After 47 years in the travel business, Sandra Williams, an independent, home-based agent with Travel Experts, Raleigh, N.C., has stayed true to something she learned at the very start of her career: “Never tell a customer ‘no.’ There is always something that you can do for them.”
Such was the case when she received a call in 2010 from a couple with a daunting request: to plan a five-month, round-the-world trip that would begin in just six weeks.
She thought about it only a moment, and then said “yes.” There was a lot she could do, she told them.
The result was the most challenging — and rewarding — booking in her career as a travel agent, Williams said. “I never got a college degree but feel as though I just did a master’s thesis in travel. It took years of my experience to even know how to begin tackling this kind of trip.”
The clients had started their planning with another agent who didn’t have the international travel or planning experience necessary. They found the Travel Experts website, looked at the agent bios at www.travel-xperts.com/travelspecialists and were impressed by Williams’ background. She is married to a retired military officer, has lived in Hawaii and Europe and has been a travel agent with Travel Experts for 18 years, after a career with American Airlines as a flight attendant, gate agent and reservations agent.
The couple, who were in their late 30s, had decided to quit their corporate management jobs and see the world. They were planning to leave in early February 2011 and return in late June.
But these weren’t two college-age backpackers with no firm itinerary in mind. The couple wanted everything planned ahead: hotels, transfers, tours, flights, trains, car rentals, boats and ferries. They asked for a day-by-day itinerary. Williams set to work.
“We literally just got a map of the world and figured out where they wanted to go,” Williams recalled. “I started planning their itinerary in the middle December and had six weeks to work on it. Ideally, I would have liked six months.”
The couple flew from Raleigh to New Zealand and then visited Australia, China, India, South Africa, Victoria Falls, Cairo, Lisbon, Spain (Madrid and Seville), the south of France, Italy (Cinque Terre, Florence, Rome, Venice), Germany (Munich, Garmisch and Oberammergau for the Passion Play), Austria, Croatia, Greece and a few of its islands, Hungary and the Czech Republic. They ended with several days in Paris before flying home. The total cost of the trip was about $100,000.
In putting together the itinerary, Williams tackled air arrangements first.
“There weren’t flights between destinations on certain days, so I wanted to get that squared away. Then I got them the tickets to see the play at Oberammergau, which can be difficult to get. There were a lot of inter-Europe flights that were needed, too, and we used a combination of air and trains in Europe so there were train schedules and tickets to get.”
Williams then started making hotel, transfer and sightseeing arrangements for each destination individually, using the hotels and ground operators that she knew for each. “The hotels couldn’t be too expensive, so I used a lot of nice three-star hotels,” she said. “The exception to that were some very nice safari camps in southern Africa.”
Travel Experts is a Virtuoso member, and many companies she used were Virtuoso preferred suppliers. However, some were travel companies that she has worked with for years and were outside the network.
Williams worked almost exclusively on the itinerary for days. “Luckily, it was during a slow time of the year,” she said. The couple agreed to pay an hourly fee. Even though Williams estimates that she spent more than 100 hours on the planning, she charged the couple for 100 hours. Supplier commission boosted the compensation and helped justify the time spent on the work.
“It was fun and a challenge,” she said. And the trip went smoothly. “We didn’t have a major glitch. They never missed a flight. I used very good tour operators and had all the local contacts at each destination ready for them. They could contact me at any time. They occasionally did email me, but it was only to clarify something. For the most part, everything was absolutely perfect.”
The couple returned from the trip transformed by the experience, Williams said. For one, they got engaged while on their travels and have since married. The wife left the high-pressure corporate world and joined a nonprofit organization that helps homeless families find housing. “They were very moved by seeing the way that different people live in the world and how they survive. She decided she wanted to do more to help people.”
The experience reinforced what Williams learned long ago. “A lot of people think that when the phone rings and customers just call out of the blue that they are just shopping and the calls are worthless. But sometimes when they call they are really serious and are looking for someone to plan an important trip that they can’t do on the Internet.”