A man and a woman sit down for a romantic dinner. Midway through the meal, a stranger walks over to their table and hands the woman a small package. Is it the maitre d' dropping by with a surprise engagement ring?

No, it's a travel agent, with a surprise honeymoon package to Tahiti and the Marquesas. 

"It was a really awesome experience," said the agent, Michelle Mangio, who is in her fifth year of running her home-based agency, Magical Escapes, in Attleboro, Mass. She and the groom had spent months planning the surprise honeymoon, including Mangio's presentation at the restaurant.

Mangio's Web site, MagicalEscapes.com, bills her business as a full-service leisure agency, with plenty of talk about Disney and cruises. But Mangio's passion is the South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, specifically for honeymooners.

She gets the majority of her leads at local bridal shows, where Mangio says she stands out in the crowd by de-emphasizing Caribbean honeymoons and persuading newlyweds to fly to Tahiti or New Zealand for their first romantic getaway as husband and wife. 

Granted, those destinations are about as far away as a honeymoon couple can get from New England, so Mangio does book some Caribbean and some Disney.

Some of the couples "definitely need a lot of convincing" to fly to a faraway place like Sydney, which involves 20 hours of travel with at least one plane change.

"It certainly seemed it would be easier to focus on the traditional honeymoon destinations because a lot of couples that go to the [bridal] shows are looking for traditional destinations," Mangio said.

But she added, "I realized that the sheer number of people I'd be booking would be lower, but the quality of leads I'd get for these exotic destinations would be higher."

Once she has a lead, Mangio's approach is to meet with the client if possible, either at their home or a coffee shop.

Daytime hours are for research, e-mailing, getting quotes and tending to her small children; evenings and weekends are when she meets clients and deals with hotel and tour reps from South Pacific suppliers, many of which have West Coast offices.

"It's one of the things my clients appreciate," she said. "People work, are in school or are busy planning their wedding."

Painting a picture

To paint a picture of a romantic trip to Australia or Tahiti, Mangio brings an arsenal of information: brochures, marketing materials from Tourism Australia, a book of her own that she updates, a laptop and a portable DVD player for her own videos that she makes during her trips, such as a quick video of an overwater bungalow.

The other thing that Mangio brings to the interview is destination education. She is a Tahiti Tiare and Hawaii specialist, has been to the Disney College of Knowledge and is a Las Vegas certified agent, among others. Mangio also is an Aussie Specialist Premier agent, which requires her to reapply for the designation every year by writing essays, getting referrals from suppliers and making an annual visit.

Mangio is an independent agent who belongs to a number of organizations, including ASTA, the Network of Entrepreneurs Selling Travel, the Outside Sales Support Network, the Cruise Lines International Association and the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents.

"I find that some people don't want to spend on professional organizations," she said. "But it certainly helps that my clients see [my affiliations]. The network benefits are substantial."

Her laundry list of specialist designations and affiliations is somewhat surprising when you consider Mangio's volume: She does about $300,000 a year in sales and averages about 40 to 60 clients a year.

Mangio's goal isn't to build a large business. Her "ideal world" would include a client base of between 25 to 50 people who travel every year and a business with an even stronger focus on the South Pacific.

"I find it very enjoyable to plan vacations for people who still have the stars in their eyes," she said.

She clearly empathizes with her most stressed clientele: the brides.

"I provide a sympathetic shoulder," she said. "I tell them, 'If you want to talk about it, I'm here.' I think it helps when they feel they've got someone on their side."

Mangio knows about wedding stress from experience. Her wedding was relocated to Walt Disney World when the originally planned venue pulled the rug out from under her six months before the date. She went to Tahiti on her honeymoon.

She and her husband still have a goal to spend a month traveling in Australia. Her first trip Down Under was much shorter.

"I always try to push for [clients to take] two weeks," she said. "We did the whirlwind tour ... I'm glad I did it so I can tell my clients to never, ever take that kind of trip. I've had clients who have built that kind of itinerary, and I say, 'Let me paint you a picture.' " 

To contact Rebecca Tobin, managing editor of the print edition of Travel Weekly, send e-mail to [email protected].

Perfect Itinerary

A family vacation in Australia

This 18-day holiday itinerary was created by Michelle Mangio of Magical Escapes Vacations for a family of four who "want to see the sights of Australia but at their own pace." The tour, which was built to include a New Year's celebration in Sydney, won Mangio a 2007 Opal Award for Best FIT Itinerary from Tourism Australia.

Day 1: Depart the U.S.

Day 2: Cross the International Date Line.

Day 3: Arrive in Sydney and pick up a rental car. Drive to the Lilianfels Blue Mountains Resort & Spa in Katoomba for a one-night stay.

Day 4: Drive to Canberra for a two-night stay at the Hyatt Hotel Canberra or the Brassey Hotel of Canberra.

Day 5: In Canberra, visit the Parliament House, the National Gallery of Australia, the Australian War Memorial, the Canberra Railway Museum and the National Botanic Gardens. For wildlife enthusiasts, there's the National Aquarium and Australian Wildlife Sanctuary. Have a love of outer space? Visit the Deep Space Communication Complex in Tidbinbilla, just outside of Canberra. Or get a taste of history at the Lanyon Historic Homestead or the Cuppacumbalong Homestead.

Day 6: Drive to Crackenback in the Snowy Mountains. Stay at the Novotel Lake Crackenback. Enjoy shopping and scenery in Jindabyne and Thredbo Valley.

Day 7: Drive to Melbourne along the coastline through Victoria's High Country. Check in to the Westin Melbourne for a three-night stay.

Day 8: Take a day tour with Sea All Dolphin Swims, departing from Queenscliff. The operator offers dolphin swims and sightseeing-only excursions. Participants also have the chance to see penguins and seals.

Day 9: Spend a day enjoying the city of Melbourne or drive to the Yarra Valley (about an hour away) to visit wineries.

Day 10: Drive north through the High Country to the Victoria Beechworth House in Beechworth in wine country. Stay for one night.

Day 11: Drive north to Orange, a city west of Sydney in the outback of New South Wales. Stay at Borrodell on the Mount, a luxury hideaway among vineyards.

Day 12: Explore Orange and the surrounding countryside. Visit one of 25 boutique wine cellars in the region, go bushwalking in Lake Canobolas Reserve, enjoy a bit of history at the Gunadoo Gold Mine (the site of Australia's first payable gold discovery in 1851) or take a walk along the Orange Heritage Trail.

Day 13: Drive to Sydney. Return the rental car, as it won't be needed in the city. Stay at the Sheraton on the Park, Sydney for six nights. Pick up a five-day Sydney Pass, which includes unlimited travel on the Sydney and Bondi Explorer buses and AirportLink train transfers. The passes must be purchased prior to arrival.

Day 14: Take the Sydney Aquarium's VIP tour.

Day 15: Take a New Year' Eve dinner cruise in Sydney Harbor. Watch the fireworks.

Day 16: Enjoy a coffee cruise to see the city by harbor. Take public transportation to Bondi Beach and enjoy the ocean.

Day 17: Do the Wild Australia Experience at the Taronga Zoo.

Day 18: The final night in the city includes a dinner cruise to the Sydney Opera House for a performance.

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