It’s that time of year when we at Travel Agent, and our sister publication Luxury Travel Advisor, take a look at some of the exemplary players in the luxury travel industry who have set themselves apart with knowledge, grace and finesse in delivering luxury service. The Leaders in Luxury awards are presented to key individuals who are faces of the industry and whose expertise is highly sought after.
The 2010 Leaders in Luxury awards will go to individuals who have shown unparalleled leadership in four categories—Hotel, Cruise, Tour Operator and Travel Advisor. Recipients will be honored at a ceremony to be held on December 9 during this year’s Luxury Travel Expo in Las Vegas.
When it comes to selling travel, there is no challenge that is insurmountable for Nancy Strong of Strong Travel, especially in the face of a changing industry.
A 35-year veteran of the industry, Strong has seen advisors come and go and what keeps those standing is a personalized standard of service to their clients. “It’s that connection. It’s staying in touch. It’s showing that you care about them,” says Strong.
In this year’s Cruise category, Paul Gaugin Cruises’ President and CEO Richard Bailey is being honored for the 25 years he has served the industry—from his home in Tahiti, no less. Bailey is a renaissance man who heads not only Paul Gauguin Cruises, but also Pacific Beachcomber, a company that owns and operates six hotels in French Polynesia.
For George Butterfield, the key to success started with a group of students, a gentle bike ride through Europe and a glass of wine. Since that trip in 1966, Butterfield, co- founder of Butterfield & Robinson, has built an empire of luxury adventure trips, with over 100 biking, hiking and boating trips across the globe and a team of experts who make his operation run “like a smooth engine in a car.” Loyalty and appreciation of employees, combined with his insight and attention to detail make Butterfield a clear choice for this year’s Leaders in Luxury Tour Operator.
With the anticipated opening of Montage Deer Valley, this year has been a big one for Montage Hotels and Resorts’ Founder and CEO Alan Fuerstman. With 30 years under his belt in the industry, there is little doubt that this property will continue the Montage tradition of raising the bar on traveling in high style.
Fuerstman looked at the industry 10 years ago and saw a gap that needed to be filled in a world dominated by Ritz-Carltons and Four Seasons. “I thought there was an opportunity for a smaller company,” he says. “That luxury could be best served by a company that wasn’t as large, and could be incredibly focused on the ultra high-end.” .
The editorial staff of Travel Agent and Luxury Travel Advisor is pleased to bestow these individuals with the recognition they deserve as they continue to change the face of the industry, setting new standards in selling luxury travel.
Richard Bailey, president and CEO of Paul Gauguin Cruises
From his home base in Tahiti, the president and CEO of Paul Gauguin Cruises runs a tight ship, with former Leaders in Luxury aboard as well.
Like romantics before him, Richard Bailey, president and CEO of Paul Gauguin Cruises, came to Tahiti and stayed because of a girl. Smart move. This year’s Leader in Luxury in the cruise category arrived in Tahiti in 1985, and is now settled there with his Tahitian wife and three kids. He not only heads Paul Gauguin Cruises, which operates the Paul Gauguin, a ship formerly under Regent Seven Seas’ direction, he is also the CEO of Pacific Beachcomber, an outfit that owns and operates six hotels in French Polynesia.
Life is pretty good for the 55-year-old Bailey, who hails from Louisiana. “I have come down from my home every day for work for the past 25 years, and I look out toward Marea and I see those colors, the lagoon, the ocean and it’s like I’m discovering it anew,” he tells Travel Agent. “I never get tired of it!”
Nor does he tire of expanding his portfolio. Paul Gauguin Cruises took over the Paul Gauguin from Regent in August 2009. “We knew a lot of people would be wondering who we were, what we knew about cruising and whether we could deliver the goods,” says Bailey. “Our first objective was to make certain we were not only maintaining the legacy of the ship’s excellence, but also improving upon it. We knew we might be facing a credibility gap, so we had a lot of people to convince.”
Prevail they did. While Paul Gauguin Cruises did not have access to Regent’s past guest information, it did have customer satisfaction surveys from the past decade. In September, the ship attained its highest customer satisfaction score in its 11 years of operation.
While the level of luxury will be the same as it was under Regent, Bailey is putting on his own stamp.
“It’s a question of expression,” he says. “Our goal is to place our superior destination knowledge at the service of our guest. We’ve added little bit more Polynesia into the product and made refinements. We had big shoes to fill; we knew that going in and we knew we had to raise the bar.”
The ship’s first dry dock will be in 2012, and will include environmental enhancements—something very important to Bailey. “We want to be best in sustainable development and responsible tourism,” says Bailey, a pioneer in this area. (The Brando, which opens in the second half of 2012, on Marlon Brando’s private island, Tetiaroa, promises to be a prototype for sustainability. “Our ambition is that it will be the holy grail of sustainable development,” says Bailey.)
Moreover, he says the ultimate goal is to be the best cruise offering in French Polynesia. Bailey does not hesitate to announce that Paul Gauguin is, indeed, looking to expand the fleet. “We do not feel we have finished our work in the cruise division of our portfolio,” he says. “We are keen on developing the cruise business.” And, why not? Bailey has assembled quite a sales and marketing team, namely former Windstar president Diane Moore, and David Morris and Marilyn Conroy, both of whom are past co-Leaders in Luxury winners.
At its simplest, luxury to Bailey is “all about smiling faces” and showcasing the romanticism of the South Sea Islands. “We are luxury in a remote and well-preserved environment,” he says. “It’s the luxury of visiting a place that is beautiful and culturally authentic.”
Taking it slow and enjoying the ride is the secret to Butterfield & Robinson’s success—and for its founder and CEO as well.
George Butterfield, founder and CEO of Butterfield & Robinson
George Butterfield believes that a life well-lived is a life slowed down—strolled, not sprinted—and it all started with a bicycle. In 1966, Butterfield, his wife Martha and her brother Sidney Robinson took a few students to Europe on a bike trip with no more of an itinerary than eating great food, sipping wine and stretching their legs along the rolling countryside. What began as a rural jaunt became a full-fledged tourism company—Butterfield & Robinson (B&R)—offering more than 100 biking, hiking and boating trips worldwide, from Morocco and Myanmar to Burgundy, the Berkshires and India.
“After starting B&R that first year, we had sales of $15,000, and we said, ‘This is great, let’s do it again,’” he says. “It remained a hobby for three or four years before the launch in 1970, but we got an amazing break in 1980 when we invented the idea of ‘bicycle and luxury.’ Bicycles were associated with poor people and youth hostels, and backpacking and roughing it. We wanted to ride our bicycles to the great chateaus and everyone said, ‘You do not understand. People come here in Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz and we said, ‘we’re going to show you something different.’ We got very lucky. We had seven trips in ’82 and 75 six years later.”
B&R provides a decidedly unique experience, one that has reinvented the concept of “luxury” by doing away with the ostentation and intimidation often associated with high-end travel and, rather, focusing on providing authenticity through a heightened sense of awareness of one’s surroundings.
“I don’t know what luxury is,” said Butterfield. “For me, it’s giving people time to slow down. When is the last time you just sat around having coffee and thought, ‘This is amazing—an hour and a half really well spent.’ It’s about lingering. And doing things graciously and in an amazingly fun way. It has something to do with cost but more with elegance, refinement and taste.”
Butterfield believes that the “middle ground” of any business is the toughest segment, and slippery as the concept is, luxury has had a long, successful past that fostered a market that will support an equally successful future.
“The place to be in any business is at the high end or where you mass produce,” Butterfield explained. “The ones in the middle scrap it out and make a living but it’s very competitive. In a business sense, your ideal place is to make a hamburger by the billions or like DB does, $90 a burger. The plethora of high-end objects in travel will continue. There will be brands that continue to break through.”
Butterfield attributes much of his own success and longevity to his team, but notes one must create a company that is both profitable and also has room for growth, allowing employees the sense of a growing future. According to him, the essence of a successful team is many different backgrounds that work together “like a smooth engine in a car,” exceeding the expectations of travel through ingenuity. “We are always pushing the envelope with new places, like with our program Places on the Verge,” said Butterfield. “We want to alert the world of the dangers and try to preserve these places and educate the travelers. We’re doing Iceland and Greenland this year. Everyone does their little bit and we try, too. [Luxury] is a culture of creativity.”
— Katie Tandy
Believing the destination is key to a successful luxury project, the founder and CEO of Montage Hotels & Resorts knows how to pick a winner.
Alan Fuerstman, founder and CEO of Montage Hotels & Resorts
Alan Fuerstman is a man who understands luxury. From the seductive streets of Beverly Hills to his pending Utah property amid the snowcapped mountains of Deer Valley, the founder and CEO of Montage Hotels & Resorts has successfully reinvented what it means to travel in ultra-high style.
Fuerstman, a 30-year industry veteran, founded the company in January 2002, but not before amassing a wealth of hospitality management experience, including a vice presidency with Bellagio in Las Vegas as well as serving as president and managing director for The Phoenician in Scottsdale, AZ, in addition to overseeing the El Conquistador Resort and Country Club in Tucson, as general manager. Finally, eight years ago, Fuerstman saw an opportunity to launch the Montage brand.
“Montage focuses on developing hotels and resorts, designed to reflect the community with a tremendous sense of place and authenticity, with a fanatical attention to detail,” says Fuerstman. “When I looked at the luxury environment in early 2000, it was dominated by Ritz-Carltons and Four Seasons, and the number of properties was 50, 60 and growing. I thought...that luxury could be best served by a company that wasn’t as large, that could be incredibly focused on the ultra high-end.”
The brand was unveiled in the sun-soaked sands of Laguna Beach, CA, with Fuerstman stressing the importance of opening a luxury property in a luxury destination rather than trying to create a destination through the launch of a brand—a futile endeavor.
“We found the most incredible site for a luxury hotel,” says Fuerstman. “Laguna Beach is right on the beach. Every room has an ocean view. What nature started with was such a huge advantage—it was the ideal platform to create Montage.”
While some properties pride themselves on ensuring their guests are totally cut off from their surroundings, Montage celebrates it, echoing everything from the natural landscape to the quintessential architecture of the area. In Beverly Hills, guests are greeted with Spanish Revival Architecture, evoking the Hollywood heyday of the 1920s and 1930s while in Montage’s newest property, Montage Deer Valley, set to open in December, a decadent, craftsman-style lodge comes with original artwork and a touch of whimsy.
Perhaps an even stronger testimony to the Montage brand is the loyalty of Fuerstman’s team, whose members maintained the integrity of the brand throughout the years, culling new industry leaders, and pursuing new destinations.
“We have incredible stability with the leadership of our company,” says Fuerstman. “People who started Montage with me are still with the company and have provided terrific guidance and helped us grow. We are well poised for additional growth, mentoring our talent and attracting more to join us from the finest in the industry.”
Montage continues to embody the original ideal, combining excellence in everything—from staff training to aesthetics. “Luxury is a culmination of many little things done extraordinarily well that leaves one with the feeling of needing to come back,” says Fuerstman.
Strong Travel Services has a reputation for getting things done that no one else can. So does its founder and CEO.
Nancy Strong, CEO of Strong Travel Services
When we talked to Nancy Strong of Strong Travel Services, she was getting ready to head off to London for dinner with Prince William. Two years ago, she said, it was dinner with Charles and Camilla at Buckingham Palace. “We’re old chums,” she says cheerfully about the royal family.
“Needless to say, it’s a tremendous honor,” she tells us when asked how she felt about the Leaders in Luxury award. “It’s always nice to be recognized by peers in the industry. I’m thrilled!”
When asked why she thinks she is being recognized, Strong replies, “My name and reputation have been far-reaching in the industry,. We all know the industry has gone through difficult changes over the years, and to be able to continue—and continue to do well—is a mark of success. I do believe I’ve been fortunate to be able to be standing and doing so well with all of the changes that have come down the pipe.”
With 35 years of experience, she has learned what makes an agent successful. “Making my clients happy, satisfied and appreciative of my services is always a good feeling of a job well done, and I get that all the time, so that makes me feel like I’ve accomplished what I set out to do in selling luxury travel.”
Her greatest challenge, she says, was the devastation of 9/11—not just the aftermath of fear and increased security, but the day itself. “We had a VIP who had gotten off his yacht in Monte Carlo,” she recalls. When he learned about what had happened in New York and Washington, he called Strong and told her he wanted to come home that very day. “I had to say, ‘Sir, there are no planes flying over America.’ I couldn’t believe I was saying that. It was unbelievable. But that’s how it was.” Challenges are a fact of the business, and Strong has had to deal with more than her share. “There are delays in flights, missed connects, weather—ash! We all went through ash!” she says, referring to the volcanic ash cloud that halted travel over Europe this spring.
What sets a luxury agent apart, she believes, is a personalized standard of service. “When you call my number, you get a human voice right away,” she says. “That’s service. I feel it’s a comfort level and service level that people appreciate.” On every trip, she tries to include a “wow factor,” which could be as simple as milk and cookies or champagne and flowers or just faxing a handwritten note to be delivered to the guest’s hotel room. “It’s like getting a letter from home,” she says. “It’s that connection. It’s staying in touch. It’s showing that you care about them.”
Strong’s career in travel has given her tremendous opportunities, from seeing the world to dining with royalty to riding everything from Jeeps to elephants and even ostriches. “I’ve had the opportunity to see many places,” she says, “and I’ve been able to come back and share with clients and encourage them to experience these things.”
— Jena Tesse Fox