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The Rise of the Luxury Travel Advisor

May 2, 2019 Business News No Comments Email Email

One of her advisors needed to close a $500,000 world cruise deal and a $500,000 land tour deal before the weekend.  http://www.stevecafeandcuisine.com/

It was Friday afternoon and Michelle Leal was in Toronto, Canada, far from her home in Orange County but recognized what was at stake.  In the potentially lucrative world of luxury travel, a sizeable commission could be won or lost. Leal relied on her network to try and sweeten the deal.

With new travel incentives secured for the client, including a chauffeur, a private tour at a port and a sizeable on-board credit, her advisor presented a new offer and closed the deal.  For Leal, a vice-president at Travel Edge, it was simply another day in the life of luxury travel.

In an era of online travel deals and the plethora of reviews on the best and worst of everything related to travel, luxury travel advisors are not just holding their ground, but are proving their worth.  The good ones are in short supply for the high net worth celebrities, executives, entrepreneurs and others who routinely leave travel details to others.

“On the luxury side, time is a precious commodity for our clients,” says Mary Kleen, Travel Edge Regional Director.  “They are looking for expertise and want access to our knowledge and our ability to offer VIP service. Service is back in style.”

Service, however, isn’t necessarily booking a suite in the most expensive hotel in a city.  One of the top requests made by Kleen’s advisors is for after-hours access to museums. Her clients also value by-passing lines, having a car and driver waiting after a cruise and “in a frenetic world, anything to take away the stress.”

With the luxury travel market growing an estimated 18 per cent annually between 2014 and 2017, double the growth rate of international travel, researchers have attempted to understand what luxury travel consumers want. And it’s not straight-forward.

The luxury travel consumer is looking for fulfillment, unprecedented access, an immersive experience, a personal journey, and yes, white glove treatment.  Luxury travel advisors need to determine what their clients want and how to deliver it.

“Luxury travel is creating that perfectly tailored experience,” says Kleen.  “It’s that seamless experience from before you depart to after you arrive back home. The luxury travel advisor is focused on fulfilling travel aspirations.”

Kleen suggests luxury travel advisors invest time to pro-actively get to know their clients, in the way any other professional advisor would.   Learning a client’s travel habits, major personal and professional milestones and anniversaries and how they want to spend their travel time and money will allow an advisor to make appropriate suggestions and forge a longer-term relationship.

While travel advisors are quick to reject that luxury travel is synonymous with a hefty price tag, their client budgets often hit six- and seven- figures.  And since luxury travel advisors are paid by commission, the more expensive their clients’ holiday, the more lucrative the advisor’s pay day. The most successful luxury travel advisors are earning in the mid- six-figures.

Similar to real estate advisors, travel advisors are often connected to an agency. Among the highest profile in the industry are Protravel International, Travel Edge, SmartFlyer and Valerie Wilson Travel.   Each agency has its own commission structure, moreover, each travel “product” such as a hotel, cruise, tour, has its own commission.  Cruises tend to be the most lucrative at about 15 per cent, while most hotel commissions are about 10 per cent.  While a portion of the commission may be shared with the agency, agencies offer benefits. These include technology to book travel, the reduction of paperwork related to billing clients and membership to travel consortiums, such as Virtuoso, which offer greater access to luxury products.  As for payment of commissions, that’s dependent on the agency. An advisor may be paid upon a trip being booked, it being paid or even after the client has returned. For the client, the commission is built into the total travel price in their itinerary.

“An itinerary can take a month or even up to a year to plan,” says Robin Fox, a luxury travel specialist with Travel Edge, who is based out of New York. She frequently revisits draft itineraries with clients to ensure their travel plans are perfectly reflective of what they want.

“My clients know I travel often and when they spend a lot of money on their travel, they want someone who understands the logistics,” she says.  “I am respectful of their money as if it were my own.”

Fox has been a travel advisor for more than forty years and recalls her business took off when her sons started private school in Manhattan. It was then that her access to celebrities, executives and other high-profile and wealthy individuals increased.

She often deals with land-only budgets of $30,000 to $40,000 for a couple going away for a week, with that budget doubling for more far-flung destinations, such as Africa or Australia.   As her business has grown, Fox no longer needs to actively search for clients, but instead maintains a roster of long-term clients and occasionally accepts referrals.

“Over time, clients learn who they can trust,” she says. Fox recalls planning a South American itinerary for a high-profile New York real estate family where multiple suites were reserved and confirmed at various five-star hotels.  At 10pm on New Year’s Eve, Fox received a call from the client that the hotel claimed to not have their reservation.  And given the holidays, the hotel was completely booked. The family was going to dinner, and when they returned the client expected the arrangements to be sorted out. Fox called in many favours that New Year’s Eve night, including reaching out to the town’s mayor.  The family got their hotel stay and Fox’s value was established.

For those not who aren’t industry veterans but are looking to make a mark, there is a way.

Wei Pang left a successful career as a bond trader with a mission – to bring luxury travel to the Chinese market. He believed it was an untapped market and felt his love of travel would fuel success in his new career. He was right on both counts. In his first year, Pang managed to reach sales of $2 million in luxury travel and is considered a rising star among luxury travel advisors.

“Hotels were an easy place to start,” says Pang, who splits his time between China and Illinois.  “Everyone knows hotels and they may go several times a year.”

Pang, who is six months into his second year as an advisor, is starting to promote luxury cruises, in addition to hotels. He continues to focus on the Chinese marketplace and relies on social media to promote himself.

“I work very hard,” says Pang, who is 36-years-old. “I work about 10 hours a day, seven days per week.  I’ve always worked hard.”  As a trader, he would look at the markets in the day and write reports during the nights.  In his new career, Pang, who also has his PhD in Polymer Science, spends his time on social media attracting clients, on the internet doing research and working with clients to finalize their travel.

Pang’s advice for those looking to get into the market is to figure out where the clients are, choose the right agency, and then focus on one product to become an expert at.  He recognized the Chinese market was untapped, used the internet to determine which agency to join based on its proprietary software and transparent commission structure and was already familiar with many of the hotels from his own business and leisure travels.

One of the ways to gain insider knowledge – and often touted as one of the perks of being a luxury travel advisor – is the FAM.  FAMs (short for familiarization trips) allow advisors to experience first-hand the various destinations, properties and attractions they promote to clients.  Pang has been on four FAMs and is keen to go on more while Fox has been on hundreds over her career. Her online profile includes a map of all the countries she has visited, including the frequency to each and the date of her most recent visit.

“These trips give you perspective on itineraries you are planning,” says Fox. “Many times a client may present an initial idea for their trip, but by the time the itinerary is finalized, it ends up being a completely different trip because of my perspective of having been there, my contacts and my network.”

On FAMs, most advisors are still balancing client demands while visiting the destinations. “Technology is a double-edge sword,” Fox says.  “You can work 24/7 and have a flexible work week, but you still need to feel the emotion of these places.” It’s the intangibles which often create the difference for the level of personalization her clients want.  “They don’t want a hotel, they want the right hotel.”

For those considering a career in luxury travel, Leal suggests that prospective advisors should allocate at least two years to assess if it’s for them.  While Pang’s immediate success is inspiring, his ability to top $2 million in sales his first year is unusual.

It takes time to learn the products, build a network to unlock the special incentives clients want and learn the industry. The industry has specialities, ranging from corporate travel, cruises, private-guided tours, safaris and more.  Each has unique terminology and logistics. Leal also believes those coming to luxury travel as a second career may have a higher chance of success. That’s because they often have a business model in mind, an untapped client pool of former business colleagues, are already well-traveled and often know how to form relationships.

“The industry is hungry for people with new energy, a client base and travel knowledge,” says Leal.  “That trifecta of skills is in demand.”

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