Chad Rodarme: From Telephone Operator to Travel Agent to Celebrities

In an industry of self-starters, Chad Rodarme stands out as an original.

The owner of Byrontravelgroup got into travel by his sheer force of personality. Well, that, plus an empty bank account.

“Mom booted me out of the house at eighteen. She said I needed to be on my own. I was young and dumb and didn’t know anything about credit or life. I needed money to put a deposit on an apartment outside of Seattle, where we lived,” said Rodarme.

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He walked in to the Sheraton Tacoma, which was right down the street.

“I went to the HR department and said I have no job history, but I’m a people person,” said Rodarme.

The hotel offered him a job on the spot as a telephone operator. They quickly promoted him to the reservations department, then front desk, night auditor and group folios.

Rodarme ended up working in the hotel industry for seven years. His next move was to an airline reservation call center. He became a million-dollar seller, and moved from Seattle to L.A.

“I worked the only job I could get in L.A., which was working on the ramps at the airport. I marshalled airplanes loading and unloading postal mail. My back would hurt so much at the end of the day. Now, I look out the plane windows at the ramp guys. No one checks luggage anymore, so they have it a little easier,” said Rodarme.

His airline gig ended after September 11, when he and some 150,000 airline workers were laid off. But once again, Rodarme landed on his feet by snagging a job at an airline call center in Long Beach. It didn’t take long for him to become a million-dollar seller there, as well.

When the airline shut down the reservations office, everyone was out of a job.

“People were crying. There were 20-year employees there,” said Rodarme.

He moved into slightly different territory, with a job as corporate travel coordinator at BCBG Max Azria. Within three months, he became travel manager. He oversaw corporate rate negotiations across the globe, handled air bookings and car rental contracts.

More significantly, Rodarme also met his partner of twelve years, an Italian designer for the company.

After a few years with BCBG, he left to become a celebrity personal assistant in Hollywood.

“It was a power couple. They were great to me, it was a fabulous job. But, it really was only a glorified assistant. I didn’t want to spend my life running around to get Pampers. I decided at that point that I really needed my own business,” said Rodarme.

He learned a GDS system and worked for several travel agencies. Then he set off on his own.

“It was scary of course. I wasn’t guaranteed a paycheck every two weeks. I was lucky because I had my partner and didn’t have to worry. If I had been on my own, I wouldn’t have taken the leap,” said Rodarme.

He launched Byrontravelgroup (based on his middle name) five years ago. He affiliated with the New York-based First in Service Travel, a branch of Tzell Travel Group.

Rodarme reached out to everyone he knew from the fashion industry, asking for their travel business. He realized that over the years, he’d accumulated quite a book of contacts. He knew hoteliers and other vendors, some affiliated with big consortia. Some not.

“I started to compile a database of suppliers. It was more like a database of friends. One example is an airport greeter I know in Amsterdam. No one heard of him, but, he’s been doing it for years. He’s served royalty, the head of large corporations. The stories he told me made my jaw drop. The Queen of the Netherlands has his number. He’s someone who’s not affiliated with a consortium. He doesn’t have to be,” said Rodarme.

Rodarme also opened First in Service’s west coast office at the Santa Monica Airport. It’s an eye-popping location.

“I used to work there several years ago. We specialize in entertainment and fashion industry travel. So, I thought it would be cool to be around private jets all day. When vendors come in, they see all the jets arriving from our floor-to-ceiling windows. We see the presidential helicopter. None of the other big firms in L.A. has anything like that,” said Rodarme.

After living in New York for the past two years, he’s now back in Malibu.

His clientele skews heavily toward entertainment industry folks, makeup artists, hair stylists, producers, hedge fund owners and other executives. But he will still book a Holiday Inn Express for a long-standing customer.

“One day I booked a $15,000 per night room and a $99 hotel. Some clients have been with me from the very beginning. I may have outgrown them in some ways. But I would never leave them,” said Rodarme.

He works behind the scenes with every reservation, no matter the size of the booking.

“With all my hotels, I handle everything. The clients don’t know that I’m emailing the GM to get that upgrade for them. But, I get lots of thank-yous about my service,” said Rodarme.

He’s built a business from relationships, key to any agent’s success these days.

“We live in an era when the big hospitality groups simply license their name. We forget that the history of our business is about taking care of people. It’s not about spread sheets. Of course, I like to see numbers. But hospitality is about helping people. That’s why I focus on the human touch and what I call the ‘hearts of hospitality’. That is, those people around the world I’ve met who make me feel good about this business,” said Rodarme.

His philosophy has paid off when it comes to referrals.

“I got an email from the Duke of York. I thought it was a phishing scam. But, sure enough, I ended up booking his security detail at Sandy Lane in the Bahamas,” said Rodarme.

He uses social media quite deftly to chronicle his travels, meetings and adventures.

He’s had success with video postings.

“I get hundreds of likes and make bookings all the time from videos. I started doing it when I was at Andaz Papagayo in Costa Rica. The hotels love it. They’ve told me that I’ve provided the best site tours ever, because I’m so animated. I even make videos with vendors who come into the office. Vendors started asking if I can do a video with them,” said Rodarme.

Though he enjoys being in front of the camera, his goal is to grow his business.

“I’m not in this for the free shrimp cocktail. I want to make money,” said Rodarme.

At 41, he’s already been in travel for more than two decades.

“I had a rough childhood. It was hell. But, I’ve always believed in a higher power. I thank God that he allowed my heart to stay open. When I was in my early twenties, my parents got divorced. My dad told me, ‘Son, I don’t know where you get the love from in your heart. I know you didn’t get it from me.’ But, it came from above. From my grandma. From the school moms who helped me along because they knew my life wasn’t easy. That love in my heart is what drives me. I want to see the best in people. That’s the common thread in hospitality,” said Rodarme.

Recently, Rodarme met with the director of sales for Provenance Hotels in Seattle.

“I book a lot of their properties for clients doing big meetings at Nordstrom. I told him the story of how my mom kicked me out, and I got my first job at Sheraton Tacoma. He said,’ That’s one of our hotels now.’ That’s what I love about this business. There are connections everywhere. It makes me so excited for what will happen next,” said Rodarme.

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