Agents Reap Rewards of Magazine List

Even before the August issue of Condé Nast Traveler hit news racks, Leigh Ann Cloutier started getting phone calls from new clients.

By: Kevin Brass

Even before the August issue of Condé Nast Traveler hit news racks, Leigh Ann Cloutier started getting phone calls from new clients.

“It’s incredible,” said Cloutier, owner of Rico Travel in Austin, Texas, who made her second appearance on the prestigious magazine’s register of top travel agents. “By Monday of last week, I had nine new requests and every day after that I got more.”

There are actually two Austin agents on this year’s Condé Nast Traveler list of “Travel Superheroes” 112 “wonder-workers who can craft the vacation of your dreams,” according to the magazine. Gay Gillen Stone of Austin’s Gay Gillen Travel was recognized as an expert on France for the third year in a row.

How agents make the list is an eternal mystery. Condé Nast Traveler consumer news editor Wendy Perrin, who prepares the agents report, prefaced the story by saying the list is “not the result of a scientific formula. The list represents those who have impressed me the most with their knowledge of specific destinations and types of travel, as well as their industry connections.

“They also possess a certain combination of frankness, friendliness, taste, willingness to work with a range of customers and budgets and an understanding of the types of experiences that Condé Nast Traveler readers want.”

Neither Cloutier nor Gillen can say with certainty how they came to Perrin’s attention. Gillen said she thinks Virtuoso may have recommended her.

But it is clear from their businesses why they fit Perrin’s profile. Cloutier is almost exclusively focused on Costa Rica. She visits properties frequently throughout the year, and about half of her business comes from other travel agents seeking to hook up with an expert.

“I know everything I sell, and I have excellent relationships with suppliers,” she said.

Gillen is noted for her ability to develop specialized trips to France, such as cooking classes in Provence, ballooning in Burgundy, barging in Champagne and renting farmhouses and villas.

Like Cloutier, she spends as much time as possible gathering information on destinations.

“These days, people are looking for travel agents who are specialized with a lot of firsthand knowledge,” said Gillen, who had just returned from watching client and Austin native Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France. “We’re matching people with trips that fulfill their dreams,” she said.

The Condé Nast Traveler list carries a tremendous amount of prestige. Gillen put out a press release the first year she made the list, resulting in a story in the local newspaper.

Cloutier said she promotes the Condé Nast honor on her Web site and through other collateral materials, but the article really promotes itself.