Sanjay Saxena, Destination Himalaya chief exploratory officer and recipient of Condé Nast Traveler’s prestigious Top Travel Specialist award, is one of the world’s top travel advisors planning to participate in this year’s Luxury Travel Exchange International (LTX) Dec. 9-11 at The Palazzo in Las Vegas.
Saxena, who speaks Hindi and Nepali, designs adventure-packed itineraries featuring under-the-radar destinations and unusual experiences. Examples include whitewater rafting in Tibet or touring an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka. He also excels at crafting more traditional luxury trips.
How would you advise up-and-coming agents to identify good opportunities to specialize?
I don’t think it’s so much as “identifying new opportunities” as much as it's "positioning yourself” so that you can meet client expectation. To do that, you really have to travel yourself.
The most important thing that a new agent can do to stand out from the crowd is to be totally familiar with the destination and activity. You cannot organize any kind of special experiences if you don't know all the possibilities. Secondly, you have to be able to deliver what you promised, on the ground. In other words, your DMC partner needs to be on the same page and have equally high standard and local expertise.
You’ve built a name for yourself that essentially is a successful brand positioning. Can you tell us the story of how that came about?
I was very lucky as I grew up in an exotic land where everybody wants to travel to – India. My father was in the Indian Army, and as such we moved every couple years to a new location in India. Even before I was in college I had pretty much already seen most of the country. I started my career in the travel industry as a guide and operations person. The combination of overseeing ground operations and then actually guiding the tour gave me an excellent grounding and understanding of how to balance client needs with what is viable in the local marketplace, creating a series of “wow” experiences that make ordinary travel extraordinary.
The excitement of seeing something wondrous – the “wow” experience – was instilled in me as a young boy while on a school field trip. On a cold, frosty morning in northern India, I joined my friends for an introduction to astronomy. Peering through a telescope and for the first time actually seeing the majesty and awe-inspiring “real” image of Saturn, with its rings perfectly juxtaposed at an angle for maximum effect, literally took my breath away. That adventurous dawn was my ‘Eureka moment,’ my introduction to the “wow” experience.
Everyone in this business loves a good save. Do you have an example or story of interest for agents about how working with the right suppliers saved a situation with a client?
Just last year I had a small FIT – four friends – who were traveling through Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. They finished their Tibet portion and flew to Kathmandu on Monday. On reaching the 5-Star Yak & Yeti, they were informed that that hotel had stopped accepting travelers’ checks just the day before. The group had already run out of their supply of hard cash. For safety, they carried AmEx travelers checks. So now they were in Kathmandu with no cash and so they contacted me in a panic: How could they get access to more spending money? Their major expenses – hotel, transportation, and most meals – had been paid for ahead of time, but they’d need cash for souvenirs, tips, drinks and the like.
I immediately got in touch with my partner in Kathmandu and authorized him to advance the travelers as many rupees as they wanted. In turn I would send a wire to him to cover the advance and the clients would pay me back, upon their return to the U.S. Just like that, a problem that could prove quite frightening to an independent traveler with no local contacts in-country was solved with a single phone call.
Of course my risk management, safety protocols in place shine in case of a medical emergency or accident. A couple of years ago, one of the members in our National Geographic Expedition’s Pushkar tour started having pain and pangs in his chest. We had a retired doctor in the group who on examination declared that the patient was heading towards a heart attack and needed serious medical attention. My guide, in coordination with Delhi Office and me, got him to a village clinic that had a ECG machine, which confirmed the erratic heart condition. We arranged to have a medical plane fly to Jaisalmer and pick up the client. On arrival in Delhi, he went straight to Batra Heart Hospital, where they found a clogged artery and performed heart surgery, putting in a stent. Two weeks later he was well enough to fly back to California. All of this was done in 24 hours.
What do you hope to get out of LTX?
My company’s area of operation is currently limited to Asia, and I am expanding to Africa and South America. I hope to meet some top suppliers from those regions that have a similar work philosophy as mine that I can learn from and partner with to run tours.