Here they are: The future of the travel industry, the next generation of agents who will discover new places to go and new ways to connect with travelers. They exist in a 24/7 world of nonstop information, and communicate with each other, with other industry professionals and with clients through multiple platforms. They tweet. They share. They snap pictures and chat about their experiences. And they sell travel in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. They are Travel Agent’s top 30Under30 for 2014. Over the past several years this feature has created a buzz in the industry and also helped fuel a community of young professionals who enjoy being a part of a special growing niche in the travel industry. This year’s list of young agents, all of whom were under 30 when the year began, is a testament to our combined success.
We trust that by being named to this list, the selected young agents will be encouraged to stay in an industry that so clearly embraces new talent. We are also inviting them to participate, along with past “Under30” alumni, in our fifth annual Young Travel Leaders Conference during Luxury Travel Exchange International in Las Vegas. Now, read on for the 30 freshest and most innovative young travel agents in the business.
Mallory Bankson, 25
New York, NY
Mallory Bankson is a professional at problem solving. A speaker on the “Damage Control” panel at the Young Leader’s Conference in 2013, as well as a participant in the Conference’s steering committee that same year, she says the key to dealing with a travel crisis is to stay calm, be respectful and do something extra for the traveler to ease their mind.
Bankson joined Valerie Wilson Travel, part of the Virtuoso network, in October 2012 as a member of the house leisure team, and proved to be “a very quick learner,” says agency Co-President Kimberly Wilson Wetty. “There seems to be no client, destination or task that daunts her. But it is her genuine friendliness and happy demeanor that set her apart.”
Bankson’s pre-travel career was that of an account executive for a national boutique luxury-lifestyle publisher, selling advertising space for print and digital platforms, giving her the sales experience to eventually become a travel advisor.
“I am a firm believer that a successful salesman should be able to sell anything to anyone,” Bankson says. “In travel, keeping up with current trends and reading constantly is vital to success. Confidence plays a major role in leisure sales. We are expected to be an expert on ‘the world,’ so being able to speak to a client with assurance is crucial.”
She says demand has been up for Iceland, with summer being the peak season for the country. “This is the second year we have sent several families there on action-packed trips,” Bankson says. “Iceland is easy to get to with Delta and Icelandair offering daily direct flights from JFK and Newark. Another is Colombia. Though it is one of Latin America’s most visually remarkable and culturally vibrant countries, it is still trying to persuade travelers that it is safe to visit.”
Irving Betesh, 28
New York, NY
Irving Betesh knows what he does and does not like. He didn’t like working in the kids apparel/fashion industry, which he did for 10 years before leaving for the travel industry, where he has busied himself uncovering the inner workings of the business.
As the owner of IB Concierge, which recently merged with consortia Man of the World, Betesh was managing travel and concierge services for high-end clients across the world. He was involved with micro-managing how these luxury travelers had their luggage packed, ordered transportation, booked hotels, settled restaurant reservations and kept up-to-date on where his clients were and where they would be.
“My main focus is always to make everything as seamless as possible,” Betesh says. “The longer I work with my clients the easier it is, as I am able to have a sixth sense for them.”
Betesh has built himself a network of travelers and others in the industry, and prides himself on his ability to research a destination in a short amount of time. “My greatest resource is resourcefulness,” Betesh says. “I like to contact hotel concierges and pick their brains. I always call a few and look for common denominators.”
Recently, Betesh has put up numbers on large bookings, and has even received job offers from multiple companies, but he feels comfortable right where he is. “I love In The Know, and I couldn’t picture being anywhere else. It helps to make bookings for notable people. Customers assume if so-and-so is working with me, then I must be great!” Perhaps that’s one reason why agency owner Lia Batkin says, “Irving is the definition of ‘spunk.’ He truly is the next-generation travel consultant.”
Katie Blackstone, 24
As a specialist in Europe and Southern Africa, Katie Blackstone has been working for Travel Beyond for eight years. Beginning as an intern at 16, she worked her way up to the position of Travel Consultant after gaining copious amounts of administrative experience and, in the words of agency owner Craig Beal, “impressing her clients and coworkers with her maturity and expertise.”
Blackstone knows her colleagues are a great asset to have, so she turns to them for instant information if she is unfamiliar with a new destination or company. “I also use the Signature Travel Network, which we belong to, as a great resource to deal with additional questions,” she says. “I’m always working to develop relationships with different companies that we use.”
These relationships can mean the difference during crises. One of Blackstone’s clients was en route to a flooded property in a remote location in Africa, but thanks to her contacts at neighboring properties she was able to get the client’s itinerary moved nearby without halting their safari.
“If I receive any criticism from clients about a portion of their trip, I have two steps I always follow,” Blackstone says. “First, I reach out to our vendors and make sure they are aware of the situation and let them know how things should be handled in the future (for instance, if clients had an inadequate guide, I would request that the guide no longer work with future Travel Beyond guests). I then take the knowledge that my clients gave me and apply it to all of my future bookings to be sure the issue doesn’t come up again.”
Sarah Bush, 24
Sarah Bush is a travel concierge for boutique agency D Tours Travel, and works closely with company President Diana Hechler to learn the business—but her interest began before she was hired. Hechler, a family friend of Bush’s mother, would be present at local family gatherings and share her knowledge of the industry.
“I loved the idea of a job that actively called on so many of the skills and interests I was cultivating in college: research, people skills, cultural engagement, language, collaboration, economics, sustainability, entrepreneurship, writing, event planning and even graphic design,” Bush says.
Now, Hechler brings Bush on board for the research aspect of her projects, giving her experience in understanding destinations and the intricacies of working with clients and itineraries. One thing she has learned is that small favors can translate into big returns.
“We charge a flat consulting rate of $300 for everyone, but we waive it for honeymooners,” Bush says. “It’s a nice gift for them at such a special time in their lives, and it’s a great way to acquire new clients who have never worked with a travel professional before. It brings new, young clients in the door, and by the time they are back from their trip most clients feel like $300 is a good deal for the services we provide, and will come back for future trips. If a client comes to us with a very specific idea of what they want, and all we really have to do is book it for them, we tend to waive the fee as well since we don’t have to invest much time in their arrangements.”
Rachael Cansler, 25
Rachael Cansler entered the travel industry in 2010 as an assistant at Small World Travel/Brownell Travel, a Virtuoso and Tzell member. Cansler was studying film and television in college, and directed a documentary film in Colombia that went on to win several awards from her school and festivals. However, travel planning is what captured her interest, leading her to find Small World Travel and work her way up to the position of travel advisor.
“Both with my personal background in travel and coupled with the Small World Travel brand, as a young person I feel I help bridge expectations between generations, such as between parents and children,” Cansler says. She uses this attitude to think critically about what it is travelers in her generation and one generation ahead want out of travel and the booking experience.
“Our clients want to know where their money is going,” Cansler says. “By presenting them with a completely transparent proposal, as well as working with vendors who provide cost breakdowns, we can bring our values as travel advisors, in an actual dollar amount, into a much sharper focus and foster a more trusting and rewarding relationship with the client.”
Small World’s President/Founder Samantha McClure says, “Rachael’s attention to detail, and phenomenal working relationships with the top suppliers in the luxury space, give her and her clients an edge.”
Cansler says there is currently a surge of interest in Turkey, Greece and Iceland, and that is based entirely off client requests. “Airlines play a large role in where clients go, as more families prefer the most convenient itinerary possible,” she says. “Now that Turkish Airlines and British Airways offer nonstop service to Europe out of central Texas, we have seen an increase in travel to Istanbul, London and onward to connecting cities. Iceland has a one-stop route via New York as well.”
Marquetta Chambers, 28
Marquetta Chambers, an aspiring-nurse-turned-travel-agent, knows how to keep a client relationship healthy. The 28-year-old with Hill Barrett Travel, a Signature Travel Network agency, says the number one vaccine in preventing a booking crisis is keeping things simple.
“Mistakes are easy to make when you have complicated and extensive itineraries,” says Chambers. “I’ve learned to make a day-by-day itinerary in Excel to make sure I cover all necessary components and keep any unconfirmed or pending items highlighted. This has been a great way for me to make sure there aren’t forgotten rail tickets or tours that couldn’t be booked in advance.”
Before going full time in travel, however, she had ambitions to go into the medical field as a nurse. She had started working with Hill Barrett Travel in an administrative position while attending Bellevue College in Washington.
“Karimah and Alnoor, the owners, were very hands-on in training and sharing their travel experiences,” she says. “Their expertise and passion for travel had me changing my mind for the direction of my career path.”
Now, Chambers is focusing on designing luxury leisure travel plans for honeymoon/romance clients, booking destination weddings, and even does her share of family travel.
“Many of my clients are just getting settled into their careers and are eager to see the world,” she says. “It’s exciting to be able to explore different destinations with them and delve into unique places. The Millennial travelers are looking for value without sacrificing luxury. They want nice hotels and resorts, but they don’t want exorbitant prices or a lot of added-on fees/costs like Wi-Fi or parking.”
And where are these clients going?
“From Seattle, anywhere with warm weather and picturesque beaches have always been popular destinations, but I am finding more travelers who want to skip the usual Hawaii trip and would rather see more exotic beaches such as the Maldives or Fiji,” she says. “I also have a lot of very active clients who still want beaches, so Nicaragua and Belize are more prominent than usual.”
Katie Cherico, 23
New York, NY
Katie Cherico may not have always wanted to be a travel agent, but her knack for planning a good time was too much to ignore. After graduating from Villanova with a double major in marketing and management, and a minor in international business, she started her professional career as a marketing coordinator for the Joy Wai Gallery in Chelsea, NY. At Joy Wai, she organized openings and exhibits and drafted the gallery’s first marketing plan.
She later joined Hill Country Hospitality as the events coordinator, helping to produce weddings and coordinate notable onsite parties such as the Big Apple Barbecue, New York Food and Wine Festival, and Saturday Night Live after-parties.
Now going on her second year at In the Know Experiences, a Virtuoso agency, she is responsible for key house accounts and leisure travel trips around the globe. She now specializes in Napa Valley, New York City, Europe, Scandinavia and South America and books travel for high-profile clients from royalty to celebrities.
“In my free time, I am constantly traveling, searching for interesting galleries, great local hot spots, and fantastic restaurants,” says Cherico. “Consequently, my clients value my opinions and experiences, and know that I will be able to offer in-trend recommendations. I also love to share my experiences with friends, family and clients through photos on Facebook and Instagram.”
She has established a fee structure that is “dependent on the level of service to the client,” she says. “If I am just asked to book a hotel room, the booking is free of charge. I do charge a fee for flights, which is dependent on the destination. For full itinerary planning, my rates start at $200 per person. We also offer a membership model with an annual fee, which is dependent on the level of service selected [hotel reservations and airline bookings vs. full concierge services, etc.].”
Laura Crafton, 23
While attending Belmont University in Nashville, TN, Laura Crafton got her big break in the travel industry as an intern for SmartFlyer, a Virtuoso agency that was just beginning to expand its Atlanta branch. In January, her newfound career took a pleasant twist when her company received news that SmartFlyer was purchasing one of the most esteemed agencies in Atlanta, Explorations.
The two entities joined forces with a talented, well-respected and experienced team. Crafton’s roll for the company is two-part. She is a travel advisor as well as the manager for the SmartFlyer Atlanta office.
“Having a better understanding of how an agency works has given me a lot of insight into the travel industry as a whole and I believe it has made me a better agent,” she says. “Having more opportunities to meet with vendors face-to-face has also been very beneficial, not only for me but for my clients.”
One of the first lessons about the industry that she learned, early on in her travel career, was the importance of being meticulous.
“People come to us to make sure that things go smoothly during their travels and I never want there to be any sort of inconvenience due to a mistake I have made,” says Crafton. “I am constantly double-checking myself and trying to be organized with even the tiniest of details. Of course, mistakes happen, and I won’t pretend that I have not made them. The most important thing, I think, is to be completely transparent with your clients and prove to them that you are willing to go above and beyond in finding a solution.”
Managing Director Erina Pindar lauds Crafton’s “fearless attitude [and] entrepreneurial spirit,” noting that, “Since day one, Laura has been eager to learn and immerse herself into every aspect of this industry.”
Carissa Cummings, 25
Garden Grove, CA
Carissa Cummings is a great example of a young agent using today’s technology to get a leg up. After all, it was through a Skype conversation that she got her big break in the industry.
Prior to working at Coastline Travel, a Virtuoso agency, Cummings was completing her Master’s program in ancient history and classical archaeology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. During her university career abroad, she was fortunate to travel extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa over holidays.
“As my final year approached, I felt that a position within the travel industry would fit well with my passion for travel, as well as my academic interests,” she says. “Through a mutual connection, I was put in touch with Jay Johnson at Coastline Travel, who offered me some advice and guidance in getting into the industry.”
After several Skype conversations, Johnson offered her a position at his company upon completion of her studies. She started working there a few months later and, given her prior travel experience in Europe, naturally gravitated toward specializing in custom FIT travel throughout the Continent. She has since taken on South Asia and South America as well.
“Carissa has worked at Coastline for three years and consistently proven exceptional skills, knowledge, and intuition in the travel industry,” says Johnson, the agency’s president. “Her ambition is limitless, and I cannot wait to see her continue to shape the future of the travel industry.”
Most recently, she has been nominated this year for Virtuoso’s Rising Star Award for 2014. But she is well aware that there’s always room to grow.
“When I am confronted with a destination that I do not know as well as I would like to…I am always very upfront with clients by letting them know that I am not as familiar with it, but will go off and do some more homework and research on their behalf.”
Caitlyn Gambino, 23
Ann Arbor, MI
When it comes to improving her skills as a travel agent, especially regarding a destination that you perhaps haven’t mastered yet, Caitlyn Gambino knows if you ask, you shall receive.
“Questions, questions, questions,” was her answer when asked about selling unfamiliar destinations or just overcoming general roadblocks in selling travel. “Before even opening my mouth with any recommendation or opinions, I squeeze as much information out of the clients as possible. What are they looking for? Past experiences? Preferences? Budget? Until I can visualize what it is they want. Then I let them know that in order to plan the perfect trip for them, I’d like to take some time to work on it and get back to them.”
Before graduating from Michigan State University, her mind was set on taking off and traveling the world before having to pay off her student loans unless a career opportunity happened to come along.
“Searching my university’s job posting site, I came across a posting for a travel agent internship for the Auto Club Group,” she says. “I applied, went through the interview process, and I got it. It was a three-month program and basically a crash course in all things travel.”
After the internship, she took her newfound knowledge and applied for a full-time position with AAA. Of the roughly 300 people who applied for the internship, only five, including Gambino, now have full time positions as agents with AAA.
“Caitlyn’s enthusiasm for travel is refreshing,” says Mickey Maniaci, district director, AAA MI Field Operations. “Her passion is shared with customers, and they feel their dream vacation come alive while booking with her. In today’s travel environment, finding value in booking with a travel agent can be questionable. From uncovering safe, less-traveled roads, to experiencing those little gems in favorite cities/countries around the world, Caitlyn has learned quickly how to rise above online competition and show true value in a knowledgeable travel professional.”
Diana Garles, 25
Cedar Falls, IA
In her third year as a travel advisor, Diana Garles has already risen to a leadership position at Humble Travel Service, Ltd., a member of Virtuoso. Garles was promoted to assistant manager after only one year with the company, which, in addition to her duties as a travel advisor, includes responsibility for being part of the marketing team, assisting with staff training and taking charge of planning for the company’s Alaska Cruise Show. Additionally, Garles has carved out a niche as the company’s “go-to” person for technical and GDS issues.
Garles calls her philosophy “Speaking Your Language,” which draws from lessons she learned during her courses in theater and foreign languages.
“We learn as advisors to qualify our clients, but how the clients qualify themselves is also important to notice and appreciate,” says Garles. “Because we are a family-owned agency, we market ourselves as a travel resource for the community; we focus on creating personal relationships, because our clients are also our neighbors.”
Garles has already put this empathetic technique to use in retaining clients. In one instance, Garles was responsible for booking travel for a couple heading to the Dominican Republic and their child flying to stay with his grandparents. Garles neglected to inform the airline that an unaccompanied minor would be flying, which delayed the parents’ travel to the Dominican Republic during a nasty bout of winter weather.
“Upon their return, I wrote them a very honest and apologetic e-mail explaining my errors due to lack of experience, and how I planned to remedy this in the future,” says Garles. “My clients were so impressed with my integrity that they decided to book with me again for their vacation the following year.”
Louisa Gehring, 29
Louisa Gehring has brought the experience of a diverse career, from marketing manager for Capital One and the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism to running her own military care package business, to launch her career with Brownell Travel, a Virtuoso and Tzell agency.
“As a former marketing manager, my personal brand has developed quite naturally,” says Gehring. “I capitalize on my ability to listen to what clients really want, and match their desires to the perfect customized itinerary.”
In her time with Brownell, Gehring has “embraced the Brownell ‘Discover More’ process and expertly guides her clients through each step,” lauds Meg North, the agency’s executive vice president, who adds that “Louisa is raising the bar as we welcome new entrants to the role of Travel Advisor.”
Gehring has also learned to rely on a trusted network of preferred suppliers and colleagues to help her clients. For example, one honeymooning client slipped and fractured his spine in the Greek islands. After landing in emergency surgery in Athens, the clients discovered that they had left their bags and ID on the island, and that hotels in Athens were filled up due to a conference in town.
“I instinctually wanted to solve the problem myself, and tried in vain to find hotel space,” Gehring says. “After wasting four hours with no luck, I called my trusted partner in Greece. He arranged for their possessions to be sent straight to the hospital and relayed messages directly from the surgeon throughout the recovery, so that I could be informed without bugging my clients. He used his connections in Athens to find an available room, saving the day both for me and my clients.”
|Dane Steele Green|
Dane Steele Green, 30
New York, NY
Already a veteran of marketing with JetBlue and Alitalia Airlines, Dane Steele Green founded Steele Luxury Travel, a member of Virtuoso, in 2007 with an emphasis on LGBT luxury travel. Since then, Green has built a large roster of clients that includes exclusive work for the Life Ball benefit in Vienna, The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Wild Life Australia Fund.
“Last year, Steele Luxury Travel was the official travel partner in producing a full buy-out of Sandy Lane in Barbados for over 200 guests,” says Green. “The only other time this occurred was when Tiger Woods got married—the event went off without a hitch.”
Green’s agency has attracted attention from a diverse array of consumer outlets. Most recently, South African Tourism chose Green to represent luxury travel in the region as a judge on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice. Additionally, the agency has participated in International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) and an exclusive Virtuoso study tour to New Zealand. Green has also been featured in The New York Times, Wired Miami, Crain’s and The Wall Street Journal.
Who does Green look to for inspiration in the travel industry? “One name: Richard Branson,” says Green. “He is an innovator who revolutionized the industry. He took this industry and added sex, sophistication and class back into the mix. This brilliant man owns hundreds of companies and still manages to place a personal touch and experience to all of his travel brands and products. As I am under 30, I look forward to learning more from Mr. Branson and soon expanding the Steele brand.”
Maja Gudelj, 25
After joining Select Italy (a MAST and OSSN member) as an intern, Maja Gudelj was able to land a role developing an entirely new brand within the company.
“When I first took the job at Select Italy, Croatia was a small project in the works,” says Gudelj. “I was lucky to have a boss at the time, Andrea, the company owner and founder, who let me work on developing it into a full department within the company, expanding our offer into this new destination, and finally turning it into a brand of its own—Select Croatia.” By the end of this year, Gudelj expects to double sales for the new brand.
This venture is already winning praise both within Gudelj’s agency and outside the company. “Clients’ positive feedback in general, on Croatia as a whole, makes me very excited about my job and very proud of my heritage,” she says. “One of my most valued comments came from a travel writer for whom I organized a vacation in Croatia: ‘Our travel consultant, Maja, was terrific. Her depth of knowledge helped us create a custom trip that we will remember as one of our best vacations.’ Coming from someone who travels for a living and a travel industry peer, her comment made me feel extra special.”
“I have had the pleasure of working with Maja since she transitioned from product development to sales,” says Beth Rubin, sales manager, Select Italy. “She is a rare employee who understands how to listen and not take constructive criticism personally, but rather to use it and learn from it. She blossomed almost immediately and all of the clients that work with her love her. She single-handedly built the Croatia product and used her own time and contacts to produce an excellent product, and launch Select Croatia—one of the few operators specializing in the Croatian market.”
Christian Avery Harris
Christian Avery Harris, 27
Chapel Hill, NC
Since joining Viking Travel, a member of Ensemble Travel Group, in 2012, Christian Avery Harris has already begun making waves in the company’s marketing presence.
Harris, who goes by Avery to his friends and colleagues, has overseen a complete revamping of the agency’s website and initiated a new digital marketing campaign. “I have also been active with Viking Travel’s local Chamber of Commerce as well as business leaders in the community,” he says, “communicating the service and expertise our agents provide.”
Harris’s two favorite industry figures are Richard Branson, “an innovator who changed the course of the travel industry with fresh ideas,” he says, and inventor/entrepreneur Elon Musk, “a figure who is furthering the growth of humanity in a positive way.”
In terms of his top picks for emerging destinations, Harris says, “Most Viking Travel clients want to see Western Europe, the Caribbean, or Mexico. We are seeing more interest in SE Asia, and the southern Pacific.”
“Avery Harris has been an employee of Viking Travel, Chapel Hill, NC since 2012,” says Jean Holcomb, president of the agency. “His initiative in marketing skills has been invaluable to the agency, and his ability to adapt to varied client expectations—whether domestic or international—has been outstanding. Well-traveled since a teenager, he has furthered his destination knowledge through webinars and independent research. Avery has also profited from attending our Ensemble Association annual conference, returning with fresh ideas and enthusiasm for the industry. I highly endorse Avery Harris as a rising star in the Travel Industry.”
Abigail Lauren, 25
A client stuck in Germany because his flight was canceled made his first call to Abigail Lauren, an independent contractor affiliated with Brownell Travel, a Virtuoso and Tzell agency. “I told him to relax, have a beer and I would take care of it,” Lauren says. Working with Virtuoso’s air desk, she secured the last two business class seats on a flight via London. The client arrived in the U.S. only one hour behind schedule. She also worked with the airline to process a refund.
It was just another day on the job for this former language arts teacher who also previously managed a mentoring program for at-risk athletes. Operating under a personal LLC, Abigail Lauren
Travel, and based in Fort Collins, Colorado, today she tailors dream trips for clients—listening to what they say, finding out why they’re interested in a particular destination, asking questions, and using Brownell’s fellow advisors and Virtuoso’s onsite resources to create one-of-a-kind trips, such as a recent two-week private tour of Israel and the Holy Land for a client.
As one of the youngest advisors Brownell has ever taken on, “She hit the ground running in her first year by doubling the average income for advisors within the first six months,” lauds Rebecca Wilson, Brownell Travel’s senior advisor for hosting and mentoring.
Promotion-wise, her business cards reflect multiple brands, including her own—prominent in Colorado—as well as Brownell and Virtuoso. A social media whiz, Lauren uses Facebook to send out Virtuoso offers and post blogs, plus she taps social media and advertising to push traffic to her website. A key promotional partnership is with 5280 Magazine, a Denver area luxury magazine, from which she buys print and digital ads and provides gifts for event gift bags.
Marcus Lee, 24
Cruising the ocean blue is a top sales focus for Marcus Lee. Although he books land vacations, “one of my specialties is selling cruises—group and FIT,” he says. In March 2014, he took a group of first-time cruisers on a western Caribbean cruise onboard Royal Caribbean International’s Independence of the Seas.
Lee’s clients loved the cruise, so he’s set up another and will make these spring break group cruises an annual affair. “Although I sell to travelers of all ages, I have developed my personal brand as a young travel advisor by targeting the 18-to-40 age group,” Lee says. He routinely books spring break trips, bachelor parties, girlfriend getaways, honeymoons and Millennial travel.
From a young age, Lee traveled with his parents Robert and Adrienne Lee, owners of Here2there Travel, so “it was quite natural for me to begin working for our family-owned agency.” He’s watched them build and run the agency. They’ve taught him about evolving trends and customer service.
“Although he is active in every aspect of our operation, he is especially valuable in capturing business from the 18-40 age group,” Adrienne Lee says. “He knows what appeals to them and how they communicate.” Lee successfully markets the agency via Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, photos and YouTube videos.
One “lesson learned”? Last year, he booked a group trip with air to an all-inclusive Cabo San Lucas resort. Upon airport check-in, one Vietnamese client’s passport didn’t exactly match the name he’d given Lee for the ticket. Lee paid the “ticket change” fee, but now requires all clients to provide a passport photocopy before he books any air.
Lauren Marinos, 24
Striving to create perfect travel experiences is leisure travel consultant Lauren Marinos. Recruited via her LinkedIn profile, she joined the Signature Travel Network agency after graduation from Texas A&M. She books everything from multigenerational Caribbean group cruises to budget Southeast Asia honeymoons, from ski getaways to river cruises.
“Not only do I arrange services such as private touring, I also set up special moments such as a private dinner on the beach or amenity gifts in hotel rooms that help remind my clients why they chose to work with an agent rather than book on their own,” Marinos says.
Andy James, the agency’s manager, says: “Lauren has established an excellent rapport with our customers in person and on the phone and is willing to take on extra responsibilities when asked.”
Believing “social media is such a great tool for travel agents,” Marinos has posted Facebook promotions and travel tidbits that have generated new bookings. She’s learned from Signature Travel Conference sessions, vendor meetings and co-workers, including Jean Campbell, noting they’ve mentored her and provided good destination insight. “The more details I can get my hands on, the better,” says Marinos.
While most trips go smoothly, one of her toughest challenges involved 80 people she’d booked into an all-inclusive resort in Los Cabos, Mexico. “Evidently the group was not behaving well and the resort threatened to kick them out halfway through their stay,” she stresses. “I immediately contacted the tour operator, who then had their representative meet with the group leader in person.” After the kinks were worked out, the group leader called to thank Marinos.
Meredith Martin, 29
Meredith Martin and her husband, Damien Martin, followed family friends Michael and Barbara King, owners of Great Getaways Travel, a Virtuoso agency, to new careers. Moving from Alabama to Kansas City, the couple planned to intern at the agency for a year, but “to our delight, Damien and I have been fast-tracked and are beginning to create our own book of business,” Meredith Martin says.
“When I find a person who is committed and passionate about travel, I know they’ll quickly master the basics and become a superstar,” says Barbara King, co-president, Great Getaways. Martin, who holds a Master’s degree and is a Virtuoso Certified Travel Advisor, is described by King as a cheerful, organized, enthusiastic self-starter, someone eager to tap into training webinars, live seminars and consortia connections. With mentoring by the agency’s senior advisors, Martin has been a hit from the get-go. She received a thank-you note from her first customer.
Through memberships in two chambers of commerce, Martin seeks to meet more than three new contacts at every function, asks where they’d desire to travel, and e-mails them travel tidbits with a “thought you’d enjoy this” note. She believes in “practice, practice, practice” and being honest with clients. If she hasn’t been to a destination, she says so, but explains that another agency advisor likely has and also touts Virtuoso’s partnerships.
Great Getaways has a saying that “prescription before diagnosis is malpractice,” so Martin tries to slow down and qualify the client via a specific list of questions. A personal passion is voluntourism. She’s already connected one supplier with a charity assembling food packages and is developing a directory of client voluntourism options.
Rebecca Norrbom, 26
Las Vegas, NV
Jumping to “the other side” has proven a rewarding adventure for Rebecca Norrbom. Previously an inside sales manager for Viking Cruises, she worked closely with travel agents. Moving to Las Vegas from Los Angeles, “I knew I wanted to see what being a travel advisor was all about.” Highly dedicated to “being there” for clients, she now plans FIT travel from start to finish, including air, private touring, visa applications, travel insurance, show tickets and personalized arrangements.
One Saturday morning, she awakened to an e-mail from clients headed to a European cruise who had insisted on declining travel insurance and booking their own flights. Stuck on the East Coast, re-routed without a complete flight schedule, they were worried. “I helped talk her down from her panic and called Crystal Cruises’ emergency line,” recalls Norrbom, who coordinated and communicated. When the clients arrived in Europe on embarkation day, their re-arranged transfer was waiting.
Bonnie Crosby, co-owner, Holiday Cruises & Tours (a member of Signature Travel Network), describes Norrbom as a self-directed “superstar” who’s helped the agency “go social” and eagerly attends webinars, seminars and conferences. Promotion-wise, the young advisor has created new agency marketing initiatives, helped coordinate the agency’s first luxury travel show in more than five years and established its presence on Instagram and Facebook.
Active with the Signature Young Advisors’ Community Facebook group, Norrbom also serves as officer of development for the Las Vegas chapter of Millennials in Travel and is author of a personal brand blog, www.another dayintravel.com. “We have nicknamed her ‘Google Girl,’” quips Crosby, adding she’d really like to clone her.
Tina Romano, 28
Six years in the banking industry stood Tina Romano in good stead. “The regular contact with customers and the need to watch the details completely prepared me for the transition [to travel],” she says.
Romano has been at FROSCH for two years now, and while the “constant flow of detailed-oriented tasks has been a joy,” there have been a few bumps along the way. A guided tour booked as part of a client’s Paris trip was supposed to be conducted by an English-speaking person. “However, to the disappointment of my client, the guide only spoke Spanish. I thought that I had double-checked with the tour operator…but I simply did not. My approach to handle my apology to the client included contacting the tour operator to let them know of the situation so that in the future it could be a reminder to both the operator and myself to do a better job at crossing the ‘t’s’ and dotting the ‘i’s.’”
Because she was up-front about her mistake and did everything she could to make it right, “I truly believe that my client understood and will have faith in trusting me with their trips in the future,” she says.
Romano, who Office Manager Joanne Esplin calls “an incredible example of not only the future of Frosch but also the travel industry as a whole,” is a firm believer in ongoing education. She has completed many supplier training courses, including the College of Disney Knowledge, and attended Disney’s Earmarked Conference for travel agents this past year. “I am now known as the Disney Expert in the office,” she says.
While preparing to get married in the fall, she kicked off “a very exciting event” at a wedding exposition. “I was able to send an invitation to several tour operators to join in on the advertising, which ultimately offset some of my company’s costs of obtaining the booth at the show,” Romano says. “It was the first time that I could see the development of a personal brand.”
Ben Rosenkrantz, 29
La Jolla, CA
Ben Rosenkrantz did not intend to follow in the footsteps of his parents, who are both agents at Cadence. He was working toward a graduate degree in Homeland Security at San Diego State when, he says, “I spent some time assisting my parents with a bit of their work overflow. I couldn’t have predicted how much I enjoyed the process of planning travel for others and how quickly I adapted to managing the details.”
One of those details is dealing with crises that crop up from time to time. “Fixing it is only half of the solution,” Rosenkrantz says, “I’ve learned that communication is the most important factor in a crisis, with both clients and vendors. Even if you’re working on their behalf 100 percent, you’ve lost that opportunity to reassure them if you’re not communicating every step of the way.”
When things go as planned, he enjoys “following up with a client upon their return and having them demand to meet face-to-face to tell me about the experience. It really drives home that we get the opportunity to help people make unforgettable memories, stories they will be telling for the rest of their lives.”
Being the youngest travel advisor at Cadence, Rosenkrantz tends to attract the younger clients “whose needs I relate to, as well as referrals from our millennial employees and their circles.”
His efforts have not gone unnoticed by Wendy Burk, the agency’s CEO and founder, who points out that, “As one of the few travel advisors who work directly from our headquarters in San Diego, the majority of our employees benefit from his humor, intelligence and perspective on a daily basis.” And, she adds, because his mother, Jane Rosenkrantz, is one of Cadence’s top sellers, “Ben has the mindset of an extraordinary travel advisor instilled in him. We are so looking forward to watching him grow into a leader in the travel community.”
Loreal Shea, 23
After graduating from Wake Forest University in May 2013, Loreal Shea was unsure what her next step in life would be when, “I came across Annie Fitzsimmons’ article in Forbes, ‘Dream Job: How to Become a Luxury Travel Advisor.’ I related to nearly everything in the article, having previously worked as a Study Abroad Peer Advisor.”
The article linked Shea to that year’s Travel Agent’s 30Under30. “Seeing the younger, relatable faces and stories, I began to see myself in a similar role.” When she contacted some of the winners for advice, “The one common response I received was that I should search for a position at a host agency belonging to a well-established consortium such as Virtuoso.” She took that advice to heart and became Rudi Steele Travel’s youngest luxury travel advisor.
“My specialty is customized personal itineraries where no two trips that I sell are the same…experiential travel that fully immerses my clients in their destination. “ Along the way she has discovered that the devil is in the details.
“The mistakes that I have made usually are from missing small details,” she says. “I try to learn from each mistake by creating forms and check-lists that will remind me of each aspect of someone’s trip.”
After only a few months in the industry, she was invited to a think tank held by Hyatt in San Francisco, an honor that, she says, “made me feel truly welcomed into the travel industry. It was specifically designed for young travel professionals who were predicted to have an impact on the industry in the future.”
More important to her is the recognition by her clients, such as “reading an e-mail from a blissful groom during his honeymoon commenting on how perfect everything ended up being for him and his new wife.” Better still is receiving referral clients. “I know then that I must have done something right.”
Jessica Siregar, 29
Jessica Siregar is “a rising star” who “exhibits all of the qualities we strive for in the next generation in travel,” says Largay President Amanda Klimak. “She is not afraid to put herself out there with her blog, ideas and own personal unique brand.” Not bad for someone who came by the job by Googling, having, after some uninspiring years in corporate sales and marketing, “nothing to lose.”
“I Googled luxury travel in my area and found this awesome website of a Virtuoso agency called Largay Travel right in my hometown. After receiving an appointment to meet with the managers, I created an unmerciful PowerPoint of all the marketing I have been successful in with other industries”—she has a degree in Public Relations/Journalism from the University of Rhode Island—“though I knew very little about selling travel. “Siregar was hired and, less than two years later, she became the marketing manager. “I create newsletters, flyers, promotions, events, and support technology campaigns through e-mail and social media for our more than 50 advisors,” she says. “I also have the pleasure of making travel dreams come true for friends and family as I continue to educate and gain experience through Largay and Virtuoso.”
Siregar, who will be a full-time travel advisor this fall, began promoting her personal brand even before coming to Largay.
“During my year away from corporate America, I began a [travel] blog, ‘The Jeskimo,’ and taught myself how social media and analytics worked. I was able to grow my visitors to more than 1,200 a month and I promote my posts through Facebook and Instagram.” She was also part of Virtuoso’s first certified travel advisor class, which enabled her to “dig deep into my personal brand and create a more sophisticated and updated version of my blog: ‘Wildcat Adventure,’ living life in love of epic journeys with touches of luxury.” A new blog and relaunch will be coming in 2015.
Justine Sjurseth, 25
Before becoming a travel agent, Justine Sjurseth worked as a florist for several years, “And I had grand ideas of becoming a wedding/event coordinator. When I realized there wasn’t too much of a market for that in my town, I thought ‘well, planning travel is basically event planning.’” So she dropped off an application at Travel Leaders, got the job, and now, “I can’t imagine myself doing anything different.”
Not surprisingly, Sjurseth has become a honeymoon specialist. “This year especially, I am noticing many more referrals from past honeymoon clients, and I’m easy to find online. If you search for a honeymoon specialist in Brookings, SD, I will almost always come up at the top of that search.” Having good online presence is key to her success, she says. “If people don’t know what you do, they aren’t going to be nearly as likely to send you an e-mail or pick up the phone and call you.”
“In the past we have seen very little response from our website and our bridal shows,” says agency manager Karen Gores, “but since Justine has come onboard we have seen a significant sales increase from both.” For her part, Sjurseth praises Gores’ patience with her as a newcomer, being “always willing to answer my 101 questions.”
When Sjurseth faced a challenge a while back, it led to an important revelation. Freezing weather caused a flight delay that resulted in her clients missing the first day of their cruise to the Bahamas, so, “I worked with the cruise line and flew them to the Bahamas to meet their ship the next day. We were also able to put them up in a really nice hotel for the night at no extra charge to them. When they returned, they couldn’t wait to go on another cruise! That was the first time I really understood the value of a travel agent and what I have to offer.”
Danielle Stephens, 29
Danielle Stephens began her travel career at Harmon Travel in September 2013. She particularly appreciates having clients come to her with unfamiliar destinations.
“I am fascinated with the world and love learning about new destinations,” she says. “I am confident in selling new destinations because I know I have access to some great resources. I start by asking around the agency and also reach out to my mentor to see if they can recommend a destination specialist or supplier. I also enjoy doing my own research by looking online, recording TV shows, and reading travel magazines.”
Research has also helped Stephens solve complicated problems: “I got a call from my client two nights before departure and he realized his passport was expired,” she recalls. “I quickly reached out to resources and was told it was impossible to get it renewed in time. I wouldn’t settle for that answer so I researched every avenue possible. I ended up finding a company that would pick up the passport after I cargo-shipped it on a flight, and would take it and pick it up from the embassy and then cargo-ship it back to my client in time for his layover in Chicago.”
“Being part of the Signature Network has been very beneficial,” Stephens adds, “and has given me access to tons of great resources. I am not afraid to ask for help and have found everyone is very quick to offer advice.”
Agency owners Bob and Barbara Harmon have high praise for Stephens’ ability to book complicated itineraries, ambition and attention to detail. “She is the breath of fresh air that our agency needed.”
Paul Stroncek, 27
Boca Raton, FL
Paul Stroncek has been with WMPH (We Make People Happy) Vacations since November 2011. “Everything pertaining to our client’s reservation after they book falls into my hands: planning, registration, documentation, advice, answers, etc.,” he says of his work. If a destination is unfamiliar, he gets advice from agents who have traveled there first. Then, he says, he researches “heavily” using online resources, including Google, YouTube, travel blogs, testimonials and reviews.
WMPH has found success in charging fees for their collective expertise. “If you have to cancel your cruise-only vacation, our agency’s cancellation fee doubles as a future cruise credit,” Stroncek says. “You can apply it towards your next cruise booked through WMPH Vacations for up to a year.”
Ericka Walker, manager of client services at WMPH, calls Stroncek “a positive influence and role model for our team. He comes to work early and leaves late, he is energetic and fun to be around. He was recently promoted to Senior Client Relations Representative because of his energy, expertise, and because he makes clients extremely happy. I know, because of his expertise and attitude and our great service team, we are able to build personal relationships with our valued clients when he [and others here] consistently exceed our valued clients’ expectations.”
Suzy Xiu, 23
New York, NY
“My entire life, I have been passionate about traveling abroad and learning about new destinations,” Xiu says. “I was born in Beijing, but moved to New Orleans at age five, where a mix of French and Spanish cultures influenced my appreciation for foreign cultures. At Johns Hopkins, I pursued International Studies in order to further develop my understanding of the world, and during that time I sought out experiences living in France, Italy, and China.”
At FROSCH, Xiu focuses on upscale travelers with high expectations. Living up to those expectations can sometimes be a challenge: “On my first week with Private Client Services, I took on a massive trip involving no less than 50 high-end clients traveling to multiple destinations around Europe. Needless to say, it was overwhelming and mistakes were made. However, I soon found that I enjoyed that kind of high-stress environment because it teaches you to be sharper, to anticipate the client’s needs before they’re even conscious of it themselves. When crises arise, our worth as agents is also made apparent, as we are there to resolve the problems and leave the clients free to enjoy their trip without the headache.”
Xiu calls Karen Schueller, director of Private Client Services, her mentor at Frosch, and Schueller also has high praise for Xiu: “Her education in International Studies and various languages is tailor-made to handling the daily challenges of the luxury lifestyle market...She has developed strategies that have effectively boosted our business intake and streamlined our back-of-house processes. Her professionalism, desire and knowledge are unmatched in anyone her age, making it easy to predict her continued growth and success in the luxury lifestyle corner of the travel industry.”
Anna Yott, 28
Prior to becoming a travel consultant, Yott regularly went on vacations to warmer climates in winter. “Many of my friends and co-workers would often ask for my advice when planning their trips,” she recalls. “After helping plan a few trips and itineraries I naturally arrived to the point where I realized I wanted to take my passion for travel to the next level. Although I had no prior sales or travel industry experience, I was motivated to make this dream a reality. I started doing a lot of research and began making calls and reading everything I could about becoming a travel consultant.”
After four years with Dream Come True, Yott has learned how to handle a range of emergencies. Recently, a large family was going on a cruise. “They were departing from Florida in mid-February and, although I advised otherwise, they did not choose to purchase trip insurance for their cruise, or depart a day early,” she recalls. “A large winter storm hit the morning they were scheduled to fly out and board the ship. Their flight was majorly delayed and after scrambling with the airport/airline schedules I was able to get them on a last-minute connecting flight. Next I contacted and begged with their transfer operators to wait for them and, thankfully, they boarded the ship with about five minutes to spare! I know in the future that I may have clients who will choose not to add on trip insurance or depart earlier prior to a cruise, even when advised otherwise. However, I have this story to use as an example of what can go wrong, and can urge them to again rethink the worst case scenario.”
Joe Raube, president at Dream Come True, praises Yott’s drive and ambition and initiatives, from starting her own blog to being one of the first on the team to make her IATA ID qualification. “Her dependability and expert knowledge led me to promote her to an administrative role within the agency. I can always count on Anna to come through with the sale or new idea to help the agency grow.”
Cat Zuniga, 28
Cat Zuniga currently owns Tarverdi Travel and works for TropicalTravel.net as a home-based agent. “I have been in the travel industry for seven-and-a-half years now,” she says, and she is now in charge of all marketing and sales. “So I am continuously evolving campaigns and promotions, as well as aggressively selling travel.”
Zuniga started off as a part of a franchise with a larger company, and branched off to learn more and specialize in areas that she found interesting. She joined TropicalTravel.net with hopes to take over once the owner retires. “For the past four years, I have been working alongside the owner in sales and other various aspects of the business. All the while, I am growing and building my business name [Tarverdi Travel], so my client-base is still intact, and ready for the transition down the road.” No dates have been set for the transition, she notes, as the team is too busy building their business.
After several years in the industry, Zuniga has found that the best way to soothe an angry client is to be an advocate, stay calm, respond quickly to their problems, listen attentively and stay quiet. “When I make mistakes, I apologize and do everything in my ability to make it right,” she says. “Clients want to feel appreciated and special, so it is my job to be authentic, have integrity, allow them to trust me, and to communicate regularly with them.”
Zuniga says that one individual would be her “professional mentor:” Her current partner, Annette Michael, has been “the most influential and inspirational person to work alongside. She has taught me more in the past four years of working with her than the entire almost-eight years of working in the travel industry.”
Sign Up for Young Travel Leaders Conference
The fifth annual Young Travel Leaders Conference (YTLC), produced by Questex Hospitality + Travel, will be held December 8 at The Palazzo Las Vegas in conjunction with Luxury Travel Exchange International (LTX). Formerly the Young Leaders Conference, it has been rebranded with a new name and enhanced benefits to underscore the significance of millennial professionals in travel.
Roundtable sessions from last year’s Young Leaders Conference.
Presented by Luxury Travel Advisor and Travel Agent magazines, YTLC is the first and only industrywide forum created exclusively for under-40 professionals, including travel agency owners, consultants, suppliers and industry partners, who participate in peer-to-peer networking, education, career development and information-sharing.
Questex Hospitality + Travel has gathered the travel industry’s brightest young leaders, including several of Travel Agent’s 30Under30 alumni, to serve as the Steering Committee. They are:
- Andrey Zakharenko, owner and founder, Russian Connections, San Francisco
- Ryan Mielke, manager, Regency Travel, Fort Lauderdale, FL
- DeAnne Petritz, director, leisure travel, CI Travel, Virginia Beach, VA
- Heather Christopher, manager, Classic Travel at Tacketts Mill, Woodbridge, VA
- Daniela Harrison, travel consultant, Avenues of the World Travel, Flagstaff, AZ
- Chris O’Connor, travel consultant, Allure Travel, a division of Corporate Travel Management, Denver
- Bernadette Sperrazza, leisure travel enthusiast, The World Awaits Travel, Brooklyn, NY
- Katelyn O’Shaughnessy, luxury travel planner, TravelStore, Brentwood, CA
- Caroline Bracewell, Atlanta-based luxury travel consultant, Easy Escapes Travel, New York
For more information, visit www.youngtravelleaders.com/Conference.