Susan Sparks hates counting the years she's been a travel agent, because it's been much longer than what it feels like.
Sparks started in 1987 as an agency employee, booking lots of air and corporate travel. She said she was "a duck out of water" in a rigid corporate environment until she quit and began what she calls "designing trips," typically FITs with unique elements tailored to her clients.
Aspen, Colo.-based Sparks has built a strong following and drawn accolades for her luxury travel arrangements, earning her a place on Travel & Leisure's A-List of travel agents for several years.
She has been running her home-based agency, Points of Interest Travel, since 2001, and is now affiliated with California-based Cadence, a Virtuoso member agency and branch of Tzell Travel Group.
Sparks said it was after she temporarily left the corporate travel agency to help care for her ill father that she knew she needed a change. When she returned to the agency, the times were changing, and some agents were going off on their own and starting home-based businesses.
She decided to make the switch as well, helped by clients who said they would happily follow her.
"I realized a long time ago that I didn't want to be an order taker," Sparks said in an interview. "I loved being on the creative side [of travel planning]. I spend a lot of time with clients on creating special trips. I'm proud to say that's what I do."
Although her specialty is active travel, particularly hiking and biking, Sparks considers herself a generalist because she wants to handle her clients' vacations wherever they travel in the world.
"I myself love taking active trips," she said. "Living in Colorado and in this environment where so many people are extremely active, it makes sense [to specialize in active travel]."
Sparks loves to "dig deep" into what destinations offer and find the right experiences for her clients. Recently, a client wanted to ride wild horses in France, a request that prompted Sparks to spend satisfying hours researching and arranging so the woman could fulfill her bucket list dream.
"I'm a continuous learner and get down to the nitty gritty on a lot of trips. I like to get under the surface," she said.
Her "true love" destination is Southeast Asia, where she has done extensive traveling herself and has close relationships with destination management companies (DMC's) in the region, enabling her to pull together special experiences.
When she learned the husband in a couple she was booking to Vietnam was deeply interested in world politics, she arranged for the couple to have dinner with a local banker, an evening that was a huge success and highlight of their three-week trip.
"I try to find DMC's and guides that are curious and have good relationships in their communities so that I can find artists, photographers and bankers for my clients to meet," she said.
As with many home-based agents, her top challenge is working long, solitary hours, but Sparks makes sure to spend time on agent forums operated by Virtuoso and the Signature Travel Network, where she can discuss topics of common interest.
"I find that it can be somewhat isolating, so to counteract that I have a lot of friends in the industry and we're all on a couple of forums," she said. "If you get stuck, you can sometimes spin your wheels. So it's really wonderful to reach out and connect with people for something like a new hotel you're thinking of booking and you want some feedback."
Sparks still books very little air and has never regretted her decision to focus on luxury leisure travel instead. Currently she has only two customers that she books air for, "one in their 90s and the other in their 80s... but those are the only clients I do it for."