If you visit Rose Marie Spatafore’s office, you’ll find everything from a refrigerator stocked with cold Sunny Delights, which she keeps on hand for clients, to nearly 500 rocks and shells she’s collected from everywhere from New Haven to New Zealand. She sells and she gives—she is a businesswoman and a volunteer. For Spatafore, the world is a beautiful place, but it’s the people—from the orphan children she’s aided in Barbados to the clients who visit her quiet storefront in the small town of Ansonia, CT—that make selling travel so rewarding.
“For me, the best part of traveling is seeing the reactions of the people you travel with,” she told Travel Agent, “and seeing the looks on the faces of people who are visiting a place for the first time.” And that attitude is probably what has made her very young agency an instant success.
We caught the morning Metro-North train from New York City’s Grand Central Terminal to Milford, CT, where Spatafore picked us up for our scheduled one-on-one.
The self-proclaimed “dinosaur” of the travel industry and “wackiest person since day one” showed us everything from the small waterfalls of a park in Milford where families feed ducks to the one-time industrial town of Ansonia where her two-year-old company, E-Z Travel and Tours, a member of Travelsavers Inc., sits on a quiet corner.
She loves her town “where she was born, raised and will most likely die” just as much as she loves “learning from the rest of the world.” Although she’s bounced around from outside sales to full-time gigs at mom-and-pop agencies since 1965, Spatafore has just reached her prime as a travel agent.
Learning From Life Experience
Her company—which includes herself at the helm; Richard, her husband of nearly 40 years, handling the books; and only about five outside agents pitching in—has netted $500,000 this year and is a preferred agency of the likes of such hotel powerhouses as Sandals SuperClubs, Hyatt, Hilton and Karisma.
She’s on track to qualify as a Sandals Rising Star for next year and has made $50,000 through GOGO Worldwide Vacations alone to date.
After an afternoon with Spatafore, we concluded that she might in fact be a “dinosaur.” Not because she still doesn’t know how to text message and not in reference to her age—her smile, enthusiasm and cheerful demeanor often resemble that of a child on a sugar rush—but more in the sense of her old-school mentality: The clients come first and the money comes second.
And with her knowledge of the world and grasp of the finer points of client relationships, we were shocked to find that Ansonia High School was the last in-class schooling she received.
“My education has been in people. Sometimes you can be book smart and have no common sense,” she says. “Not that education is bad, but back when we were growing up, it wasn’t always affordable. The world is a good teacher if you really take the time to listen to what people say. I do a lot of observing when I go places. I want to know everything about a destination, a property and the people there. I’m not there to party. I’m there to learn. Of course, I don’t mind having a good time, but that’s not why I go on fam trips.”
Instead of going to college, she worked for Ansonia Travel in her senior year of high school as an outside sales representative, earning peanuts for her efforts. She then went to work for several agencies, including Rifkin Travel.
And now with two daughters, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild, she has her own company, which she would like to grow to about three full-time agents and 10 outside agents.
But Spatafore is also educated by specialty courses, including our own Travel Agent University, as well as other programs that offer certification.
“I try to take most of the courses that Travel Agent offers through Travel Agent University,” she says. “I take those courses to just familiarize myself and keep myself refreshed. You can’t be everywhere, can’t go to every island. So when there’s a specialty program that I can take, I take it because then at least I am current, I am up to date.”
Spatafore’s company sells travel all over the world, but as far as how she qualifies a client, we figured we’d focus on the Caribbean since it’s often falsely perceived that all the islands are the same and thus choosing a specific island can be difficult.
“If you want to go to the Caribbean,” she says, “The first [thing] I’ll ask is, ‘What do you like? Do you like to be in the shade, do you want to be in the sun all day, do you like just the beaches or do you like to go on some adventures as well? Do you want to just stay at your property or do you want to venture out? As far as properties go, do you want an all-inclusive where everything is taken care of for you and you don’t have to go into your wallet?’
“The next step is to ask them what type of properties they have stayed at before. If they stayed at a Ritz-Carlton, I’m not going to send them to a bed-and-breakfast. Then you get to the views. I will ask, ‘Do you like facing the ocean or does the view mean anything to you? Do you like the garden views?’ Some people like the grass and the flowers. ‘Do you want a partial ocean view or for a little more a full ocean view?’”
And as far as islands go, Spatafore says the Dominican Republic is the best island for couples and families and St. Lucia is her favorite island for destination weddings and arguably her favorite island in general, noting that Turks and Caicos also makes for a great family getaway.
“If you’re looking for a little of everything,” she says, “a little sun, beaches, some shade, some culture, I’m going to put you in St. Lucia, where you get the flora and fauna and the trees, a lush island and a great taste of the beach.”
“I will never suggest sacrificing quality...I will always suggest staying at the four-star hotel for perhaps a day or two less.”
Effect of the Economy
Spatafore shares the same sentiments as most travel experts we’ve spoken to lately on this subject: People are still traveling, but the way they are traveling has been altered a bit.
“People are still going to want that one special vacation a year where they can go away, be on a beach, be pampered, be taken care of and then come home and fight with the rest of the world for the rest of the year,” she says. “They still want their one getaway that they can depend on and enjoy themselves and not have the headaches they have when they’re home.”
Although U.S. travelers are still taking vacations, the struggling economy has, however, forced them to make one decision they perhaps haven’t made during prior trips: shorter stays or cheaper hotels?
For Spatafore, it’s a no-brainer. “I will never suggest sacrificing quality,” she says. “I will always suggest staying at that four- or five-star hotel for perhaps a day or two less.”
Cruising to the Caribbean
Spatafore’s first trip out of the U.S. was a trip to Canada, but she says it was her first cruise that introduced to her to the Caribbean.
In the mid-1970s, she took a group on a Carnival Cruise Lines trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands and says it was a stop at St. Thomas that started a more than 30-year love affair with the region.
“That is when I came to love the island,” she says. “I couldn’t get enough.”
And just as it was when she boarded her first ship to St. Thomas, Spatafore says selling cruises is still an easy deal to close.
“Cruises are always big because of the all-inclusive factor and clients get to see more than one thing when they are traveling,” she says. “And they get entertainment onboard. I would say the new thing is the European cruises, and in the Caribbean people are looking to go a little deeper. A lot [of clients] have done St. Thomas, San Juan, Ocho Rios and the Cayman Islands already and now they’re looking to the deep Caribbean islands like St. Lucia and Barbados. They are looking for cruises out of New York where they can do nine to 10 days out of New York and go to other places in the Caribbean, not just the Bahamas.”
The Value of Casinos
Since she is from Connecticut, which is home to major northeastern U.S. casinos like Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, Spatafore has an appreciation for casinos and understands why clients value them.
In fact, she says more agents should stay up to speed with casino information when booking a Caribbean vacation since it could be the difference in booking one island instead of another.
“I put a high value on casinos,” she says. “I’ve had times when if an island didn’t have a casino, [the client] wouldn’t go. What really brought casinos to the forefront of travel was the Texas Hold ’em (poker) phenomenon. When they started showing these live poker events at places like Atlantis [on Paradise Island, the Bahamas], you had so many people saying, ‘Hey, I think I’d like to take a trip to the Caribbean and give that game a shot at the same time.’ It’s really no different then the theater or any other form of entertainment. People will put a certain amount of money aside for their vacation to spend at the casino. It becomes part of their trip.”
Connection With Clients
At the time of our interview with Spatafore, she told us that she and her husband were currently working on their list of Christmas cards to send out to clients, evidence that she understands the importance of treating a client like a human being and not a dollar sign.
In fact, the long list of promotional programs Spatafore has joined have all been for the purpose of improving a client’s vacation. For instance, she will call or e-mail a hotel of which she is a preferred member and tell the sales manager that she will be having a client stay there.
“I sent somebody to Maho Beach [Sonesta Maho Beach Resort & Casino in St. Maarten] once. He checked in and a young man at the counter wanted to know who he knew,” she says. “He said, ‘You booked a Super Saver with GOGO [Worldwide Vacations], so why are you in the Presidential Suite?’
“It was because I make contacts at the properties, build relationships with the sales managers,” she says. “I tell them to take care of my client, which they always do, but I’ll call or e-mail them in advance just to remind them. And when you do that for every booking, you eventually start to build a rapport with the people at the hotel and the service they give your clients gets better and better.”
And it’s that kind of service that earns Spatafore so much repeat business.
“A lot of agents will just book their clients and send them out the door and that’s that,” she says. “Most of the time, those clients aren’t going to be coming back. You need to realize you are not selling them just a vacation, you are selling them an experience, a memory they will have for the rest of their lives.”