Samantha Riepe is afraid of heights.
Yet there she was, suspended some 40 feet off the ground during a Colorado rain shower. Along with a small group of fellow adventurists, Riepe was attempting to traverse a series of X-shaped wooden beams at the Treeline Trial Challenge Course at the Lost Forest adventure park in Snowmass, Colo.
But the rain didn’t dampen her spirits. To make the activity more manageable — and to ease her nervous coursemates — Riepe gave each obstacle a nickname. The X-shaped logs? “Paul Bunyan’s Revenge.” A wooden-slatted cylinder Riepe had crawled through just moments earlier? “The Barrel of Death.”
Many in her group had been strangers to Riepe just hours before, but every time they made it past an obstacle, they grew a little closer.
Millennials don’t like to sit down.
This punchy line was delivered hours later, as Riepe, director of creative services for Royal Caribbean International — and a millennial herself — took the stage at the inaugural Future Leaders in Travel Retreat. The three-day event, held Sept. 4-6 at Aspen Meadows Resort in Aspen, Colo., was hosted by TravelAge West and parent company Northstar Travel Group.
Her audience — which now included 41 travel advisors and approximately 20 suppliers, all between the ages of 22 and 37 — could certainly relate; like Riepe, they had spent the morning participating in adrenaline-pumping activities at the Lost Forest.
Although her buttoned-up appearance and place onstage at the resort’s Doerr-Hosier conference center was a far cry from the morning’s aesthetic, Riepe used her signature comedic style, peppering her speech with bits of humor.
“They are highly individualistic,” she said, speaking on the topic of millennials onboard cruises. “Will they enjoy a long, drawn-out dinner? No! They are baby goats — they want to graze all the options. A two-hour stage show? No! The night is young and full of possibilities. Instead, they’re looking for a fluid, dynamic, digestible cruise, and we need to qualify them well as clients, more so than other generations before us.”
The analysis of millennials and their travel habits is not new; research firms have commissioned dozens of studies and industry-wide surveys that focus on this diverse group, and plenty of travel conferences have attempted to fill some portion of their agendas with workshops and seminars dedicated to the topic.
There’s certainly plenty to say about this demographic as travelers. But what about the future generation of leaders in the industry — both advisors and suppliers — who will be the ones serving this clientele in the years to come? How can the rest of the industry help prepare these young professionals for a successful career?
Enter the Future Leaders in Travel Retreat. The first-of-its kind event brought together a select group of future leaders — such as Riepe — for three days of relationship-building and professional development. The 41 travel advisors at the fully hosted event had to go through a rigorous application process before they could attend.
Aspen was chosen as the destination for “The Retreat” in part because it’s known for its adventure and wellness tourism opportunities, in addition to its dedication to fostering creative thought and intellectual pursuits. (Aspen Meadows Resort is the home of the world-famous Aspen Institute and the Aspen Ideas Festival.)
“Our hypothesis for this event was that something magical would happen if you put together peers from the same age group — that their walls would come down,” said Mindy Poder, executive editor of TravelAge West. “There are a lot of great events out there, but not any that specifically focus on this demographic, the professional development they need and how they like to learn and network.”
Brennan Quesnele, vice president of sales for Gogo Worldwide Vacations, paused to breathe in the fresh mountain air.
At 10,000-plus feet of elevation, his small activity group — attendees who had opted for the advanced hike in the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness — had stopped to pose for a group photo against a backdrop of hilly terrain. Once the trek resumed, Quesnele, a self-proclaimed aviation geek, struck up a conversation with fellow hiker Karl Nesseler, an adventure travel specialist with Anywere.com who leads premium trekking experiences to Mount Everest Base Camp and Mount Kilimanjaro.
Their conversation about the number of sky miles they rack up each year and the various advantages of airline preferred points programs soon evolved into a discussion about their respective businesses. By the end of the morning, the two had become fast friends and future business partners, with Nesseler planning to book his future air and land activities through Gogo.
“No one likes a hard sell, and no one likes feeling like someone has an ulterior motive,” Quesnele said. “As we were traversing the mountains, we were building bonds and creating friendships, and this opportunity gave us a unique way to interact and create friendships on a fast-track route. I wanted to hear advisor stories and about their business, but only when they brought it up. And that’s what happened on the hike.”
Indeed, The Retreat is not a typical travel conference.
“The advisors and suppliers here are craving a clear line of understanding of one another’s desires and perspectives,” said Jenn Lee, vice president of sales and marketing for host agency Travel Planners International (TPI) and a workshop leader for The Retreat. “They want to make an impact in their worlds, and they are trying to prove something to someone — themselves included.”
The formation of long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships was a top goal for The Retreat’s event planners, which is why each morning began with activities designed to get attendees out of a conference room and into a space where they could foster organic relationships with like-minded peers.
Although Quesnele and Nesseler were in a small hiking group (one of three that were created based on trail difficulty), other attendees passed the morning either by downhill biking or participating in an outdoor yoga class.
“The formatting was spot on,” Quesnele said. “In a conference room, there’s nothing worse than being tired from a big day before. But the activities countered that and didn’t allow fatigue to come into the equation. By the time you were done with the morning, you had worked up an appetite and were ready to learn.”
Joni Wu, a luxury travel consultant for Luxe Travel, appreciates how the activities added to the group’s cohesion.
“I felt a sense of community, which was probably the best thing about The Retreat,” she said. “It didn’t feel like it was a sales pitch in any way — this felt more collaborative. It really felt like we were forming honest partnerships.”
Once the groups returned from their morning jaunts, it was time to get down to business. Afternoon education sessions took many forms, including an informative town hall meeting presented by Northstar’s Phocuswright research firm, followed by a panel discussion on travel industry trends that was moderated by TravelAge West’s Poder. Riepe’s speech on baby goats (er, millennials) was part of a two-day storytelling competition where supplier attendees were encouraged to abandon their off-the-shelf sales pitch and deliver a unique message that stemmed from personal experience.
Keynote speeches, meanwhile, incorporated themes of risk and reward. Speakers included Chris Davenport, an Aspen local who was the first person to ski all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in less than one year, and 29-year-old Cassie De Pecol, who claims the title of the fastest and first documented woman to travel to every sovereign country in the world.
“By pushing your limits, you can transform as a person,” Poder said. “Cassie and Chris are examples of what you can accomplish if you travel outside your comfort zone — literally or figuratively. That’s the exact mentality our attendees need to foster at this stage of their careers. A lot of them have reached a level of success from being in the industry a few years, and they’re wondering how they can take their career to the next level. But they probably won’t accomplish that without taking a few risks.”
The most interactive of the educational sessions came in the form of small-group workshops designed to aid advisors and suppliers in learning to think critically about their businesses. Krystle Kopacz, CEO of content strategy company Revmade, led a workshop on personal branding and social media, while TPI’s Lee facilitated a collaborative discussion between advisors and suppliers on how to best work with one another from a sales and marketing standpoint.
“The younger generation of leaders still does not have a clear path to follow — they are guessing and testing as they go along,” Lee said. “But they need to see themselves as business owners. As an industry, we have a huge opportunity here; these newer advisors need business tools to help them do more than just book travel.”
In the evenings, supplier-sponsored soirees took attendees outside the resort to deepen the connections made throughout the day.
The Travel Corporation’s Contiki, Trafalgar and U by Uniworld brands hosted a block party in downtown Aspen that included a culinary class with the Cooking School of Aspen; a spirited wine tasting at Rustique Bistro; and an immersive mixology lesson at The Cottage event space. Additionally, Delta Air Lines hosted The Retreat’s opening mixer; Aspen’s Limelight Hotel hosted a farewell dinner; and AIC Hotel Group and Gogo sponsored an after-hours DJ at Hotel Jerome, an Auberge Resort.
“Our team came up with the model for the evening networking, but our sponsors ran with it,” Poder said. “Their events were an example of the experiential ‘wow factor’ that this demographic not only likes, but expects. It was a successful way to get through to our group.”
Upon arriving in Colorado, travel advisors Brianna Glenn Tosta and Heather Christopher headed straight to one of downtown Aspen’s local coffee shops.
The pair, who had met previously at a travel conference in 2017, had since kept in touch with each other online.
“Heather is a person I constantly chat with on social media, through text or even by phone when I need to work through something,” said Glenn Tosta, owner of Milk + Honey Travels. “When I found out we would both be in Aspen, I was so excited to connect in person again. From the first moment, we literally didn’t stop talking and took every opportunity to share and learn from each other and the other advisors there.”
Both Christopher — president of Heather Christopher Travel Consulting LLC — and Glenn Tosta continued to bond throughout the rest of their time at The Retreat, rock climbing together at the Lost Forest and — once the rain started to pour — moving inside and striking up a conversation about new ways for advisors to team up, learn from one another and work off their individual strengths.
“We never made it to the Lost Forest alpine mountain coaster, but I got to hear all of the things Heather has been thinking and dreaming about for months,” Glenn Tosta said.
Christopher also appreciated the chance to catch up.
“We spent every second we could chatting about what’s happening in our businesses,” she said. “We spent a lot of time together in mostly informal settings, so the conversation flowed naturally.”
Strong peer-to-peer relationships are often key to a successful business, and the event inspired many agents — such as Christopher and Glenn Tosta — to look for opportunities for future collaboration with one another.
And that, after all, was one of The Retreat’s purposes: to cull attendees who were open to sharing knowledge and learning from their peers.
When sifting through the 200 advisor applications submitted for attendance to The Retreat, Jacqueline Hurst, director of trade recruitment and engagement for Northstar events, said she wanted to create as diverse a group as possible.
“We took a slightly different approach for recruitment here than for our other events, because these are future leaders,” Hurst said. “Age was the only real limitation. What we really wanted was a group with a lot of unique points of view. We wanted to get insight into what their goals were, what brought them into the industry and why they have chosen to be in it.”
The second Future Leaders in Travel Retreat will once again be held in Aspen at Aspen Meadows Resort from Sept. 3-5, 2019.
For more information, and to be notified when advisor applications open, visit FutureLeadersInTravel.com.
The Retreat's Attendees Weigh In
“If I ever hear, ‘Are travel agents alive?’ again … enough. It’s annoying to no end. When I heard about an inaugural event to support the future of the industry, I got goosebumps, which led to a knee-jerk ‘I have to be a part of it’ reaction.”
– Brennan Quesnele, vice president of sales, Gogo Worldwide Vacations
“Right after The Retreat’s lunch sponsored by Tourism Australia, I got an inquiry from a prospective client who is looking to go there. I talked to Tourism Australia’s Emma Harper at that evening’s social event, and she was already able to guide me to additional resources that will help.”
– Susie Chau, owner, Carpe Diem Traveler
“Getting people active in nature got them out of their normal office environment. You feel like you’re making more of a real connection versus a work connection. You’re actually getting to know the person, which, to me, makes that relationship last longer and that bond stronger.”
– Peter Enns, president and co-founder, Travel Concierge, LLC
“I felt supported here. People recognize that a lot of the industry is aging, and there needs to be young, new blood. There needs to be innovation and new ways of thinking about things, and people at this event recognize that.”
– Joni Wu, luxury travel consultant, Luxe Travel
“It didn’t feel like a conference. It felt like a brainstorming session with lots of people who are close to my age and share similar life experiences.”
– Emma Harper, Aussie Specialist Coordinator, Tourism Australia
“It was a super creative experience. It’s a relationship business, and relationships were certainly formed here. I would love to see the blossoming of friendships amongst those who attended and how they can take this little slice of heaven and create long-term relationships that serve not just their soul, but their businesses.”
– Jenn Lee, vice president of sales and marketing, Travel Planners International
Aspen Meadows Resort
Future Leaders in Travel Retreat