What we might learn from the world's best chefs

By Richard Turen
"The worst food you'll ever eat will probably be prepared by a cook who calls himself a chef." -- Alton Brown, Food Network personality

Richard TurenThere are fascinating similarities between what a travel consultant does and what happens in the kitchen of a restaurant. Think about it and you will see that chefs and travel pros start out with a larder filled with raw materials. And then we have to design a plate that tastes great but also has strong eye appeal. We have to take our guests' hopes and dreams and plate them so they show and taste to best advantage.

I would argue that most travel agents are cooks. They follow directions and cook to expectation without large measures of creativity. The cooks I have known have colored diagrams near their cooking stations showing how a plate should look for uniformity. The goal is that a plate of lasagna should look identical if cooked in Denver or Dubuque. They get the job done, but they are, essentially, order-takers on an assembly line. And sadly, that is what much of travel planning has become.

Chefs, on the other hand, tend to do their own thing with flourishes. And they begin by selecting ingredients that are far more costly than those used by cooks because their goal is to demonstrate the uniqueness of their dishes and their ability to satisfy in truly memorable ways.

I want all travel agent cooks to strive to become travel chefs. Here are a few recommendations to up your marketing and sales game to achieve travel chefdom.

Watch what you stock in your larder

Cooks often work in diners where they have 13-page menus. Chefs are more refined. They don't claim to do everything well.

Travel consultants don't sell everything. They sell only the best products in each category, discarding the rest. You don't want to "cook" 15 kinds of East African safari. You want two, the very best product and one that is a little less than best but still quite good. The rest have no place in your kitchen.

Support your product suppliers with everything you've got and know their "ingredients" the way Jacques Pepin knows his.

Don't cook up too many airline tickets

Why feature stuff on your menu that most people are not going to like? They will try to get the waiter to take it back, and when he won't, they will blame the chef. You can't do much with airline tickets, but here are a few things to try:

• Become the "best seat in the house" airline expert, highlighting your own personal recommendations on seating charts.

• Add some spice to your ticketing dishes by designing your own firm's "Airline Ticketing for Dummies" booklet. Explain how everything really works, supply key contact numbers at the major airlines, and you will have a loyal client.

• Make certain that you know which airports have VIP meet-and-greet services. Clients are wowed when they are met at the gate.

• Design your own in-flight newsletter. No ads -- just fun, games and useful information.

• When you book flights for clients, have templates prepared in advance for every major airline you sell and the various models they fly. Take a flight number and personalize it for the client. You can turn ground meat into steak tartare.

Serve a nice variety of escorted tours

• Choose two or three favorites for each continent and know everything about them. Instead of formal staff training, have staff members design comparison charts showing the upside and downside of each product.

• Use escorted tour products to tempt your clients' travel taste buds. Figure out a way to get them to read your "menu" of worldwide offerings. And change your menus often. Never advertise the name of the tour operator. Promote the content and quality of the tour. Make them come to you to get the name of the operator. Chefs are careful about revealing the names of all of their purveyors.

• Some of the best escorted tour options are like foie gras. They are an acquired taste, but it is easy to get addicted to that taste. Make certain that your guests (clients) know that you have access to thousands of specialized programs and specially themed vacations. Do it by printing out a monthly menu of new and exciting travel options. Clients do not want to be sold anything. They want their travel chef to create dishes just for them that show taste, creativity and awareness of their lifestyle. Pick and choose your menu options carefully. Consider two menus, each with a different price point.

Serve cruise and river cruise entrees with amazing side dishes

• You always need to own a "dish," even if every restaurant in town has it on the menu. You do that by cooking it in creative new ways, with flourish and side dishes that no one else has. In the case of cruise vacations, this is easily done by maintaining a "private wine list" of special pre- and postcruise programs you have designed with your primary supplier contacts in major ports.

• Do what any excellent waiter will do: Point out the upside and downside of each cruise or river cruise product. Nothing on your menu will appeal to every diner.

Give serious thought to what your menu looks like

• No traveler wants to dine on plain and basic food. Travelers expect uniqueness and expertise. Design your own invoices and documentation in such a way that your travel business (restaurant) stands out from every other firm in the nation.

• Create a list of the top 25 reasons for clients to do their travel planning at your firm. No bank would ever lend a new restaurant money as a startup if they couldn't come up with more than a dozen reasons why they feel they are unique and will stand out from their competition. As a travel agency owner, you need to think in those terms. If you can't come up with 25 reasons, schedule a staff retreat and stay in the woods until you get it all figured out.

Hang out with chefs who share their secrets -- you won't learn anything from cooks

• Sales representatives ought to be a fountain of wisdom when it comes to creative ideas that are working in the marketplace. Push them to stimulate your thinking by scheduling a once-a-year brainstorming session.

• Join the best consortium and hang out with their top producers. If you were a chef, would you turn down a chance to have lunch with Anthony Bourdain or Thomas Keller?

And remember, all great chefs constantly taste what they cook.

Contributing Editor Richard Bruce Turen owns Churchill & Turen Ltd., a luxury vacation firm based in Naples, Fla. He is also managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales training and marketing consultancy. Contact him at rturen@travelweekly.com. 
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