For the second edition of our annual Top 25 All Stars salute, we once again zero in on the industry’s “All-Stars” — veteran agents with 10 or more years’ experience who generate at least $1,000,000 in annual sales for their agency. In many cases that number is three, four or more times larger. Beyond experience and productivity, these professionals have proven to be skillful, savvy problem solvers and out-of-the-box thinkers who are strongly devoted to their agency and clients. Outside of the industry, these individuals give their time, talent and treasure to a number of charities and causes.
In most instances, agency managers or owners nominated their pick for the All Star on their team, while several independent professionals made strong cases for inclusion as well. As always, everyone had wonderful stories about tireless dedication and 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’s 2015 “Top 25 All-Stars.”
Admiral Travel International
When a client asked Michelle Andersen, a Virtuoso travel advisor with Admiral Travel International, to plan her trip to a small Italian town so she could trace her roots, Andersen agreed. But the woman had done little research and was only going to visit grave sites. So Andersen turned genealogist, asking regional contacts to visit the town for “intel.”
Upon arrival in Italy, the client was astounded that Andersen had arranged for distant relatives to meet and host her for a meal, and for the parish priest to chat about her relatives and family history. “The guest was blown away to say the least, but this level of service is what we’ve come to expect from Michelle,” says Malaka Hilton, Admiral Travel’s owner.
Specializing in custom European journeys, Andersen posted $2.35 million in 2014 revenue and is on track for even more this year. “Her bright personality is infectious with both clients and office teammates,” Hilton says.
Andersen truly cares about every experience she plans for guests. Once, a newlywed husband with marriage woes asked Andersen to plan a surprise couple’s getaway. The next week, the wife did the same. So Andersen designed one itinerary that met both their goals and was “accepted” by each of them separately (unbeknownst to the other). Then Andersen asked both to come in for a meeting. Husband and wife surprisingly discovered that they’d both tried to do something exceptionally kind and loving for each other. Everyone had a good laugh and the experience brought the couple closer.
Certified by many luxury cruise lines and tour companies, Andersen, a CTA and 31-year industry veteran, has served on the Ritz-Carlton, IC Bellagio and Neiman Marcus advisory boards. She is also a dedicated supporter of the Mid Florida Sheltie Rescue.
Please Go Away Vacations
Great Bend, KS
Great Bend, Kansas, may not be an international travel hot spot, but it’s the center of the universe for the clients of Paula Axman’s four-person travel agency in a small rural community of 16,000.
“The nearest city of comparable size is 60 miles away. Yet Paula, individually, and as leader of our agency, regularly garners national peer recognition for herself and our agency,” says office manager Larry Kopke.
Over the course of her 27-year career, Axman has been a Collette “Agent of the Year,” a “Top National Producer” for Globus Family of Brands and one of American Express’ “Top 50 Representatives,” apart from bagging other honors. A credo of “Small Town Caring — Worldwide” has also given her a book of repeat business any professional would envy.
Some clients of the Vacation.com agency have participated in more than 70 hosted travel programs. Others belong to the “Seven Continents Club.” More than 1,000 have taken five or more tours, while others are in the “Super World Travelers Club,” with 10 or more international tours.
“Paula’s empathy and attention to detail are largely responsible for these positive results,” says Kopke.
Sometimes those details would tax the patience of a less-dedicated agent. On one recent European tour, a group of female clients was determined to catch a glimpse of George Clooney near his villa in Italy. That didn’t come to pass. But Axman kept her eyes open until she found a suitable lookalike, and convinced him to pose for pictures.
Unmatched personal service is clearly a secret to Axman’s success. Sometimes that service is to the community at large. In 2016, Axman’s agency marks its golden anniversary. Commemorations include a book about the principals’ half-century in the business.
“As a collaborator, Paula arranged for 100 percent of the book’s proceeds to go to a children’s cancer fighting charity,” says Kopke.
McCabe World Travel
Before Michelle Bemis began her career as a travel advisor at McCabe World Travel, she was working as an attorney in Texas. The knowledge she gained from her previous position has given her the ability to incorporate her attention to detail into every itinerary she creates.
“Michelle is a four million-dollar-plus advisor and the number-one VAST Advisor for Virtuoso…she is loved by her clients for her unique insights on how to experience extraordinary adventures,” says McCabe’s President Anne Scully. “She has seen the lions of Africa, the tigers of India, the bears of Churchill and the gorillas of Rwanda. Her experience is sought after by the most discerning clients and she has often been quoted in the press about her travels.”
Bemis certainly has a knack for creating unique itineraries for her clients, consistently exceeding their expectations. A recent trip she created involved a family who wanted to witness the animal migration in East Africa, and she made it possible for them to continue on to South Africa so the client’s children could experience the Big Five, as well as celebrate their grandfather’s 80th birthday.
Not only has Bemis gone the extra mile, literally, to give travelers a quality experience (she has personally completed travel to all seven continents this year alone), but she also dedicates her time to supporting the children of Africa through education, as well as actively supporting breast cancer research through charitable organizations.
Bemis is affiliated with Virtuoso, VAST, Lindblad, Tauck, Absolute Travel and IC Bellagio. In addition, she is a specialist in spa, Africa and Mexico travel, and is a National Geographic Specialist.
In 1999, Katie Cadar of the TravelStore, a Signature Travel Network agency in Los Angeles, was on a fam trip when she met Florence Brethome, a French university tourism student working for Languedoc-Roussillon’s tourism board. The next year, Cadar brought Brethome to the United States as an agency intern. Fifteen years later, Brethome is a top producer with $1.4 million in annual revenues.
Brethome specializes in honeymoons and destination weddings, Europe (especially France), the South Pacific, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Mexico and Argentina. She excels in creating complicated FITs and has a phenomenal referral rate. For one high-profile celebrity’s 10-year anniversary (with just a week’s notice) Brethome created an intricate Paris itinerary with flights, accommodations, transportation, the closure of Versailles for a private, after-hours visit and dining in the Paris kitchen of a grand chef.
“She’s one of our stars,” stresses Cadar, also noting Brethome’s planning of a poignant, final family trip for a terminally ill woman with three young children. The client’s husband wanted to take his wife to the places she’d always dreamed of seeing including Paris’ Eiffel Tower and Vatican City. Yet, the wife was weak. Brethome’s planning catered to the wife’s medical needs, yet still gave the family a special activity or guide every day.
Honors? Brethome was a 2009 Classic Vacations Star Performer, served on the 2013 Cox & Kings Advisory Board and was cited in Travel Agent’s 2009 “Top 25 Agents” issue. She has specialist designations from dozens of travel entities, including France, Club Med, Crystal Cruises and Tahiti Tiare, to name just a few.
Desiring to “give back,” she supports Mothers Against Drunk Driving, KIVA, Doctors Without Borders and HelpMe See. In 2015, Brethome created a mentorship program for TravelStore’s young agents — guiding them toward becoming the top luxury travel planners of tomorrow.
Clients often come to Kelly Brock, travel consultant, AAA Carolinas, seeking a cherished vacation in Europe but without any flights. So Brock treats each trip like a jigsaw puzzle — finding the right transatlantic cruise fit in both directions and coordinating land tours and rail transportation. “I love the logistics of putting it all together — lots of moving parts,” Brock says.
During 2014, the 27-year industry veteran achieved $3.5 million in sales revenue. She closes sales by assuming they’re a “done deal” from the outset. Why? Because she knows she’ll listen to clients, offer them something they might not be familiar with, wow them with her knowledge, be honest and treat them like friends. “Do not let it be about money,” she tells new agents. “Clients need to trust you.”
In 2014, Brock was honored with Tauck’s “Agent Achiever Award,” and has also been cited as a top revenue, commission or cruise sales producer by AAA’s national association. Specializing in cruises and the exotics, Brock holds specialist certifications for lifestyle, luxury and adventure travel, plus the Caribbean, North America, Alaska, Northern and Central Europe, Uniworld, Viking River Cruises, Insight Vacations, Sandals/Beaches, Royal Caribbean, the College of Disney Knowledge and Marriott.
“Kelly is a strong supporter of the Hilton Head/Bluffton area community and has built her business through strong, endearing relationships with great product knowledge and experience,” says Sarah Henshall, Brock’s manager at AAA Carolinas. One special booking? Every year, Brock plans and implements an “Annual Final Trip” for a 96-year-old friend and his five adult kids and their spouses. “It gives this man a reason to live,” Brock believes.
Brock is a member/supporter of the LowCountry Alliance for Healthy Youth, a local theater guild, recreational center, youth sports and other charities. She’s also a volunteer travel speaker for OLLIE (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) in several gated communities.
Alabama World Travel
Selling $1.3 million in travel annually, Amy Daniel, CTA, travel consultant with Alabama World Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Montgomery, AL, prides herself on her close relationships with clients and vendor partners; she always connects on a personal level. “You can expect a genuine response when you ask Amy a question, while it will likely be filtered with her southern charm and maybe a little humor,” says Jennifer Booth, her manager. “Whatever the question, her answer will come from her heart and what she believes.”
Daniel, an 18-year travel agent, specializes in the Caribbean, Europe, family travel and customized arrangements. When clients once asked her to plan a Swiss-ancestral, family discovery trip, Daniel not only researched travel options, but offered to hire a genealogy expert, which they accepted. As a result, the clients visited the Swiss village and exact location of their grandparents’ birth and even met with several Swiss family members.
With another booking, Daniel was tasked with finding an unusual, authentic culinary experience in Italy for someone in the food industry. She arranged a private dinner in a chef’s home and for the couple to dine and exchange conversation with a countess. A Disney specialist and Classic All-Stars agent, Daniel is highly skilled at upselling — painting a picture of upscale options as well as any budgeted items so clients get a clear idea of the range of choices.
“Amy is one of the most balanced people I know,” says Booth. “She’s a devoted wife and mother, active in her church, a committed friend, loves life and having fun…wants to give her best for her clients and is a strong team player among her colleagues.” During her free time, she teaches elementary age boys and girls about religion and takes time to assist and encourage inner-city families.
New York City
Julie Danziger has not only made a name for herself by being a go-to advisor for A-list celebrities and top CEOs, she has also managed to balance her career with being a mother of two (with one on the way).
“[Danziger]…is an expert in luxury family travel,” says Jack Ezon of Ovation Vacations. “In fact she was just named top luxury travel advisor in Travel + Leisure’s 2015 A-list. Julie also hosts her own blog and newsletter, ‘Travel Moms,’ as she is particularly attuned to creating engaging and immersive experiences for today’s ADD-laden kids.”
Danziger’s “Global Citizen” initiatives also help to match family travel experiences with the curriculum children are learning in school, as well as create unique academic and philanthropic opportunities to help them become well-rounded citizens of the world.
Because she works with families, Danziger is often presented with trip requests that cater to people of all ages. For a recent itinerary she was asked to create a trip that involved a family of 40 people, all ranging from the ages of 5 to 85.
“She had flown into the bush special African groups to teach the kids African drumming, had the family paint a local school, brought in fire dancers and created memorable moments with private events at the Gold Museum,” says Ezon. “The ultimate day was an ‘Amazing Race’ at the Cape where family members split into teams racing to the finish by speed boat past seals, diving with sharks, kayaking with the penguins, biking, hiking and even skateboarding to find clues toward the finish.”
When she isn’t busy designing unique travel experiences for families, Danziger leads Mitzvah Man initiatives in greater New York, along with assisting the poor and needy with anything from home-cooked meals to clothing drives and weekly visits.
Rennert Travel/CTP Corporate Travel Planners
With 27 years of experience in the hospitality and travel industry, Mary DeGroat certainly possesses the skills necessary for providing a unique experience for her traveling clients, and ensures that it is memorable for all.
“Indeed, Mary cultivates personal relationships with her clients by consistently delivering experiences/trips that exceed their expectations,” says owner Christy Prescott. “Her clients have complete confidence that she has thought of every detail and every aspect of their trip. Mary truly cares about her clients, because to her, they aren’t sales figures or statistics, they are her friends and people.”
And DeGroat’s trips prove that.
One itinerary she created this year was for a large group of female golfers who wanted to journey to Scotland and play St. Andrews. To make the trip a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, DeGroat suggested a list of sites and activities not to miss, as she has personally visited Scotland herself.
“When they returned, all that was heard was ‘that was the best trip we’ve ever had! Thank you very much,’” Prescott tells us.
Another, very special itinerary designed by DeGroat involved one of her longtime clients and his wife, who wished to visit Alaska on a cruise. She made it possible for the couple to dogsled across the beautiful Alaskan terrain, and even walk across glaciers. The trip was so perfect they even asked for another vacation in the future, in which they could bring all of their adult grandchildren.
DeGroat specializes in luxury leisure travel, luxury cruises, Europe FITs, destination weddings, multigenerational family trips, Europe, United Kingdom, Caribbean and Mexico.
She is affiliated with Regent Cruise Line, GBTA, CLIA, ASTA, Travel Leaders, and was an Employee of Excellence in 2011.
Throughout his career, Henry Dennis has worked in seven different AAA Carolinas branch locations, yet has consistently maintained a high sales volume — $2.8 million in 2014. How? Satisfied clients simply follow the travel advisor from office to office, bypassing closer agency branches. Since 2013, Dennis, who specializes in Caribbean cruising, Disney and escorted tours, has twice won national AAA’s award for top tour/vacation sales in the U.S. and Canada.
With 25 years as a travel agent including 19 years at AAA Carolinas, he’s approachable, knowledgeable, experienced and straightforward in guiding clients to their dream vacation at an optimum value. In 2002, one customer desired a guided Normandy tour by an actual D-Day participant, but given the advancing age of most veterans, Dennis lined up a superb alternative, Captain Ronald Drez, chief historian, Stephen Ambrose Tours, who became the client’s personal Normandy tour guide for four days.
A Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) and Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), Dennis has been consistently named to the AAA President’s Club. For another client vacation, he customized an Africa adventure for a brother and sister. On only one month’s notice he arranged Kenya and South Africa safaris, a Victoria Falls trip and Blue Train ride. The clients have since returned to Dennis to book their Southeast Asia, China, India, 2008 Beijing Olympics and Israel/Jordan trips.
Dennis, a College of Disney Knowledge graduate, also holds specialist designations from the Travel Institute, and from destinations and cruise, tour and hotel companies. He’s been named a Tauck Achiever, Platinum Certified Sandals/Beaches agent and top producer for Travel Impressions, Holland America Line, Insight Vacations and Trafalgar, among others. In his free time, he supports his two sons in Boy Scouts, youth sports and school band activities.
Debby Denson has been a travel agent for 26 years and is currently an independent contractor with Brownell in Birmingham, AL. Through her long and successful career, Denson has become more than just a travel agent to her clients. She has become part of their families, working often with the fourth and fifth generations of her original clients. This means Denson keeps her strictly referral client base small, so everyone and every trip is guaranteed personal attention.
One such trip that Denson carefully planned was for a family of four headed to London and Paris. Denson made sure that both the parents’ and teenage boys’ expectations were met throughout the entire three-week journey. The boys wanted adventure, so she booked a high-speed boat ride on the Thames and a private ride on the London Eye. To please the parents’ educational goals, there was a private tour of Churchill’s war rooms with the museum director and a private guided tour of the Catacombs.
Debby also values time with her own family, and recently went on an around-the-world trip with her husband on Crystal Cruises. However, even during her personal adventure, she made her clients a priority and set up a mobile office onboard the cruise. She stayed in contact with all her clients, and they in turn loved hearing about her trip. Her sales didn’t suffer while she was abroad; in fact she was able to close with an annual sales volume of about $2.5 million in 2014. “Debby didn’t slow down for a minute,” explains her manager, Meg McGriff North. “She stayed connected to her clients and in-house team and her year-over-year sales grew.”
Valerie Wilson Travel, Inc.
New York City
Franca Di Spigna has always had a knack for customer service and a love of travel, so when she grew restless working in the New York hotel industry after six years, she knew it was time for a change of scenery.
Di Spigna began her career as a house leisure agent at Valerie Wilson Travel 10 years ago, and since then has learned a great deal and traveled all over the world.
“I always had had a passion for travel and wanted to be on the other side of the desk as a guest checking in, eager to experience a new destination” Di Spigna explains. “My knowledge of hotel operations and guest relations has proven vital in my development as a leisure travel agent. Also, my honesty and resourcefulness have been the key qualities in establishing my credibility with clients who entrust me again and again with their travel arrangements.”
Di Spigna’s dedication to her clients has earned her recognition from several hospitality groups. She was the Butterfield & Robinson Top Performer Recipient in 2010, was a Travel Agent Magazine Panel Advisor at Grand Hyatt New York for “Cracking the Consumer Code” in September 2014, and was a Virtuoso Preview Advisory Board Member for the Pre-Opening of Park Hyatt New York. So what type of trips does she design for her clients?
“The masterpieces I have planned are experiences that involve a twist,” she says. “I love planning trips that involve a complete contrast in destinations. [An example] was for a time-starved executive couple. They wanted to have an experience where they could golf, be self-sufficient to explore on their own, see great natural scenery but still have ultra-luxury. They did an Iceland to Ireland combination.”
In addition to creating a wide range of trips for travelers, Di Spigna also raises money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and is involved with Tourism Cares, an NYC post Hurricane Sandy Beach Clean-up.
Venturing into the African bush on safari is “the perfect day” for Jeanie Fundora, senior safari consultant at Travel Beyond, affiliated with Signature Travel Network/Safari Professionals of the Americas. With 16 years of African experience honed on dozens of trips, Fundora draws on relationships with camp managers, private guides and industry contacts to make clients’ travel dreams come true.
Generating $1.5 million in annual sales, Fundora, a Master Kenya Travel Specialist, was recognized (2009-2013) in Travel+Leisure magazine’s “A-List” of agents. She specializes in honeymoon safaris, multigenerational family safaris and luxury safaris for some of the world’s wealthiest people, as well as India and Cuba travel.
“If there’s a way to make a trip spectacular, she’s the one to plan it,” says Craig Beal, Travel Beyond’s owner. Fundora’s selling style is to pitch an over-the-top trip and if it’s too much for a client’s budget, she shows how to shave off a few private experiences. Yet, they still experience that once-in-a-lifetime trip. One creation was a customized, 28-night family safari featuring gorilla trekking, wild game drives and luxury camp, lodge and resort stays in five African countries.
Fundora has traveled with her own daughter Daniela (one-year-old during an Africa trip, two on an India trip), so she knows which safari camps have child-friendly activities and meals and how to book transfers that help parents retain their “sanity.” Charity-wise, she supports — and encourages clients to support — African wildlife, humanitarian and conservation causes, including Pack for a Purpose and Children in the Wilderness. Several clients have adopted pachyderms at Daphne Sheldricks’ Elephant Orphanage.
Most importantly, Fundora is a client advocate who dives into seemingly impossible requests. Ten days before a high-profile client desired to travel to Africa during “high season,” she obtained permits for a private gorilla trek and sourced the private aircraft of an African nation’s head of state.
First in Service Travel
New York City
One month before the Woodstock 1999 music festival, Laura Giantonio got the call that rocked her world. She was asked to arrange travel for all 52 participating bands heading from across the globe to the Rome, NY, mega-concert. It turned into a masterful performance by Giantonio because other than losing her voice, everything went off without a hitch. “I’ll never forget it,” she says, citing arrangements for such performers as Limp Bizkit and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Not surprisingly, booking music-focused travel for touring bands and entertainers is Giantonio’s forte at First in Service Travel, a branch of Tzell Travel Group (a division of Travel Leaders Group). For 33 years, Giantonio has worked for the biggest names in music — rock ‘n’ roll stars, singers and bands who are constantly touring and have grueling schedules. In 2015, she’s already posted sales revenues exceeding $5.3 million, incredible even for an entertainment travel agent.
Giantonio is currently masterminding arrangements for seven global concert tours. “I feel like a conductor orchestrating a symphony,” she emphasizes. It’s her responsibility to assure that band and crew members traveling separately somehow all end up in the same place night after night, a feat requiring precision, sacrifice and 24-7 availability for clients. Agency President Erika Reategui says: “She’s glued to the phone and never takes a day off…In any profession, Laura would be considered an all-star.”
Clients trust her implicitly. But just because Giantonio deals with VIP stars and bands, she appreciates that they do have travel budgets. To get the most for a client, she is a tough negotiator who won’t take “no” for an answer. On her softer side, for many years she’s supported the Rainforest Foundation and the Ricky Martin Children’s Foundation, noting they are “two causes very dear to my heart.”
To say Kim Goldstein has gone above and beyond her clients’ expectations is no exaggeration. In fact, the multiple awards and accolades she has received from across the hospitality industry speaks to her dedication of providing an exceptional experience to all the travelers she caters to. Goldstein received the 2013 Top Sales Performer Award-Sandals & Beaches, as well as the 2014 Chairman’s Outstanding Sales Achievement Award at the Sandals & Beaches STAR Awards, among many others.
“Kim uses her considerable talents and energy to help clients make the most of their vacations, destination weddings and honeymoons,” says her manager, Moira Carapico. “Because she travels so extensively and makes such great onsite connections, she is able to provide uniquely personal service from the many people she has met and maintained contact with in dozens of destinations and resorts.”
Goldstein joined Journeys Inc. in 2006 as a travel consultant specializing in Disney Destinations, and was selected to serve on the EarMarked Travel Agent Advisory Council. Sandals Resorts later invited Kim to join the exclusive Chairman’s Royal Club, a select group of top travel agents who have continuously produced results and showcased loyalty to the resort brand. She is the only agent in the Richmond area to achieve this honor.
“Kim [focuses] on building partnerships with the suppliers that she specializes in selling [to],” Carapico says. “Earlier this year, she presented Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals, with a document detailing many recommendations to improve the client and travel agent experience. These suggestions were met with such enthusiasm, that the company’s executive VP and teammates contacted Kim for process improvement suggestions and ways to improve the business.”
Apart from her professional career, Goldstein also leads up an initiative annually to bring a group of teenagers from Israel to Richmond to perform for the community. She is responsible for securing host families and ensuring the group safely travels from place to place.
When travelers book their trips with Gina Griffin, they are working with more of a matchmaker than a traditional travel agent. Griffin has the innate ability to connect with her clients quickly and match them to the perfect trip, says her manager, Marc Kazlauskas.
For a client with an urge to volunteer, Griffin put together a memorable trip to New Zealand, which included some opportunities to “give back” along the way. On another occasion she was able to plan a three-month honeymoon to Europe, only a month in advance. Griffin took pride in planning this special trip and made sure the transfers, guides and suites were confirmed throughout Europe, staying one step ahead of any challenges the entire time.
It’s Griffin’s attention to detail and ability to listen to clients that have made her a success within Frosch and have given her a tremendous amount of repeat business. In 2014, Griffin’s annual sales volume soared past the two million mark, proving that her 32 years in the business have made her a whiz at the agent game.
As for how she gets clients to commit, Griffin has a few strategies. First, she starts with confidence in making the sale. “Every client that calls wants to go somewhere, or they would not make the initial call,” she says. “It is my job to engage them in the conversation and get them excited about their trip.” She even usually sends the clients photos of their chosen destination, so they can see themselves there. If need be, she will tirelessly research a destination until she can answer all client questions with authority. And lastly, she relies on her instinct and experience when she creates an itinerary. “She is excellent at discovering what her clients want out of their trip when at times they do not even know,” says Kazlauskas.
High Point, NC
Clients who married on July 7, 2007 (7/7/7) tasked Tammy Horos to create a fabulous “7 themed honeymoon.” Horos, who specializes in destination weddings, honeymoons, luxury, multigenerational travel and group and incentive travel, created a honeymoon trip that featured business-class seats in row seven, cruise accommodations on Paul Gauguin’s Deck 7 in stateroom 767 (alas, there was no 777 stateroom), a seven-island itinerary and seven shore excursions.
A 22-year travel advisor, Horos is an independent contractor with Argonaut, a Travel Leaders agency. She generates $1.1 million in annual revenue. Pamela Seagle, Argonaut’s owner, says agencies are always on the hunt for great talent. “We had our eye on Tammy for 20-plus years, but due to her close association with her employer, a fellow franchiser, we stood our distance,” Seagle says. “Patience was a virtue as Tammy came to us when her agency closed.”
Well-studied and well-traveled, Horos is a strong advocate for both clients and the travel industry. When a client’s 40th anniversary trip to Bermuda was threatened by a flight cancellation, she was up at 5:30 a.m. to rebook another flight, allowing the couple to arrive just two hours later than originally scheduled. Multiple other events also threatened that trip, but Horos resolved them. The grateful client returned home after a wonderful anniversary trip and asked Horos to book a $100,000 Disney cruise for his entire family in 2016.
Horos, a member of ASTA, holds myriad specialist certifications from Jamaica, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Avalon Waterways, Hurtigruten, Funjet Vacations, Couples Resorts, Classic Vacations and Cancun, among many others. During her leisure time, she volunteers at road race events and local schools, and also supports the Boys & Girls Clubs of York County, among other causes.
Palos Verdes Estates, CA
Music plays a big part in Pamela Jacobs’ life. Though she left the music industry 16 years ago, she still plays drums with a rock ‘n’ roll band. That is, when she can spare the time from her busy leisure travel sales duties.
Music formed the heart of a memorable client experience in Paris. Jacobs knew her client planned to propose to his girlfriend. She arranged for a romantic Seine River cruise, complete with private table and personal butler. Afterwards, she surprised the happy couple with VIP treatment and confetti at an exclusive nightclub. Jacobs also arranged for the club’s singer (a former roommate of hers) to serenade the couple with their favorite song. The teary bride called to thank her.
Grateful clients are a steady presence for Jacobs. In her 16-year career, she’s handled everything from surprise romantic getaways to around-the-world jaunts that could qualify for “The Amazing Race.”
With more than $1.1 million in annual sales with the Signature Travel Network agency, Jacobs specializes in cruises, group travel and luxury train travel. She’s earned some prestigious awards and professional accreditations, including CLIA’s ECCS.
“Pam Jacobs is an All-Star on many levels. She works so closely with her clients that many have become close, personal friends. She builds incredible relationships with clients, vendors and co-workers,” says TravelStore Manager Sue Elliott.
Relationships with friends are equally important. Jacobs supports a charity dear to her heart, COTA (Children’s Organ Transplant Association), which assists families whose children are undergoing organ transplants.
“A dear friend had her daughter who nearly died at birth. She needed a liver transplant and was on a waiting list for years. On her fifth birthday she received life through a new liver,” says Jacobs.
“Pam’s enthusiasm for life and the world we live in make her ‘Tops’ in our book,” says Elliott. And that’s music to the ears of any agent.
Vacations by Beth LLC
Beth Leonardt was faced with adversity when one client was hospitalized during the critical pre-trip planning for a two-week Oceania Cruises’ European voyage with pre- and post-cruise city stays. Client decisions couldn’t be made in a timely manner. Undeterred, Leonardt, who owns Vacations by Beth LLC, an independent agency in the Avoya Travel Network, arranged for private transfers and cars/guides in London and Rome; booked dinner reservations, sightseeing, hotels and air; set up cruise specialty dining and wine packages; changed inappropriate shore trips; secured tour company “extensions” and checked the client in online. The client did travel and had a fabulous time.
It’s just one example of the friendly, personalized service Leonardt gives clients. Posting more than $3.7 million in 2014 sales, “Beth Leonardt is a consummate business owner and travel expert,” says Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales, Avoya Travel. “She has reached levels of sales success that are rarely achieved by travel professionals.” She’s achieved Avoya’s Best of the Best, President’s Circle and Chairman’s Club.
Specializing in cruising and land tours, especially FITs in Italy and Ireland, Leonardt, a 35-year agent, has myriad specialist designations. She’s a top producer for such suppliers as Allianz, Avalon Waterways, Celebrity Cruises, CIE Tours, Insight Vacations, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean. Yet, she also strives to maintain a good work-leisure balance, and she has a big heart, especially for helping the homeless.
In summer, she buys cases of water bottles to pass out; in winter, she passes out blankets. At Thanksgiving, she volunteers to cook and serve meals at a large Houston homeless shelter. “I believe every person has a story and we don’t know theirs, we don’t know where they came from and how they ended up in their current situation,” she says. Someday, she hopes to start a charity that collects blanket donations for the homeless.
Wedding and Honeymoon Travel Group
Dreaming up the ultimate in romance travel is Sharon Campbell Little of Wedding and Honeymoon Travel Group, an Ensemble Travel Group and Travel Planners International (TPI) agency. Selling $1.8 million annually, the travel advisor is DWHSA certified and has booked thousands of weddings, particularly in the Caribbean, during the past five years.
“Most new brides are referred to Sharon from previous couples whom she has helped,” says Salone England, TPI’s director of operations. A 25-year agent, Campbell Little immigrated to the United States from the United Kingdom six years ago and became a U.S. citizen earlier this year. She’s built her robust destination wedding and honeymoon business from scratch in just five years.
Advocating “listen, listen, listen” to the client, Campbell Little serves as a Travel Planners TEAM Ambassador — mentoring TPI agents about romance travel. In 2015, she is striving to be the top selling agent for Jamaica Tourist Board’s “One Love Rewards” program. Her specialty certifications include AMResorts Master Agent, Jamaica Travel Specialist, Couples Resorts Platinum and she’s also been affiliated with or recognized by many other suppliers, including Sandals, Sunset Resorts, Jewel Resorts and Couples Resorts.
Career highlight? For the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Campbell Little planned, booked, operated and traveled with 500 soccer fans to South Africa, a highly complex group booking. The games were played in different cities, clients had flights on different dates and some clients stayed in six cities over two weeks. “It was like a spider with a large body but with 500 different legs all doing different travel itineraries throughout the same date period,” she says.
At the recent TPI Conference, she won the Children’s Charity raffle of $3,400 and immediately donated the money to Covenant House’s children’s charities. She also supports Jamaica’s “Meet the People” program and donates all-inclusive stays to Murrieta-area charities.
After 38 years in the business, contacts and connections are the keys to Brian Nystedt’s success. He founded New Departures after working as an FIT consultant for travel to the UK. Nystedt’s agency is a Results! Travel member and he serves on their Leadership Council.
With a personal sales volume of close to $2 million, Nystedt’s leisure clientele expects expert knowledge. His status as a China Master Agent brings in Asia business. But he also specializes in Europe, river cruises, performing arts tours and more. In 1991, he launched Private Label Travel Events, an invitation-only small group travel program. Nystedt personally hosts visits to destinations he knows intimately.
“How many people do you know who can transit London, Berlin, Munich, Budapest or Stockholm without a map? Brian’s clients are loyal because of his attention to detail. His clients stay with him. Some started as college students and are now grandparents,” says office manager Gerald Kelley. Indeed, Nystedt makes a good poster boy for the adage, “it’s not what you know but who you know.”
Recent feats include securing a presidential military helicopter in Montenegro for a family of eight. And he’s saved the day (the whole trip, in fact) for a Rhone River cruise waylaid by high water.
“Faced with 12-hour days on a bus, Brian had to quickly provide an alternative. At 10 p.m. he told his group to pack their bags. By 1 a.m. he had found a bus and booked a great hotel in Lyon. The group felt special and that their comfort was the most important criteria,” says Kelley.
When it comes to comfort, Nystedt urges guests to book the best they can afford. His favorite upsell of all time is to arrive in Monte Carlo by helicopter from the Nice Airport. Or as he told one of his groups, “We arrive like James Bond and depart like Cary Grant.”
All About You Travel
As the U.S. economy spiraled downward in 2005, Jean Paugh optimistically opened All About You Travel Unlimited, an independent affiliate of Uniglobe Travel Center (UTC) and a Vacation.com agency. In 2014, Paugh, both a Certified Travel Counselor and Elite Cruise Counselor, racked up $1.3 million in revenue from cruise, escorted tour and FIT sales. She was honored as UTC’s “Agent of the Year”
But 2015 began with complications. Paugh was coming off knee surgery and mourning her mother’s death. Totally absorbed in work, she applied for New Zealand’s specialist program as escapism. Paugh quips that the people of New Zealand turned her around: “I came back with a new outlook and a fierce fire burning within me to take my agency to a new level.” Result? She’s having her best year ever for sales.
Certified by such brands as Avalon Waterways, Jamaica, Celebrity Cruises, Hawaii and Globus and Monograms, among others, Paugh believes in listening intently to clients, striving to make every vacation a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and asking “why” clients chose a destination as there’s always a story to help her make the trip more special.
One masterpiece trip Paugh created was a multi-week, multigenerational family vacation to Italy for clients ages five to 60; it included such special inclusions as kids’ events and fine wines and private chefs for the grandparents. In another case, clients returning from a summer Europe trip told her they’d forgotten to tell her they’d like to celebrate their 35th anniversary in Bora Bora in just a few months. Paugh made it happen, also starting them off pre-trip at the Beverly Wilshire and adding a Disneyland birthday opportunity on the return.
Betsy Geiser, vice president of UTC, says Paugh is a multi-year “Million-Dollar-Producer,” a mentor to fellow agents and serves on UTC’s advisory board. Paugh also is active in chamber of commerce activities and church mission trips.
Your Travel Center/Montecito Village Travel
Santa Barbara, CA
When clients change their minds, they need a travel advisor like Helen Reid. She recently booked a family vacation to a beautiful Mexican resort, but the night before her clients departed, they called, stressing they really desired to switch to a Hawaii vacation. Having dinner with friends, Reid borrowed a second cell phone, communicated back and forth with both clients and the tour operator and made the switch. Her ecstatic clients were off to Hawaii the next day.
Robin Sanchez, the agency’s COO, says Reid, who sells $1.5 million in travel annually for the Virtuoso-affiliated agency, consistently goes above and beyond to assist clients. “She hardly ever takes ‘no’ as answer; if a property, cruise line, tour is sold out and pulls strings to get her clients their desires,” says Sanchez. Reid’s unpretentious manner draws clients to her, and she chats with them as her friends. They immediately gain confidence that she’ll do the best, most honest job for them.
Working with Virtuoso’s on-site Italy expert, Helen booked a fabulous 21-day honeymoon with private guides and drivers. She set up a balloon ride for the honeymooners over Tuscany’s wineries, followed by a horseback ride and private lunch. She also arranged for a private helicopter transfer from Capri, Vespa riding in Rome and a jet boat to explore coastal islands.
Selling travel for 28 years, Reid handles an equal mix of leisure and corporate business. She’s been a top producer for both Your Travel Center and Apple Vacations. Sales tip? She often suggests four-star hotels and then also showcases the added benefits of booking either Virtuoso or agency-affiliated hotel brands, but whatever clients choose, she reassures them the trip will be fabulous. During her weekend time, Reid volunteers with charitable causes involving animals.
The Travel Authority
Specializing in cruising, Kaelin Rybak, a travel advisor with The Travel Authority, an American Express agency in Louisville, KY, is a revenue star. She racked up $3.5 million in travel sales during 2014; that’s split 85 percent for leisure sales and about 15 percent in corporate business. Her winning approach? She’s in the office every morning at 5:30 a.m. and doesn’t go home until her work is complete. “I have never met someone so selfless,” stresses Amy Blankenship, her manager at The Travel Authority.
Rybak doesn’t think any request by a valued client is crazy. Rybak recently concocted an unusual trip for a doctor and minister who were following the historical paths of both Hippocrates and St. Paul around Greece and Asia Minor. It was an offbeat itinerary request that required a lot of tender loving care to plan and set up. “No matter how big or small, she will work her magic and bring the request to life,” emphasizes Blankenship.
Both a Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) and Master Cruise Counselor (MCC), Rybak is also a member of CLIA, ICTA and ARTA. Having spent 39 years as a travel agent, her philosophy for sales success is to listen to clients and do exactly what’s best for them. If an agent listens and qualifies the client, it’s not difficult to close the sale, she believes.
When Rybak’s not working at the agency, she volunteers through her service on advisory boards for Catholic High School and Bellarmine University, both in Louisville, as well as the Archdiocese of Louisville. She also performs with her church’s choir and participates in charity for the Catholic Church. One unusual personal factoid: She calls the “stats” for Bellarmine University Basketball. In fact, she’s only missed two of that university’s basketball games in 43 years.
Largay Travel, Inc.
Ken Sause proves that travel is about more than just seeing the next destination; it’s about creating powerful memories and adding substance to life. He has been a travel agent for an impressive 55 years, starting his career with bus tours of the World’s Fair. Now he is an independent contractor who leads group travel with Largay Travel, a part of Virtuoso and Tzell.
During his extensive career, Sause has planned many memorable trips, illustrating his passion for travel and his loyalty to his clients. Once as a surprise, he arranged for a church organist to play in a cathedral during a trip, and on another occasion, he planned a reunion for two brothers in Ireland after years of separation. The brothers had prearranged to meet at a golf course, but Sause instead had one brother dress up as a bellman and completely surprise the other brother at his hotel. We hear it was both a hysterical and an unforgettable reunion.
Sause not only leaves lasting memories with his clients, but he also greatly influences his colleagues. “He is an unsung hero of the industry and brings joy to those around him,” says Amanda Klimak, the agency’s manager. “He continuously reminds us of the reason we love the industry, which is bringing joy to those around us through travel.” Sause also is eager to share his experience and wisdom with his fellow agents.
How does he continue to get clients and close sales? He creates a lot of priority mailings and writes hand-written cards to clients. He also hosts fun events like the one he did this past year, where he invited “anyone who is celebrating a birthday in 2015.” After the event he had 18 people sign up for a Crystal cruise, during which they, of course, celebrated their birthdays.
Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons
Granite Bay, CA
Planning 72 wedding groups in two years is an amazing feat, accomplished by April Schmitt. “April is one of the top wedding and honeymoon specialists in the country,” says Ignacio Maza, executive VP, Signature Travel Network, of which Schmitt’s agency is a member. Her 2014 sales were $1.2 million and her 2015 book of business will exceed $2 million, a 74 percent growth rate.
“Over the years, April has built a great business, one delighted client at a time,” says Maza. When a client vacationing on Capri decided she didn’t want to wake up early the next day and catch the ferry to the Italian mainland and a car to the airport, she texted Schmitt at 11 p.m., asking for a morning helicopter pickup. Schmitt tapped her preferred partners and the chopper was waiting. This year, Schmitt planned a last-minute destination wedding for a terminally ill groom. Finding 23 rooms within budget at the last minute and meeting the groom’s medical travel requirements were challenges, but Schmitt delivered.
Cited as “Top Groups Producer” by Classic Vacations the past two years, Schmitt also serves on Classic’s Group Advisory Board. To stay current with the latest trends and destination experiences, the 11-year agent, ASTA member and Certified Travel Associate, travels 38-plus days annually. She’s certified by Tahiti Tiare, Matai Fiji, Marriott, Starwood, Alaska, Hawaii, Costa Rica, South Africa, Thailand and many other suppliers.
“I always show a client what they can get for their price range, and then show them what they can get if they stretch their budget,” says Schmitt, pointing out they’d arrive more relaxed with business air or better enjoy a glass of wine in a room with a view. Off hours, Schmitt and her family support the local Boys Team Charity, which funds such groups as Kids First, Cycles 4 Hope, the VA Hospital and a food bank.