Meet Travel Agent Magazine's Top 25 Travel Agents of 2012

 

Linda Androlia
Linda Androlia

Linda Androlia

Sunstone Tours & Cruises

Malibu, CA

As an expert in small-ship adventure cruises, Linda Androlia has become the top agent in the nation in terms of revenue for many small-ship operators. She also writes for the Niche Cruise Marketing Association, teaching other agents how to sell the small-ship product and is a member of Vacation.com.

When her top (and favorite) small-ship supplier went out of business in what she calls “an unethical manner,” Androlia faced some tough challenges. “Protecting my booked clients, dealing with unsuspecting clients who were still asking for the product was a learning experience,” she says. “I had to learn the ins and outs of insurance, credit card refunds as well as the government organizations which were set up to protect the cruise industry from such issues.” The plus side, she adds, is that her clients became fiercely loyal to her when she went to bat for them.

A memorable trip she once arranged was for a couple who had traveled with her before. The wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer and for a final trip, they wanted to go to Alaska. “They had to check blood levels to adjust daily meds on the ship; it was coordinated by myself and the doctor.” The patient did so well that they wanted to extend and go to Russia. In need of a visa and more medications, “it took a village” to coordinate it all, but they were able to continue their cruise for another 10 days.

Jacinta McEvoy, VP sales, Lindblad Expeditions, says that Androlia is Lindblad’s No. 1 individual selling agent. “Her knowledge and customer service skills create a relationship with [her clients] that lasts. She supports all of this with strategic marketing tactics, and online and social media prowess.” 

 

Jennifer Byrne
Jennifer Byrne

Jennifer Byrne

The Tropical Travelers

Malvern, PA

Jennifer Byrne entered the travel business in 1994 and shepherded her company through the challenges posed by the shift toward online travel booking by repositioning herself as a travel expert in the online community. 

“In the late 90s walk-in business waned so I began to experiment with using e-mail and the Internet to attract clients,” Byrne says. “Over the next three years, I took a few calculated risks [and] it paid off! My name was quickly picked up among popular first-generation user-generated content websites like AllExperts.com and theknot.com. And in 2001 I launched a 100 percent virtual agency called The Tropical Travelers.” The agency is a member of Ensemble Travel Group.

Her favorite trip was a 25th anniversary she planned at CuisinArt Resort in Anguilla. “We crafted an amazing itinerary including seaside dining, live music from Bankie Banx on the beach, a romantic dinner on a private yacht and plenty of sightseeing. When I talked to the GM of the hotel to see how everything went on their end, I was advised by quite a few members of the staff that they have never had such a vibrant and well-loved couple in-house and had a wonderful time hosting them.”

“Jennifer has shown professionalism, integrity and knowledge in the industry and is well respected by all of her customers and suppliers,” says Sue Sheehan, director of sales, northeast region, Travel Impressions. “Jennifer was also named as The Best of the Best with Travel Impressions for the past seven years. She develops new business, repeat customers and is an expert in group business.”

Valarie Contrino
Valarie Contrino

Valarie Contrino

Contrino Travel

Staten Island, NY

Valarie Contrino started as a part-time outside sales agent for a brick-and-mortar business just before 9/11 changed the industry—and the world—forever. “On each leg of my journey [of] being a travel consultant, I have faced one adversity after another,” she says. In April 2008, she quit her job as an insurance broker to focus on her agency, which she established in February 2005. “Each subsequent year has brought significant growth and sales are currently just under the $1,000,000 mark,” she says. “To others, this might not be a great feat, but to me, having had no official education in the hospitality industry, other than my CTA studies, I feel [very] accomplished.” Her proudest accomplishment is teaching “How to Start Your Own Home-Based Travel Agency” at a college in Staten Island. 

While Hawaii may seem like a fairly simple destination to organize travel to, Contrino remembers difficulties when arranging a honeymoon to the islands. “Here was a couple who had different wish lists—he likes the sun and water and she, being pale and not the ‘fun in the sun type,’ was looking for more adventure. He wanted more R&R and she wanted a little more action!” Contrino arranged for them to fly nonstop to Honolulu and to stay in Ko Olina, Oahu, “satisfying his need for R&R, but within close proximity of Waikiki. From there, they flew to Maui where they stayed at the Four Seasons—ultimate luxury.”

Waldo Carmenate of MLT Vacations notes that Contrino is a STAR member of MLT, and that since partnering with her, Contrino Travel’s revenues have “catapulted,” which Carmenate credits to Contrino’s hard work and commitment.

Michelle Cunningham
Michelle Cunningham

Michelle Cunningham

MEI-Travel

Montclair, VA

Michelle Cunningham has been a home-based agent for 20 years—“which has never hindered my love of selling travel, but did not come without true commitment to balance and multi-tasking,” she says. She believes in immersing herself in the world, especially the destinations she considers her specialties. “This means looking for the newest trends, reading trade press, and—importantly—keeping up with current technology and media.” She takes extra steps to be sure that her clients can keep traveling in spite of missed air connections and unexpected storms. “I’m still excited every day to go to work,” she says. “There are many more destinations to still explore.”

But learning has its curve, and Cunningham freely acknowledges that she nearly ruined a client’s trip by forgetting to call in a final payment to a cruise line. “First step was admitting my error,” she says, “then relying on our relationship with my agency and the supplier to help me fix the problem.” All together, the team was able to find a cabin for the client on a sold-out sailing four days away. “We all worked for about 24 hours together to find a solution and not disappoint the client [who, by the way, had no idea what happened]. The supplier came through for me and we got the clients on their way!” 

Jeannie McGinnis of Azamara Club Cruises says that Cunningham is a valuable liaison between Azamara and the MEI-Travel sales team. “She helps me to understand their needs and what will motivate her travel consultants to sell us,” she says.

Karyn Farr
Karyn Farr

Karyn Farr

Cadence

La Jolla, CA

“I’m passionate about travel and believe that the best way to serve my customers is to provide personalized, first-hand experience,” says Karyn Farr. “I travel all over the world on unique adventures so I can safely and wholeheartedly give information about each step of the trip to my customers.” The personal approach has worked well for her since she first got into the business 10 years go, building her reputation to the point where most of her clients come to her by word of mouth.

Her clients, she feels, are her friends. “They come from all over the world at all budget levels.” Not only that, but she considers her vendors to be friends as well. “They come through for me time and again with products to provide a ‘WOW’ factor. We are a team—and we work together as friends do.” 

After learning about Farr’s adventures in India, a client said, “I’ll have what you had.” But there was a catch: She wanted it with her favorite vendor. “My client described her perfect trip: staying in luxury hotels and former palaces to be pampered like a princess; touring historical sites; and getting the spiritual feel of Varanasi and the Indian culture. I then worked with a luxury company’s FIT specialist and we ended up with the perfect itinerary filled with history, culture and pampering.”

Rather than listing accolades, Stephanie Troulman, a client, simply expressed sympathy for any traveler who does not have Farr as an agent. 

 

Marcy Gelber
Marcy Gelber

Marcy Gelber

Travel By Marcy @ Travel 100 Group

Northbrook, IL

Marcy Gelber uses her 20 years of experience as a teacher to help her plan specialist itineraries: FIT, family and multigenerational travel, and MICE travel. 

“There is very little difference between a lesson plan and an itinerary,” Gelber says. “I live, breathe and work travel, and love to talk about travel wherever I am [and] love to educate my clients on their upcoming experiences.”

Marcy organized one of her favorite trips for a young man who wanted to take his girlfriend to Italy and propose to her there. “Being able to coordinate with the hotel to arrange a fabulous picnic lunch and a private boat to take them to a secluded side of Capri was truly wonderful,” Gelber says.

“I have known Marcy for her entire career as a travel agent,” says client Dr. Marc Feder. “I have trusted her with securing arrangements for not only myself and my family, but for groups as large as 1,300 and as small as 50. In all instances she served her clients diligently and conscientiously, with warmth, sensitivity and humor. Her professionalism is beyond reproach as is her integrity.”

“Marcy has worked with me for several years and when dealing with her clients she certainly wants us to deliver the best in every way,” says Sheri Fazleabas, president of A & S Journeys. “Further, she always follows up on her clients even while they are traveling. Negotiates hard too...I would highly recommend her services to the many areas she offers.”

Jessica Griscavage
Jessica Griscavage

Jessica Griscavage 

McCabe World Travel

McLean, VA 

Time, Griscavage believes, is a client’s most important asset, and should be treated with utmost care. “Planning vacations requires knowledge of who the clients are and making sure their trip fits who they are,” she says. 

As such, she feels her role is important—but, she acknowledges, many younger travelers don’t understand the value of agents. “They grew up on the Internet with instant satisfaction and information within seconds,” she says. “Frequently, I hear, ‘Why should I use a travel agent?’ or ‘Do they even exist anymore?’ ” While this can be frustrating, she takes it in her stride. “I explain that we can offer value and amenities they cannot receive themselves, and always like to remind my clients that they can’t be VIP themselves. The great part about this group is they will tell everyone about you.”

She is especially proud of an itinerary she created that involved planning a “surprise” trip to Paris for a couple—and 26 of their friends and family. What the wife thought would be a romantic escape for two turned into a getaway for 28 when they arrived for a dinner. “Incredible events were planned to include a private dinner cruise, a trip to the Loire Valley where we arranged biking tours, and hot air balloon rides. The week ended with a medieval banquet at a chateau.”

Kristy Poirier, account director, Travel Industry Sales at Four Seasons, has worked with Griscavage for seven years, and describes her as “passionate, motivated, educated and creative...The best part about Jessica is [that] she has so much more to offer the travel industry as she is young in her career and dedicated to both the client and the hotels.”

Melissa Gutting
Melissa Gutting

Melissa Gutting 

Travel Leaders Suntime Travel 

River Falls, WI 

Beyond assisting clients with their trips, Gutting also works as her agency’s social media guru, having developed the business’ blog and Facebook page from scratch. (She still maintains them.) She also assists with agent training, and has still managed to be one of Travel Leaders Suntime Travel’s top two agents every year. “I am constantly trying to find new ways to develop this ever-changing business, and also to change the way I do business with my clients,” she says. 

Gutting feels that one of the greatest challenges to being a successful agent over the past 10 years has been the Internet—which, she acknowledges, she uses as a business tool. “I do not see online agencies as my competition anymore, as I can offer more than they can.” In fact, Gutting appreciates clients who look online for tour ideas. “I also add my expertise and together, as a team, we make their trip come together perfectly.”

Several years ago, Gutting had clients who wanted to take an extensive trip to New Zealand, and she worked diligently to pull it together. “Approximately three weeks prior to their departure date, the earthquake hit Christchurch”—a city on the itinerary. “I worked with the tour operator and hotel contacts along with the clients and rearranged their entire vacation in approximately 48 hours.” Ultimately, the trip was a huge success. 

Kathy Mehring of Funjet Vacations says that Gutting “is willing to adapt to the changes in this industry and is always finding new and exciting ways to promote travel within her agency and community. Her love of travel is evident when you work with her.”

Melissa Harmon
Melissa Harmon

Melissa Harmon 

Beach Bum Vacation

Fishers, IN 

Harmon specializes in destination wedding groups, corporate incentive groups, and luxury honeymoons and vacations. “I consider myself a travel concierge,” she says. “I listen to the needs and wants of my clients and match them with the destination that suits them best.” To fit their needs, she shares her personal experiences and walks them through the travel process “to ease their concerns.”

Since starting in the travel industry seven years ago, Harmon has consistently been one of the top sales people within her company. “We firmly believe it’s important to see a destination in order to sell it. That’s why I make it a priority to perform resort site inspections and develop relationships with the management. I thoroughly interview my clients to make sure I am matching them with the destination of their dreams.”

One of the greatest challenges Harmon says she faces is when clients are afraid to travel to Mexico (one of her personal favorite destinations) because of the violence. “Unfortunately the media does not properly portray the isolated locations where a majority of the violence is happening and the vast distance they are from almost all the major tourist beach destinations,” she says. To fix this, she shares articles, maps, and testimonials from other clients as well as her own personal travel experiences. “It usually eases their fears,” she says.

Ashley Hunter used Harmon to arrange a destination wedding. “From the beginning, she was very professional and informative on the services she could provide not only to us, but more importantly to our guests,” she says. “She was very quick to respond to any e-mails/phone calls.”

Daniela Harrison
Daniela Harrison

Daniela Harrison 

Avenues of the World Travel

Flagstaff, AZ 

It’s been a good year for Daniela Harrison: In November of last year, she was named one of Travel Agent’s Top 35 Under 30. Not bad for a woman who has only been an agent for two years. 

Looking to revive her agency and the industry at large, Harrison refreshed her agency’s marketing strategy and is working with other young agents. “When I first started, there wasn’t much new business coming in,” she recalls. So Harrison spent a year on public outreach and renewing the agency’s social media approach, as well as focusing on the luxury clients she wanted to work with. By attending events they attended and joining their service clubs, she was able to bring in new and profitable business.

But being a young agent is also a challenge. “I have only been in the industry for two years, and standing out amongst [agents with] 30-50+ years’ experience can be hard,” she acknowledges. “Especially when dealing with luxury clients, age can play a very deciding factor. I have had clients that just wouldn’t believe what I told them until my boss vouched for my validity. Clients used to look at me and thought I was too young to know what I’m talking about.” To get her name—and her expertise—out in the community, Harrison started hosting a monthly travel talk in town, where she shares different destinations and travel opportunities. 

Carrie Johnson, a client, says that Harrison “reaches far beyond logistics taking special care in the smallest details.” And, she adds, “It’s the small details that matter most in our memories of our trips!”

 

Heather Howe
Heather Howe

Heather Howe

Travel By Heather/CWT Vacations

Wayzata, MN

Howe has worked with some of her clients for more than 15 years, and is especially proud that she kept all of them throughout the recession. Focusing on both business travel and family trips, she frequently plans leisure escapes for her corporate clients. 

The greatest challenge in Howe’s career, she says, was the aftermath of 9/11. “While the nation was in fear, mourning and shock, I had to put on a strong face to make sure my clients across the nation and world were safe and taken care of,” she remembers. “It was one of the first times I witnessed fear, not just frustration, in my clients’ faces and voices. Though I felt completely helpless, I stuck with my clients and advised them on the best routes home, how to best handle the situation, got [them] rental cars and managed to keep everyone calm.” 

Tim Frederick of Delta feels that there are few travel agents who can rival Howe’s business skills. “In my role, I quickly became aware of Heather’s technical customer service skills. Her customers are loyal and dedicated to her for a reason. She never has asked for help resolving an error because she hasn’t made any.” Brent Harris, a client, appreciates Howe’s skill at making sure his trips are worry-free. “After the travel has been booked, it’s important to me to be able to get the agent on the phone, and she has never let me down. She is cognizant of my travel budgets and keeps my bottom line intact and for that I am extremely grateful.”

John Johnstonbaugh
John Johnstonbaugh

John Johnstonbaugh

BCD Travel

Phoenix

Johnstonbaugh feels that communication is the key to success in a travel agency. “I carefully construct e-mails and commentary to my audience ensuring the proper message is being delivered in the proper manner,” he says. “I have a clear understanding that style [formal or informal] is instrumental to the delivery of the message.”

The biggest challenge Johnstonbaugh feels that he has faced is his age: “With an industry filled with so many knowledgeable, well-groomed agents, it’s hard to set a name for yourself without having multiple years in travel,” he says. “I am the youngest agent in my building, yet tenured agents regularly come to me for assistance on complicated matters. I have earned the trust and respect of co-workers by showing my drive and motivation, and the overall joy I have for the job.”

Brian Dean of General Dynamics says that Johnstonbaugh is in “a continuous search for efficiency to an already existing solution. He has the ability to view a process and determine whether there is a better way to the end result. These key qualities have played a significant role in making my day-to-day travel more efficient and enjoyable.”

Maureen Jones
Maureen Jones

Maureen Jones

All Horizons Travel

Los Altos, CA

Maureen Jones has traveled to more than 120 countries and has taken 100 cruises. In addition, she is a certified specialist for 39 countries, including the South Pacific, New Zealand, Canada, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

And beyond all of this, Jones has taught travel marketing at a California college for 15 years and contributed articles to local newspapers and magazines (including Travel Agent and its sister publication Luxury Travel Advisor). “I share my expertise,” she says. “I give advice regularly on the Signature Travel Network Bulletin Board to agents who haven’t had my training.” She has also lectured on several countries at the Signature Travel Network Annual Conference to more than 3,000 agents.

This would be impressive in and of itself, but Jones is also a survivor of a potentially deadly accident. “I was thrown out of a white-water raft in New Zealand 15 years ago,” she recalls. She survived the accident, but not without severe head injuries. “One hospital said they couldn’t save me. Stanford hospital operated and asked me to keep myself happy while they did surgery. They needed me conscious. I told them I was going to lecture on Australia and New Zealand—which I did for nine hours. Then I had a stroke.” Recovery took more than a year, and she still has side effects. “Prayers from travel industry colleagues helped me recover,” she says.

Mark Punshon, vice president of Travel2 (which focuses on Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific), calls Jones’ dedication to the South Pacific region “unprecedented.” Praising her educational efforts as well, he calls her “a big player in terms of creating people’s dreams and turning them into reality. She does her part for our part of the world.” 

Shari Kavalin
Shari Kavalin

Shari Kavalin

Your Smart Vacation/Palm Coast Travel

Lighthouse Point, FL

Shari Kavalin jumped into travel full-time after 30 years in the mortgage business, and she had to navigate the challenge of learning a brand-new skill set to earn the trust of her clients. 

“My biggest challenge was that I had long been a trusted advisor to my clients, and was reluctant to act in any profession without having those skills,” Kavalin says. “Not having the luxury to start part-time, I immersed myself in as much training as I could get, affiliated myself with hosts with strong consortium involvement, and networked. I jumped into social media, using it to hear what clients, peers, suppliers and travelers were saying. Hard work was the easy part!”

One of Kavalin’s recent favorite trips was a California Wine Country itinerary. Shortly after the trip, Cline Cellars in Napa said to her on Twitter, “I think [your clients] had your lists of places for them to go with them when they came in. Your clients adore you and were happy with all the places you suggested. They really appreciate you.”

“Shari was an absolute pleasure to work with as we planned our two-week European vacation. Her expertise armed her with the trusted recommendations we needed,” says client Natasha Sanchez. “She’s that kind of professional who not only finds you the perfect product, but delivers top-notch service.”

Matt Knowles
Matt Knowles

Matt Knowles

Sea Escape Travel

Folsom, CA

Knowles is a four-time recipient of Tourism Australia “Opal Award” for excellence and a New Zealand Kiwi Specialist of the Year (2009-10). And now he is learning all about Africa. “I think the Africa safaris cross well with those trips I have sold for Australia,” he muses.

Education helps Knowles create the best vacation for his clients. “I create unique itineraries [rarely from a brochure]. I always include something that they do not expect to make their escape even better.” To that end, he contacts the operators and/or hoteliers and asks for VIP treatment. “Whenever possible for local clients, I come to their home to discuss their upcoming trip to make it even more personalized and special. I want them to feel comfortable and spoiled.”

One very memorable trip he created started with a flight in upgraded Premium Economy class to Australia, then a helicopter to Heron Island for three nights, followed by three nights at Wilson Island. Next it was on to Sydney for three nights (with a private yacht harbor cruise), then a train to the Blue Mountains and a three–night stay at Wolgan Valley Resort. The clients took a private car back to Sydney and flew to Kangaroo Island for four nights at Southern Ocean Lodge. They spent a final night in Melbourne before their Business Class transpacific flight home. 

“I don’t think it’s possible to be more passionate about the South Pacific than Matt,” comments Kirk Demeter, president of Down Under Answers. “His enthusiasm is infectious. He’s continually made efforts to become more educated, by attending trade shows, traveling Down Under [and] participating in webinars.”

 

Patti Lehman
Patti Lehman

Patti Lehman

Covington Travel

Fort Wayne, IN

In the 17 years that she has been in the travel business, Patti Lehman has developed a client base that has continually come back for her advice on their vacations and the destinations they want to visit or experience. “I pay attention to the details,” she says, which can include booking restaurant reservations, private tours, tee times, spa appointments, private transfers and finding private access to some of the most wonderful museums or works of art in the world.

Lehman says that her greatest challenge when she started out was working with a company whose president and founder was in a wheelchair. “Finding destinations in this country and all over the world where he could have wheelchair access and take his top salesmen wasn’t always easy—but we did it,” she says. “He was able to have a private tour of the Vatican in Rome and do a private excursion to Kusadasi with the research and companies I found through Virtuoso.”

Kim Westhoff, director of luxury accounts for Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts and Conrad Hotels & Resorts, calls Lehman “one of the most professional individuals I work with in the Virtuoso network…She is always very friendly, helpful, dedicated and extremely detail-oriented on every trip she plans.”

Lisa Long

The Lisa Long Agency An Independent Affiliate of Avoya Travel/American Express

Marietta, GA

A specialist in luxury and river cruises, Lisa Long won Avoya Travel’s “Best of the Best” award in 2011 and 2012 just two years after joining the host agency. She signed on with Avoya out of a desire to transition from selling group cruises exclusively to creating individual travel itineraries as well.

Lisa Long
Lisa Long

“I was booking cruises for groups and wanted to start selling individual travel,” Long says. “My challenge was finding a client base. I loved being a travel consultant and helping customers; however, I didn’t enjoy or excel at marketing myself, so I looked for a business partnership. To maximize success I participated in educational and product webinars and used my host’s technology to stay organized. Within two years my host awarded me as one of their top agencies.”

Long has also been recognized as a “Top Producer” for Allianz Travel Insurance, Crystal Cruises, Cunard Line, Regent Seven Seas, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Silversea. 

“Lisa Long is a Silversea Cruises top producer. She brings an abundant number of ‘new to Silversea’ guests to us,” says Nancy Gonzales, regional sales director, Silversea Cruises.

“Lisa loves to cruise and her enthusiasm is infectious,” says client Judy Toensmeier. “She helped me develop my love of travel. She is a warm and giving person, and loves working with people.”

Jenny Mikkelson
Jenny Mikkelson

Jenny Mikkelson

Travel Beyond

Wayzata, MN

Jenny Mikkelson is vice president of sales at Travel Beyond, an affiliate of Signature Travel Network, where she streamlined her company’s airline booking process to allow the company to focus on its core business: designing custom itineraries. 

“I was often frustrated by the time required to book tickets through our airline reservation systems, as I felt like my time could be better spent on the custom details of itineraries,” Mikkelson says. “Because our company has a cooperative approach to travel planning, we implemented an internal air department to handle ticketing, which allows me more time to design itineraries and lessens my stress over airline quoting and ticketing.”

Mikkelson is an Africa specialist who has been to the continent twice in the past six months alone. Her favorite Africa trip is a five-week driving itinerary she designed for a couple headed to South Africa, which included a safari in Kruger National Park, KwaZulu-Natal, the coast of the Eastern Cape and a stay in Cape Town

“We have used Jenny and Travel Beyond for five years,” says client Jan Thome. “We have been absolutely pleased with our trips around the world planned with Jenny. She is passionate about her profession and always has the ‘client first’ approach to meet and exceed our expectations.”

Joshua Monahan
Joshua Monahan

Joshua Monahan

Cruises and Tours Unlimited

Jacksonville, FL

Joshua Monahan has been around the travel business since he was five years old. “Being chosen as one of [Travel Agent’s] top 30 agents under 30 last year only made my passion stronger,” he says. “Being one of the ‘young bucks’ only means I have my finger on the pulse of the most modern technologies to help sharpen my skills. Social media, video chats with clients across the country…help me stay connected with the ever-changing travel landscape.”

The greatest challenge for all agents—“unfortunately,” he adds—is each other. “With all of the rebates, discounting and competition…it is difficult to keep a profit when clients are putting us all against each other. To win that battle, I find honesty is the key. Making sure that the clients feel I am being truthful with them and valuing them as a person and not just a paycheck makes them want to book with me. Sometimes you have to know where to cut your losses and tell the client that the other deal is better, but that other agent will not treat you as well as I will can in turn win them over.”

A dream trip, he adds, is not always the biggest vacation for the most money. “Just last month, a young man came to me and told me his story. His father had lost his job, his mother was working as a substitute teacher, and he was supporting his family. His little sister was getting ready to graduate high school, and he knew his mother needed a vacation. With what little money he had I was able to find the perfect four-night cruise for his mother and sister! This made his dream a reality.”

Ted Knight of Princess Cruises and Cunard Line feels that Monahan “is a perfect example of a consummate professional. He embraces the opportunity to plan the perfect vacation for a client and his industry knowledge sets him apart from the typical travel agent. Joshua’s vast experience and attention to detail guarantees his clients receive the best vacation—at the best price, customized to their specific needs.”

Sue Ratliff
Sue Ratliff

Sue Ratliff

Sea the World Cruises & Tours An Independent Affiliate of Avoya Travel/American Express

Athens, Texas

Sue Ratliff uses technology and organization to deliver 24/7 support to her customers while maintaining her personal life and travel. 

“I accomplish work/life balance by having an assistant, dedicated office space and business lines at home, an iPhone for e-mail, and iPad for Internet connection globally,” Ratliff says. “For example, I answered my phone at 11 p.m. to find a frantic client who was at risk of not making his cruise departure after missing an airline connection. I could hear the relief in his voice when I assured him I would take charge of the situation. 

“Using technology allows me to take three or four cruises a year so I can provide first-hand knowledge about the products I sell, and ultimately offer better customer service,” she says.

Ratliff’s favorite trip to put together was a visit to the Cappadocia Caves in Turkey for a client who wanted to visit the lands of her ancestors. Ratliff surprised the client with a two-night stay at a hotel in the caves and a balloon tour of the surrounding mountains. 

“Sue is the ultimate professional and immediately responds to her clients’ requests,” says Leslie Marshall, district sales manager, Crystal Cruises. “She is one of Crystal Cruises’ top travel professionals.”

 

Ann Hu Roth
Ann Hu Roth

Ann Hu Roth

Side By Side Tours Inc.

East Norwich, NY

Ann Hu Roth says that her specialty is in high-end luxury custom group travel. “No two trips are alike,” she says, adding that she has arranged trips to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Middle East, Africa, the Arctic and Antarctica.

Roth feels that her job is to be at her clients’ side through every stage of planning, from itineraries to selecting the wines being paired with dinners. A recent trip she takes pride in was a multi-country safari trip throughout Africa, from Victoria Falls to Cape Town. “The experience was top-notch all the way and gave the clients the perfect blend of safari and luxury,” she recalls. “We were able to capture the essence of Africa’s diverse landscape in lavish style and comfort—which was challenging in remote locations.”

But Roth has an extra hurdle facing her business: “I have no website, no advertising and almost no marketing other than word of mouth,” she says. “This is all intentional. Long ago, I made the decision to put 110 percent of myself into a select group of clients rather than cast a wide net to capture greater market share.” Collaborating through direct personal contact creates a relationship and experience that no website could achieve, she feels. “Exceeding their expectations has been my best sales tool and generated a loyal clientele comprising past travelers and their referrals.” 

Robert Cheng, a client, has traveled with his family under Roth’s guidance for several years to Africa, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East and even Antarctica. “Our trips are so unique and memorable,” he says. The best endorsement: The Chengs already have the next three trips planned.

April Schmitt
April Schmitt

April Schmitt

Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons

Granite Bay, CA

In just eight years, April Schmitt has grown Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons (an affiliate of Vacation.com) from a home-based hobby to a successful business—in 2011, Schmitt earned more than $1 million in sales volume. 

Schmitt specializes in destination weddings and honeymoons. Her favorite trip she ever organized is a $30,000 African safari. “[The clients] wanted to be as close to the big game as possible so I selected lodges that offered the up close experiences with elephants and hippos and giraffes,” Schmitt says. “We chartered helicopters and private planes between resorts and for game watching. They sent me an amazing 43-page review with photos and details of their vacation. It was just the coolest trip that I would love to do myself one day.”

“We have had the pleasure of working with April over the last several years on many individual and wedding groups,” says Ally Berry, groups manager at Pleasant Holidays. “April is an intelligent, strong business woman who demonstrates the highest level of professionalism.”

Stephanie Turner
Stephanie Turner

Stephanie Turner

Brentwood Travel 

St. Louis

Stephanie Turner has over 39 years of experience in the travel industry, 20 of which have been as a board member at Ensemble Travel Group. In that time she has used her broad experience to contribute to the education of the next generation of travel professionals.

“This business has given me an opportunity to see the world as few others have seen it, and I truly believe I’ve brought my passion for the travel industry to many,” Turner says. “I had a travel school for many years and now serve on two educational advisory boards. I spent many years teaching others about this industry always looking toward the future. I am second generation and my daughter is now third generation, creating a future for the travel industry of tomorrow.”

During her career, Turner has weathered the major economic downturns following 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis by involving her employees in the tough decisions her company has faced.

“This is always difficult because people’s lives are involved, but Brentwood Travel has survived 55 years by sometimes making the hard decisions,” Turner says. “We have many long-term employees and they have worked with us through the most difficult times.” During such downturns agents need to “do the most marketing and reaching out to your clientele,” she says.

“I’ve known Stephanie since 1991 when I served as her RCCL DSM,” says Galen Matthews, director of sales for Royal Caribbean International. “She’s creative, hard working and promotes the travel industry in a positive way. She created a scholarship fund at our local college for education in travel.”

Roy Twiste
Roy Twiste

Roy Twiste

Travel Leaders

New York City

Roy Twiste started as a travel agent in 2000, when, he says, the industry was in the doldrums. Airline commissions were eliminated for most agencies, and while online bookings were booming for consumers, many agents considered the Internet to be their worst enemy. “I felt that the Internet was not our enemy, but could be our best friend, if you learn how to stroke it,” he says.

When talking with clients, Twiste likes to tell them that he is their “Personal Human Search Engine.” He also works with local businesses to help promote exposure. “As a result of hosting a Luxury Travel Show for the consumer every two years, I always remain visible as a knowledgeable person of travel. In fact, this past event that I hosted, the first booking that evolved for a new customer that attended the show [was] for $125,990.”

Twiste organized a dream trip last year: a round-the-world excursion starting in Orlando to Peru, then Australia, Cambodia, Tanzania and India. The total trip encompassed 22 days.

Twiste says that a current client called him to say that he turned in his Centurion Card. “I asked why, and he advised that I provided a better service—and was cheaper.”

David Walsh
David Walsh

David Walsh

CWCruises An Independent Affiliate of Avoya Travel/American Express

Bradenton, FL

David Walsh is one of Avoya’s top commission earners and maintains an average 9.5 out of 10 customer survey ranking and a high repeat customer percentage. He generates these numbers by lavishing personal attention on his clients, such as when he designed a dream trip to Europe for a client approaching retirement.

“My client was thinking of taking a river cruise of Germany in celebration of the big milestone,” Walsh says. “I spent a lot of time working with him over the phone, and I learned he had never visited Northern Italy and Switzerland, and would very much like to do so some time. I ended up arranging a river cruise along the Rhine and also coordinated escorted tours of Northern Italy and Switzerland to bookend his trip. I was happy to transform my client’s retirement celebration into a month-long dream vacation!”

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with superb travel agents and I can say that David is one of the industry’s best,” says Nancy Gonzales, regional sales director, Silversea Cruises. “His careful attention to each client and dedication to providing the highest level of customer service are qualities dear to Silversea Cruises, and make him an exemplary ‘Top Agent.’ ”

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