Is there a company in any service industry that doesn't publicly announce the importance it places on trust, transparency and relationships? And is there a consumer (or business partner) who hasn't come to understand that these sentiments can be undermined by fine print, limited by shifting business needs or lost in poor communication?
Trust, transparency and relationships typically play a supporting role within a larger business mission, but I recently came across a company whose business plan is centered on acting as an agent of these values within the travel industry.
Marcelo Vazquez is CEO of Waterstone. Ex-travel agent, ex-Amex, ex-Starwood, ex-Leading Hotels of the World, he had, over time, established a solid number of relationships with luxury family-run hotels, as well as luxury travel advisers. In 2001, he decided to strike out on his own, but felt the world did not need yet another multiline hotel rep facing travel agents.
A contrarian approach took shape during walks through the woods near his New Jersey home. Most rep firms, he concluded, had it backward. They worked to build a hotel's business by visiting travel agents to explain the virtues of the properties they represented. He felt it might help hotels more if they better understood the virtues of travel agents.
To be an effective advocate for both the properties and advisers, he believed, he would have to build trust in both directions, and the way to do that was to make the needs of agents and agents' clients paramount.
Which has led to some interesting situations. He brought Mark Anderson, the deputy general manager of the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington (London) on a sales mission to New York, visiting luxury travel advisers. Three times, agents asked if the property might be a good choice for a specific client they were working with, and three times Vazquez, with Anderson present, referred them instead to the Savoy, a competitor that is not in Vazquez's portfolio.
Anderson was initially perplexed, but "it did dawn on him that I was doing the right thing. The Royal Garden is perfect for many guests, but is not everything to everyone."
For his business model to work, Vazquez puts pressure on hotels to "do right by travel advisers." Pay commission promptly. Don't steal clients. Don't undercut pricing online. The owner or GM needs to greet the guest personally.
And he spends a significant amount of time counseling his hotel partners on the importance of giving travel agents credit where due.
"If [hotels] make the travel adviser look fantastic, it will come back to them in spades," he said. "The hotel needs to let the guest know why they were upgraded. Why there was champagne in the room. Or why there was no champagne, but hot chocolate instead, because the adviser knows their client doesn't drink. The agent's name should be used frequently, verbally and in correspondence."
He recounted how an agent named Pamela had booked herself into a room in one of the hotels he represents, but the reservation had been made in the name of her significant other. The hotel kept telling Pamela that this amenity or that consideration was "thanks to Pamela." Finally, Pamela felt she needed to tell the GM that, in fact, she was Pamela, and began by saying, "I want to thank you ..." but the GM interrupted, "No, no, don't thank me. All thanks go to Pamela." She gave up.
Vazquez says he stresses the importance of training all hotel staff, not just the managers, about the role travel advisers play.
Vazquez says agent VIP requests go through his company, but they never process bookings, and he doesn't ask agents to reference Waterstone when making bookings with his portfolio of clients.
I asked what metric he uses to demonstrate a return on investment to the properties he represents.
"We don't worry about that. We just think about relationships," he said. "If they see their business go up in the U.S., if they see business from agents we bring them to, if they're intuitive, they get it."
He pointed out that his first client, the Hassler Roma, is still with Waterstone 17 years later.
Vazquez and his staff of six serve 27 clients (including a few destination marketing companies, yachts and villas as well as hotels), but he has set a cap at 30. "Otherwise, we can't keep current," he said. He has turned down existing clients who want to greatly expand the number of like-branded properties he represents.
He would, however, like to expand his database of agencies. He reeled off a number of agency executives he works with regularly "on the corporate level. Valerie [Wilson], Bill Fischer, Martin Rapp [of Altour], Andy Pesky [of Protravel]."
But he's happy to do webinars for agencies that could be a good match for his services.
"I wish I could tell you I had a big strategic plan, but it came from a feeling I could build a business based on trust," Vazquez said. "We've worked ourselves into a corner, but we like that corner. I'm perfectly OK not to grow. I just want to work with people we like and who like us."