Gaëlle Bellec doesn’t call herself a travel agent or even a travel professional. “I define myself more as a private consultant. I’m a personal shopper in travel,” said Bellec.
Bellec has come a long way from Bayside Travel, a luxury agency in Bronxville, NY, where she worked from 2004 to 2008. Now she caters to ultra-high-net-worth customers of the Brussels office of Paris-based agency Peplum.
Bellec was one of several agents and suppliers who sat down with Travel Market Report in Deauville, France, to share their insights about serving ultra-wealthy travelers. They were all participants in this year’s Essence of Luxury conference, put on by Traveller Made, a global network of travel agencies that specialize in designing custom trips for ultra-high-net-worth clients.
Here’s what we learned from them.
1. High-end travel agents cultivate super-tight relationships with their clients.
“Be as close as you can with the clients. That’s the key,” said Bellec. She starts the relationship off with a two-hour get-acquainted meeting, usually at the client’s home. “At their house, you can see the decoration, the dog, the nanny, the kids, the furniture, the art. You’re learning a lot. And people are natural, because they are in their natural element.”
The objective is to learn as much as possible about the client’s life and lifestyle, including likes, dislikes, past travel experiences, and travel goals.
Once a client retains Bellec, she continues to meet with them about once a month, usually over coffee or lunch, and regardless of whether they’re planning a trip at the time. In this way she forms a friendship, while keeping in touch with what’s going on in clients’ lives.
This intimate knowledge allows her to design trips that are in sync with clients’ needs at any given time. For instance, she said, “if there’s sad news or a problem at work or a problem with your teenager, your feelings and your [travel] objective could change quickly.”
2. High-end agents stay super-close to suppliers.
Ronald Dooremalen, hotel manager for the legendary Raffles Singapore, said he sees high-end travel consultants “really handholding their clients, from the moment they book until when they return from their holiday.”
Typically, that close agent-client relationship is reflected in highly detailed correspondence from the agent to the supplier to convey the client’s needs and specific requests. “We really benefit from information they give us about their client,” Dooremalen said.
Then it’s a matter of the hotelier “assisting to make sure that’s translated into their stay on-property and really closing monitoring that. It’s understanding the needs of that particular individual and how we can deliver that ultimate luxury experience, making the travel agent look good and making sure we deliver what the guest wants.”
The need to work closely with suppliers is a big reason high-end agents tend to deal directly with hotels, rather than book via GDSs.
“When you have big clients you want to talk to the big boss in the hotel. You call the hotelier, the general manager, and say, ‘I have a big client. Let me tell you his story,’ ” said M. Quentin Desurmont, president of Traveller Made and CEO of Peplum in Paris.
3. Ultra-rich clients rely heavily on their agents’ suggestions.
At Travel Simplicity, an agency that specializes in unique custom-tailored experiences, as many as 80% of clients “have no clue where they want to go” when they come in, said owner Jason Holland. “It could be, ‘I love beaches, but I’ve been to this long list of places and I want to go somewhere new.’ They’re looking to us for new ideas.”
Sometimes those new ideas take a client in an entirely different direction than originally intended, said Holland, who works with his wife out of their home in Etters, PA. “We had a client who had a very specific idea: ‘I want to go to Maui. I want to drive the road to Hana. I want to do all these things.’ So I’m thinking we’re going to talk Hawaii.”
But when the clients arrived, they had decided instead to let Holland choose their next trip for them, saying to him, “We want you to do what you do best.”
So he sat down and talked with them, shared some homemade chocolate chip cookies, and ended up customizing an experience to South Africa. “We went from Hawaii to South Africa, and they had an amazing time.”
4. Even the super-rich resist paying travel agent fees.
Audrey Kennedy of On the Map Travel in Los Angeles and St. Louis has a fairly exclusive, well-vetted clientele. Roughly 75% of her customers are ultra-wealthy travelers who will readily spend as much as $100,000 on a family trip, and she accepts new clients by referral only.
In her first hour-long get-to-know-each-other meeting, she explains that she charges between $250 and $1,000, depending on the complexity of a trip.
“A lot of times you get pushback about a fee,” Kennedy said. “They want to know what the value is of paying you to do the trip, instead of doing it on Expedia. And I tell them – I’m I’m not shy – ‘I have experience. I have contacts. I can save you the time and the hassle. You can spend 100 hours on the Internet and hope you’re booking the right place and the right tour guide, or I can do that for you and I’ve got your back.’”
Usually clients get it, but not always. “One of our first clients said, ‘You charge a fee?’ and disappeared for months. Then he came back and said, ‘Okay, I’ll pay the fee.’ This person spent $100,000 on a safari a couple of years ago.”
5. Serving high-end clients is time-intensive (but worth it).
Jason Holland didn’t plan to attract ultra-rich clients, but the specialized nature of Travel Simplicity’s services has done just that. “Our clientele, regardless of income level, has a similar desire––they want real experiences. The destination is almost secondary. It’s about unique authentic experiences.”
Delivering those experiences involves a lot of work. He just finished planning one trip to Germany and England that was focused around sports cars and soccer, for example, that took 359 emails, plus phone calls and research, he said.
But that serious time commitment can have a big payoff, Desurmont said. “In my agency, I call it the 10-10-10 formula––10 times fewer clients; clients spend 10 times more [money]; and I spend 10 times more time on them.”
Desurmont has one client who doesn’t like to travel alone, so he climbs aboard the private jet with him. It’s a big chunk of time but worth it. “He tells me all kinds of things about business. You learn a lot. And then you create a link and you have fun. Then they trust you. And then you know you can surprise them [with a travel idea], because they told you they like that.”
6. Superb crisis management is a core competency for high-end agents.
Traveller Made has identified crisis management as one of five key areas of expertise for travel consultants who serve the ultra-wealthy. Desurmont’s agency goes so far as to rent satellite phones when its most important clients are traveling far afield, so it can contact them anywhere on the planet in case of a weather event or labor strike or other disruption.
Being on call in times of crisis cements the agent-client relationship, Desurmont said. “This is when we show the power of what we can do for them. When something happens, everybody’s on duty 24/7, and we work wonders for the client.”