While being a Fortune 500 executive may seem more demanding than booking travel, Judi Cohen might argue with that idea.
During her first year and a half in her new career with Zebrano Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Toronto, Cohen was surprised to find out how challenging the travel business can be – along with the differences and similarities with her former career.
After graduating from college in urban studies in the 70s, Cohen went to work in airport planning for the Canadian federal government, before moving into transit and engineering consulting.
As vice president of three global corporations, she had an opportunity to travel extensively and at one of those companies she handled global travel contracting.
“It was there that I began to understand how travel contracts are negotiated,” she said. “I also became a board member of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre Board and fell in love with travel.
“I fell in love with the concept of how to travel well and take the burden out of travel.”
Dealing with upscale clients
That experience paid off after Cohen joined Zebrano Travel a year and a half ago and began to deal with her agency’s upscale clients.
“Wendy Davis, the owner, owned a concierge business for 17 years and then began to service those clients in the travel area as well as all of their lifestyle issues,” said Cohen.
Zebrano, where Cohen works as an independent contractor, specializes in high-end leisure travel, along with the lifestyle concierge services it still offers.
In order to learn the business, Cohen took the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) course and is taking many Virtuoso seminars.
“I’ve been focusing on learning the business as much as building the business,” she said. “I’ve learned the Virtuoso way of sending people all around the world, and all through this have continued to travel myself.”
Although Cohen has had to spend quite a bit of time educating herself in the travel business, skills she developed previously are coming in quite handy in her new work.
The most important thing she learned from her former career is customer care and dealing with details.
“I learned the importance of listening more than speaking when it comes to clients,” Cohen said. “I also learned how to determine whether we’re delivering what they want and how to build relationships one at a time.”
There are a number of challenges Cohen encounters in travel that she didn’t face before.
“It’s lot of effort for relatively little money, but then I didn’t go into travel to make a million dollars,” she said. “Another challenge is the need to develop a whole new client base.
“After 35 years in my former career I didn’t think about making new contacts, I just leveraged my existing network.”
What has surprised her the most about the travel industry?
“That travel agents are so smart, savvy and knowledgeable. And that they’re very tightly networked,” Cohen said. “Travel agents are very collegial and supportive of one another.
“I was used to being in a very competitive environment with other firms to get jobs, but because the travel industry is relationship based you’re not really competing with anybody else for a specific piece of work.”
The other thing that surprised her is how hard the travel business is and how difficult it can be to create a really great booking.
“The amount of precision and detail that goes into each of these bookings is amazing. You’ve got to get it right and to be available around the clock,” she said.
In spite of the hard work, the rewards for Cohen are many.
“I’m very passionate about travel and authentic experiences,” she said. Asia, especially Japan, is her favorite place to have those experiences.
“It’s very spiritual,” she said. “We went up to Koya-san (Mt. Koya) and lived with the monks for a few days. I also love the onsens (hot springs).”