Trips of a Lifetime

When it comes to creating an exceptional experience, travel agents are essential By: Mindy Poder
A dream vacation can be a solitary experience // © 2011
A dream vacation can be a solitary experience // © 2011

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A dream vacation can be whatever you want it to be // © 2011

 A dream vacation can be whatever you want it to be // © 2011

Travel Agents Talk

Travel agents share the trips of a lifetime they helped plan for their clients:

Donna Wolfe, Plaza travel
“A new client of mine was turning 50, had never traveled internationally and her trip of a lifetime was to go to Italy — alone. I provided my client with very thorough information on the language, currency and safety issues related to traveling internationally — preparation was key. I coordinated every detail from the airports, trains and tours, and I contacted each hotel in advance to arrange a welcome card and amenity to be waiting for her. My client came home gushing that the trip was perfect and met her expectations in every way and that my planned itinerary was easy to follow. She toured every site she had dreamed of. Now, we are planning next year’s trip of a lifetime.”

Phillip Powell, Worldview Travel
“I had a client who knew she had lung cancer and this was to be her last trip — a simple cruise to the Bahamas. She was just beside herself to be taking this wonderful cruise, as she had cruised many times before. She was not affluent and only wanted a happy trip with her family. This was to be her trip of a lifetime. I planned the cruise and all went well except for a hitch — she never made it. She passed away six months before the cruise happened. In her honor, the rest of the family took the trip and had a memorial for her during the cruise. There were 67 family and friends booked on that cruise. That person was my dear mother, Doris J. Powell.”

One thing is for certain — there is no consensus on the definition for a “trip of a lifetime.”

According to Donna Wolfe, a travel agent at Plaza Travel in Encino, Calif., a trip of a lifetime is not a specific destination or route: It is an experience — a feeling and memory that will last forever and become a part of a person’s history.

“Each person may have a different idea of a trip of a lifetime, but the fulfillment of that trip will be the same with each person,” said Wolfe.

Phillip Powell, a travel agent for Worldview Travel in Beverly Hills, Calif., agreed.

“A trip of a lifetime can be different for every individual,” Powell said. “The reasons for taking the trip can be different, but the end result should be the same — that they have had their expectations exceeded and, perhaps, did something outside of the box.”

When it comes to planning these dream vacations a skilled agent is indispensable.

“A good travel agent can broaden and enhance the client’s experience,” she said. “We can prepare and assist our clients in advance of their travels to ensure a seamless trip that meets their expectations.”

And, as client perceptions of trips of a lifetime have become bigger than ever before, the need for a travel agents’ expertise has never been more evident.

“We can thank the Internet, reality television shows, social media, travel shows and travel websites for the content they provide,” said Wolfe. “Watching shows like ‘The Amazing Race’ exposes my clients to world travel and exciting destinations. I actually have a bride who wants to book the Hilton in Bora Bora for her honeymoon because she watched the Kardashians take a family vacation at that resort. The same thing happened with Jade Mountain in St. Lucia after “The Bachelor” aired at that property.”

Virtuoso Life’s recent survey of 14,000 readers — clients who use Virtuoso travel agents when booking their travel — confirms the extravagant quality of clients’ most sought-after experiences.

Top trips include calling on all seven continents, renting a European villa, visiting all the new Seven Wonders of the World, photographing the Big Five animals on an Africa safari, renting a private island, blasting off on a Virgin Galactic flight, chartering a private jet and dining through Paris’ best restaurants.

Since all of these trips tread exotic and/or uncharted territory, an expert is essential.

Indeed, in the fall of 2005, Virtuoso set up the Virgin Galactic sales program in the U.S. and Canada in partnership with Carolyn Wincer, head of astronaut sales for Virgin Galactic.

“Due to the complexity of the sale and the knowledge needed about the program and product, an Accredited Space Agent [ASA] designation is required,” said NACTA vice president Ann van Leeuwen, who, in her former role as Virtuoso’s vice president of member sales and service, helped set up the program for Virtuoso agents to become certified.

ASAs can work with unaccredited agents who have clients wishing to book space travel.

“This wasn’t negotiated to exclude agent participation but was needed to effectively roll out a successful training program and a thorough understanding of space travel in order to represent the product accurately to interested clients,” said van Leeuwen. “Virgin Galactic prefers that clients book through an ASA agent, who can keep clients engaged and excited about their upcoming trip of a lifetime experience. Customer service and relationship management is essential with the client before, during and after their seat is reserved.”

Though some clients dream about space travel, most Virtuoso Life readers favored something a bit more tangible. Setting sail for a world cruise ranked as the number-one trip of a lifetime and sailing the Mediterranean on a private yacht ranked as the number-two trip of a lifetime. Furthermore, cruising took the number-one spot for most appealing type of travel experience, beating out beach stays, historical journeys, cultural experiences, adventure/nature exploration, relaxation, romantic getaways, safaris, family/multigenerational travel and educational trips.

For bookings of this magnitude, agents are truly invaluable to clients.

“A travel agent is probably more important for cruises around the world than any other because the investment of time and money is so great and because it’s very different from a typical sailing — there’s an onboard culture,” said Marilyn Green, cruise editor for TravelAge West. “A good agent can guide a client to the experience that most closely matches his or her taste and — believe me — when you are spending three months in one place, you need a match.”

In order to provide clients with the right experience, Green suggested that agents familiarize themselves with the itineraries offered by Crystal Cruises, Seabourn, Silversea Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Cunard, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Costa Cruises.

“There is no single cruise line that offers the best,” said Green. “There are different ways of going around the world and, because there’s a huge repeat factor on these cruises, the lines vary their offerings.”

Most full sailings span approximately 90 days and typically depart in January. Those who cannot take a full cruise can typically book a segment ranging from 10 to 24 days or more. Green advised that agents book a larger stateroom for clients, since they will spend more time in their cabin than on other sailings. Agents can also save clients money on these bookings.

“For both whole cruises and segments, there are perks that vary among the lines including free airfare, free business-class airfare, free pre- or post-cruise land stays and parties, free gifts and more,” said Green. “In addition, these people are placing themselves in a very special category for the cruise line loyalty programs, and that may be a factor in planning future cruises. All these things the agent really needs to know.”

The lure of these trips is based on the romance of getting away, bragging rights and the desire to visit unusual destinations.

“World cruises generally combine major cities with some they couldn’t call in except with the world cruise — the demand wouldn’t be high enough,” said Green. “It’s seen as the ultimate cruise.”

Ranked second among Virtuoso Life readers, chartering the Mediterranean on a private yacht is also an exclusive, romantic getaway.

“A private yacht means you see it your way — linger when you wish, no outsiders onboard, eat the kind of food you wish and generally live the life perceived as ‘rich and famous,’” said Green. “This can be bareboat cruising or, if there’s a group, chartering a yacht allows for choices and privacy.”

According to Green, small group yachting companies that offer commission include Variety Cruises as well as SeaDream Yacht Club. Renting a bareboat charter, on the other hand, is not always commissionable.

Because part of the popularity of the Mediterranean as a cruise destination stems from its broad scope, it is up to the travel agent to figure out what part of the destination suits their clients the most.

“This is not one trip — it’s many, and the client taste and personality is crucial here,” said Green. “Do they want a Riviera experience, an Adriatic one in Croatia and the northern Mediterranean or a trip to Libya, Israel, Morocco and that part of the Mediterranean?”

Indeed, clients fixate on particular destinations, as shown by Virtuoso’s survey of top 10 dream destinations. Australia and Italy took the number-one and -two spots respectively. South Africa, New Zealand, Greece, Antarctica, France, French Polynesia, China and Ireland rounded out the list.

Paris is the most craved dining destination, while Tuscany, Italy; Bordeaux, France; and Napa Valley, Calif., are the top three wine destinations. Travel + Leisure also highlighted Napa Valley, Australia, Italy, China, Africa, Antarctica as well as Peru in its own trips of lifetime coverage, culled by survey responses of 1,000 of the magazine’s readers.

Though destination knowledge is important, knowing your client is essential.

“Every trip has a ‘why?’,” said Powell. “Try and figure out what that is.”

Also, agents should get to know the travel preferences of the client.

“I must have good product knowledge to ensure that I am pairing the right product with the client,” said Wolfe.

Wolfe considers preferred hotel brands and air carriers as well as whether clients are independent explorers or escorted travelers dependent on a guide.

Virtuoso Life categorized its survey respondents into five distinct traveler profiles. “Adventurers” are those who like to commune with nature in destinations such as Kenya. Adventurers are less interested in the well-treaded and popular, so don’t rely on Western Europe and organized outdoor adventures. “Cruisers,” on the other hand, favor the Mediterranean — but only if they are under the age of 35. Cruisers between the ages of 35 and 49 prefer Alaska and travelers over the age of 50 want an around-the-world voyage “Culture seekers” also strive to visit the seven continents. Don’t suggest the beach to these travelers, as they would rather mix with locals and learn the language. “Beach-goers,” on the other hand, favor weather and water over all else, making destinations such as Italy, French Polynesia and Australia ideal. Group tours and expedition cruises are not their preference. “Families” are also fans of beach resorts, national parks and European villas which, surprisingly, they prefer over theme parks. The Hawaiian Islands are favored across the generations though families with children under age 17 flock to the Caribbean.

After getting to know your client, Wolfe suggests planning every detail. She creates and provides her clients with a customized destination booklet that includes their itinerary, confirmations, restaurants, sightseeing, tips on traveling to that particular destination and a laminated currency cheat sheet to make using the country’s currency easy.

“Many keep the booklet as a memento of their trip,” said Wolfe. “That memento in itself is a part of the history of a trip of a lifetime.”

Indeed, these trips result in clients for a lifetime for agents who understand the importance of these unique travel experiences.

“The trip starts way before you get on the plane or ship — when you are out shopping for new clothes or when you are at the water cooler, telling coworkers about where you are going,” said Powell. “It’s the entire journey — not just the destination.”