Agent for the rich and famous was just a kid from Ohio

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How does one become a travel agent to the rich and famous? Being in the right place at the right time and having a background that opens a few key doors help, of course. But above all, said Gary Mansour, "those who don't take 'no' [from suppliers] will be successful. I don't take 'no.' "

That attitude requires very good relationships with owners or managers of high-demand hotels, restaurants and other products. Mansour, who called himself "gregarious and easygoing," says he cultivates these relationships with relative ease.

"I do it in my sleep," he said.

But getting rich-and-famous clientele does not take pedigree. Mansour, who cofounded the Mansour Travel Co. in Beverly Hills, Calif., along with his wife, Kay, describes himself as "just a kid from Ohio."

That kid left Youngstown, Ohio, spent a few years abroad and then went to California where, when working for Hoffman Travel, he got his first taste of the agency business and of tending to demanding clients in the entertainment field.

He started his own business in 1980, and Kay joined soon after. The pair aren't big on titles, but she is the administrator and he is the salesman, the one suppliers see.

Although he is available to any client 24/7, "I'm more friends with people in the industry than with my clients," he said.

It is those supplier relationships that make it possible, even easy, to deliver what his demanding clients want, he added.

Mansour launched the agency with a handful of individual clients in the entertainment business and a few companies. Referrals by clients fostered growth. Mansour Travel still does not promote its services, relying on word of mouth.

Today, the agency's mix is about 70% individuals and 30% small businesses that buy high-end travel and are generally owned or operated by people who first were clients for personal travel.

In the last five years, Mansour Travel has charged clients an annual fee ($10,000 initially, $15,000 now) to, essentially, join the club. That has changed the type of clientele somewhat, Mansour said, by diminishing the entertainment share and bringing in those from the world of finance and the like.

The entry fee also creates a tighter and businesslike bond between agency and clients, he said. Also, if clients need an in-person meeting, they make an appointment.

The agency also has birthed a sub-niche or two. For the past 20 years, Mansour has charged all comers a fee of at least $500 to get rooms at the Cannes Film Festival. He blocks many rooms for theBerlin, Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and Venice festivals. His fee is $500 to $1,500 for a room in Cannes, the rate determined by the room. Fees are less, $250 and up, for other festivals.

Film festivals provide the only circumstance when nonclients, those "outside the club," can book. "And they get a taste of what I do, what I have access to," Mansour said.

The agency's other niche is acting as a broker for clients who want to travel on private air charters, something Mansour took on when seeing more customers opt for private flying after 9/11.

Mansour convinced clients that using the agency as a broker was in their interests. He told some clients that they "paid more attention to their choice of hairdressers than to those who fly their planes."

This niche spawned the Avion Private Jet Club, a membership-based business that operates two roundtrip Los Angeles-New York flights a week.

Making the changes necessary to start this operation, as well as providing the funding himself, was the hardest thing he has ever undertaken in business, Mansour said. Service was launched 18 months ago, and he projects it will pay for itself by second-quarter 2007. The club has 60 members, not necessarily all clients of the agency, now paying $18,000 to $75,000 a year plus $7,000 one-way on flights. A member's guest pays the $7,000 plus a nonmember's premium. Annual renewals are half the prevailing entry rate.

Avion, like the travel agency, has grown based on word of mouth. Now, investors are looking at Avion. Mansour aims to grow the business with additional  routes and will need those investors to make that happen. With outside investment, he said, "I could really bust out."

Think you're a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Nadine Godwin, Agent Life editor, at [email protected], and please include your agency name, agency location, telephone number and e-mail address in the message and put "Agent Life" in the subject line.

Perfect Itinerary

Picnicking at Versailles, with jet-set style

Gary Mansour, travel agent to the rich and famous, routinely plans client trips that include over-the-top elements combined with the pleasures of a great destination. Mansour doesn't put together group trips, but Travel Weekly asked him to put together an FIT itinerary that reveals something of what he might book for a client. Here is what he came up with: A three-day trip to Paris.

Air and hotel

Fly Air France first class, nonstop from New York to Paris. Make your home for the next three days at the Plaza Athenee in an elegant one-bedroom or junior suite facing Avenue Montaigne with a view of the Eiffel Tower.

Dining

Dine at Hiromatsu. Despite the name, it is French, not Japanese, and it is just fantastic. Previously located on the Ile St. Louis, it is now in the Eighth Arrondissement. On another evening, eat at Comptoir, one of the hottest bistros in Paris. There is normally a three-month wait to get in. 

Social scene

For a very special experience and unforgettable memory, have lunch at the Parliament Building, hosted by the president's wife, in a room where major French policy is decided.

 

Day trips

For fun during the day outside the French capital, have your chauffeur take you into Champagne country. Alternatively, or in addition, have a picnic in royal style, delivered by horse-drawn carriage a la Louis XIV on the grounds of Versailles.

Evening entertainment

For a night in Paris, go to one of the popular nightclubs, Pache. And, of course, be sure to drop by at the bar off the Plaza Athenee lobby; it is one of the hippest in Paris.

Return

Return by Air France to New York, perhaps in time to catch our Avion Private Jet Club to Los Angeles, if that is your next destination.

The Perfect Itinerary is an example of an itinerary an agent crafted his or herself, not available anywhere else, but can be duplicated by other agents to sell to their clients. To send an example of an itinerary you've customized, e-mail to [email protected] with "Perfect Itinerary" in the subject line.

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