I took flight to Southern California last week, for a few days at the largely undiscovered Terranea Resort, and started feeling good the moment I arrived at this lovely 582-room, 102-acre oasis of calm and comfort plopped down along one of the most gorgeous stretches of Pacific Ocean landscape on the West Coast.
I was a guest at the annual gathering of industry lights who have been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists. There were meetings with the magazine's editors, plus discussions of trends and the role of social media.
I couldn't wait to get back and introduce you to some of the people I met among this gathering of small-business owners from all over the world, who managed to be so good at what they do that they were decreed "best" by Conde Nast Traveler.
Jalsa Urubshurow is a former construction worker who specializes in travel to his homeland, Mongolia. His company, Nomadic Expeditions, is based in New Jersey and Ulaanbaatar.
If your clients are booked with Jalsa, he will see to it that they interact with nomadic families by traversing his homeland via four-wheel drive and horseback. His enthusiasm for the people who live along the edges of the Gobi Desert is infectious; he noted that it is common in many parts of Mongolia to leave a full meal on the table before departing home, "so strangers who might be in the area will be able to know that they can find something to eat."
Linda Friedman lives in Bethesda, Md., where she runs Custom Safaris. But don't plan a surprise visit to her office. Linda, an alternative to big-box Africa tour operators, spends several months each year in Kenya, where she has several offices. Her success is due in part to the fact that she has hired many of the region's best guides. She books lodges and authentic cultural exchanges directly and is now focusing on a new passion, gorilla tracking in Rwanda.
Consider yourself lucky if you can snag Sandy Ferguson to handle your client's visit to Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. His company, Asia Desk, is based in Duluth, Ga., but like most of the specialists I met, he spends several months a year "in country." Sandy speaks Thai and Laotian and has lived in Thailand. He will get your clients seated with monks during their predawn prayers in a mountaintop temple.
I suspect he won't like that I've mentioned his name; Sandy's biggest fear is "taking on too much." He tries to handle no more than 20 trips to the region each year for clients.
Gail Boisclair is a villa and apartment specialist in Paris. Her company, Perfectly Paris, is based in the Montmartre district, where she lives and has access to some of the area's most comfortable apartments. She provides restaurant and Metro tips, and her personal service enables clients to feel they have found the ultimate "friend in Paris."
Pascale Bernasse is based in St. Michaels, Md., but she is tuned in to the Bordeaux and Sauterne fraternities in France. Her small company, French Wine Explorers, attracts serious oenophiles seeking entree to estates and castles normally closed to the public.
I am a lover of St. Bart's, so I must include Peg Walsh of St. Barth Properties. Peg's small, laser-focused company might be the embodiment of what a truly specialized travel entrepreneur can achieve. She is based in Franklin, Mass., during the summer but spends six or seven months of the year on St. Bart's, where she is so tuned in to the lifestyle that she hosts a weekly cocktail party for her clients near her island office. Visitors might not be aware that the local grocery stores require a one-euro deposit to use a shopping cart. When Peg or her staff meet guests at the airport, a one-euro coin is part of the greeting.
There are many ways to tour Israel, but I want my clients to do it in the company of Joe Yudin and his Jerusalem-based company, Touring Israel. Yudin, a former Israeli paratrooper who was born in the U.S. but moved to Israel 21 years ago, is a doctoral candidate who can get your clients into Israeli military bases, wine tastings in the plains of Galilee or briefing meetings with a collection of journalists or Israeli politicians.
There are myriad large companies offering set programs in China, but you should know a member of the "World's Top" designates who covers southwest China in depth. Mei Zhang, who operates her company, WildChina, out of a small office in Bethesda, Md., specializes in the authentic China experience, specifically within her native Yunnan province.
Mei is a Harvard MBA with unmatched connections in Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. If you use her services, don't be surprised if clients end up visiting the village leader in his home or camping in a luxurious tent on the Tibetan Plateau.
Wabi-Sabi Japan is based in Toronto, but the company's founder, Duff Trimble, spends at least four months of the year in Japan, where the company operates in rough waters given the expense of English-speaking guides and services. Duff is the only non-Japanese native on staff, and he delivers true insider experience to clients seeking the most luxurious and authentic ryokans and connections with local artisans. Imagine having your clients meet with a 14th century sake maker or a fifth-generation potter.
The town of Truckee, Calif., is part-time home to a leading expert on authentic touring experiences in Cambodia and Laos. Andrea Ross of Journeys Within spends six months a year in Siem Reap, where her husband operates a small B&B. An expert at designing Southeast Asian itineraries that steep travelers in local communities, she is also adept at taking clients to locations where tourism has not yet made a dent in centuries-old traditional life.
There are a number of package solutions for sending clients to Mexico. But for truly specialized services from a well-connected, world-class specialist, consider Zach Rabinor of Puerto Vallarta-based Journey Mexico. If your clients might enjoy a private tour of Chichen Itza or top dining in Oaxaca, he can get it done. He is not a wholesaler, a tour operator or a travel agent but a focused planning specialist who can turn a visit to Mexico into a truly memorable personal odyssey.
Among my favorite new friends is Wanda Radetti, an enthusiastic advocate of travel to her homeland, the 1,185 islands that make up Croatia. Her New York-based company, Tasteful Croatian Journeys, is deliberately small and clearly focused. She will have your clients meet the lamplighter in Zagreb's Old Town and she can score tickets for the Grand Masked Ball in Rijeka held each year during Carnival.
There were dozens more. Quiet experts on villa rentals, apartments, sports, culinary arts and authentic destination experiences. Most were not used to attending an industry affair. They toil quietly, often for just a few dozen clients a year, producing some of the very best vacation experiences on earth.
They don't hire P.R. people, and their names don't usually appear in industry publications. But they are the kind of people who fill me with optimism as I look ahead. They are the world's best vacation crafters, having mastered the art of meticulously planning one vacation at a time.
There are lots of ways and lots of places to buy shoes. But there is nothing like having a pair measured and crafted just for you by the shoemaker just off the Oltrarno end of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Those last forever. Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].