As a former elementary school teacher, Leah Bergner knows how to make things like snow cones, evergreen sprigs and cookies fuel the learning experience. But now, instead of using her creativity to inspire kids to learn, Bergner is using it to book more than $2.5 million of luxury travel around the world.
Bergner is a luxury travel specialist with Coastline Travel Advisors, a Virtuoso agency in Garden Grove, Calif., where she books clients on Crystal Cruises or into the Four Seasons.
Instead of spending August and September preparing lesson plans and decorating pencil boxes, she's planning, among other things, a $100,000 trip to Morocco for a couple taking their daughters and a friend of one daughter.
Bergner just finished booking a $35,000 trip to Peru for another family and is planning two very different cruise extensions: one a $23,000 weeklong safari, the other a $15,000, four-day combination of St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Bergner, who has been a travel adviser for eight years, she has racked up 70 positive reviews in Virtuoso's verified traveler review program to date, prompting Virtuoso to feature her in an ad campaign last winter in Travel + Leisure magazine.
Bergner fell into the travel business by chance. Jay Johnson, president of Coastline, was a frequent patron of the high-end restaurant where Bergner still works on weekends. After hearing her frustration with the limited resources and bureaucracy of the inner-city school where she was working — and despite her limited travel experience — he offered her a job as a travel adviser.
Because there were still six months left in the school year when Johnson offered her the job, he had her start working on Saturdays.
Bergner said she learned a lot about her new career simply by following Johnson around on the job. She praises him for giving her the opportunity to get into the business and for his management style.
"He lets us try things," she said.
Johnson also invests in his agents by having them travel every year.
And she credits Virtuoso for its preferred-supplier education program, through which she became a Crystal Cruises specialist.
"I would never be where I am without my Crystal Cruise partnership," Bergner said. She praised her original district manager, Wendi Adamson (who has since left Crystal), who would help Bergner plan promotional events or provide extra shipboard credits to close a sale.
She focused on luxury cruises, but since some of her clients have now been with her for seven years, she has gradually been expanding to other travel products.
"You can only do so many cruises," she said. Although she remains a luxury cruise specialist, she also books a lot of Europe, Asia, South Africa and other destinations.
Bergner credits her Virtuoso suppliers for helping translate her ideas into viable strategies.
"I couldn't imagine doing this job without them," she said.
As she continues to visit new destinations each year, Bergner taps both Virtuoso's resources and Coastline's own in-house expertise when planning trips to destinations with which she's less familiar.
She relies on Virtuoso's OnSites and destination management partners to plan her clients' trips.
For example, although she's been to Florence and Tuscany a few times, she still gets on the phone with Virtuoso's local liaisons to tell them about her clients. That can include their interests as well as suggestions, like clients can easily walk around the city center but might want a private car for driving about Tuscany.
Whether she's planning a trip to Dubai or Peru, she knows she can turn to a reliable partner.
"If I don't know it or know that Virtuoso isn't backing it, you'll be hard-pressed for me to book it," she said.
Bergner said she also has great resources at Coastline, where she can turn to colleagues who are experts on destinations with which she is not familiar.
For example, one colleague is an adventure travel specialist well versed in destinations such as Laos and Thailand. Typically Bergner will work with a colleague when the trip is for an existing client but refer a new client to the appropriate specialist adviser.
Still, she said the teacher in her comes out a lot, be it using color coding to keep herself organized or using her creativity to enhance the fun and excitement of travel. Just as she would try to make a day special for her students by placing an encouraging note at a child's place at the lunch table or stickers on tests for a job well done, she tries to do the same in helping clients look forward to an approaching trip.
For example, when working on a marketing plan for a multigenerational cruise to Antarctica, she came up with a plan to serve snow cones to kids and use penguin-themed table decorations. She sends Starbucks gift cards to clients who have early morning flights.
Often, her Virtuoso partners will provide her with those special touches. Crystal, for example, provided her with insulated bags she used to send documents to clients going on an Antarctica cruise. The Four Seasons Maui provided her with its signature scented sunscreen and leather-embossed coin trays.
Meanwhile, she continues to be a student herself.
"I still learn something new every day," she said.
Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.