Celestielle Travel's YouTube page.
In an ideal world, travel agents would only propose destinations and products they have personally experienced.
Douglas Easton and his partner John Ziegler of Celestielle Travel in the Hollywood Hills claim to satisfy that ideal—and they are on the road about nine months a year to achieve it. Then they document their journeys on a prolific YouTube channel that attracts new customers at home and around the world.
“We present ourselves to the public as the best-traveled agency in the world,” Easton said. “We even visit places we’re unlikely to sell, such as East Timor, just in case we are asked about them, and for our own curiosity.”
Easton and Ziegler have been on the road almost continuously for 11 years, but for the past 7 have focused on luxury travel. Easton has visited more than 200 countries and territories and Ziegler almost as many. The two spend a minimum of two nights at any hotel and, “while we are in that hotel, we will not look at another property. We really want to know it.”
Catching it all on YouTube
Fortunately for the company, Ziegler also is a serious videographer. He shoots professional-quality footage, which is then converted into YouTube videos by a professional editor in South Africa.
“We became serious about YouTube about three years ago, and it has become the sales clincher in 70% of our bookings,” Easton said. “If we have someone looking for a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, we can send our own clips of the top properties there. The clients invariably come back with a yes.
“These videos show us at the destination, so clients can see firsthand what their own experiences are likely to be.”
The three-to-four-minute videos are posted roughly once a week; there are now 200, with another 50 in the queue. Easton credits them with building Celestielle’s growing international client base, which now is about 28% of the total.
In 2014, while at a lodge in British Columbia, the two met some travelers from Shanghai who hired them to plan a future trip; that in turn has led to other Chinese clients. Now the YouTube videos have been translated into Mandarin, and “we hope to translate them into other languages soon.”
Celestielle’s growth path
Not surprisingly, both the partners were tour leaders before becoming travel designers. It was great training, Easton said: “Being a tour leader enables you to see both how people behave and what they are looking for during a trip.”
While they originally focused almost entirely on experiential travel like safaris, polar bear viewing, and the like, in the past three years they have taken on traditional luxury destinations, such as the Caribbean, Provence, Tuscany, and great cities. “While our forte will always be high-end experiential, we have gotten very good at traditional luxury travel,” Easton said.
Easton’s wanderlust dates all the way back to his childhood. He grew up in Maine and as a teenager saw an article in the New York Times about the Travelers Century Club, whose members’ shared goal is to visit all the world’s countries during their lifetimes. Admission to the club—founded in 1954 and still based in Los Angeles—is open to anyone who has visited 100 countries.
“My 100th was Laos, John’s was Lebanon. Last October we visited Ethiopia, which was my 218th and John’s 158th.”
With their business model, support at home is critical. “We have staff who are home-based, allowing John and me to do the sales and trip planning,” Easton said. Once a trip is sold and planned, the normal functions of a travel agency, such as booking and the rest, are handled by staff.”
And yes, they will make exceptions to the “proposing only what we have experienced” approach. When a good client recently requested a top-end suite on an Alaska cruise, for example, Easton told him up front that he rarely sells cruises and felt unqualified to offer advice. But of course if clients insist, “we will accommodate them as long as we make clear that we do not do so with any authority.”
Easton and Ziegler return home periodically but will soon be spending almost four months in southern Africa and the Indian Ocean to immerse themselves in that destination.
“We’re strong in the southern hemisphere, but we frequently do what we call ‘cleanup trips,’ scouting new properties in areas we have already visited so that we can stay current.”