We visited Barbara Nichuals, president & CEO of Bayside Travel, in her Larchmont, NY, agency on a sunny day in early November. As we approached her office on one of the town’s main thoroughfares, we passed young mothers pushing baby strollers past boutique shops, day spas and a good array of eclectic high-end restaurants. Well prepped for autumn, several wore cable-knit pullovers and chic leather riding boots; it all had a bit of a Ralph Lauren vibe to it. Along the way, we came upon “The Golden Shoestring,” a thrift shop used for fundraising by the local Junior League and a real estate office touting photos of the high-end homes in Westchester County, one of the most affluent in the country. Then we came upon Bayside Travel in a charming storefront, sitting catty-corner on Larchmont Avenue, all doused in dappled sunlight from autumn-hued trees.
Acquiring the attractive and prominent office space at 124 Larchmont Avenue had been a dream of Nichuals; she’d driven by it one day many years ago and thought, “I want that location, one day I’ll have that location!” At that point, Bayside Travel was based in Queens, but Nichuals was steadily growing her client base in Westchester through marketing programs that included hosting client events at the Larchmont Yacht Club and giving talks to local groups, such as the Junior League and newcomers to the area.
“I realized there was opportunity here,” she says of the affluent community that’s a close commute to Manhattan and situated on the Long Island Sound (think lawyers, bankers and other professionals with large vintage 1920s homes or expansive estates on a stunning waterside setting).
"Promoting Bayside Travel is an ongoing effort, and includes running ads in local papers using testimonials and photos of clients who have just returned from a vacation. “People like to talk about what they’ve done, and they like to endorse things that have been really, really good.” - Barbara Nichuals
Then, in the year 2000, Nichuals drove past 124 Larchmont Avenue again. It was vacant with a “For Rent” sign in the window. When she called the landlord she told him she had to move in.
Fast forward 14 years later: On the day of our visit, travel advisors worked in a business-like and inviting environment where Nichuals’ office is set slightly apart from the main buzz of the operations. That enables her to close the door and strategize for the future of the enterprise, which includes working with those clients with larger travel spends. “We’re starting to say, ‘Was that client worth our time?’ Are there clients that we should take another look at and say, ‘We’re not a good fit for each other?’” Nichuals says. “We are seriously on a quest for the affluent luxury client.”
That evolving metamorphosis to rebalance quantities of scale comes as Bayside Travel is experiencing a momentum of good things happening. The agency, which brings in $9 million in revenue annually, was earlier this year voted “The Best of Westchester” by the readers of Westchester Magazine; no small feat considering the competition of high-end agencies in the area. The win meant the agency could participate in a consumer fair with the other “Best of Westchester” businesses at a posh country club in the area. While there, Nichuals was approached by the anchors of the local cable station asking if she could appear on air periodically as a resident travel expert. Since then, affluent consumers in the area have been tuning in to TV interviews where Nichuals is artfully explaining the benefits of using a luxury travel advisor or how to best use frequent flyer miles.
“I’ve had people in Greenwich, CT contact me to say, ‘I woke up to my morning coffee and saw you on TV,’” she says.
Doing live TV interviews might not be for the faint of heart, but for Nichuals, it follows a credo she’s strict about executing. “If you really want to be viewed as an expert, get yourself out there,” she says.
So it’s been a stellar year for Bayside Travel, but actually, it’s been 27 years of good things for Nichuals, who bought a travel agency in Queens in 1987 after growing weary of a career where she handled corporate pensions for an insurance company. As she pondered what to do with her life, a friend pointed out that Nichuals had done a good job of planning her own honeymoon to Bermuda and suggested she become a travel agent. The suggestion seemed like an odd one until Nichuals came upon a brochure in a Manhattan diner for The Learning Annex, an adult education program, which was offering a class on how to become a part-time travel agent. Still juggling her insurance job, she worked as a travel agent on the side, trying it on for size, when an epiphany struck.
“I said, ‘Wow, I really kind of like this, I like sales!’” recalls Nichuals.
Her husband suggested they purchase an existing travel business, so they scoped out the classifieds in The New York Times, where two agencies were for sale. They opted for the one in Bayside, Queens. “It was a turn-key operation. I quit my job on a Friday, and on Monday I owned the company,” says Nichuals.
As the years followed, she constantly evolved her business model to keep it thriving during economic downturns and after the airline commission cuts. Nichuals purchased Gramatan Travel in Bronxville in 2003 and over the next four years acquired area agencies, including Eastchester Travel, Days Travel and Earlfield Travel (the owners had approached her as they liked the way she did business). Nichuals, who had moved her home from Queens to Westchester, migrated the agency’s business from Bayside to Larchmont 14 years ago. Last year, she consolidated the operations of Gramatan Travel to Larchmont as well (the Bronxville location is still open by appointment). That strategy brought Natalie Faggianelli to the Larchmont location, providing Nichuals with a strong day-to-day operations manager who freed her up to plot the long-term vision of the company.
“Natalie has made a big difference,” says Nichuals.
Today, the agency has nine inside staff, including support and sales, and 20 outside independent contractors, all of them experts in what they do. Nichuals is right in the mix, working as a frontline travel advisor even as she’s appearing on TV and managing a $9 million business.
“I absolutely am a working owner and a chief cook and bottle washer,” she says with a laugh.
She’s able to do it all, thanks to the creation of two roles within the agency, a client-relations manager and a travel concierge, who plan and execute the details of the itineraries Bayside’s travel advisors craft for their clients, freeing them up to keep selling. And what details they are. The travel concierge is a party planner for those taking celebratory trips (think hiring bands for mega-events and renting yachts for private soirees); she also secures dinner reservations, spa appointments and cabana rentals. “She works with the concierge at the property, gets it all done and sends the client off with a complete itinerary,” says Nichuals.
The client-relations manager handles travel insurance documents and VIP clients; she’s also the agency’s liaison with Virtuoso, the luxury consortia Bayside Travel has belonged to for 10 years. (“Moving to Larchmont and joining Virtuoso are two of the best moves I ever made,” she says).
“She makes special requests, such as connecting rooms,” says Nichuals, who is very careful to explain to her clients the roles that the relations manager and concierge will play. Nichuals personally follows up with her clients two to three weeks prior to their departure after she’s regrouped with her staff concierge and client-relations manager to ensure everything is ready to go.
The strategy truly makes Bayside different. “It’s one of the things that makes us stand out,” says Nichuals, who tells us that one of her clients takes an annual birthday trip, bringing along eight couples each time; one year he rented a private island to celebrate. More everyday vacations include multigenerational itineraries and custom trips to Europe.
The agency’s clients are located all over the country, besides Westchester and Queens. “We do a tremendous amount of referral business; I would say 80 percent of our new clients are from referrals,” Nichuals says. Clients are “going everywhere,” she reports, from Argentina to Vietnam, Cambodia and Bhutan.
Nichuals works closely with an outside marketing manager who assists with local campaigns to promote the agency’s festive annual travel show at the Pelham Country Club, where suppliers purchase booth space at different levels of membership. About 100 affluent clients and extremely strong prospective customers are invited to meet with 25 hand-selected luxury travel suppliers, who typically sign up for the following year’s event while they’re still on site. Over the years, it’s turned into one of “the” events of the year.
“It’s quite a party,” says Nichuals.
Promoting Bayside Travel is an ongoing effort, and includes running ads in local papers using testimonials and photos of clients who have just returned from a vacation. “People like to talk about what they’ve done, and they like to endorse things that have been really, really good,” says Nichuals.
On the agency’s Facebook page, clients post laudatory notes (Thank you! We had such an amazing time! We loved each destination for different reasons, the people and the water in Croatia was incredible…We can’t thank you enough for putting this all together for us. No wonder you’re the best in Westchester!). Bayside Travel features its advisors on Facebook at every opportunity, whether they’re on a fam, leading a spa group or at a conference; Nichuals’ TV appearances are also promoted prominently.
There’s great activity on this page but Nichuals insists that the agency isn’t going full force into social networking. (“I think my core clients are comfortable with the way we communicate with them and quite frankly, my goal for the company is to have fewer clients,” she says.) Her advisors write articles when they return from trips and publish them in local newspapers positioning themselves as experts. Links to the articles are posted on Facebook and the agency’s website, which has the enviable URL, www.luxurytravelservice.com. Recent blogs on the site focused on advisor visits to Myanmar, Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, Antigua and Peru.
To fine-tune the agency’s portfolio to include clients with a higher spend, Nichuals holds regular meetings with her advisors to cheer them on, particularly encouraging them to charge fees.
“I tell them, ‘You are remarkable!,’” pointing out that the advice of a travel consultant who has been on 27 cruises is worth much more than the lone consumer who has posted a review on Trip Advisor or Cruise Critic.
Bayside Travel’s advisors took a “Deep Dive” with Virtuoso trainer, Helen Nodland, last year; that was a move Nichuals says dramatically opened up the lines of communication among the agency’s team. Coming out of that process with Nodland left the agency feeling “fully empowered,” and spurred its advisors to confer regularly with each other on their client interactions.
“We have to raise the bar because we are consultants and in order to raise our fees, we have to feel really comfortable and confident,” says Nichuals. “Now, everyone feels very much that they have value.”
That great energy and attitude come at a time when consumers are realizing the value a good travel advisor brings to the table.
Nichuals cites a client who recently e-mailed her after a hiatus of 12 years.
“Where have you been?” Nichuals asked her. The client told her she’d had two children since Bayside Travel had planned her honeymoon. That seemed fair enough. “But why are you coming back?” asked Nichuals.
“Because there are so many choices out there and I’m confused and I’m overwhelmed,” was her response.
“This is the prevailing sentiment today and this is what we’re trying to hit on with our marketing, that we’re here to vet the choices,” says Nichuals. She and her team welcome the fact that clients have already done extensive research before they begin a consultation. “They might have looked at five hotels in Anguilla, but I’m going to tell them which ones I’ve been to and which ones are not right for them. Or I’ll tell them about the resorts on Turks and Caicos that I sell all the time, and then I’ll inform them about a resort they haven’t even thought of. That’s what we do,” she says.
The Internet is no longer a threat to Nichuals, who says the fear once was if the agency gave clients the names of possible hotels to stay in, they’d just go off and book them on their own.
This is where Nichuals also appreciates her relationship with Virtuoso, whose hotel program provides add-on amenities. “We tell clients up front that we’re going to give them five hotels to look at, but, while they’re checking them out online, to remember that when they book with Bayside Travel they’re also going to get breakfast or will probably get upgraded. We set them up for that feeling that by working with us, they’ll have all the advantages,” says Nichuals.
On a regular basis, she and her team do a recap of successes and challenges. “Honestly, that’s my favorite part of the week,” says Nichuals. “That’s really where I get to coach, where I get to mentor my team.”
Nichuals doesn’t travel constantly as many luxury travel owners do; she’s raising two teenage boys and feels it’s important to be home with them as much as possible. When they do travel as a family, they love sun and sand; one of their beloved resorts is Half Moon in Jamaica. Nichuals’ passion for the place shows through; the agency is regularly named as a top producer for the resort.
For this agency owner, a typical day includes checking e-mail before coming to the office (“I feel I’m managing my day better; I do it in the same vein of managing my money in the morning, that’s how I manage the business,” she says.) Once the work day begins, she and her team might be paid a number of visits from suppliers passing through Westchester to present their latest offerings. And then Nichuals will pull away from the day-to-day to focus on the bigger picture to move the business forward, whether it’s designing newspaper ads, speaking with her IT person about a new technology strategy she’d like to launch, or considering what she wants the future of Bayside Travel to look like.
“To me, this has always been my baby and the more that I can pull away, the more that I can say, ‘Okay, what should I do? What’s the new thing that I’m going to tell a client about?’” Nichuals says.
As she wraps up 2014, Nichuals sees the momentum of good things continuing to evolve at Bayside Travel. “The excitement is that we have the right formula. I have a vision and I want to see this vision fulfilled. And we’re getting there,” she says with a smile.