Travel Weekly is proud to present the winners of our 2012 Readers Choice Awards. What sets this annual competition apart is that it is our readers, and our readers alone, who determine the nominees, the finalists and, ultimately, the winners in each category. And as producers, sellers and consumers of tourism product and services, those readers are, we feel, the best arbiters of not only taste but talent and top-notch delivery. (View the complete list of nominees here and a slideshow from the gala event here or by clicking on the photo.)
"These awards identify the industry's finest," said Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief of Travel Weekly. "The professionals who rely on Travel Weekly have insider knowledge and the expertise to select those businesses and destinations and hotels that provide the highest level of service to their clients. Consumers can be confident that recipients of a Travel Weekly Readers Choice Award have received a very important seal of approval."
The following are the winners in their respective categories:
For the second year in a row, Delta Air Lines nabbed best Domestic Airline, while Virgin Atlantic kept its claim to the top, being named the No. 1 International carrier for the fifth year in a row. Emirates Airlines took off with its first win, in the Business/First Class category.
Hertz continued to dominate the category, making yet another clean sweep, with top honors in both the Domestic and International categories for the ninth and 10th years, respectively.
Best Rail Vacation
Rocky Mountaineer, purveyor of 45 Canadian vacation packages and four rail routes through British Columbia, Alberta and the Canadian Rockies, repeated its victory in the category for the fourth straight year.
Sabre, the leading U.S. system by market share and the oldest of the four major GDSs, took the category for the fourth year in a row.
Best Travel Agent Educational Program
NCL University, from Norwegian Cruise Line, took the title for the second year in a row in this category, which Travel Weekly introduced in 2010.
Marriott International took the title in both the Hotel Chain: Domestic and Hotel Chain: Sales & Service categories for the ninth consecutive year.
InterContinental Hotels Group repeated its wins as best chain in both Asia and Europe for the fifth year in a row.
Sandals Resorts took both the Hotel Chain: All-Inclusive and Hotel Chain: Caribbean categories, for the seventh and tenth years, respectively.
Once again there was a new winner in the Hotel Chain: Mexico category, where Dreams Resorts & Spas took the title for the first time.
Mexico-based chain Karisma Hotels & Resorts took first place in the Boutique hotel category for the fifth year in a row.
For the fourth year in a row, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide took first prize in the Hotel Chain: Hawaii/South Pacific category.
On the upper end, for the second year in a row, Ritz-Carlton Hotels & Resorts was voted best in Hotel Chain: Luxury, while Westin Hotels & Resorts took honors for best Hotel Chain: Upscale for the fifth year running.
Hampton Inn won for the fifth straight year in the Hotel Chain: Mid-Priced category.
Best Las Vegas Hotel
Despite the entry of several younger hotels in this category, perennial reader favorite Bellagio Las Vegas took the crown for the fifth year in a row, or every year since the category was introduced in 2008.
Best Resort Worldwide
For the fifth year in a row, the St. Regis Bora Bora, a Starwood resort, was voted Best Resort Worldwide by our readers. The property, the first St. Regis in remote French Polynesia, opened in 2006 at a cost of $1 million per bungalow.
Three years ago, to better recognize and honor the realities of the tour operator marketplace, Travel Weekly split the Domestic tour operator category in half, creating separate categories for best Tour Operator: Domestic Escorted and best Tour Operator: Domestic Packaged.
The inaugural winners in the top two categories managed to three-peat those victories this year, with Tauck World Discovery taking top honors in the Domestic Escorted category and Gogo Worldwide Vacations winning again in the Domestic Packaged category.
Tauck also notched its third win in the Tour Operator: Canada category.
Travel Impressions won the Tour Operator: Sales & Service category for the eighth straight year, while also nabbing the top prize in the Tour Operator: Caribbean category.
Abercrombie & Kent took home both Tour Operator: Africa and Tour Operator: Luxury for the eighth straight year.
Globus took top honors for best Tour Operator: International, taking the title from five-time consecutive winner Trafalgar Tours. Globus also took top honors in the Tour Operator: Asia-Pacific category.
Not to be outdone, Trafalgar took the Tour Operator: Europe from Globus, which had won that category for seven straight years.
For the ninth year in a row, Pleasant Holidays was tops in the Tour Operator: Hawaii category.
Apple Vacations was named best Tour Operator: Mexico, also for the ninth year in a row.
Royal Caribbean International and sister line Celebrity Cruises each took top honors in four categories this year, dominating the cruise category.
Royal Caribbean repeated its top honor selection for the Cruise Line: Overall; Cruise Line: Domestic; Cruise Line: Caribbean; and Sales & Service categories. The cruise line has held the overall and Caribbean titles since the first Readers Choice Awards in 2003 and has held the Sales & Service crown since 2008.
Celebrity picked up Cruise Ship: Rookie, for the Celebrity Silhouette, along with best Cruise Ship: Premium, with the Celebrity Solstice wining that category for the third straight year. Celebrity also took honors for the third year in a row for best Cruise Line: Europe and best Cruise Line: Premium, for a fifth time.
Princess Cruises was once again voted best Cruise Line: Alaska, a title it's lost only once, in 2006.
Princess' sister company Cunard Line won Cruise Ship: Luxury with the Queen Mary 2, for the ninth consecutive year.
Norwegian Cruise Line took top honors for Cruise Ship: Overall Individual category, with the Norwegian Epic grabbing the award for the second year in a row.
Also for the second year in a row, the Yachts of Seabourn took top honors in the Cruise Line: Luxury category.
Viking River Cruises won the Cruise Line: River Cruising category for the seventh year in a row.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection's ship the S.S. Antoinette was victorious in the best Cruise Ship: River Cruising category, Uniworld's first win in that category.
England, host to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, took the title for best Destination: Europe, toppling the eight-year consecutive winner Italy.
Far less surprising was Australia's title for best destination in the Asia/Pacific region; Oz has held the crown for nine consecutive years.
St. Lucia took top honors for the 2012 Destination: Caribbean category for a second year in a row, after wresting it from three-year winner Jamaica in 2011.
In the Destination: Africa category, South Africa once again bested competitors Botswana, Egypt, Kenya and Tanzania, taking top honors in 2012, as it has every year since the category was introduced in 2008.
Other repeat wins in the destinations competition include Costa Rica, which was named the best Central/South American destination for the ninth year, and the Riviera Maya, taking the title for the Destination: Mexico category, also for the ninth consecutive time.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Pacific Coast city of Vancouver won the Destination: Canada category once again, as it has every year since 2003.
Representing the 50-nifty, Hawaii won the Destination: U.S. State category for the ninth time in a row, while Maui snagged top honors among the Hawaiian Islands, also for the ninth year running.
Among urban U.S. destinations, perennial favorite Las Vegas continued its reign as top Destination: U.S. City with its eighth consecutive award.
Mickey and Donald maintained their winning streak, with Walt Disney World winning the Theme Park category yet again: The Orlando resort has held the title every year since the inception of the Readers Choice Awards in 2003.
Travel Weekly's Readers Choice Awards recipients, representing the best of the best in the travel industry in 59 categories, were chosen by the readers of Travel Weekly in several rounds of online voting. The open-ballot phase of the voting was conducted during the summer, during which readers were invited to write in the name of any company or destination they believed best exemplified a particular category. The leading vote recipients were then identified as competition finalists, and voting on those select finalists took place through early November 2012. The four Lifetime Achievement Award winners were chosen by the awards committee of the Travel Weekly staff.
Lifetime Achievement Awards
Travel Weekly also honored four Lifetime Achievement Award winners. This award pays tribute to individuals whose efforts have led to extraordinary results within an organization and who have also made significant contributions to the industry as a whole. The legacy of the recipients of the Travel Weekly Lifetime Achievement Awards collectively defines the environment that the travel industry operates in today. The 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award recipients are:
- Roger Dow, president and CEO, U.S. Travel Association.
- Randy Garfield; president, Walt Disney Travel Co.; executive vice president, worldwide sales and travel operations, Disney Destinations.
- Jonathan Tisch; chairman, Loews Hotels & Resorts; co-chairman of the board, Loews Corp.
- Valerie Ann Wilson, founder, chairwoman and CEO, Valerie Wilson Travel.
Dow serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, the Washington-based umbrella organization representing all segments of travel in America.
Dow was instrumental in leading the industrywide movement to create the Travel Promotion Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2010, establishing the nation's first communications and promotion program, known as Brand USA.
Dow has always worked closely with government to reduce domestic and international barriers to travel and has made reforming the visa and entry process a top priority since joining U.S. Travel in 2005.
Recently, Dow and U.S. Travel have taken the lead in forming the Discover America Partnership, a consortium of about three dozen companies and associations interested in improving our nation's visa policies around the world, especially in the high-growth markets of Brazil, China and India.
Prior to that, Dow spent 34 years at Marriott International, where he began as a lifeguard at the sixth Marriott hotel and rose to senior vice president of global and field sales, where he developed Marriott Rewards, the world's leading frequent traveler program. He was recently recognized by the publication CEO Update as one of the Top CEOs in Associations in 2012 out of more than 7,000 trade associations.
Garfield serves as both president of Walt Disney Travel Co. and executive vice president of worldwide sales and travel operations for Disney Destinations, an $11 billion-plus business unit of the Walt Disney Co.
In his positions, Garfield both oversees one of the country's largest travel wholesalers and leads the worldwide sales and marketing efforts for all distribution channels of the Disneyland Resort; Walt Disney World Resort; Disneyland Paris; Hong Kong Disneyland Resort; Disney Cruise Line; Disney Vacation Club; Adventures by Disney; Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa in Hawaii; and Golden Oak, a new luxury residential community at the Walt Disney World Resort. He also oversees the company's reservations operations at each Disney destination, and he provides strategic business direction to Disney Sports Enterprises.
Garfield joined Disney in 1993; under his leadership, the Disney Destinations sales team was named the top sales team among all travel and hospitality companies nationwide by the editorial board of Sales and Marketing Management Magazine.
Beyond Disney, Garfield is very active in the travel industry, having chaired the board at both the U.S. Travel Association and Visit Orlando. He still serves on the U.S. Travel board as well as the Tourist Development Commission of Orange County, Fla., and the Brand USA board of directors and was appointed by President Clinton as a delegate to the White House Conference on Tourism.
Tisch, chairman of Loews Hotels & Resorts and co-chairman of the board of Loews Corp., has always believed one can do well and do good at the same time.
He has championed corporate responsibility, and during his tenure, Tisch has not only engineered Loews Hotels' expansion and emergence as a leading luxury hotel brand but more than 20 years ago initiated the Loews Hotels Good Neighbor Policy, the first of its kind in the hospitality industry. The program is a recipient of the U.S. President's Service Award.
Tisch is the author of three best-selling books that explore his leadership philosophy, the role of the customer experience and civic engagement, respectively: "The Power of We: Succeeding Through Partnerships," "Chocolates on the Pillow Aren't Enough: Reinventing the Customer Experience" and "Citizen You: Doing Your Part to Change the World."
He is the host of the Emmy-nominated TV series "Beyond the Boardroom With Jonathan Tisch," where he speaks with some of America's pre-eminent CEOs and business luminaries in one-on-one interviews.
Tisch founded and served as chairman of the Travel Business Roundtable until 2008 and now serves as chairman emeritus of its successor organization, the U.S. Travel Association. He is also committed to a vibrant tourism industry in New York, where for nearly six years he served as chairman of NYC & Company, the city's official tourism marketing agency and convention and visitors bureau. He also served as chairman of New York Rising, a task force committed to reviving tourism and the economy in New York after 9/11.
Valerie Ann Wilson
When Wilson, chairwoman and CEO of Valerie Wilson Travel, could not find a knowledgeable and professional travel agency to help her plan her family's business and leisure trips, she opened her own, in New York.
That was in 1981, and since then Wilson has been an industry leader in luxury travel.
Under the leadership of Wilson and her daughters Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg and Kimberly Wilson Wetty, both co-presidents and co-owners, Valerie Wilson Travel is one of the largest privately female-owned and -managed travel agencies in the U.S., with nearly 300 associate agents and employees in 16 locations. A member of Virtuoso since 1998, the company is ranked No. 30 on Travel Weekly's 2012 Power List.
Wilson serves on numerous travel advisory boards, including Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Starwood Luxury and Abercrombie & Kent USA, and has been on Travel+Leisure's "A-List" every year since 2003 as one of the top "Power Brokers"; in 2009 they called her the "Undisputed Hotel Maven."
Last year, Wilson published the second edition of "Valerie Wilson's World: The Top Hotels & Resorts."