Leaders in Luxury

Every year, Travel Agent magazine and our sister publication Luxury Travel Advisor take a close look at the movers and shakers of the luxury travel scene. Some of the names are well known. Some prefer to work their magic in the sidelines. All of them are dynamic leaders whose work deserves to be recognized.

The Leaders in Luxury awards go to individuals who have demonstrated outstanding leadership in four distinct industry categories. The recipients will be honored on December 6 during the Luxury Travel Expo at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

Nicholas Clayton, president of Viceroy Hotel Group, is this year’s honoree in the Hotels & Resorts category. Under his guidance, the brand has earned numerous awards from consumers, and will be expanding in the Maldives and Bodrum in the coming years.

All About Travel/Platinum Vacations’ President Gary Davis is being recognized as top Travel Advisor. He advises agents to focus on the value that they know they can bring to each deal, rather than trying to be all things to all clients.

MSC Cruises USA President Richard Sasso, a 40-year veteran of the business, is the Cruise leader this year, thanks in part to his promotion of the “ship within a ship” concept that offers exclusive suites and experiences for top cruise clients.

Greg Tepper, president of Exeter International, takes the top Tour Operator spot, thanks to his dedication to bring out the luxury side of Russia and Eastern Europe.

What do all of these businessmen have in common? They all look for something missing in their sector and try to fill it. Whether it’s an underserved destination, a new level of service or a unique experience, the true visionaries will find some way to set them—and their businesses—apart.

The editorial staff of Travel Agent and Luxury Travel Advisor is pleased to bestow these individuals with the recognition they deserve as they continue to change the face of the industry, setting new standards in selling luxury travel.

Read on to learn more about these outstanding leaders.


Nick Clayton
Nick Clayton, president, Viceroy Hotel Group


Throughout his career, Nick Clayton has been on the front lines when it comes to high-end luxury hotels and delivering luxury service. Today, he heads one of the most innovative players in the affluent travel market, Viceroy Hotel Group. Here, Clayton is responsible for maintaining a high level of service while expanding the company’s portfolio, which already includes notable hotels under the Viceroy and Tides brands in Anguilla, St. Lucia, Miami, Mexico, Palm Springs, Snowmass and Abu Dhabi.

The secret of  Viceroy’s success, says Clayton, can be found in its ability to deliver what an intimate, unique property can offer and combine it with the most appealing merits of a well-established brand.

“It’s that mix between the best of the interesting boutique hotels and the best of the traditional luxury players,” says Clayton. “Why can’t you have [both] the consistency of the service and graciousness, but be a bit more interesting, creative and edgy?”

For a relatively young hotel company, Viceroy, under Clayton’s guidance, has won its fair share of accolades from the consumer press. It has also made a strong commitment to the luxury travel agent community, most notably by hiring Cheryl Bennett, formerly of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, as its vice president of travel industry sales.

“In the leisure market, consumers make selections based on influence, word of mouth, what they read and a lot of other factors. The sway and the influence that the top-end travel agent community can have on our hotels are huge,” Clayton says.

Clayton’s ascent to the leadership role at Viceroy is the culmination of a star-studded career in the luxury hotel arena; in fact, one might say he cut his teeth on delivering luxury hospitality. While studying in college to become a stockbroker, he joined the Four Seasons in Dallas. When he graduated, he chose hotels over finance and joined The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company during a time when it was growing rapidly–and he grew rapidly through the ranks.

“Ritz-Carlton believed in identifying leadership and thought the technical skills could come. They really believed in their people and would promote them quite quickly,” Clayton tells Travel Agent. Over 13 years with the company, he had nine top assignments, including managing director for the Ritz-Carlton Millenia in Singapore, which was frequently recognized for outstanding customer service and overall quality.

Most recently, as SVP of operations for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Clayton oversaw its Asian and European properties during a period of great expansion and renovation. He was also responsible for differentiating the brand among others, a tactic he has successfully brought over to Viceroy, where a distinguishing factor can be found in the energy of its hotels.

“Let’s let our hair down every once in a while and have fun, because not everyone appreciates the formal and stuffy nature of some hotels,” says Clayton. “We provide a fresh new brand where the market is saturated.”

Watch for announcements of new Viceroy hotels across the globe, including Viceroy Maldives in 2012 and Viceroy Bodrum in 2014. Travel agents should also be on the lookout for further commitment to their distribution channel, as Viceroy forms its first agent advisory board.

How does Clayton feel about receiving the Leaders in Luxury award on behalf of Viceroy Hotel Group?

“These are the moments of satisfaction that show that people know who we are and what we are doing right,” he says with a smile.


Gary Davis
Gary Davis, president, All About Travel/Platinum Vacations

For Gary Davis, president of All About Travel, Inc./Platinum Vacations, Inc. in Mission, KS, it was love that brought him into the business (literally) and love for travel that has kept him there.

Davis’ dive into the industry began with his wife Jackie, who was his personal travel agent for 12 years. Prior to his involvement in travel, he worked for his father, handling joint business ventures with a number of foreign companies and governments, including Russia, India, China, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. Upon his father’s passing in 1991, Davis sold the company and went in search of a new career. He stumbled upon a small agency, Travel Quest, which he purchased.

“I swore I’d do that for just a couple of years until I found a real job,” says Davis. However, a few years later a larger agency came up for sale and he was faced with the decision of whether or not travel was going to be his life. Fortunately for this industry, he made the right decision.

In 2000 Travel Quest merged with All About Travel, combining forces to achieve $44 million in total sales. Since then, it has been Davis and his business partner Brent Blake growing the company organically and through acquisitions. Today the agency is a member of Vacation.com and this year it will have done an estimated amount of $140 million in sales. “I love this business,” Davis tells us.

For Davis, the greatest challenges in this industry happen every day. Finding a way to continue to make a profit is the biggest hill to climb in all agencies, due to margin erosion and competition with online agencies. “It’s a struggle to find a model that works in order to keep going,” says Davis. All About Travel’s model is to adjust and focus on opportunities that the agency brings value to.

Bringing value to a relationship is what sets the luxury travel agent apart from the rest, according to Davis. “I think all agents have a little luxury in them. I think the key is finding how to bring it out,” he says. Davis tells us that one of the defining things about an agent that handles a tremendous amount of luxury business is the ability to say no. “Too many times we see agents who are trying to be everything to everyone because they don’t want to say no,” he says. “This is where the good luxury agents excel. They know when they no longer bring value to that proposition. They focus on customers and experiences that they will be able to bring value to.”

Davis tells us that one of the most elaborate trips his team put together involved a trip to Europe with one of their corporate accounts. It took four months of planning and when it was done the client was flown to Europe, rode the Orient-Express and privately toured and tasted at some of Europe’s most high-end vineyards. It’s trips like these that keep Davis going.

After 17 years in the industry, Davis is most fond of the people he works with on a day-to-day basis: his clients. “They are passionate about what they do, they love traveling and they love seeing the world.”


Richard Sasso
Richard Sasso, president, MSC Cruises USA


RichardRickSasso is a huge fan of “hybrids” and he doesn’t mean cars. As president of MSC Cruises USA, Sasso has been deeply involved in developing and promoting the new MSC Yacht Club concept, a pampering “ship within a ship” concept that’s revolutionizing how some upscale clients perceive a luxury cruise experience. Introduced on MSC Fantasia in 2008 and MSC Splendida this year, the MSC Yacht Club is an upscale, exclusive suite enclave within a large, amenity-laden, mass-market ship. Next to get the sumptuous concept, says Sasso, are MSC Divina, launching in 2012, and another, yet-unnamed MSC ship launching in 2013.

How does it work? Clients booked into high-end suites and some spa staterooms within the multi-deck MSC Yacht Club area of these ships use their key cards to enter an area reserved just for them. They have a private pool ringed by loungers, pampering attention by a 24-hour concierge, a private upscale restaurant, private bar and lounge, exclusive spa entrance and treatment areas—and depending on suite category, the services of a butler.

Sasso says a luxury product must provide privacy, needs to be somewhat exclusive to appeal to people who can afford it, and must deliver a luxury experience. He believes the cocooning MSC Yacht Club does all that. Luxury clients enjoy top-notch accommodations with privacy, exclusivity and special attention, yet they still have big-ship activity choices. They might watch a Broadway-style production show, take a cooking class, enjoy a destination lecture, meet friends at the disco or drive a Formula One race car in a simulator.

A 40-year cruise industry veteran, Sasso previously served with Costa Cruises and Chandris Cruises. He was also part of the management team that launched Celebrity Cruises in the late 1980s and later served as Celebrity’s president. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, cruising meant sailing on older vessels, ones typically built for transatlantic service, he says. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, the industry began building new purpose-built cruise ships.

“The industry also started to look at ways to develop hardware that reflected lifestyle amenities, such as extraordinary dining and expanded spas, versus just having cabins, dining and a casino,” stresses Sasso. “Cruise lines added decks and decks of pampering space. It was the beginning of an industry in revolution.”

In the 2000s, boundaries separating contemporary, premium and luxury lines blurred. Luxury lines built bigger ships. Other lines elevated their onboard experiences. And for decades, Sasso, who was inducted into the Cruise Lines International Association’s (CLIA) Hall of Fame earlier this year, watched the evolution of luxury and witnessed dramatic industry growth firsthand. In 2003, MSC, a massive cargo ship company, was a small cruise industry player. After investing $8 billion in eight years, though, MSC Cruises has grown from 3,000 berths to 30,000 berths on 11 modern ships.

Today, Sasso, a people-focused boss who’s just written a non-cruising book on how people can be more unselfish in life, heads a Fort Lauderdale-based team of 70 staffers serving the U.S. and Canadian markets.

Success, he says, is “all about having the right environment, of setting up an atmosphere of family at work so that people feel comfortable and like working together,” says Sasso. “Our success can be attributed to people working well together. It’s not the president doing anything. It’s a team approach.” Agents say that it’s also about a good idea—a sumptuous yacht club that delivers privacy, exclusivity and luxury, along with big-ship activity choices.


Greg Tepper
Greg Tepper, president, Exeter International


Greg Tepper founded Russiatours, Inc.–today known as Exeter International–nearly 20 years ago, focusing on new ways to travel in Eastern Europe and Russia. And he practices what he preaches: when we caught up with him to discuss his Leaders in Luxury award, he was on the new high-speed bullet train from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

“Luxury travel has changed quite a bit over the past 19 years and I expect that it will continue to change,” he says about the industry. “When I first started offering upscale travel to Russia and Eastern Europe, most travelers preferred to stay in groups, rarely selecting FIT travel…Now we see the opposite: 95 percent of our clients want individually planned itineraries built around their specific interests, on the dates they want to travel. This, of course, is the essence of luxury travel: customization and special access. Fine dining, gorgeous hotels and luxury vehicles are ubiquitous.” To that end, he says, service, access and customization are where Exeter International shines.

When the governmental monopoly held by Intourist (formed by Stalin in 1929) collapsed in 1992, established tour operators were slow to develop luxury travel packages. Exeter International stepped in and, over the years, emerged as the leading deluxe tour operator to Russia and Eastern Europe.

Greg Tepper’s tourism career didn’t take off right away. He started studying Russian in high school and later obtained a degree in Russian Studies from the College of William and Mary in Virginia. After a corporate career at the Northern Trust Bank in Chicago and an MBA from the University of Chicago, he started to work as a financial analyst for Procter & Gamble. But, as Russia grew and developed rapidly following the fall of the iron curtain, Tepper quit P&G and moved to St. Petersburg to work with one of the very first private tour companies in Russia. At that time, deluxe hotels were opening in Eastern Europe—but only for business travelers. Tepper helped bring leisure guests to these properties, and a luxury niche was born.

Of course, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. “The war in the Balkans was the worst period in my career,” Tepper recalls. “The perception was that the whole of Eastern Europe was at war. One client told his travel advisor—who was working with me—that he didn’t want to go to Estonia, since it was in a war zone...Balkans, Baltics, it was all the same! We did our best to educate the market that Russia and the most of Eastern Europe were not at war and that the war area was as far away as New York was from Mexico, but it was very difficult.”

As much as the tourism scene in Russia and Eastern Europe has changed in recent years, Tepper expects that several recent trends—such as short booking windows and demand for value-for-money experiences—will stick around. “In our part of the world, I expect the trend to continue for travelers to move farther into the interior of Russia and Eastern Europe: Lake Baikal, trans-Siberian trains, the lower Volga to the Caspian Sea by luxury river boat,” he says.

Luxury travel agents have to work harder to understand each client, Tepper says. “There are specific tastes that he or she needs to know to help select the right hotel, guide, sights, even vehicle. With so many luxury hotels in the world, luxury travel advisors must discern the best product for each client.”

So, after all these years, what does Greg Tepper see as his greatest success? “My greatest triumph has been seeing travelers discover a little bit of what I love about Russia and Eastern Europe,” he says. “Seeing travelers fall in love with the people, the history, the architecture and the food is the most exciting thing for me. I still get a thrill from watching travelers discover a bit of the soul of Eastern Europe. It is that different from our world and I suppose it always will be.”


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