Gayle Bunton books her clients on trips to faraway, exotic places, but they aren't traveling on business or for vacation. When they board the airplane for the trip home, they are often carrying a new member of their family: a baby they adopted.
After more than 20 years as an agent and manager for large corporate agencies, Bunton is working in a niche that she calls "by far the most rewarding job I have ever had."
It's International Adoption Travel, a department of All About Travel, a $15 million Carlson Wagonlit Travel agency in Garland, Texas.
International Adoption Travel, which has annual sales of about $1 million, was founded in 1997 by Emaly Green, who retired last year after selling the agency two years prior to Robbert van Bloemendaal, the owner of All About Travel.
Green stayed on for a couple of years and spent her last six months before retirement training Bunton how to handle travel for international adoptions.
Bunton's background in complex international itineraries and visa requirements in the corporate travel world served her well. She is using the skills in helping people "who are navigating a stressful process full of hope but with many potential hazards. Most will be going to a developing country with its own specific regulations, which must be followed to the letter."
International Adoption Travel is one of several agencies specializing in this small market where the knowledge required is unique: for example, visa requirements in Ukraine, airports in India, internal transportation in Guatemala or long-term accommodations in remote areas of Russia.
The ability to handle those kinds of arrangements helps "minimize our clients' anxiety and difficulties," Bunton said.
Van Bloemendaal bought the small agency "because Emaly was an old friend of mine. She was concerned that the business would not be properly looked after. We feel strongly about it because the customers become family and friends to us."
He added: "This is a hugely satisfying business. It sometimes brings tears to our eyes when we can help."
Most the clients come to Bunton as a result of referrals from other parents, adoption agencies and the agency website, www.adoptionstravel.com.
The parents typically work through a U.S. adoption agency, which coordinates the adoption with an overseas agency. The process usually requires at least two trips.
While all major carriers offer adoption fares, Bunton said she can usually beat those rates with restricted fares, even if they have change fees.
"By advising adoptive parents about the alternatives and taking advantage of contracted airline rates, we are able to minimize costs while meeting clients' needs for flexibility."
Families booking through International Adoption Travel typically travel to Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Russia and Ukraine.
Overseas adoption agencies can handle lodging, but Bunton often books stays herself.
In Moscow, where hotels can be $1,200 per night, Bunton knows companies that offer $200-a-night apartments. She earns commission on those bookings and also charges a $50 fee for international tickets.
It's the kind of business that she doesn't fear losing to the Internet: It's too complicated, and the families are often pressed for time, making it simpler for them to hand over the arrangements to a travel agent.
"I recently booked a family of three going to Russia to bring home two children," Bunton said. "They had already made a first trip. Just prior to departure for the second trip, they learned the orphanage was in quarantine because of chicken pox.
"It was quite stressful for the parents, because they didn't know when the quarantine was going to be lifted, and they were ready to leave. They ended up having to delay their trip two weeks."
The satisfaction comes when she looks up from her computer terminal to the photos of the happy families she has helped.
Among them are groups of older children, ages 10 to 12, from orphanages in Russia and Ukraine who have traveled to the U.S. to spend time with host families in the hope of finding a new home. The agency handled their travel, as well.
"I enjoy the kind words of parents who thank me for my extraordinary efforts," Bunton said. "That kind of praise makes the frequent after-hours logistical problems and frustrating complications inherent in this kind of business all worthwhile. What we're doing changes people's lives forever."
Marc My Words
Questions from travel business novices
By Marc Mancini
Over the years that I've taught travel at West Los Angeles College, I've kept a list of the most interesting questions students have asked. Since they're new to our field, their questions are often remarkably free of any expectations or preconceptions. Here are my favorites, with the responses I gave.
• Why isn't there a high-speed train between Los Angeles and Las Vegas? I think that the demand for such rail service is huge. But the issues of land acquisition, freight vs. passenger right-of-way issues, safety considerations and environmental concerns, along with the huge cost involved, have undermined all attempts to make this a reality.
• Why is the ocean cold in California but warm in Florida? Blame it on something called the Coriolis effect, which controls the ocean currents. It's complicated to explain, but here's an easy rule of thumb: Ocean waters on the west side of any continent will be cooler at the same latitude than those on the east side. (By the way, I learned this from Travel Weekly's editor in chief, Arnie Weissmann.)
• Why do some airport codes make no sense? Often because they refer to the old, former name of that airport. For example, Chicago O'Hare was formerly called Orchard Field, so its code is ORD for OrchaRD.
• Why are most of the hotels in Hawaii on the west side of their island? Because the prevailing, tropical, moisture-bearing trade winds generally blow from east to west. Most of the moisture then gets "squeezed out" as the humid breezes strike the mountains, causing rain but leaving the west side drier. By the way, this works for just about all mountainous tropical islands, including those in the Caribbean, the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
• What's the biggest change you've seen in the travel business? Litigation. People will sue anyone even remotely associated with the trip in question. Example: I served as an expert witness for a case in which a woman staying at an upscale Baja California hotel had too much to drink. She fell over and through a glass coffee table in her room. She sued the hotel, the tour operator, the travel agency and, probably, the president of Mexico and the ghost of Montezuma. Her case was thrown out when her insurance waiver, which her travel agent had wisely asked her to sign, was introduced as evidence.
• What's the biggest onboard revenue source for the cruise lines? That depends on the cruise line. Usually, it's alcoholic beverages. On ships with huge casinos, gaming might be the profit leader. Shore excursions are often No. 3.
• What's the most impressive attraction you've ever seen? South America's Iguazu Falls. Imagine Niagara Falls -- except it goes on and on into the distance, for over a mile, with multiple cascades. As for man-made attractions, it's probably the Imperial Palace in Beijing.
• I went to a travel conference and saw that competing suppliers seemed so chummy with one another. Is that typical? Absolutely. The travel business is so "inbred" that you never know who you'll be working for next. So you better be nice to everyone.
• Why haven't the airlines done away with frequent flyer miles? They're getting rid of everything else. Two reasons: They make good profit selling them to banks, florists and other vendors. The second reason: Among the people who have the most miles are politicians.
• What's the weirdest attraction you've ever visited? The Museum of Bad Art in Dedham, Mass., is a hoot. The truly weirdest, though, is the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Calif. I can't even begin to describe or explain it.
• If I sell air from the cruise line's inventory, and my clients' flight is so delayed that they miss the boat, the cruise line is obliged to fly them to the next port, right? Most agents would say yes, but, surprise, it's not really guaranteed. The cruise line will just do its best to solve it, with the cooperation of the airline. One more reason to send clients to their port of departure the day before their departure.
• You said in class that a direct flight is one where your plane makes an intermediate stop along the way but you stay on the same plane. But on my recent flight, which was supposedly direct, they told us to change planes. They call it a "change of equipment." It seems that a direct flight is beginning to only mean that there's one flight number for the two segments. Other than that, it seems that these days, a direct flight can turn into what is, in essence, a connecting flight.
• So what's the best cruise line? The one that best fits your client's needs.
• Have you ever been on a plane and sat next to someone famous? Yes. My most memorable three: Mike Tyson, Bette Midler and Lassie. Not all at once, of course.
Marc Mancini is an industry speaker and consultant who chairs the travel program at West Los Angeles College