnb provides a fantastic service, [but nearly] all of my clients are looking for services and amenities that Airbnb properties simply do not provide.”
As for his future, it looks bright. “Jesse surrounds himself with some of the most respected leaders in the travel industry,” says Patrick Fragale, the agency’s president. “Although he has a vast knowledge of the world, he is always eager to learn and experience more.”
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Ian Kershaw’s father, Roger Kershaw, remembers his son, at age 6, setting up a desk at Roger Kershaw Custom Travel Design with a Fisher-Price phone and a hand-me-down Rolodex and playing travel agent for many imaginary clients. Flash forward to 2015: Since hiring his son three years ago the elder Kershaw has seen a near $2 million jump in revenues, totaling a grand $5 million in gross bookings in recent business.
“Ian is here, on call, capable and reliably able to handle so much of the background research, communication, air bookings and IT functions, making this growth possible and painless,” his father says. “In short, we could not sustain the business now without Ian.”
When it comes to booking new vacations, Ian Kershaw relies on gathering as much firsthand knowledge on the location as possible. Luckily, his office hosts a weekly “master class” to educate staff with facts, trip tips and more on new destinations. Kershaw also relies on other readily available travel resources, such as Virtuoso TravelWeek, which he has attended three years in a row.
Growing up watching his father, he also realized that an agent’s work is not a 9-to-5 job. In order to succeed, he finds that “being accessible 18/7 is important.” He notes that sometimes the simplest flaw can spiral into a major customer issue. “Having a great relationship with our suppliers has helped smooth many problems,” he says, “A bottle of wine and a personal apology is more important than a refund.”
Kershaw also recognizes that luxury travel comes with a price. Although the company charges $150 per person with an additional $70 per hour for any and all trip designs, it trusts that its clientele are aware of the fees before they choose to work with them.
Kershaw is more inclined to book “anything with a coolness factor” for recent clients. His top choices include Starwood, Design Hotels, Andaz and Park Hyatt properties.
New York, NY
Before the age of 18, Ashley Lancer had already traveled to over 50 countries on six continents, which may not come as a surprise considering her father was, and still is, a pilot, while her mother operates humanitarian missions and yoga retreats around the world. However, “the rebellious side of me at 18 decided to [move] to New York City and enter into a career in fashion marketing,” she says. The allure of travel proved too strong, however. “At the end of the day, I realized where my true passion lies,” Lancer says. “I have never felt so fulfilled professionally than in the company and position I am now.”
That company is Valerie Wilson Travel where she works in the leisure department, specializing in celebratory and group travel including honeymoons, destination weddings, multigenerational trips and milestone vacations for anniversaries. Her clientele tends to skew younger and can be on a budget, but Lancer views this challenge as an opportunity to prove how much of an asset a travel agent can be.
“More often than not, when I receive a new honeymoon client, it is because they were overwhelmed with the Internet and needed individual expertise and personal guidance,” Lancer says. Three years ago, Lancer started working directly for Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, the agency’s co-president and co-owner, and within a year and a half was invited over to “her side of the office,” after Wilson recognized her love of working directly with clients.
“It has been a wonderful experience to work with each Wilson,” Lancer says. “Kimberly [Wilson Wetty] has a creative side that I am inspired by. She has given me every opportunity to grow within the company as well as in my personal role.”
Looking to the future, Lancer sees her clients gradually moving away from travel to popular destinations, instead opting to go somewhere that “none of their friends have been to.”
Alexis Lee had earned her degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management from Northern Arizona University and was working in the hospitality field when she decided it wasn’t exactly the career she was looking for. She talked about it over lunch with one of her former professors who “suggested the path of a travel consultant,” Lee says.
That suggestion led her to accept a position at Avenues of the World Travel. After just two years, she has become a specialist in Europe, Australia and New Zealand and won a spot on the Amazing Aussie Adventure for being in the top 10 in sales for Signature agents. She also recently completed her Signature Travel Expert certification and attended the Destination Training in L.A.
There have been a few bumps along the way, however. A recent trip she planned was for a client going on a river cruise in Europe. After booking nearly everything through the cruise line, she personally purchased flight tickets between Flagstaff and Phoenix, AZ. When her client’s flight from Europe changed, which would have caused them to miss their connection to Flagstaff, Lee paid for a transfer herself. She now always double-checks flight schedules instead of relying on a supplier’s e-mail notification.
Lee’s clients recognize the hard work and dedication she puts into creating memorable experiences. “Some have posted reviews naming me for all to see, some have sent gifts like chocolate-covered strawberries or flowers, and [recently] I got a letter in the mail from a client who was so thrilled that not only was her first multigenerational family vacation perfect for ‘10 of the most different people,’ but that also I was able to help recover some photos of their scuba excursion that were lost on their trip back,” she says. “Of course, the biggest compliment to me is when clients recommend me to their friends and family upon return.”
As VP of operations at a company that is a hybrid of a travel agency and a host agency, Bridget Lee juggles a diverse set of responsibilities. “On the host agency side, I create, manage and organize programs for all of our independent agents,” says Lee, who works on everything from revamping the agency website to planning the company’s national meeting and arranging agent trainings. On the travel agency side, she works in the storefront office and speaks with walk-in clients daily.
”Because my travel experiences are different from other agents in the office [think a bit more exotic like China, Australia, Costa Rica, Scotland], I am able to work with the clients that are looking for something beyond the Mexico/Caribbean vacation,” she says. “I also work our bridal shows [and] still do the marketing and advertising for our agency as well.”
Of course with so many responsibilities, it would be easy for even the most seasoned travel professional to make a mistake, or simply overlook a few details when creating an itinerary. To combat the occasional mishap, Lee has created an online form for clients to enter their own information and avoid any miscommunication. “It still isn’t foolproof,” she says, “but it eliminates one link in the chain where information can be subject to human error.”
Lee also encourages newcomers to the industry to “start small, find a niche and expand from there” — and be truthful. “I am always honest about what I don’t know,” says Lee. “As a consumer, I hate when I can tell someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about but they’re trying to convince me otherwise.”
Lee’s strategy for selling travel runs parallel with that of her mother, Bonnie Lee, the agency’s CEO, who “listens to her clients’ budgets and what they want and doesn’t try to finagle things in,” Bridget Lee says. “If she thinks a different room category would be better, she tells them why, but doesn’t keep pushing it if they say ‘no.’”
Winter Park, FL
Elizabeth Loftus of Luxury Trips compares her experience as a travel agent to that of a fairy godmother. “I learn my clients’ travel dreams and bucket list destinations,” she explains, “and help them grant their wish with the journey of a lifetime.”
Toward that end, Loftus isn’t afraid to ask lots of questions about who they are and what kind of interests they have,” she explains. She also asks her clients “many questions about their preferences, likes, and dislikes when it comes to their hotel preferences.”
Loftus is a connoisseur in the realm of finding new hotels and vacation options, frequently booking villas in Europe, castles in Ireland, riads in Morocco and boutique bed-and-breakfasts. For her more upscale clients, Loftus books Eden Rock in St. Barths and Hotel Villa Magna, Hotel Casa Fuster and Silken Gran Domine in Spain.
Whatever the destination, Loftus reports that her clients come to her for exclusive, custom vacations where they can take the extra steps to immerse themselves in a country.
“Clients are taking extra care to seek out unique experiences that they cannot find online,” she continues. “With the Internet at our fingertips, it is easy to get lost in the web of different options and so many of the online options are cookie-cutter itineraries.” While services like Airbnb may be convenient for some of her clients, she notes there is very little she can do if something goes wrong. “The benefit of booking the accommodation through me allows them to have peace of mind and satisfaction with their choice,” says Loftus.
One of Loftus’ favorite things about the job is the feedback she receives from her clients. “I love hearing the excitement in their voices as they describe how incredible their trip was,” Loftus tells us. “Their compliments are the icing on the cake.”
New York, NY
After earning her degree in communications from Rowan University in New Jersey, Karina Martinez began working as a spa concierge while looking for a job in the advertising industry. She decided that her best chance at success was in New York, where a friend offered to help her find a job.
“She knew how much I loved traveling and introduced me to the owners of First in Service Travel,” Martinez says. “The president, Erika Reategui, trained me to become an agent … taught me everything I know. I started by helping her with small requests and slowly graduated to working closely with the director of leisure, where I was introduced to more complex requests and working on my own.” Martinez now handles all travel requests for the agency’s newest account, Luxury Attaché, a concierge service.
“I am lucky to be part of an industry led by strong, intelligent women,” says Martinez. Besides Reategui, there is Mayla Melo, the agency’s director of leisure and former 30Under30 recipient, who “is my close friend with years of industry experience” and Jennifer Ho, who has recently become her manager and is a mentor to whom she can turn whenever she is faced with an unfamiliar situation. And, Martinez says, there have been some obstacles where she has sought out guidance.
Recently, a client called her, very distraught, after arriving at the hotel Martinez had booked for them to tell her how much they disliked the property and requested to be relocated immediately. “Explaining that her only option was a four-star hotel was not easy. I expressed that the beach at the new option was bigger and activities were endless for her two children.” The client decided to make the change, and Martinez made sure a note and a welcome amenity was waiting for them when they arrived at the hotel. She was even able to negotiate a refund with the original hotel.
Mackenzie Melfa took a leap of faith a year-and-a-half ago when she left her commercial interior designer job to begin a career in travel. “Architecture was a fascinating field, but I never felt inspired unless I was traveling or planning trips for a friend,” she says.
Being a romance travel specialist at Accent On Travel, her responsibilities include planning honeymoons and anniversary getaways, which she says was a perfect fit for her as most of the clients she works with are about her age.
“Being engaged myself I could easily relate to what my clients wanted and needed most,” she says. “In order to find my place in the wedding industry I started writing blogs for local wedding magazines and websites. This was a great opportunity for me to showcase ideal honeymoon destinations as well as get my name out there.”
Melfa was also able to “get her foot in the door” of the travel industry with some help from Accent’s mentorship program. Last year, while being trained in the business, she also assisted in re-branding the agency’s website, eventually becoming the “go-to” person for social media posts as well as managing the office’s travel inquiries.
“Mackenzie thrived on the challenges, quickly absorbed the training and increased her client sales and referrals,” says Annette Stellhorn, president of Accent on Travel. “Just one year later, she has earned a key staff position.”
Melfa’s enthusiasm for selling travel has also caught the attention of her clients. Being new to the industry has actually worked in her favor when it comes to selling honeymoons.
“It’s amazing the amount of couples I work with who say something [like], ‘We never thought in a million years we would work with a travel agent to plan a trip, but it is so worth it,’” says Melfa. “Millennials are savvy travelers, but even the most organized person can get overwhelmed when it comes to planning a wedding and a honeymoon.”
“A wonderful young professional who brings new life to the office” is how Donna McDonald, owner of Travel Plus RI, describes Marina Mercurio. “Her youth and enthusiasm is contagious. She has been a wonderful asset, excelling in customer service, diligent in her work ethic, and always has a smile.”
Mercurio didn’t take the traditional path to becoming an agent. Instead, the Writing, Literature & Publishing major at Emerson College in Boston found her true desire to become an agent through her own writing.
“I began to specialize in travel pieces, writing reviews on hotels, travel tips and cover pieces on destinations to which I traveled,” she says. “I found my freelance work rewarding, but began to ache to be inside the travel world.”
Now a full-time agent for Travel Plus RI, Mercurio says her job not only challenges her every day, but also gives her daily fulfillment. And if she doesn’t know or isn’t terribly familiar with the destination one of her clients wanted to go, she won’t let that stop her.
“Having a client wanting to travel to a new location for me is a welcome challenge,” she says. “My first step is in looking for online sources such as Travel Agent University or other tools to sign up for an ongoing or scheduled webinar or course to become more familiarized. If that is not available, I take out books from the library and use credible online resources to read about the destination.”
Mercurio keeps her writing skills sharp by contributing to a monthly travel column — a full-page spread including original articles and photography — in Providence-based newspaper, The Rhode Island Echo.
While she has received numerous acknowledgements for both her writing and photography, what she finds most satisfying is “when I invite a client, freshly home from a vacation, out to discuss their travels. When I see their smiles and the pictures of a successful trip is when I feel most rewarded.”
New York, NY
It’s not often that an agent’s career begins with a milestone achievement, but when Taylor Methfessel began working full time for SmartFlyer last year, she became the youngest full-time agent in the company’s history.
“In 12 months, she’s managed to curate and attract a book of business that anyone would be impressed with, from multigenerational family travel to honeymoons and even, recently, weddings and events,” says Erina Pindar, managing director of SmartFlyer. “Being extremely well-traveled herself, Taylor is always able to give that additional recommendation that’s customized to her clients’ preferences. She is definitely the one to watch.”
Methfessel serves as a luxury travel advisor and independent contractor at SmartFlyer where she plans leisure travel for clients located throughout the U.S., working on anything from weekend getaways to longer, more complicated trips around the world.
She prefers not to charge fees, saying, “I typically feel as though I am properly compensated for my work. I’ve also found that clients are impressed by the fact that it does not cost them anything more to work with a travel advisor. I have many younger clients and I feel that they would be deterred by a fee.” That said, she has found that some clients will see value in her services and others won’t. “I’ve learned not to put hours and hours of work into taking over an Expedia booking because at the end of the day the client does not see or want to see the value that I can provide as an agent. The personal relationships do not matter to this type of client … only price.”
She cites babymoons as a growing trend, as well as “an increase in multigenerational travel and clients looking for larger homes or villas to rent.”
San Francisco, CA
Before Bryan Pollard began working with his father and grandfather at Ambassador Tours, a member of Ensemble Travel Group, he was coaching youth basketball and baseball. However, having grown up with a well-traveled family and constantly hearing about foreign destinations, he knew he had to get involved in the business.
“You could say it’s in my blood,” says Pollard. “As a young kid I was fortunate enough to travel and experience many cruises and all the different destinations, thus allowing me to share that with my clients.”
He believes that “Firsthand knowledge is the key to success,” adding that, “so is listening to others who have been there and then applying that to my clients’ needs.”
Recently, Pollard says, he finds himself facing the challenge of the growing number of young people attempting to plan trips themselves, using Uber, Airbnb and Couchsurfing.
“So many times when I am out with my friends … they tell me of trips they just went on or will be going on,” Pollard says. “When I ask why they did not call me, the reply is classic: ‘I did not know you could do that for me and for even less.’ Sometimes they tell me ‘we did not want to bother you’, or ‘we were just bored surfing the web and decided to book right then and there.’”
Still, he says there is definitely a market for selling travel, especially to Millennials who are seeking out more of the boutique style, smaller hotels with modern features like Wi-Fi.
So what’s next for Bryan Pollard?
Gary Pollard, president and CEO of Ambassador Tours (and Bryan’s father) is confident in his son’s ability to maintain the company’s strong relationships with clients and partners, saying: “Bryan has begun his CTA training, attends conferences, along with many webinars to increase his experience. There is no doubt that he will succeed.”
New York, NY
It’s not uncommon for anyone to daydream about a life of traveling the world when they are about to take an exam, but Ben Price did something about it. The attorney says he actually began his career in the travel industry the day he started studying for the Florida Bar exam, which he eventually passed.
“I knew I wanted to do something in the travel industry, but I didn’t know what. I had been traveling nonstop my whole life and I was obsessed with both researching my own trips and planning for others,” he says. So, in between studying for the bar, Price would Google local travel agencies and found a small Virtuoso agency that peaked his interest. He scored a meeting at Trips in the Village in Jacksonville, assuming he would just be picking the brains of seasoned veterans and wound up leaving with a job. Price now works as an independent contractor for SmartFlyer and credits his research skills and on-site meetings for his current success.
“It sounds a bit trite, but step one is always research, research and more research,” he says. “But, the real secret here is obvious: I go to the place I’m researching. If the trip is important enough, I have no issue with flying to the destination. There’s nothing quite like meeting suppliers on their own turf, seeing sites for yourself and vetting a location firsthand.”
He also feels lucky regarding his clients' reaction to fees. “[They] are very respectful of my time and the amount of work I put into a trip. I’ve begun to experiment with annual retainers. I have a lot of clients who spend 200+ nights a year in a hotel [and] dozens who go on major trips monthly. That’s a lot of back and forth between the client, the hotel and myself … a lot of man-hours. My mentality is this: If a client is going to spend $450 for a Platinum American Express, or over $1,000 for Leading Hotels of the World, then they can definitely afford my annual fee.”
|Kathryn Boydston Rollins|
In her relatively short time (16 months) at CSB Travel, Kathryn Boydston Rollins has already proven herself to be “an incredible addition to the team,” says Cristina Buaas, the agency’s president. “Kathryn is truly committed to making a difference in her client’s travel experiences. She is a quick learner, has great intuition for this business and her attention to detail, which is critical in this profession, is spot on.”
Rollins grew up surrounded by people who loved to travel, and to this day, credits the Virtuoso travel advisor her family used to plan vacations as the reason she pursued a career in the industry. As an independent contractor with CSB her goal is to create custom itineraries for each type of traveler, as well as memorable experiences.
Among the current trends, she notes that, “The rivers are quickly becoming the hotspot for travelers of all ages,” and also says, “Everyone wants to be the first to experience a destination. Clients are seeking authentic cultural and bespoke travel experiences.”
Of course, dealing with such a wide range of travelers and products can bring many challenges. For example, a recent trip Rollins planned was disrupted when a client had a serious medical emergency while traveling abroad.
“We had a client experience a major medical issue in a foreign country that caused us to drop everything in order to change all travelers’ air, open a claim for the travel insurance policy we sold, and get the hotel to extend [the clients’] stay until the sick family member was cleared by the hospital to fly home,” she says. “All of this was completed within a few hours. This was such a relief to the family and the wife was very thankful.”
Aside from the appreciation and positive feedback she receives from clientele, Rollins has also received recognition from the travel industry community. She is a graduate of Virtuoso’s Certified Travel Advisor Learning to Earning Program, as well as a top seller for the Cayman Islands.
Before joining Travel Beyond, a member of Signature Travel Network, Kayla Torgerson spent nine months in India as a U.S. marketing specialist for an inbound tour operator. “My experience was incredible and it deepened my love for travel,” she says. Today she specializes in selling luxury and active vacations to India, Southern Africa, Turkey, Chile and the Galapagos, and says she feels like she has won the job lottery.
However, it isn’t always “smooth sailing.” In her first few months as an agent, she had taken over a family cruise booking for eight people to Southeast Asia; four days prior to departure, the line contacted her, reporting that the maiden voyage was going to be delayed.
“I worked countless hours with two of my colleagues and my local partners in Southeast Asia in order to create a full itinerary to coincide with the river cruise they were supposed to take. The clients had a great time,” she says.
Torgerson used the mishap to educate herself on how to avoid such problems in the future: “I learned not to book a maiden voyage on any cruise line; it is not worth the risk. I also learned that the best thing to do in a crisis is to be very open with the client, be calm, provide options, and be as accommodating as possible,” she says.
Clients in her age range tend to be honeymooners in their 20s and 30s who, Torgersen says, are typically interested in lodging that offers great value for money. “When I’m planning these types of trips I will often offer a circuit of properties under the same brand name (More Hotels properties in South Africa or Explora Lodges in Chile).” By doing this, her young clients “still get a very high-end experience, but at a discounted rate.”
Craig Beal, Travel Beyond’s owner, says, “I’m confident passing my own clients onto Kayla, knowing the itineraries she’ll create will be creative, the logistics will be seamless and her service level will be top-notch.”
Prior to becoming a travel consultant, Katherine Vallera was a travel blogger working various teaching jobs in the United States and abroad in order to supplement her “deep, fundamental desire to travel the world.” In fact, Vallera found notable success writing for publications like Gawker and Jezebel, published a book about her first global circumnavigation and even produced a YouTube series about backpacking in Central America. So, why did she decide to become a travel consultant?
“One of my goals has always been to help others and make a difference in the world,” says Vallera. “I am thrilled with my career as a travel consultant because I can indulge my wanderlust while inspiring others to explore new destinations.”
Since she began working at Foremost Travel & Tours, Vallera says she has observed that “being a travel agent is a lot like being a teacher in the sense that I am handing down my knowledge and experience in order to lead others in their own new experiences.”
Although Vallera points out the similarities between teaching her students and selling travel to clients, she also recognizes that the nature of travel is unpredictable, and personally invests in the safety and satisfaction of the travelers she works with. When working with clients, Millennials especially, she is sure to seek out hotels that facilitate a sense of comfort and caters to a client’s particular tastes, such as connectivity, popular culture and standard of living. If a client arrives at a destination and is, for any reason, dissatisfied with their accommodations, Vallera immediately makes sure they are moved to another hotel.
Vallera’s strong sense of service and helping people has also transferred to other aspects of her life outside of the travel industry.
“I also value volunteerism,” she says. “I am actively involved with the community by serving food to the homeless for A Just Harvest, volunteering for projects with Chicago Cares, and lending my effort to Chicago’s National Public Radio (NPR) station WBEZ.”
One of the most important qualities of a good travel agent, Vallera says, is “the ability to recognize the diversity of travelers and allow them the liberty to pursue their ideals based on the plethora of options available.”