Travel agent Rachel Haile in Bora Bora // © 2014 Rachel Haile
Feature image (above): Haile sends many of her clients to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, where romantic resorts, family friendly properties and beautiful beaches abound. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Although travel agent Rachel Haile has never visited the Cook Islands, she has been successfully selling the destination since 2007. Haile, who is based in Chicago and is affiliated with Andavo Travel in Greenwood Village, Colo., has increased her bookings to the South Pacific island country by 150 percent in the past two years.
Haile attributes her sales success to her passion for the destination and consistent efforts to stay informed about supplier developments and tourism trends in the islands. She hopes to make her first trip to the Cook Islands in 2015, but the absence of firsthand experience has not held her back from successfully selling the destination.
“I’m honest with clients and tell them I have not been there, [but] I do work hard to stay current,” Haile said.
TravelAge West spoke with Haile about her strategy and efforts to know and sell the Cook Islands.
How do you stay current with the Cook Islands and sell the destination, despite never having visited?
I am a Cook Island Specialist, but you can do the specialist program in half an hour. It’s actually quite light compared to programs from other destinations, so you need to do a lot more than that to really know the destination. There are several marketing and sales reps in the U.S. who do push the Cook Islands pretty hard and having one of them come visit your office is wonderful.
What other advice would you give a travel agent who wants to become knowledgeable about the Cook Islands?
You should really sign up for all the newsletters that you can get from suppliers and hotels, even if it’s a resort that is pretty low-end. By actually reading those newsletters, you get a good sense of what’s going on there. You find out when the whales arrived this year as opposed to last year, and you can read about trends.
And if you’re part of a consortium, staying on top of those notifications about a destination is also really important. Since I’ve not been to the Cooks, every couple of months I’ll research it again to find out what’s new. I’ll contact the new resorts, and I’ll ask them who their target market is and how business is going so far.
The Cook Islands didn’t really have any properties with air conditioning until about five years ago, so it’s a place that’s experiencing some change right now. I recommend that people go in the next few years before any international chains decide to set up shop there.
How often do you sell the Cook Islands?
In the past couple of years it’s really started to pick up. The Cook Islands tourism board started to do more marketing and some webinars and many of the resorts started hiring sales reps in the U.S. to try to put the Cook Islands on the map.
I will get 20 to 30 different couples or families interested in the destination each year, and of those, I probably send 20 to 30 total travelers each year to the Cook Islands. I’ve definitely seen a real uptick. The difference has been the marketing, both on the part of the tourism board and from the resorts getting sales reps in the U.S.
What type of clients do you send to the Cook Islands?
I like to send people there who want something farther from home and more exotic than the Caribbean or Hawaii — folks who aren’t the type to go to Tahiti because they don’t have the budget or it’s too touristy for them. I also like to send people who are already headed to that part of the world, maybe visiting New Zealand or Australia. It’s a wonderful add-on for them.
The Cook Islands are kind of like how Hawaii was 50 years ago, before all the major international resorts moved in and before certain parts became overdeveloped. For people who want a beach holiday with a little bit of adventure and some relaxation, it’s a great place to go.
Are there specific activities or cultural attractions you recommend to clients headed to the Cook Islands?
I recommend that people get out and explore a little on their own, walk around the towns, the shops, get away from the resort and experience some of the island culture. One of the best ways to do this is during an island festival held in July and August every year. It’s called Te Maeva Nui. It’s their independence holiday and a national celebration of everything Cook Islands. They have the best dancers and musicians from all the islands come and perform on Rarotonga, which is the main island (of the 15 islands that comprise the Cook Islands). So as a tourist, you have an amazing opportunity to take this in and see the local culture. And it’s a really great photo opportunity.
That time of year is also the start of whale watching season, so you’re checking off two boxes at once. They have over a dozen [different species of] whales, but the humpbacks are the most famous — everyone wants to see them. And the waters around the Cook Islands are a place where the humpbacks give birth, so visitors can even see baby calves. It’s just a wonderful time to visit.
Another thing I recommend that travelers do, if they have the time, is to leave the main island and go to Aitutaki [a Cook Island north of Rarotonga]. This island has the best beaches and is very quiet. It even has some overwater bungalows. You don’t go there for active adventure. You go there to relax.
I like to suggest to clients that they try to really feel the destination they’re visiting. Stay in a place that doesn’t feel Western. Stay somewhere that feels like the Cook Islands and not Florida, not California, not Hawaii. Aitutaki has a lot of that, along with some of the most beautiful beaches in the South Pacific.
Which hotels and resorts do you recommend to your clients?
For Rarotonga, which is where most people go, the eastern side of the island has some of the best beaches and some of the nicer and more romantic resorts. For couples, Rumors is the most well-known on the island, and it’s the nicest. They have villas, it’s adults only and it’s really over the top: Some of the rooms have waterfalls and private plunge pools.
For families, I usually recommend Pacific Resort, which is a local chain. They have tons of activities for kids, and they even let kids under a certain age stay for free. They are also on a pretty nice beach, they have babysitting service and the kids club for ages 6 to 12 is free. If families want something more upscale, I’ll book them in their own private villa with a few bedrooms and a chef, full catering and a stocked kitchen. Travel agents can learn about the villas through Cook Island Tourism.