Travel agents—left for dead in the wake of the last recession and every new iteration of the internet—are bidding to become more than what conventional wisdom considers them to be, which is obsolete.
They still sell tour and travel packages but today, their services go much farther: to aspirational, experiential even transcendent travel moments.
Back in the day, agents were the go-to sources for booking passage, one trip or traveler at a time.
The web generally and online travel agencies specifically—Expedia Group and TripAdvisor Inc., for instance—crushed it on capturing price-focused consumers, and swamped travel agencies as well, which went under in their wake.
Amazon and Google are getting deeper into travel, too. Hospitality trade journal Skift says the first is pursuing the behemoth’s usual strategy—big losses to grab market share—while Google Travel wants to be the one-stop shop suitable to where most people start their internet fishing expeditions.
Now anyone can book a trip.
So, there’s room for higher-level service, for those not looking to do all the dirty work.
As tech “opened the world to everyone, clients are looking for a more discerning way to travel,” said Michael Albanese, co-founder of Element Lifestyle in L.A., “and they’re willing to pay extra” to ensure a unique time.
Travel agents are rebranding—rebuilding and resurrecting—as counselors to high-end travelers seeking a boutique bon voyage.
The web, said to have killed the concept of personalized travel services, has instead become a catalyst for it as such consultants sift through the online clutter to curate culture and authenticity over cookie-cutter itineraries.
Accordingly, Element bills itself as “the planet’s leading luxury travel and lifestyle service” and employs not agents but “consultants” offering “concierge services.”
Even “unique” might be just a base camp.
“We’re definitely seeing demand among luxury travelers for transformative moments that resonate deeply, as a way to better themselves,” said Caroline Klein, executive vice president of corporate communications at indie hotel firm Preferred Hotels & Resorts in Newport Beach.
Preferred works with 750 hotels and resorts in 85 countries: aggregating, inspecting and vetting, and then presenting them in five “collections” on its website, not as an agency but a resource for travelers and luxe advisers seeking inspiration or simply booking a hotel.
Element’s 40 or so clients, including some in OC, pay $48,000 a year for access to its services, which can get not just exact—the vanilla latte in the car to the airport—but personal—requiring the room has a Toto-branded toilet.
“That’s one of the more specific requests,” Albanese said. “The client ended up paying to change [it].”
That airport trip is in anything from a “sedan to a Cadillac Escalade to a Lamborghini Urus,” he said.
He’s also helped get a Chihuahua through South Korean customs, bought out the Sistine Chapel for a private tour, and provided for a client’s 13-person security team.
Such precision, and being on-call for “mercurial and busy clientele,” he said, warrants the membership fee, none of which goes toward actual jaunts, while protecting Element from competitors as a barrier to entry.
“We put an enormous amount of time into each trip for each client.”
As agents continue traveling the arc from service provider to commodity to personalized focus, time gains in value.
“What’s the number one luxury for most people?” Klein asked. “Time: putting together a complex itinerary takes a lot of time. So people see the value in paying someone for that.”
“We approached the high-end market specifically because they don’t have the time,” said John Dekker, who runs Surf City Travel in Cypress.
Dekker’s dad, Kase Dekker, founded the business in Westminster in 1963 as a traditional travel agency—reputedly just the second-ever in OC.
Dekker said the internet’s influence in travel has helped his firm clarify its role. As a “mass of information” hinders travelers’ efforts to find and book trips themselves, electronic advances enable efficient communication—including for security purposes: If something runs amiss, his 20-person team can help any of their 2,000 clients from afar. “Technology has streamlined the business,” he said.
In tandem with tech advances, the 2008 recession drove many firms out of business—including one Albanese co-founded with Edgar Estrada—but it also cleared the decks and spurred innovation.
The two set off on a road trip to meet with clients left hanging by their previous firm’s demise and built a pipeline of new business for Element, which they started in 2009 with a third founder, Joubin Bral.
The trio’s new venture and Dekker’s pivot represented the launch of a new niche.
“Our business model was very uncommon several years ago,” Albanese said.
Not About Benjamins
Now, he said “people are coming around” to bespoke travel, including memberships. “It’s like having the company on retainer.”
Element does no advertising for its seven-employee operation; growth is word-of-mouth.
In addition to memberships and markups on what they sell, revenue for companies like Element Lifestyle and Surf City Travel includes a cut of hotel fees which, Albanese said, “makes the business profitable.”
New dollars and pounds, euros and yuan and yen have flowed to industry partners, too.
“Travel agents have had to differentiate themselves by creating curated experiences,” said Person Garcia, Resort at Pelican Hill global director of leisure and villa sales. The Newport Beach property works with Element and Surf City Travel, as well as high-end “travel adviser” networks Virtuoso Ltd. in Fort Worth, Texas, and Signature Travel Network in El Segundo.
Garcia said such firms help the resort “generate a more loyal customer base.”
Money is, literally, no object.
Instead, it’s about belief, or perhaps a different kind of wealth.
“Our brand promise is ‘believe in travel,’” Preferred Hotels’ Klein said. “We promote the idea that travel makes people richer by opening their minds.”
She said, “people do like to search” online, and they do so on their own, including scrolling through the website, sometimes booking through Preferred or at the hotel directly—local properties include Montage Laguna Beach, Surf and Sand Resort and Balboa Bay Resort—or going back to their travel agent knowing the hotel they want.
The company employs 80 salespeople globally; about 40% of its business comes through travel agent work.
“Travel consultants are essential,” Klein said, “connecting the experience from start to finish.”
Experiences are as varied as a Chihuahua sight-seeing in Seoul suggests.
Element’s clients begin planning trips with a 16-page questionnaire—preferences to bucket list—in an email chain that can include more than a hundred notes back-and-forth—another sign of technology’s travel reach.
A client’s recent eight-day trip to Botswana, for instance, included spending a day with sixth-generation Bushmen—the indigenous people in the southern Horn of Africa.
Once again, it’s not about the cost—the trip topped $40,000—but “authenticity,” Albanese said.
“Ten years ago, luxury was defined by how much money you can spend, and what yacht you went on,” he said. It’s been redefined as “authenticity, culture, and experiences you’ve never had.”
It’s “access to truly incredible moments,” Klein said, places, including hotels, “that might not even have a website,” and by definition beyond Priceline.com’s reach.
Luxe travel agents, she said, “can help people with experiences” that haven’t been purchased to death.
Preferred hosts 200 events a year for travel sales consultants. Chief Executive Lindsey Ueberroth, niece of investor Peter Ueberroth, was the May cover story of industry trade journal Luxury Travel Advisor.
Lindsey’s parents, John and Gail Ueberroth, bought the now-51-year-old Preferred Hotels 15 years ago—just after Alan Fuerstman launched what is now Irvine-based Montage International. The two companies have collaborated since; Montage resorts and its Pendry Hotels lifestyle hotels are part of Preferred.
Luxe travel curation appears to have legs.
The online denizens continue to hammer hotels on price—Booking.com plans to begin charging commissions not just on room rates but on hotel fees generally—suggesting there’ll always be room for personal service.
Pelican Hill’s Garcia said high-end agents are key to multigenerational travel that can further complicate the already-detailed work and which has been “growing exponentially.”
Element recently launched a spinoff brand, Essential, which it said offers the “same high-end experiences without the membership commitment” to younger travelers who pay a trip planning fee.
Surf City Travel’s Dekker put an oar in the water for the younger generation to come into luxe travel as client—and as worker, which could help such companies speak to the next generation of clients.
“My industry is old,” he said. “We need new blood.”
Montage and Pendry have projects open or in the works from Hawaii to Manhattan, the parent company has global ambition and Pendry is pitching at a relatively lower price point than Montage, aiming at a millennial generation traveler.
Price might not be a mitigating factor even there, Klein said, with the right experinces, “off the beaten path that they haven’t seen a million times on social media.”