It’s one of the most disconcerting calls a travel advisor can receive. “We want to take the trip of a lifetime in six months. We’re not sure exactly sure where, but can you make it happen?”
While such an open-ended opportunity might excite some agents with the chance to demonstrate their expertise and showcase their insights, such a blank canvas can also be intimidating.
The world is a big place. Comparing one destination to another for that client might not be straightforward. Then there are other important factors, like travel distances, a customer’s specific interests and hobbies; and, for Skip Neal, owner of Your Gallivanting Guru, juggling all of these options for a singularly important vacation, like a honeymoon.
Neal, based in Austin, Texas, took the client’s first call in March. “They wanted a two-week honeymoon in October, but didn’t have a specific place picked. The husband follows me on social, so he knew that I specialize and frequently travel to New Zealand, Australia, and Tahiti,” said Neal, a Premier Aussie Specialist. “He asked me: ‘Is October a good time to go?’”
A “laidback, easygoing” veterinarian, the client previously had entrusted Neal with numerous family vacations (including trips to Mexico and Hawaii) during his first marriage. “I have a really good idea about what he likes to do on vacation,” Neal said, “the food he enjoys, the type of accommodations he likes.”
But his fiancé at that time “is quieter, and I don’t know her as well. I wasn’t clear on her travel likes and dislikes,” Neal said.
In-person visit helps narrow down the options
How would Neal exceed the couple’s expectations with a relatively blank slate?
“I don’t sell to people. People buy from me. Planning a vacation like this is not a transaction. It’s very personal. So, active listening, understanding the personalities, is how I conduct these consultations,” he said.
Neal planned an in-person consultation to start the process; and he brought along Ward Reid, director of sales, for Qantas Vacations USA (which is operated by Travel 2/Helloworld).
Reid, a Melbourne, Australia, native who now also lives in Austin, hosted Neal on a fam trip to Australia several years ago. “On that trip, I was hooked. I had focused on the Caribbean and Mexico up until then, but knew I wanted to specialize in Australia and the South Pacific,” Neal said.
Neal had developed a close working relationship with Reid over the years. And because the client could only give him 30 minutes for planning the trip, he felt having Reid along to answer the fiancée’s questions and help see Australia from a native’s perspective would be an advantage.
“She is very shy, so trying to get that information from her wasn’t easy. That first meeting was a little challenging. We kept having to try to pull her in so we could learn more about how to make her happy,” Neal said.
They agreed they both wanted to be outdoors as much as possible (she scuba dives); visit some exotic locations; enjoy local food and wine; and finally, because they both work with animals, they wanted experiences that would get them up close to local fauna.
Initially, the couple strongly considered New Zealand, but Neal persuaded them to rule it out. “Given all of the experiences they had on their priority list, they couldn’t have squeezed everything in without making the trip a full month – which they couldn’t do,” Neal said. “We discussed that maybe they visit New Zealand for an anniversary trip.”
The couple also ruled out Tahiti because it didn’t offer the diversity of urban experiences they wanted. “I love Tahiti. It is the classic honeymoon destination. But again, it would have restricted the options they wanted to include on this trip,” Neal said.
During the consult, the client’s fiancée told Neal she dreamed of holding a koala and wanted to see a kangaroo up close. “When you are hearing that, and trying to bring her into the planning, that is obviously leading you to Australia. When I told her about Kangaroo Island, and how it is essentially a zoo without fences, that kind of did it for her,” he said.
Kangaroo Island lies off the coast of South Australia, southwest of Adelaide. Approximately one third of the island hosts nature preserves, with koalas, sea lions, and diverse bird species. Flinders Chase National Park, on the west side of the island, is home to colonies of penguins.
Within days of the consult, the clients bought in to Neal’s suggestion of an itinerary that included diving at the Great Barrier Reef, Kangaroo Island, and a finish in Sydney. The trip was sprinkled with five-star restaurant reservations, private excursions, and enough downtime for the newly married couple to relax. Neal accepted their deposit in early April.
Special touches add luxurious flair
As money was not an issue for the trip, Neal went top-end on as much as he could, starting with first class seats on Qantas from Dallas. Neal also contacted every resort where the couple would be staying and asked if they would deliver custom notes from him with a small thank-you at every welcome.
“Each place did something special, whether it was a tray of fruit, champagne,” Neal said.
On Kangaroo Island, Neal booked the couple at the Southern Ocean Lodge, a 21-suite luxury property cantilevered over a coastal cliff, and known for its world-class dining and premium South Australian wines.
“Australian wine played a big part in their decision and the trip,” Neal said. “They’re both foodies, especially fresh seafood.”
As an extra touch, the owner of the Southern Ocean Lodge and the master chef met the couple at dinner one night, and invited them to experience a private wine tasting and food-pairing experience. “They told my client, ‘Skip sent us,’” Neal recalled.
Neal also arranged for the couple to visit a wildlife center while staying at the Silky Oaks Lodge at the Great Barrier Reef. “When they got there, the idea of spending ten minutes with a koala for the typical photo op turned into three hours with all of the animals there,” Neal said.
Off-the-charts, post-trip feedback
On the Monday after the couple got back, Neal bumped into his client. “He told me they struck up conversations with some other tourists in Sydney at restaurants, and shared what they had done over the course of their trip,” Neal said. “These other tourists were telling him, ‘Who’s your agent? We had no idea we could have done these things.’ That was so satisfying. I did not want to give them a cookie-cutter trip.”
The client capped off that conversation with an off-the-charts social media testimonial.
“Unbelievable!!! I want to start out by letting everyone know that I have been working with and using Skip Neal and Your Gallivanting Guru for almost two decades!!! So, it’s safe to say that my family reveres and trusts Skip and his company implicitly ... Well, my wife and I just got back from our honeymoon and it was a truly marvelous trip!!!!!!”
The client talked about how “when we began contemplating where we would spend our two-week honeymoon, we honestly had no idea where we wanted to go …” but wanted to “do as much as we could with the 14 days we were planning to be away. In our struggle to decide, I picked up the phone and, as usual, Skip took my call after two rings and proceeded to field my questions and inquires.
“… we chose Australia, thanks to the help and guidance from Skip!!! Every aspect was perfectly planned, from flights, transfers, hotels, activities, dinner reservations, etc. ... and our time there was AMAZING!!!
“Just wanted all to know, Skip is “The Best in the Business” when it comes to top-notch vacation planning! First class, attention to detail, and guaranteed over-the-top customer service!!! Thanks, Skip, for seeing to it that our honeymoon was as spectacular and memorable as we could have ever hoped for!!!”