Top 25 Agents of 2011

What makes a top travel agent? Is it something easy to measure—sales volume, perhaps? Or is it something less tangible— pure dedication and willingness to go above and beyond for a client? Or is it some combination of the two?

Looking to find answers to this query, Travel Agent invited our readers to tell us why they were the top of their field. Some agents were home-based and part of a larger parent company. Some were in small, independent businesses. Some were part of huge corporations. All of them had wonderful stories about the challenges and triumphs of being a travel agent, making it very difficult for us to select just 25.

But we narrowed it down, and here they are—Travel Agent magazine’s Top 25 Agents for 2011.

Craig Beal
Travel Beyond
Wayzata, MN

Craig Beal, CEO and owner of Travel Beyond, specializes in safaris, and credits his skilled and experienced team of safari consultants for his success.

“Collectively, we have visited just about every safari lodge that most Americans ask about,” Beal explains. “Two of our consultants managed the Africa department for our competitor before joining us. Two of our consultants have worked at lodges in Africa. One consultant was a guide in Botswana and South Africa (the actual guide driving the vehicle, not the escort). It is this group of experts that allows us to be extremely flexible and creative with our clients and offer them options they did not know existed. If I don’t know something, one of my coworkers does.”

Beal’s staff weathered the recent tough economic times. When repeat and referral business dropped from 80 percent of inquiries to only 50 percent, they launched “an all-out Internet and social media campaign” to grow his company despite the sluggish market. Their hard work paid off: Not only did they manage to increase their volume by 50 percent in 2009 versus 2008, their campaign garnered them a four-page story in Newsweek magazine in April 2009.

One of Beal’s clients praised his ability to find the exact accommodations they were looking for when none seemed available.

“Craig was a miracle worker and got us exactly what we wanted—with no sacrifices. It’s been years since I’ve worked with a travel agent and in today’s generation of Internet booking, I admit I was skeptical. But Craig proved us wrong.” 

Nancy Bogert
Cruise Planners
Williamsport, PA

Sometimes, the numbers speak for themselves. Nancy Bogert has been with Cruise Planners since 1996. For the past eight years, she has been their top agent and Millionaire’s Club Member. “With over 700 franchise owners at Cruise Planners, I have been number one agent for Princess Cruise Lines and Carnival Cruise Lines for almost 10 years,” she says.

She has also frequently been number one for Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Celebrity. Bogert bagged an Outstanding Achievement Award from Princess last year, has won the Carnival Pinnacle Club award twice, and Cruise Planners was once named Carnival’s Northeast Agency of the Year.

Such plaudits didn’t come by accident. Vicki Freed, SVP, sales and trade support & services for Royal Caribbean, says that Bogert “knows that the best vacations are ‘one size fits one,’ and she uses her extensive knowledge to tailor every experience specifically for the client she’s serving.”

Perhaps most impressive is that she has accomplished all of this while working from home.

“It was very difficult to convince people to book their cruise from someone working from their home,” she recalls of the early years. “They were not comfortable calling someone to book a cruise over the phone. I immediately got my certification just so I had something to tell or show people that I really was a qualified travel agent. I attended every Seminar at Sea, every inaugural, anything I could do to make sure I knew the products I was selling. Once I gained their trust, they’ve been coming back and sending referrals ever since.”

Kim Caudill
K & S Travel
Fort Wayne, IN

Kim Caudill believes that any agent who can increase business—almost doubling it—in a down economy has to be at the top of their game. “I found ways to create new business and new relationships,” she says. “I have been recognized as an expert in my niche and one of the best honeymoon agents in Indiana.”

Her greatest challenge, she says, is being a small fish in a big sea, “trying to compete with the bigger, more established agencies and making a name for myself.” Caudill has been in the industry for 18 years, but getting people to recognize an agent as an individual once they go out on their own is a battle, she says.

“I started my own agency 10 years ago, and getting people to trust a ‘new’ name is tough,” she explains, “Making the right decisions and partnering with the right tour operators, suppliers and host agencies have made me more successful, and I owe much of that to people who took a chance on me. You are only as small as you dream—so I dreamt big!”

Caudill certainly comes up big in the eyes of Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion, who says that what makes her exceptional is her willingness to share her expertise and encouragement with other Nexion agents who are interested in exploring a similar specialization. “She does not see them as competitors, and takes pride in helping others to become as successful as she is.”

John Clifford
International Travel
San Diego

A full-time travel industry professional since 1985, John Clifford feels that connection is key when dealing with clients. With the rise of what Clifford terms the “Internet information overload,” he takes the time to craft experiences around a personal knowledge of his clients’ interests.

He sees himself as an advisor who cuts the “noise and chatter” of online reviews and social media recommendations in order to deliver the unique experiences he knows his clients will really love.

“I always say that the value that I add is offering wisdom, which is the advice that comes along with the information,” says Clifford.
Clifford’s wisdom has served him well. After being honored in Travel Agent magazine’s “Meet the Next Generation” in 1994, he went on to become a Virtuoso travel advisor.

An example of his prowess is the dream trip to Cambodia he created for a professional photographer. Including a private visit and showing at the Le Popil Photo Gallery, which focuses on Cambodian photojournalism and art, Clifford arranged visits to Lake Tonle Bati, The Killing Fields, Ta Phrom and Yeah Peau temples and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

“[My client] had ample opportunity to photograph the simple, unchanged way of life,” says Clifford.

Jon Makhmaltchi of Small Luxury Hotels of the World says that Clifford is “not only a consistent top producer for the SLH brand, but also someone who is on the forefront of new design and boutique hotels, always looking out the the next big thing, long before it’s on the radar of mainstream travel magazines, or spoiled.”

Francis Contreras
Travelworld of Coronado
Coronado, CA

Francis Contreras opened Travelworld in 1979 and has been specializing in the “art of upscale leisure travel” ever since. “Many of my clients have been with me from the start, and we now service their children or even grandchildren,” she says. “One of the most sacred things to me is trust, and this is the main reason I believe I am one of the top in the business. It is not something you earn overnight, and it is something so fragile, it can be broken in an instant. My clients know that I will not only create the best possible trip for them, but that I will be there if something happens.”

A regular client echoes Contreras’ theme: “We trust her implicitly to find not only the best of what we want, but if something happens (like the Icelandic volcano), she is there.  We wouldn’t even consider letting anyone else handle our vacations.”

Contreras feels that people innately want to travel. As such, she says, the challenge lies not in convincing them, but in making sure that if an agent says it’s safe to go, it actually is safe to go.

“The role of the travel agent has changed drastically in the past 30 years,” she says, and world events “have separated the ‘mice from the men,’ as they say. It has made us even more prepared and stronger in that we have to be on top of every little thing, and we do it with the help of our ‘on-sites’ and suppliers, making sure we travel as much as we can, train and speak to our suppliers on a regular basis.”

Donna Evans
Andavo Travel
Greenwood Village, CO

As an agent specializing in travel to Australia and Africa, as well as adventure travel, eco-travel and sustainable tourism, Donna Evans puts a creative spin on each itinerary for her clients. This philosophy means putting aside any set notions she has about a destination and opening herself up to looking at it, and selling it, in new ways.

“Travel opens minds,” Evans says. “Mine is open to all new destinations.”

For example, Evans, for whom Australia is all about wildlife, scenery and culture, once had to design an itinerary to the land down under for a couple who were just not interested in those things. Despite Evans’ expertise in designing programs to Australia, this trip was a challenge because it forced her to consider a familiar place in a different light.

“Working with [this couple] forced me to look at the country in a completely new way.  Sometimes, when you sell a destination you can quit ‘thinking.’ I was determined to please this couple, finding the right combination of activities and experiences to make their vacation ‘theirs,’ not mine, and it would not work for anyone else.”

By going beyond her preconceptions about a place she knew so well, Evans was able to design that trip-of-a-lifetime that travel agents strive to provide for their clients.

Another client of Evans’ recently wrote her to say that their New Zealand trip went “like clock-work. We loved all of the activities, especially the Black Water Rafting and the Dart River Safari. Milford Sound was pretty spectacular as well.”

Jack Ezon
Ovation Travel
New York City

Ovation Travel President Jack Ezon relies on his network of personal connections to create experiences that appeal to a hip, Gen-X clientele. With a seat on several advisory boards, including Orient-Express, Fairmont, Sofitel, Virtuoso’s Next Gen committee and the Park Hyatt Leadership Forum, Ezon is well placed to form the kind of connections that lead to one-of-a-kind deals for his clients. Ezon describes his team of travel professionals, with an average age of 33, as “chic, trendy, in-the-know travel consultants with access to ‘it’ venues, fashion shows, celeb-parties, screenings and more.”

While most of his clients may be Gen-Xers, Ezon has extended his appeal to even younger generations. In one memorable event, Ezon choreographed a celebrity experience for a client’s 12-year-old daughter, who was a guitar player and an avid fan of a certain teen-sensation musical group.

“When the Jonas Brothers were playing at the Atlantis, we flew her extended family down [to the Bahamas] for her Bat Mitzvah celebration, where she not only got to meet with her favorite band, but she got to play with them in front of her friends and family.”

It’s this instinctive ability to “pull a rabbit out of his hat and wow us every time,” as another client put it, that inspires Nikheel Advani, managing director of Grace Bay Resorts, to call Ezon “one of the most innovative players in our industry.”

Skip Fortier
An Independent Affiliate of Avoya Travel/American Express

Alexandria, VA

Skip Fortier focuses on two major principles when arranging travel: product knowledge and availability.  “I strive to stay current on destination offerings with training, fam trips and educational opportunities,” he says. “This gives customers confidence that they’re booking their hard-earned vacation dollars with the right agent.”

His greatest challenge, he says, was when a young woman traveling alone on an escorted tour of Europe had her passport stolen, and had to remain behind in London, completely on her own. “This was her first trip to Europe and she didn’t know what to do,” Fortier recalls. He worked with the tour operator and got her a room in London for the additional nights it would take to get a new passport, and also contacted the U.S. embassy and helped get money wired to her from her family.

"After eight days in London, the embassy was able to issue a replacement, and she made it home safely. My client not only appreciated everything I did on her behalf, she will think of me first for her vacation planning needs,” he says.

Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar Tours, has known Fortier for more than three years. “His individual sales were moving rapidly up in rankings, so I reached out to find out who he was,” he says. “Skip applied himself to the highest levels of product knowledge and selling skills, an exemplary achievement which I know of no other equivalent. I’ve had him sit on advisory meetings with our most senior global management, and Skip represents himself and his company to the highest standards. Skip’s a brilliant travel professional. If you can find one better, I’d like to meet them.”

Eric Goldring
Goldring Travel

Red Bank, NJ

As a single-agent travel agency, Eric Goldring feels that his greatest challenge has been to become known and relevant. “Through my travel experiences, my ability to communicate to a single person or an international conference, and the use of technology, I have been able to establish Goldring a responsible and connected travel agency [and] a reliable expert source of information,” he says.

His travels have taken him from the Amazon and Africa to Australia and the Arctic, while his tech savvy has resulted in an interactive website, a blog read throughout the world, and a presence on Facebook and Twitter. “The result is that I effectively compete with the much larger travel agencies in the luxury market with my annual sales consistently growing year over year.”

Goldring recalls a trip he organized that, while not over-the-top, got everything just right. The client wanted luxury accommodations, privacy and scenic views. He also wanted fresh fish every day—but did not want to be on the water. Goldring found a villa in a remote part of Turkey with an infinity pool, unobstructed views of the mountains to the left and the Mediterranean Sea to the right, and spring-fed trout farms and truly local markets nearby. “Simple and elegant solutions are, many times, the ultimate in dream trips.”   

That’s just one example of Goldring being, in the words of Doug Seagle, VP of sales at Seabourn Cruise Line,  “the rare travel professional who is proficient at being both ‘high-tech’ and ‘high-touch.’” He also notes that Goldring’s website “is content-rich and perfectly illustrates his expertise in the field of small-ship luxury cruising.”

Diana Hechler
D. Tours Travel

Larchmont, New York

Diana Hechler balances personal knowledge of European destinations with a realistic understanding of what she can achieve for her clients. The self-described “detail maven” has a policy of repeatedly visiting her top international destinations to ensure that her clients garner the benefit of her personal experience. At the same time, she realizes that managing clients’ expectations can be just as important as ensuring they receive their “dream” vacation.

“I used to try to give everyone exactly what they requested,” she says. “Sometimes, those requests were impossible: ‘I’d like to take my family to a five-star resort over Christmas but I don’t want to spend much money.’ I would end up spending hours in fruitless research because what they wanted doesn’t exist.

“Now, I’ve learned to be candid at the beginning about what things cost over Christmas or over February school break, so that the client can shift gears as needed. Some of those clients have decided to spend the amount required happily and some have gone to Paris or London instead, had a wonderful experience and at a more reasonable price. Everyone wants value and I have learned to think creatively about off-season destinations.”

Even so, with a little creativity, even a modest experience can be memorable. In the middle of one client’s no-expense-spared tour of Europe, the highlight was neither the corner water-view suites nor the room with a view of the Grand Canal in Venice. It was a restaurant in the middle of Lake Como that Hechler described as “not fancy, but unique, simple, delicious, memorable.”  There, her clients befriended a couple and ended up being witnesses at their wedding the next day.

It’s easy to glean from all this why Donna Foersom, marketing manager of Abercrombie & Kent, USA, lauds Hechler for being “entrepreneurial, creative and hard-working. She has successfully grown her business and is a valued travel agent partner.”

Helena Marie Iorio
HMI Travel Consulting/CWT Vacations


Helena Marie Iorio feels that her travel savvy has earned her the nickname “007.”

For example, a client’s daughter wanted to take her dog to school with her in Malaga, Spain. Iorio suggested her client send the dog as cargo, as that would be the least expensive option. Her client decided at the last moment to send the dog later, so what would have been a $400 luggage fee turned into a possible $4,000 nightmare.  At this point Iorio sprang into action. She had her client fly the dog to her, let it stay with her for a few days, and then flew the dog to Spain herself.

“This saved my client thousands of dollars and I got a whirlwind trip to Spain and a client for life,” Iorio says.

For another client, Iorio needed to work hard to pull together a Scandinavian itinerary that would wow her and her son, who had just graduated eighth grade. Iorio secured a private fjord cruise, a farm house stay, ancestry information and tickets to the local music festival in Oslo. She even arranged a local guide for the music festival—a young man who was an avid music fan and whose interests and personality turned out to be perfect match with those of the client’s son.

A recent client says that Iorio “takes great service to another level of excellence. We trust her and she never lets us down. Our dream trip to Norway was to include a deep understanding and experience of the land of our ancestors. Helena’s arrangements included local guides on land and sea providing a genuine experience from start to finish.”

Lori Jones
CWT Vacations

Deer Park, TX

As a second-generation travel advisor (and one in the business for almost 30 years), Lori Jones feels that arranging travel is what she knows best. “For me, this is ‘the’ career, and it is my passion in life. I can’t imagine not being able to use my skills, knowledge and passion to make someone’s travel wishes a reality.”

Sometimes, she acknowledges, the task is almost impossible due to budget, time restrictions or availability. Her greatest challenge, however, is simply selling herself and her expertise.

“It’s a difficult and ongoing process to make others realize the value and expertise travel advisors offer,” she says. “A lot of folks think if they read enough travel blogs, they can manage all the travel aspects on their own. So the challenge is to change the public’s mind on what we do and the worth that advisors brings to the table.

“It’s been difficult, in some ways, to start charging fees for my services,” she says, but adds happily that, “Those I have a working relationship with already don’t seem to mind because they appreciate what’s being done for them.”

A couple that has used Jones as their agent for more than 10 years call her “everyone’s idea of a perfect travel agent. She has worked to get to know us and our travel expectations. By most, we are considered demanding clients and we’ve never been disappointed with any trip that Lori has arranged. And she proactively recommends trips based on her knowledge of our travel interests. We have pursued many of these and are very happy with the results.”

Carolyn Kempf
Elite Travel Inc. & Cruise

Cape Girardeau, MO

Carolyn Kempf says that she specializes in “Mexico and the Caribbean or anywhere there is sand and water! I love doing destination weddings and being a part of every person’s vacation memories. After 20 years, I have grown my agency to the largest in southeast Missouri. I view myself as a travel concierge, so I can do anything a client asks and I make sure I do it well.”

A self-described “survivor,” Kempf says that she has stayed afloat in spite of commission cuts, hurricanes, terrorism and a bad economy. “I have been in business since 1992 and continue to be profitable and enjoy my work,” she says.

But the biggest challenge she has had to overcome is convincing clients of the need for a travel agent. “If you did a poll, I think [it would show that] a majority of people believe to this day that travel agents cost them money rather than save them money.  We work very hard in our branding campaign to educate the general public in all forms of media of our value,” she says. “I have never really seen a great campaign that educates any consumer on the benefits of using an agent instead of the Internet. We in the industry know, but most consumers do not.”

Terry Morrison, vice president of sales for MLT Vacations, who has worked with Kempf for more than 10 years, certainly knows and appreciates what agents like Kempf do. “I have always known her to be honest, committed to the industry, and very creative in building her business. She has been an MLT STAR for the past five years.”

Ken Neibaur
Cardoza-Bungey Travel

Palo Alto, CA

A former consumer marketing exec, Ken Neibaur has a business background that allows him to understand supplier business, to the benefit of himself and his clients. With his array of industry contacts, he’s arranged such experiences as a private yachting excursion in Capri, a tour of Britain’s Lotus Factory, a behind-the-scenes visit to the BBC and private tours of the Vasari Corridor in Florence.

While he specializes in high-end luxury travel, Neibaur understands that sometimes a focus on value is the best approach. He explains, “Early in my career here, I was invited to meet one of our corporate clients and his wife to propose a deluxe family trip to France and Italy. Much later [the clients] told me that they gave it to me because despite their obvious wealth, I had proposed business-class air, not first, and deluxe rooms, not suites. They said their prior agent took advantage of them and they were glad I would always ask.”

Neibaur’s focus on value and unique experiences has paid off. He has been the manager of his office for four years, and he is able to work exclusively on repeat business and referrals.

Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours, likes the way that Neibaur “challenges my specialists to be creative and tests the limits of their knowledge, which we enjoy. More importantly he accepts, and implements new activities or routes in certain countries as we propose them, keeping his clients experiences on the cutting edge. Ken is a consummate professional and true partner.”

Ilene Premer
An Independent Affiliate of Avoya Travel/American Express

North Miami, FL

Ilene Premer believes that there is no substitute for firsthand knowledge with her clients, and offers a few samples of advice she has been able to give: “My travel and destinations specialties come from past experiences: ‘On this ship, the 11th floor under the pool is very noisy.’ ‘Avoid obstructed-view on this ship unless you want lifeboats inches from your window.’ ‘In Milan, this restaurant has an incredible cream-based mushroom sauce.’ ‘Renting a car in Geneva and driving the borders of Switzerland is a great way to see France, Germany and Italy, and here are some great hotels and restaurants along the way.’

“I believe in the tried-and-true advice: Know your product,” she says. “I traveled extensively before becoming a travel agent, and my logbooks are valuable resources. I can give [expert] advice on a Michelin-rated restaurant in Madrid or a personalized tour of Tuscany. I spent time in Asia with personal guides to understand their culture. I share my knowledge, and clients are overjoyed with my (often) simple recommendations, like taking balloons for children in Beijing. I’ve been there, done that, and have the T-shirt as proof.”

Knowing people as well as destinations can also be vital in providing top service: When a client on a Mediterranean cruise wanted a last-minute dinner at a fully booked top Saint-Tropez restaurant, Premer was able to call the maître d’ and personally arrange for a table. To complicate matters, the client had no tie or jacket—both of which were needed for the restaurant, so the maître d’ brought over appropriately sized and colored accoutrements. The client enjoyed his dinner and was back on the ship with time to spare. 

Mary Ann Ramsey
Betty Maclean Travel

Naples, FL

Mary Ann Ramsey graced the cover of our sister publication Luxury Travel Advisor a few years ago, and today the forward-looking owner of Betty Maclean Travel is one of the first agents to sell space travel with Virgin Galactic.

One notable Earth trip she organized was a luxury tour of Paris that included the French Open. In addition to the tennis, she arranged first-class flights on Air France, a car and driver at their disposal in the city and a Prestige Suite at Le Meurice. “The client is also an art enthusiast,” she says, “so I arranged for an art history guide and art-oriented program of the Montmartre area and a visit of Marmottan Museum.” She was also able to put together a private backstage opera house tour, a behind-the-scenes Eiffel Tower tour and dining reservations every evening, including Tour d’Argent in Paris.

Putting such trips together is easy for Ramsey compared to the task of recruiting and retaining quality individuals through the economic downturn. She is proud to say, however, that, “I have travel consultants that have been with me for as long as 25 years!”
Then again that’s all a part of being what Scott Wiseman, president of Abercrombie & Kent, calls “a consummate professional travel consultant in every aspect. She has served on the A&K travel agent advisory board for a number of years and I value her contributions.”

Luelle Robinson
An Independent Affiliate of Avoya Travel/American Express

Round Hill, VA

Luelle Robinson has immersed herself gainfully in European travel, specializing in river cruises. “It’s important to me to experience the products I sell so I’m able to tell my clients,  ‘Yes, I’ve been there, and you will love it’ or ‘I don’t think it’s the right kind of trip for you.’ I make an effort to travel where my clients want to travel.”

Recently, Robinson had a client booked on a river cruise that departed the day after the airports closed due to Iceland’s volcanic ash.

“My client was expectedly disappointed, and I wanted to do my best to provide a solution for them,” she remembers. “I was able to get my customers a full credit on a future cruise, even though they had chosen to not purchase travel insurance. When the vendor offered a cruise that would not fit with their schedule, I worked with the vendor to get my clients the same cruise they missed because of the ash, just a year later.”

John Restuccia, director of national accounts, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, says that Robinson does a “superb job in qualifying clients for us and knows the right questions to ask. Part of selling river cruises successfully is educating the client on the extreme value it brings them—and Luelle is very successful at doing that.”

Terrah Rominger
Legacy Travel

Plano, TX

Two years ago, Terrah Rominger was one of Travel Agent’s Top 30 Under 30. With a few more years under her belt, the young agent has graduated to the Top Agents, and feels that she has grown as a businesswoman. “It is important to make each client feel heard and special,” she says. “They are trusting you to handle their dream vacation that they have been looking forward to and worked hard for.”

When it gets busy, she adds, prioritizing can become a challenge as well: “At first, it was quite frustrating to have spent hours on some clients who ended up booking elsewhere or simply didn’t end up going, while I had other clients who were truly ready to book a vacation with me. I believe that, like anything, with experience, you get better at what you do.”

One of her most recent accomplishments was booking a family on one of Disney’s Caribbean cruises for Thanksgiving. “This is Disney’s most popular sailing, and there are just two Royal Suites per ship,” she says. But she persevered and, “After a couple of months, one finally became available and we were able to scoop it up for a seven-night sailing.”

Mike Going, president of Funjet Vacations, says that Rominger “personifies the future of our proud industry. She is graceful, compassionate, knowledgeable, loyal and passionate about the industry she represents.”

Suzanne Smith
Champagne Vacations

Charlotte, NC

Some travel agents are lucky enough to find their niche in the travel industry and stick with it. Others make a virtue of adaptation, changing their business to suit the mercurial landscape of the travel world. Suzanne Smith is one of the latter.

Since starting her business in 1994 out of her spare bedroom, Smith has changed its focus several times to outpace the ever-evolving trends in travel. Since her agency is based out of Florida, Smith initially specialized in Caribbean cruises. Eventually, she switched to honeymoons and destination weddings, a move she credits with keeping her business afloat during the post-9/11 downturn.

Today, Smith continues to seek new frontiers in travel by branching out into river cruises and escorted tours of Europe.

Over the years, Smith has also adapted to keep pace with the daunting task of running an agency she describes as “a one-woman show.”

“In the beginning, [my greatest challenge] was operating a business from my home, getting the best levels of commission possible and finding clients,” Smith explains. “Over the years, it has been finding new clients and raising the level of customer service to get referrals from these clients. Today, it is handling the influx of the social media and utilizing what is now considered for the most part a ‘free’ advertising method in the proper way so that it does not take up all my time and still allows me to do what I love: sell travel.”

That love for her work is reflected in how her clients respond to her, such as one who calls Smith “extremely knowledgeable, reliable, detail-oriented and professional,” adding that, “Suzanne helped me with two trips in 2010, both international, involving a lot of moving parts, and she made every step enjoyable. And she always goes the extra mile to help, like when weather delays stranded me at the airport in Mexico—she assisted me in numerous ways even though it was really my airline’s job to do so, and all while juggling several other stranded clients in different parts of the world. She is the first person I think of when contemplating a new trip—I can’t imagine using anyone else to help with my travel needs!”

Rudi Steele
Rudi Steele Travel


Rudi Steele, who was featured in the August 2009 Luxury Travel Advisor cover story, has been in the travel business since 1957, starting out as an apprentice in Switzerland. Over those many years he has become a master at winning over customers. For example:

“A couple, clients for many years, planned a round-the-world retirement trip but couldn’t quite agree on the itinerary,” Steele says. “I finally decided to take matters in my own hands and planned their 150-day trip totally without them knowing the routing. It became a game of total surprise. Many visas had to be gotten, many forms signed, and yes, they agreed to sign without knowing what they were signing for—it was total trust. But then, they had been clients for many years. Yes, the trip was a total success. Upon their return, they gave a big party at their country club showing the many photos they had taken.”

Over his long career in the travel business, Steele has earned the trust necessary to support this above-and-beyond attitude. At the same time, that attitude can be its own reward. Steele explains, “As long as you provide good and honest service, you will always have clients and if you make a mistake—we all do, yes, we are human—a good client will forgive you and not leave you. A happy client will spread the word and is your best advertisement.”

A client sent the following note to Steele: “Your personal service is unlike anything I have seen in the travel industry. Where have you been all of our lives?”

Ruth Turpin
Cruises Etc. Travel

Fort Worth, TX

Ruth Turpin was ahead of her time when she established the first cruise-oriented agency in all of the Southwest more than 32 years ago. “Everyone thought I was crazy to not have a full-service agency,” she recalls. “Cruises Etc. is now one of the top producers for Crystal, Regent, Seabourn and Oceania.” She has sailed on over 125 cruises, and knows each luxury cruise line down to the staff, best cabins and itineraries.

Turpin has been a Virtuoso member for 25 years and has been on the association’s Cruise Committee for four. “I use our Virtuoso on-sites all over the world to create unique shore excursions and pre- and post-cruise packages,” she says.

The greatest challenge Turpin says she has had is selling to new clients who search the Internet and want a “deal,” or who have dealt with agents who rebate. “We can overcome this by selling ourselves, our knowledge and our ability to get special things done for our clients,” she says. “If we have the opportunity to really talk to prospective clients, we can almost always show them our value and the value of booking with a knowledgeable and experienced travel agent. We seldom lose a prospective client.”

Bill Smith, formerly VP at Crystal Cruises, says that Turpin “is highly respected by all of the cruise industry. There isn’t a cruise line executive that doesn’t know her by first name.”

Helen Varri
Lake Forest Travel Bureau

Lake Forest, IL

“As far as travel specialties go, one evolves over the years!” says Helen Varri. “Being European by birth, my initial years centered on that continent, coupled with my hands-on knowledge of Latin America where I lived for many years. Continuous worldwide travel brought Africa and the Far East into closer focus.”

After graduating from Travel School, Varri got a job with Lake Forest Travel, then headed by Lydia Scuderi, whom she describes as a “Grande Dame” of travel.

“Lake Forest was one of the founding members of API, the predecessor of Virtuoso,” she says. “Between the demanding standards of Lydia and the resources of API/Virtuoso, my education—and, therefore, my client base—soared.” In 1996, Varri purchased the agency, where today she works with her daughter, Monica, and has been invited to the Virtuoso Chairman’s Event for the largest Virtuoso sales growth from 2009 to 2010.

Andrea Grisdale, CEO of IC Bellagio, praises Varri’s “thoroughness, professionalism and the fact that she is so well prepared and crosses every ‘t’ and dots every ‘i’ to assure her clients the best possible experience when traveling. These traits are more and more hard to find, and working with Helen really is a delight.”

Debra Willms
An Independent Affiliate of Avoya Travel/American Express

New Hampton, NY

A specialist in river and luxury cruises, Hawaii and planning destination honeymoons, Debra Willms says, “The ability to adapt my business model to changing consumer travel trends, capitalize on developments in technology, and keep up to date with the industry over the years has enabled me to maintain a successful agency,” she says. Her method has paid off: She has more than 35 years’ experience under her belt.

Willms’ greatest hurdle came when airlines stopped paying commissions and everything went online. “I realized I couldn’t fear the Internet and, instead, had to figure out how to embrace it, use it as an information resource for my agency and incorporate it as a part of my business,” she recalls.

“When I shifted from corporate to leisure travel, it became even more difficult to maintain a value proposition as a travel agent because the Internet gave customers more access to information. It was challenging to...keep customers from purchasing directly through booking engines. Instead, I began finding information online for clients as my service value.” Six years ago, she transitioned from a brick-and-mortar model to home-based. “In 2006, I affiliated my business with a host agency, Avoya Travel, to further maximize the Internet for my agency’s success.”

A client who has worked with Willms for four years (and 12 cruises) offers high praise: “Debra provides valuable advice and we feel she’s always honest with us, in every situation. Debra is more like a friend to us than a service provider and we plan to keep working with her.”

Frances Wollach-Staros
Pisa Brothers Travel/A Worldview Travel Company

New York City

Frances Wollach-Staros has been part of the travel industry since 1963, when she started as a reservations manager with Epirotiki Lines. In that time, she has learned the importance of honesty and communication with both her clients and her suppliers.

“I pride myself on my strong relationships with the general managers at the world’s top hotels, and am always completely honest with them as well as with each of my clients,” Wollach-Staros says. “While my clients rely on my expertise, I also believe that when an agent receives constructive criticism from a client, it’s critical to listen closely; a true partnership involves give-and-take from both sides.”

Wollach-Staros’ openness and honesty stems from her personal experience in the destinations to which she sends her clients. One memorable journey that put her skills to the test was a million-dollar, six-month round-the-world experience that included two cruises—one in the Greek Isles and the other in Southeast Asia—a two-week stay at the Ferragamo Villa in Italy, and three weeks each in Paris, Morocco, Turkey and Hong Kong.

“It was a hectic time,” she says, “but I also found the experience to be a fulfilling one, that tapped into all of my creativity, contacts and travel savvy.”

Claudio Ceccherelli, General Manager at the Park Hyatt, Milan says that Wollach-Staros “has an incredible and wonderful knowledge of Italy and of everything has to be done and seen. She tries always to let her clients experience what she likes according her sophisticated taste.”

Nancy Yale
Cruise Resort & World Travel

Fairfield, CT

Nancy Yale began her business 18 years ago, exhibiting in bridal shows and doing honeymoon cruises and resorts. Since then, she has traveled all over the world with her three children and has put her experience to good use by specializing in family travel.

“These are things people cannot get on the Internet—personal relationships with properties and tour operators,” Yale says. “Access to best hotels/rooms and guides throughout the world is something special that I can offer. I can listen to what the client wants to do on their vacation—relax, tour or both—and combine a perfect vacation for them.”

With her firsthand experience, she adds, she also knows how to pace a vacation, what hotels will accommodate more than two in a room and what would be the activities/location for everyone to have the best experience.

Since the introduction of travel websites, Yale acknowledges that her bridal business has dropped as many tech-savvy couples do their travel research online. “They enjoy researching at 10 p.m., and don’t have any contact with the traditional travel agent unless they need help with something they cannot find,” she says. “I have had to change my business model, and now sell mostly luxury and upscale FITs to worldwide destinations as well as cruises in Europe and Asia.” While the business has changed, they are still going strong: “We have seven full-time agents in-house to assist with all the referrals we receive from our past clients.”

One honeymoon client describes her experience with Yale as “absolutely perfect…The accommodations, flights, and itinerary were flawless.” In a letter to Yale, the client writes,  “For better or worse, you are now stuck with us for all future trips...although I imagine we may have to stay in the real world for a bit before the next one.”