Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann
It wasn't like a scene out of "Breakfast at Tiffany's"; it was breakfast at Tiffany's. At 8:15 a.m., Linda Allen of Harrison, Ark., was standing in front of a display case filled with glittering bijoux of every shade, cut and clarity, surrounded by people sipping champagne and nibbling on passed plates topped with caviar and gold leaf.


Everyone also held a baby-blue bag with a white cord that had been handed to them as they entered.

This Tiffany's was not on Fifth Avenue but on Las Vegas Boulevard South, within the Bellagio, and Allen was joining 100 or so Virtuoso agents at an invitation-only event within that group's Travel Week activities. Regent Seven Seas Cruises organized the breakfast, and Allen and other guests would soon hear the line's president, Jason Montague, talk about the Seven Seas Explorer, which is being heavily promoted pre-launch as the most luxurious ship ever built.

Allen, whose home-based Cruises by Linda is hosted by Brownell Travel, is closing in on $2 million in annual sales. While at first blush Allen looks and speaks like a knowledgeable, experienced, old-school travel agent, she credits the Internet as having been crucial to her success.

And much of that business is coming from millennials, she said. When people call her, "they're looking for experts, not info. And they will give over control in trip planning. They're impatient, and the Internet has so much incorrect information that they can't validate, so to them, calling an expert represents a good ROI."

ROI has traditionally meant return on investment, but lately I've heard it used to mean "return on involvement" and "return on inspiration." In Allen's case, I'm guessing it's a combination of the three.

Allen said the Web has been a boon to her business in other ways, too, with potential clients finding her via Angie's List, TripAdvisor Forums and the Conde Nast Traveler website, where she is listed as an expert in "large, affordable ships."

Allen might well understand large, affordable ships -- the Conde Nast site advises using her for Celebrity, Disney, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean -- but her presence at the Regent Seven Seas breakfast indicated she's comfortable in wheelhouses of varying sizes and splendor.

And in that, she exhibits an attribute shared among most great advisers I have met: the ability to match clients with the ships, resorts, tours and airlines that are right for them.

But as consumer behavior patterns evolve, that may no longer be enough, a point reinforced in a conversation I had with another attendee, Anne Scully, president of McCabe World Travel.

Scully was set to speak later that morning to a group of younger agents, and she showed me slides from her presentation.

One point she would be making seemed very much in tune with research I've seen lately indicating that people of all ages are becoming less materialistic and that, in fact, there's a bit of a backlash against owning "things." People are downsizing and beginning to view their possessions as weights they're carrying around.

"The conversation," Scully said, "will soon change from being about your interior designer or the designer of your dress to the designers of your life experience."

I think she's right, and that's a wonderful opportunity for travel advisers, but it carries with it a new requirement: Those who want to be thought of as life designers must consciously work to brand themselves in a different way. I can think of very few agents who are truly lifestyle brands, whose name says it all. Bill Fischer is one. Valerie Wilson is another.

It's likely not a coincidence that they, like fashion designers, put their names and styles front and center in their "house." Tiffany & Co. for its first 15 years was a respected but not particularly renown jewelry store. It was only when it began manufacturing its own designs that it gained in prominence.

If travel advisers want to be thought of as designers of life, they will need to be recognized as very talented individuals, possessing something that transcends mere knowledge. Positioning oneself as a designer, as opposed to an expert, requires having a desirable, distinct and recognizable style. Can you articulate what it is you do when putting together a trip that reflects your style, your brand?

And being a designer requires acknowledging that you are not for everyone. Some fashion-conscious consumers prefer Michael Kors; others, Marc Jacobs; and still others make a point to shop in boutiques whose labels are not widely known.

I asked Montague if he had selected Tiffany's as the venue because there would be a Tiffany's onboard the Explorer. He said no, that aside from Canyon Ranch spas, the ship would have no branded concessionaires.

But when Randall Soy, Regent Seven Seas' senior vice president of sales and marketing, spoke to the group, he put the setting in perspective.

"'Breakfast at Tiffany's' was about a time of change, a time of independence and individuality and being bold and different," he said of Truman Capote's classic novel.

For many years, there was a fear that the Internet would have mastery over individuals working in travel sales, but it turned out that it was individuals, such as Linda Allen, who mastered the Internet.

The current shifts in consumer preferences have everything to do with the desire to break free from the past, as characters in Capote's novel did. Soy was referencing Regent Seven Seas when he spoke of being bold and different, but I cannot think of a better time for travel advisers to let their independence, individuality and boldness be their differentiator.
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