The Ritz Touch

Tour operator can be a safe bet for agents in China

By: Judy Koutsky

When Patty Horst, owner of Patty’s Travel in Washougal, Wash., sold two families $30,000 worth of Ritz Tour bookings this past summer, she did not worry about the families having a good time. “When your clients spend that kind of money, you want to make sure they are getting everything that they want,” Horst said. “With Ritz Tours, I knew that they would get their money’s worth.”

This booking included a lot of add-ons and Ritz, Horst noted, worked closely with her to put together the right package for her clients. The commission on the package was also very satisfactory to Horst. Ritz gives 10 percent commission, but works closely with agents giving more commission on larger group bookings, or in this case, a high-financial booking.

“Ritz cares about travel agents,” said Horst, “and that’s not easy to come by in this market.” Not easy indeed. With commissions being slashed, it’s hard for agents to find suppliers who are willing to work closely with them, as opposed to selling directly to the consumer.

“Travel agents are our livelihood and we depend very much on their support,” said Pista Nadj, vice president of sales and marketing for Ritz Tours, which is why Ritz works closely with agents, developing strong relationships.

“We try and offer the maximum commission that we can, which can be difficult for us because our packages are so affordable,” Nadj said.

Indeed, when agents are selling luxury packages there’s more wiggle room for commission, but with Ritz, which many agents view as one of the most affordable tour operators to China, the package prices are very economical. So agents make their commission by selling in bulk. Nadj noted that Ritz has a very high repeat visitor rate which is not surprising to Horst. She booked her first Ritz tour for a client about five years ago. It was a $999 China special including air, hotel and all sightseeing. Looking at the itinerary and all that it included, she thought the price was too good to be true and wondered what level of service Ritz would provide. Her client returned very impressed by the tour and quickly spread the word to her friends.

Horst herself did very little advertising and suddenly found herself booking groups to China on Ritz.

“Word-of-mouth advertising is really the best and I’ve never had a single negative comment from a client about a Ritz Tour. In fact, I get just the opposite,” Horst said. “The prices are so attractive and yet the tour is first-class comfort with five-star hotels, excellent food and top-notch guides.” In fact, Horst said it’s the little extras that make the trip for her clients. One Ritz tour guide took his tour group to his house for tea, so they could see a local home. Also, extras like Peking duck dinner and acrobatic shows are included in the tour price.

“As a travel agent, you want trips with very few bumps. Ritz tours are always smooth and that’s what you want from a tour operator,” said Horst.

Nadj says that smoothness comes from the 24 years Ritz has been in service.

“Our guides, I believe, make us stand apart from our competitors. Every trip is going to have hiccups, but our guides know how to handle them and make clients happy,” Nadj said. “Having three offices in Beijing doesn’t hurt, either.”

Ritz’s prices also makes them stand apart. Both Horst and Paul Arneson, a travel agent at Promenade Travel, based in Westlake, Calif., say the prices are one of the reasons their clients book Ritz.

“The deals are spectacular; they include airfare, travel insurance, five-star hotels and plenty of extras,” said Arneson. “Also, the hotels are located in the center of towns, which is important for clients when they have an afternoon of free time.”

Nadj noted that the hotels are also a secret to the success of Ritz.

“People always want to know how we can offer quality at affordable prices,” he said. “Many operators might work with 10 to 15 hotels in a city like Beijing we work with three or four. So we can guarantee these hotels high volume, which gives us buying power when negotiating deals.”

So who is the average Ritz traveler and where does he or she want to travel?

Nadj said that many clients are professional, internationally savvy 40- to 65-year-olds. First-timers to China want to hit four major attractions: Beijing, Xian, Yangtze and Shanghai, which is why the 14-day Golden Yangtze Discovery tour is the most popular.

Repeat visitors, however, want to visit Tibet, China’s Silk Road and other areas in Asia. These people are more likely to take longer trips and add the extensions to Hong Kong and Bangkok.

Whatever your clients need, Ritz has shown they can handle it.


Going Beyond China

Clearly, China is the focus for Ritz Tours, however Nadj noted that Ritz is expanding to other areas as well. As agents feel comfortable selling China and clients are looking to explore new areas with a known operator, Ritz uses client and agent feedback to determine where to expand. “Our clients want new destinations with the same affordable prices and same standard of luxury,” said Nadj, “so we introduced Exotic Asia, which includes stops in Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore.

“Then, three years ago we launched Tantalizing Thailand, which has become a very popular destination also,” he said. “Next, two years ago, we launched Japan Experience, which has also been popular.”

Nadj said customer opinions especially those of agents and their clients are important to Ritz.

“We invent new programs based on the questionnaires clients fill out,” Nadj said. “When the demand for a new destination is high, that’s when we launch it. So we move in a stable, safe growth pattern and we know that we have the support of our agents and clients.”