Travel Agent Talk: Andres Zuleta

Travel Agent Talk: Andres Zuleta

Andres Zuleta, founder and president of Boutique Japan Travel, talks about travel industry misconceptions and how to stand out from the crowd

Andres Zuleta has traveled extensively, but he is most passionate about Japan. After living in the island country for four years, studying Japanese language and culture and traveling as much as possible, Zuleta returned to California and sought a job in the travel industry. He landed at start-up travel company Global Basecamps in 2009, where he honed his skills and advanced his destination knowledge with incredible fam trips. In 2013, Zuleta opened his own consultancy, Boutique Japan Travel Company. As the company’s president and founder, Zuleta helps sophisticated travelers find the real Japan, putting every detail together for the perfect travel experience.

Thanks to the power of the Internet, Zuleta is currently running his company from Asia. He plans to spend several months in Japan in order to better inform his clients and to deepen business relationships in the country.

What are some misconceptions you think that young people have when they hear the words ‘travel agent?’

The travel agent profession is very misunderstood, especially by young people, or ‘digital natives.’ But to be honest, I also held these misconceptions until a few years ago.

The first one I hear is, ‘Wait... travel agents still exist?’ This idea stems in large part from the fact that many people do book their own travel online, at least to some extent. While the Internet certainly changed the travel industry landscape, some of today’s travel agents are absolutely killing it by providing something that the Internet cannot provide. If a travel agent is not offering a service experience that could not be easily replicated by online bookings, then such an agent is going to have a tough time staying in business.

Which leads to the second biggest misconception, ‘Why would I use a travel agent when I can book everything online?’ The Internet is an incredible tool, but when you are working with a trusted, quality travel agent, you’re going to be taken care of from the moment you first begin discussing your trip until after you've come home.

Not everyone needs or wants this, but for anybody who likes to be in good hands and likes having an ally on their side, it’s an invaluable service. If all you need is a night in a Las Vegas hotel, then I’m not sure you really need a travel agent. But if you’re planning a dream trip to Africa, or want a specialty cultural trip throughout Japan, then a trusted destination specialist will give you a much richer experience than going it alone.

What are some business goals that you have?

My primary business goal is to be the premier Japan travel specialist in the world and, to reach it, I have dedicated much of the past 10 years to mastering the Japanese language, traveling throughout Japan, and helping clients experience what I refer to as ‘the real Japan.’ There are a couple of incredible Japan specialists in the industry whom I truly admire, and I am honored to be a member of the up-and-coming generation.

You are currently working from Japan. What advantages and challenges come with running the company from overseas?

One advantage is that our overhead is much lower than if we had a brick-and-mortar shop, and this means we can pass on better prices to our clients. We also get to travel a great deal, which is essential for a travel consultant.

One of the main concerns I had about working from Asia was the time difference. We know we need to make it as convenient as possible for our clients to communicate with us, so we’re happy to wake up early or stay up late when necessary. Really, 99 percent of our communication with clients is by phone or email, so where we are isn’t that important. And our clients like that we’re in Japan right now. It’s evidence of our connection with the country.

Are you seeing any particular trends in Japan travel?

Right now I’m investing a lot of energy into promoting food- and sake-related experiences. We offer private visits to traditional and modern food markets; private sake tastings and pairings, private cooking classes with professional chefs and highly-skilled home cooks, private Japanese whisky and craft beer experiences, private vegan/vegetarian food tours and more.

Now that UNESCO has formally added traditional Japanese food, or washoku, to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, Japanese cuisine is going to gain popularity, and this type of exclusive and personal experience will be more in demand.

What advice would you give a prospective travel agent?

My main advice would be to find a niche and do everything you can to become the best in that area. It could be a particular destination, or a particular target demographic, such as honeymooners or families. Then you will be able to differentiate your services from what the Internet offers by providing real value.

Some people — even some in the travel industry community — tell me that specializing in Japan is too narrow of a niche. It is true that if someone is planning a trip to Europe, I’m not the right guy. But if someone is looking for that special Japan trip and is comparing me to a ‘generalist’ agency, nine times out of 10 that buyer is going to go with me, because I know Japan in incredible detail, and that comes across in every email and conversation.

What issues do you think our industry is facing right now? What can we do to address those issues?

A large percentage of the public simply does not understand what travel agents do and why they are awesome. As an industry, we need to continue to educate the public about the real value of travel consultants and how we complement the Internet. I truly believe that the market is massive, and we don't need to consider the Internet a threat. Rather than trying to compete directly with the Internet, we can emphasize our strengths and thus provide an attractive option to travelers who would prefer to work with a live human being who is a trusted destination specialist.

>