In Tech Corridor, Staying Ahead of Travelers Is Key
by Cheryl Rosen /

When you’re based in Silicon Valley, winning a corporate account is just the beginning of the sales process.

In a business environment where top talent is rewarded, rather than ordered about, and where travelers think know their way around the web better than you do, a travel agency needs to prove itself to every single customer.

This year, as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, San Francisco-based Casto Travel has taken a five-prong approach to winning the loyalty of its high-flying, non-mandated techie travelers.

#1. Duty of care
The first step, said president and CEO Marc Casto, is emphasizing the role the agency can play in supporting the corporate duty of care for employees on the road.

In the past few weeks, Casto has been called upon to help one traveler who was mugged in Mexico and to repatriate the body of another who passed away while on company business abroad.

The ability to assist in such exceptional circumstances cements the relationship between the agency and its customers.

#2. In-house help desk
The second step, focused on winning over individual travelers, is providing its own in-house after-hours service.

The after-hours service has been especially crucial this year, when double-digit growth in customer travel to Asia and terrible winter weather in the U.S. proved the value of having your own staff on the help desk 24 hours a day.

“The winter was rough on the Eastern seaboard, but our average wait time was just 30 seconds because we in-sourced the process,” Casto said.

#3. Expanded hotel program
Step three was a focus on expanding and improving the hotel program. That’s “where the real compliance challenge is,” Casto said.

Casto worked with the Expedia Affiliate Network as well as Virtuoso, ABC and Thor to grow the number of properties in its program. The agency also did its own negotiating with hotels in the Bay Area, where “there’s never enough availability.”

While hotel negotiating season used to begin in the third quarter of the year, now it’s an ongoing discussion year-round, Casto said.

#4. Deliver useful data
Step four, almost ready for launch, is a new product, Business Intelligence, that takes a “deeper dive” into spending data.

But it’s the final step that Casto believes makes the real difference.

#5. Staying ahead of travelers
Step five is keeping ahead of travelers “who think they can do it better and faster” by focusing on training the agents to whom they speak.

With about 50% of Casto’s corporate bookings now coming in online, it’s largely complex reservations that are left to agents to handle. So the work is more difficult – and the need for training more acute.

For the past three years Casto has been holding all-day training sessions for its agents on Saturdays, and bringing in clients as well. Over time, the training sessions have become much more modular and customized for each client, including unique solutions.

Internship program
On June 1 Casto will go one step further, launching an internship program designed to find and train the best and the brightest new agents from among college students and recent graduates.

The first class (yet to be hired, so spread the word!) will include just four or five interns with a “very loose” job description.

The class will be taught in a “Montessori-like” style that lets the students’ own interests guide the curriculum. The goal for the first class is partly “to figure out what they need to learn and what we can learn from them,” Casto said.

Attitude first
Finding good agents is a “big, big, big issue,” Casto said.

Knowing Sabre is not the kind of requirement the internship program will demand, the agency will require. “It’s more about their attitude, their willingness to learn. And of course, their love of travel.”

On June 1 Casto Travel will begin an internship program that aims to find and train the best and the brightest new agents. The class will be taught in a Montessori-like style