What makes a top travel agent? Is it determination and drive? Knowledge about suppliers and destinations? Specialization?
We asked travel agents to tell us what makes them a top agent. Among the criteria we considered were:
• Sales volume
• Travel Specialties and Destinations
• Associations and Affiliations
• Examples of challenges they’ve overcome in the industry and dream trips they’ve put together for clients
• Endorsements from suppliers and clients
Out of well over 100 entrants, we selected those who stood out for a number of reasons—from exceptional customer service to remarkable expertise in a particular destination. The one thing they all have, however, is dedication to their craft, and a commitment to excellence. (While we had many excellent submissions, in the end we gave most serious consideration to those who complied 100 percent with the guidelines by supplying the requested endorsements from suppliers and clients.)
As one of our selected agents, Robert Becker of Protravel Active Adventures, says, it is “the absolute greatest job in the world…I never tire of opening peoples’ minds to new destinations and activities.” That kind of enthusiasm is one attribute all of these agents share, as you will see on the following list (presented in alphabetical order).
Bailey’s clients don’t just trust her to help arrange their vacations—sometimes, they trust her to choose where they will go! For seven years running, a client asked her to surprise himself and his wife with their destination and itinerary. “I would provide only enough information so they knew how to pack, the dates of the trip and what time the limo would pick them up,” she says. The limo driver would then give them the itinerary as they headed to the airport. “This crazy arrangement was successful only because of how well I knew these clients and their preferences, and they were thrilled every year.”
Natalie Payne, director of travel industry sales for The Sanctuary Resort, has high praise for Bailey’s dedication. “She is not afraid to ask ‘tough questions’ that sometimes make suppliers squirm, but you still feel super confident she is working hard for her clients,” Payne says.
One of Bailey’s toughest challenges was implementing fees as suppliers started to cut commissions. “Because of the relationship and level of trust I have developed with my clients over the years, they certainly had come to appreciate and expect the service I provide, and eventually they accepted the change,” she says. “Since most of my clients are professionals, once you compare your business to theirs, the light bulb goes off and they ‘get it.’”
Pathfinders Travel Inc.
Bangser founded Pathfinders Travel 31 years ago, and has specialized in planning personalized vacations in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America—“areas I have been traveling to for more than 50 years,” she says. Thanks to her own large family, she is comfortable planning holidays for any combination of generations, and dedicated clients have stayed with her for years—even decades.
One couple who has relied on Bangser’s expertise for 25 years for trips to Indochina, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, as well as Europe and South and Central America, say that their vacations “have greatly enhanced our life.” She has a particular love for Africa, she says, and remembers one memorable trip she planned for a family of six to Cape Town, Kruger National Park, Victoria Falls and Chobe in Botswana. “Their description of the hundreds of elephants coming down from the hills to bathe in the river, babies rolling in the mud and mothers hosing them off, was marvelous—a memory they will all have forever,” she says.
Protravel Active Adventures
New York, NY
A scuba specialist with 25 years’ experience, Becker believes that he has the “absolute greatest job in the world…I never tire of opening peoples’ minds to new destinations and activities.” He even works to help people enjoy activities they might never have dreamed possible: He was asked to prepare a diving trip for a nine-year-old girl who had been paralyzed from the waist down for the past five years, and wanted to swim with sea turtles. “I consulted with the International Association of Handicapped Divers to find a resort that offered the Introductory Dive Course sanctioned by PADI to disabled divers,” he remembers, “and we sent her and her mom to Belize where she had a private Divemaster, completed the class and then went diving.” By the second day of diving, the sea turtles emerged to swim circles around the mother and daughter, and the dream was accomplished. “I personally oversee every itinerary Protravel Active Adventures sells, and I view each one as if I am turning out a dish at a formal event,” he says.
Best Travel Gold
Boomgarden knows Europe inside and out, and after more than 30 years of specializing in luxury travel, her roster of contacts can help her put together any client’s dream vacation. “Whether booking the Presidential Suite at the Four Seasons Jackson Hole over the holidays, securing the Balmoral and Sandringham Duplex Suites on the Queen Mary 2, chartering a private plane at the last minute for a corporate meeting or to simply get a dog and bike down to St. Augustine for the weekend, I get it done,” she says.
Specializing in Italy and England (where she lived for five years), she has orchestrated entry into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, Henley Regatta and Glyndebourne Festival in the latter and arranged nights in private palaces, operatic entertainment, gala parties, buyouts of luxury hotels and luxury villa rentals in the former. She is also a charter aircraft specialist who knows how to analyze corporate aircraft costs and procurement of fractional partnerships, or can broker pricing for individual charters.
Palos Verdes Estates, CA
When asked why she felt she was one of the top travel agents in the biz, Brethome quipped, “Because I’m so busy!” Getting serious, she continued, “It’s not easy to combine volume and quality work. I’m dynamic and efficient. I love my job, and I love to travel. Most importantly, I love to assist clients that are eager to discover the world!”
A specialist in Europe, destination weddings and honeymoons, Brethome says that she always treats her clients like VIPs. One recent three-week honeymoon for a culture-and-gastronomy-minded pair involved travel from Paris to the French Riviera via the Champagne region, Burgundy, Chateau de Bagnols and Provence. “They traveled over the truffle and harvest season,” she remembers, and enjoyed a night at the Paris Opera, a cooking class including shopping at the market, champagne tastings and olive tasting. “Every detail was planned ahead of time for a stress-free travel experience, [including] transportation (a nice mix of private transfers, rental car in the countryside only, French TGV), tours, activities, restaurant reservations and accommodation.”
Covington Travel Inc.
Fort Wayne, IN
Fifty percent of Cornell’s business centers on Ireland. “Ireland is a land of dreams,” she says. “My parents were born there and I have been many times.” In fact, she says, she has been to Europe over 90 times. “One couple on a limited budget wanted to experience what the Irish were all about and see the country off the beaten path. I moved them from Dublin to Shannon through the east or horse farm area of Ireland to the mountains in the west. They stayed at a mixture of accommodations from farms to a castle.”
When booking a cruise for clients, she organizes private excursions, and for visitors to Italy has arranged a papal audience, a private tour of the Vatican and a tour that follows the footsteps of St. Francis in Assisi. She also does a specialized tour called “Art of Table” for people who want to learn more about fine china, silver, crystal and linens.
Chadds Ford, PA
There are family travel specialists, and then there’s Kate DeLosso. “Since 1996, I have organized tours for adoptees returning to their birth countries,” she says. “Primarily working in China and Korea, I have the contacts to arrange Motherland or Heritage tours for adoptees to China, Korea, Vietnam, Guatamala and Bulgaria.”
Visits to orphanages are the centerpiece of the Motherland trips. “Several of my clients have had successful reunions with birth families,” she says. DeLosso served on the board of directors of an adoption agency for years, and has connections with social service agencies, adoption agencies and orphanages that allow her to arrange complicated FITs for clients who want to travel for a very special reason: finding their heritage. And she knows about adoption-focused travel from experience: “Three of my children are adopted internationally, and one daughter has reconnected with her birth sister,” she says. This specialty would be unique enough, but DeLosso has also overcome other hurdles. “In 1997, I had a stroke that left me paralyzed on the right side,” she says. “While recovering, I had to learn to walk and teach myself to type.”
Linda de Sosa
De Sosa came into the travel industry the week the airlines cut commissions, with no clients or experience as an agent. Fourteen years later, her business is still thriving. "I actively sought out clients who felt that travel was a necessity instead of a luxury, and then consistently gave them creative and thorough packages,” she says.
One memorable tour sent a culinary traveler to the Basque region of Spain instead of the more traditional major cities. “Working closely with a supplier, we developed an itinerary where they went to fish and other markets, worked with a Basque chef, and got them into an exclusive Basque gastronomic society usually closed to guests,” she remembers. “We took them through some wineries and cellars in the Rioja area. I also had them spend time on the French side with Biarritz as a base to compare the French Basque states.” Having traveled around the world, she considers herself a generalist with a specialist’s knowledge of many areas. “I like to collect experiences that I can then share with clients,” she says.
Susan A. Dischner
Four Seasons Travel
After 44 years in the business, Susan Dischner knows that a successful agent must be experienced, honest and diligent. “In today’s travel market, clients are very savvy,” she says, “thus experience is a must. I have traveled worldwide throughout my career, and am able to share my knowledge and experience with my clients when advising them on planning their trips. I am completely upfront and honest with my clients about all aspects of their trip. Attention to details is absolutely necessary in finalizing a client’s trip, and my clients know and expect that of me.”
Good contacts also help: After booking some clients on a golfing tour of Ireland and Scotland, Dischner got a phone call saying that the cruise line had failed to reserve tee time on a course. “There were no times booked and it was quite the disaster,” she remembers. “I got on the phone with my Scottish golf contact and was able to book tee times where clients wanted to play, thus keeping the golfers happy.”
Dolan has been involved with the travel industry since he worked summers at a friend’s agency as a teenager. “Duties have included delivery boy, back-office and now luxury travel specialist,” he says. “Convincing a client that you are capable of handling their $10,000 vacation when you are only 17 is not easy.”
He credits his success to three key attributes: attitude, customer service and destination knowledge. “I strongly believe that by focusing on these three areas you will be an asset to your customers and your employer, and also enjoy a fulfilling career in travel.” As an Around-the-World FIT specialist, he has organized vacations to every corner of the globe. A good attitude is essential to dealing with the ups and downs of our business. After a recent worldwide trip, he earned a commission (and fees) of $10,000. “The financial reward of such a trip is great, however a lot of work and attention to detail is required for a successful journey,” he says. “Customer service is what keeps my clients coming back. I act as an advocate for travelers, letting them know I’m with them every step of the way…The love of destinations first made me consider this career. I have visited 50 countries and watch current travel trends.”
Camelback Odyssey Travel
Donley lived in Costa Rica and Brazil for 10 years while growing up, and studied in Spain. She puts her “knowledge of the world” to good use, searching for the “behind the fence” experiences for families and small groups. “It’s not only fun and fulfilling,” she says, “but it satisfies my passion, which is to put forth experiences for travelers so that when they return home, their horizons, lives and thoughts will have been expanded.”
She developed a love of fly-fishing in her travels around the world, and now shares her passion with her clients. “I have fly fished…from Montana to Chile and New Zealand to the Seychelles,” she says. “I am really able to understand how learning and traveling to fly fish can feel.” As such, Donley knows all the best places to send fishing enthusiasts for a perfect escape. “A 150-foot yacht with Nomads of the Seas in the Chilean Fjords of Patagonia allows the guest to fish uncharted waters in the Andes,” she suggests.
Brownell Travel—Independent Associate
With a wide range of specialties (Luxury Expedition Cruising, Adventure & Expedition Travel, Culinary Travel), Dorton describes the vacations she designs as more like “creative life experiences.” After 22 years in the industry, she now focuses on “luxury and experiential” travel and continually educates herself about destinations.
“I have continually traveled around the world with my preferred partners, building relationships and educating myself on the products and countries,” she says. “Partnerships are most important, and continuing to build my expertise by education is my highest priority.”
Her dedication has paid off: Dorton is the only travel advisor in Tennessee selected by both Tourism Australia as an Aussie Specialist Premier Agent (one of only 125 Premiers in North America, she says proudly), and by Virtuoso to the Australia Destination Sales Team in the past two years. “I have designed incredible adventures, including diving with the Minke Whales in Australia,” she says, “and have personally experienced Luxury Expedition Crusing with Orion Expeditions in Papua New Guinea, Peruvian Amazon Cruising with International Expeditions along with Botswana Safari with Orient Express.”
Dream Vacations LLC
Harris believes his practice of “making exceptional customer service my priority” is the reason for his return rate of 97 percent. “Customer loyalty, client referrals and word-of-mouth have a larger impact on my business growth than any other form of marketing and advertising that I do,” he says. “One way I do this is by sending birthday cards to all of my clients, which include a $25 voucher to be used on a future cruise or tour package. While it might not seem like a whole lot, my clients really appreciate that I think of them throughout the year and it ensures that they call me when they are ready to plan their next trip.”
Diligence pays off as well: In January 2008, he booked a wedding group on the Carnival Victory for April 2009. A few months later, he was notified by Carnival that the Victory was being chartered and that the wedding group would be canceled. For two weeks, he negotiated with Carnival and wound up rebooking the trip for the following month, with many perks thrown in. The bride and group later sent him a letter: “Everyone expressed…how helpful, knowledgeable, and caring you were when booking their cruise and answering general questions,” they said.
Admiral Travel International Inc.
Hilton specializes in culinary travel and organizing exclusive journeys throughout the world that are escorted by iconic figures in food, wine, sports, entertainment and global culture. She has owned Admiral Travel since 1997, and founded AuthentEscapes earlier this year. Some of AuthentEscapes’ exclusive, “wow-factor” experiences include: VIP access to Andrea Bocelli’s concert in Italy and a stay at the Ferragamo family’s private villa at Il Borro; traveling with Chef Roy Yamaguchi (founder of Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine) through Japan and Australia; privileged access to the Carnival parade in Brazil on a program with Chef Jean-Georges; and a Safari in South Africa with public television’s “Simply Ming” host, Chef Ming Tsai.
Hilton also considers Egypt her destination specialty, and can even combine her passions into one trip. “My Egypt tour with Chef Roy Yamaguchi included a day with famous Egyptologist Zahi Hawass; a private reception with First Lady Jehan Sadat in her home on the Nile; a rare opening of Queen Nefertari’s Tomb; a private dinner by Chef Roy at Medinat Habu Temple in Luxor and tented dinner prepared by Chef Roy on the Giza Plateau with a presentation of Il Borro wines by special guest Salvatore Ferragamo.”
Plenty of agents have a niche these days, but Lacroix’s was particularly eye-catching. “My specialty is helping the mobility-challenged traveler to be able to travel with dignity and to make sure their special needs are met,” she says.
As such, she spends much of her time researching cruise ships, ports, hotels and vehicles to make certain they’re accessible for her clients. She is a Certified Accessible Travel Specialist and affiliated with SATH (Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality), and has arranged everything from family reunion trips to New York (with accessible vehicles waiting at the airport) to expeditions for swimming with dolphins in Cozumel.
Newtown Square, PA
Liadis has traveled extensively through the Greek Isles, and now shares her love for her ancestral homeland with her clients. “I am able to sell from my experiences and customize itineraries to my client’s desires,” she says. “I want my clients to savor their experiences. I have booked quiet honeymoons to extensive weddings, and trips for families ranging from three to 40 people. Sharing the hotels, restaurants, tours and many hidden treasures with my clients allows them to see Greece in its purest beauty. Each itinerary is unique and custom-fit.”
One of her most memorable clients was a woman who was losing her eyesight and wanted to see as much of the world as she could before it was too late. “I included in her itinerary as many natural beauties and historical sights of Greece in hopes of leaving an imprint in her mind,” she recalls. Upon returning from a trip to Greece, a client of Liadis’s said that she had “never been guided so caringly [and] knowledgeably…with willingness to explore the unusual, off-the-beaten-path experiences.” The itinerary, the client continued, “completely immersed us in true Greek culture (not typical tourist sites), wonderful cuisine in alleyway restaurants and diverse hotels everywhere.”
Tauck’s Rick Baron has nothing but praise for Liadis, whom he has known professionally for 20 years. “Ronnie is the consummate professional,” he says, “and continues to hone her skills to deliver the best service, growing her list of happy clients. She is creative, innovative and effectively grows her business even during toughest times.”
Travel Express Intl. Ltd.
Great Neck, NY
“Specialization is the key to being a successful agent today,” says Judy Litner, and she should know—she has been specializing in Italy for more than 30 years. “I can arrange for clients to participate in the olive harvest and the pressing,” she says. “I know where to shop and which vineyards have the best wine.”
With her insider’s knowledge, Litner knows how to help her clients find exactly what they need in Italy. “I can arrange a private two-hour bike tour in Florence, followed by a walking tour with private guide, cooking lessons followed by enjoying the meal that had just been prepared, museum entries and many more. I always provide my clients with a personal presentation that includes what they should not miss in each place they will visit as well as my favorite restaurants.”
Her local knowledge has paid off: She got to arrange the birthday party of “a very famous New York City restaurateur” for 100 guests. As she recalls, “I made all of the arrangements in getting the guests to Italy, transporting them from their hotels in Florence to the villa for the party as well as other travel plans.” She adds, “In an age of unprecedented competition, it’s a big plus to be able to say that I know more about Italy than other travel agents. However, there’s no reason why an agency can’t continue to sell a wide range of products while nurturing a specialty at the same time.”
Lake Mary, FL
Morse specializes in family travel—and not just the usual Disney trips. “A client wanted to drive the California coast with her husband and two children for about two weeks,” he remembers, and adds that the kids seemed less than enthusiastic about the idea. “[After] a lot of work—phone calls, purchasing laptops with wireless Internet cards and e-mailing properties in California—they departed on their vacation. Two weeks later I received a thank-you card in the mail that read simply, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you for letting me rediscover my children.’ More than anything, this was the most wonderful compliment I could have ever imagined.”
Another client wanted to see the beach at Normandy, but to experience more than a cemetery. “When our clients arrived in Normandy, we arranged for them to be met by a local gentleman who was a child at the time of the invasion, living on cliffs about the beach,” Morse remembers. “He was kind enough to take them on a private tour, acting as their guide, along the beaches of Normandy and the inland areas.”
San Rafael, CA
Neimann specializes in trips to Australia and Tahiti, and understands the value of taking extra time to make certain every detail of a trip is perfect. “I will work those long hours to secure those extras—upgrades, special room assignment requests, restaurant reservations and activity bookings—regardless of the booking size,” she says. “In this time-pressed world, I do not rush the process and make sure to engage my clients, listen to them and make suggestions that will support the experience they want.”
Her connections and goodwill have come in very handy for her clients. Four recent Fiji honeymoon bookings she had with Happy Vacations were disrupted due to Air Pacific flight cancellations. “I was able to get Air Pacific to offer business-class space upgrades and free hotels to soften the blow,” she recalls. “Shortly afterwards, Happy went out of business and I had to deliver the news. Luckily, our wholesale partner Travel2/Islands in the Sun stepped up and renegotiated the deals so the clients got their same travel package for less than the original price, and I was able to get the hotels to upgrade their rooms. It was emotionally very difficult for the clients, but I was proud of what I was able to accomplish with the help of my travel partners.”
Unique Travel of Palm Beach
Delray Beach, FL
Knowledge is power, they say, and luxury specialist Judy Nussbaum believes this inherently. “When I travel,” she says, “my primary goal is to do whatever I can to inspect every leading hotel and other sites, all in an effort to provide my clients with the utmost knowledge and expertise to make their vacations [all] they have dreamed of and more.”
She works closely with her clients to customize every vacation, sharing her insights and expertise about every destination. When clients are unsure about where they should spend their vacation, Nussbaum can usually figure out what they want and help them find what they need—whether it’s arranging bicycle trips through Provence or a driving trip across northern Italy with nights in villas and luxury hotels. “In addition to my constant research, being a member of Virtuoso offers immediate and the most accurate access to sources not available to most agents,” she says.
Gary M. Pollard
Pollard grew up in the travel business, joining the family-run agency 28 years ago. “When I became more involved in the business, many of the suppliers who used to deal with my dad would tell me stories of how he was a player in his day and if I wanted to be like him, I had to learn quickly,” he remembers. He followed marketing trends in other businesses that could affect travel, “thus giving me a better understanding of how to make clients buy from us and not the supplier or our competition. Being able to identify the right product for the client is what makes a difference in closing the sale or not.”
As an example, when a client wanted a private tour of India, he contacted Micato Safaris and helped them get into remote areas an average traveler might miss—all while staying in comfortable hotel rooms, palace rooms and luxury tents. “My clients couldn’t have been happier,” he recalls, “and neither could I.”
Gold River, CA
Powlesland has been in the industry for 30 years, and knows how much “sophisticated knowledge” can mean to a client’s experience. “The strong, long-term relationships I’ve built with my clients over the years allow us to quickly move past discussions on their baseline preferences and focus on the elements that will make their next trip special and memorable,” she says. To accomplish this, she focuses on how each client wants to experience the destination, “whether through its architectural wonders, native animals, cuisine, festivals, etc.”
One of her most impressive achievements was planning a three-month global tour for a family with young children, with a specific focus on experiencing the animals of the world up-close. She had only a few months in which to organize the trip, and the final itinerary spanned more than 10 countries and included private lodges and other exclusive accommodations. “My success is evident in the fact that many of my client relationships include third- and fourth-generation family members,” she says.
Little Rock, AR
Jill Taylor loves traveling vicariously through her clients. “I want to work with my clients to plan trips that they will talk about for the rest of their lives,” she says. “I want them to share these memories and to make a difference in their lives… Being the best, to me, means putting yourself in your client’s shoes, being in love with what you do and continually learning and challenging yourself.”
An Australia and Kiwi specialist, she is able to book dream vacations for her clients. “I have had the pleasure of sending many people to Australia and each client has a dream trip that is very different,” she says. “Most people think Australia is a place they will only go once in a lifetime but as soon as they get there, this amazing country makes my job so easy. There hasn’t been a client that has gone Down Under that hasn’t wanted to go back. That makes a dream trip.”
VIP Travel, Affiliate of Travel Experts
A former stockbroker, Wilson knows the travel business from both the travel perspective and the business perspective. With a wide range of specialties (Spa, Italy, Ireland, Great Britain, Honeymoon and Wedding Destinations, Walt Disney World, New Zealand, Caribbean, Cruise), her area of expertise is to “formulate a cost-effective but unique itinerary for my clients.”
Cathy Rodriguez, director of sales and marketing for Royal Hideaway Playacar, sees Wilson’s initiative as the secret to her success. “Joanne takes the initiative to create business vs. waiting for her phone to ring,” she says. “This…completely reflects upon her integrity, professionalism and success in selling travel. Not just any travel—but the right travel for the right customer.”
Wilson has also affiliated with a local newspaper to stay in her public’s eye. “I write a monthly travel column with articles ranging from the most recent destination I have visited to the ‘Dos and Don’ts of Travel.’ This has exposed me to a more diverse group of travelers, and I…have become the ‘go-to’ travel consultant in our community and have received many bookings from individuals as a result of these articles.”
Cruise Vacations of Orange County
Zatarain has a firm belief in the value of customer service. “Working for Disney at an earlier age was my first lesson,” she says. “Then, working for Sitmar & Royal Cruise Line with the great Richard Revnes increased my passion for customer service and travel.”
She appreciated Cruise Holidays’ philosophy of “relationship selling” instead of “order taking,” and purchased a franchise in 1992. Seventeen years later, she is proud that her company is still a brick-and-mortar business. Having worked in both sides of the industry, she understands how to make certain that clients and suppliers alike are happy.
“Knowing why the larger companies may do something a certain way, I try to explain this to the customer,” she says. “Knowing why the customer is asking for something, I also try to explain to the cruise lines why this is important.” She recently booked a trip that she would take herself, she says—if she won the lottery: seven nights at the Four Seasons Seychelles in an Ocean Villa Suite followed by three nights in the Deluxe King Suite at Burj Al Arab in Dubai with Rolls-Royce Meet & Greet Services. “Even with the economic downturn, we are still passionate about this business,” Zatarain says. “We all have a bright future because we allow customers to escape and make lifetime memories with the customer service they deserve.”