Friday, September 4, 2009

Interview with: Our travel agent

Julie, I think I found you on the Two Peas Site and enjoyed reading your blog, Curing Cold Feet. When I saw that you were offering travel help for free, I took you up on it. If I remember correctly, I told you how much we had to spend and how long we were willing to drive. You came up with Branson. I checked prices online and you had the BEST rates of anyone. HOW do you make money at this?

Travel agents earn their money from commissions the suppliers pay. (Except airlines, and that's where there's usually a $10 price built into the final price you see on your computer screen. Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, etc. all charge between $5 and $15 per ticket -- only the big online agencies are making you do the work, sorta like pumping your own gas at the corner these days.)

Now I'm supposed to be a salesperson under those rules, but I'm a consumer and a traveler first. I hate it when someone gives me self-serving advice. So I have adopted the Wal-Mart philosophy -- selling two trips that earn $50 is better than selling one that earns $40. Volume, volume, volume.

Not only did you find us the best price but we LOVED Branson. You are a genius. How did you get so good at this?

I've done a lot of traveling in my life. We grew up dirt poor, but my mom would work a temporary job or give us some material thing to take us on vacation every year, so you could say I was raised with the idea that getting away from it all at least once a year is my Constitutional right, up there with the First Amendment. Unfortunately, the bank account doesn't always cooperate, so you learn to find happiness in the simpler things in some years. Can't afford an all-inclusive in the Caribbean? Then t pick a beach in Texas. I'm also very interested in hearing other people's travel experiences ... and in your case, my best friend's family had recently spent a week in Branson and gave it a glowing review. The way you described your family, you shared a lot of the same lifestyles and values, so it made sense to recommend it.
Is everyone as easy to plan for as we are? I mean, we call you up and tell you our budget and how far we want to drive and let you do all the work. Or do some people actually tell you where they want to go? I mean, boring!

Most people already have an idea where they want to go. If not, I always start with the dollar amount, because that helps frame the possibilities. It's actually fun to start from scratch, because I can use my experience. Right now, I've got to put Cancun higher on my destination priority list because tons of folks are asking about hotels there, and I'm at the mercy of strangers' recommendations on that destination.

But in the end, it's all easy if you like to do research. That's why travel agents exist ... because many people really don't like it.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

Don't get me wrong here -- I've been to 23 countries and 48 states, and I have lots of places I'd kill to get back to. But when you say vacation, my first thought is "Hollywood, Florida." Yep, a little spit of a town north of Miami. And I always stay at the Manta Ray Inn, a family-owned hotel of studio apartments right on the beach. I love getting up and wandering along the ocean in the morning in my jammies, sitting under an umbrella and just popping into my apartment to grab a water out of the fridge. No fancy elevators, no cover-ups, no worrying about getting sand anywhere, and no expensive drinks by the pool. Just me, the ocean talking and a Coke I bought on sale at Publix.
Where should we go next year?

Let's see how well you like Gulf Shores next week. One thing I love about working with you guys -- you're willing to drive. You wouldn't believe how many times a family of 7 will say they want to go on a vacation with a budget of $2,000, but they have to fly. If we work 6 months out and find dirt cheap airline tickets, that's still more than half the budget right there — and more realistically it's going to be $1400 or 70 percent of the budget. It just doesn't leave much to work with for lodging, although I sure do try!

But if you've never been to the mountains, I'm thinking we'll cook up an unforgettable trip west of Missouri.
What's the worst vacation you planned for someone?

You can interpret worst in so many ways! On my end, it would have been a family trip to the United Kingdom where the family had specific guidelines about the type of accommodations they wanted, and those conditions are hard to find in Europe. And they wanted a rental car for specific days, but the kind they wanted was only available at the airport, so I spent hours determining whether they could park a car near their apartment (they couldn't) and then coming up with a time table for going back and forth from the airport to rent the car on separate days.

From the vacationers' end, it would probably be the family whom I told they would get a free breakfast with the hotel reservation. Well, that was true, but then I found them a cheaper rate and booked that instead, forgetting all about the breakfast perk. They reported to the dining room thinking they were golden, only to be presented with a bill. Next thing I know, my phone is ringing on a Saturday morning. I followed through with my supplier, discovered my mistake, and called the hotel manager to see what we could work out. The manager was very excited to hear from me, which was a bit out of the ordinary.

"Mr. X. has been standing at my reception desk for the past hour, waiting for an answer. He's looking at me now."

I wanted so badly to say, "Well, smile and wave then." I know this is shocking to some people in the travel industry but some things I can't control, and where my client stands in your lobby is one of them.

Tell us a funny travel agent story.

Mickey Mouse ruined my Christmas. I came home from celebrations on December 24 to see that Walt Disney World was on my caller i.d. How cute is that? I dialed into my voice mailbox expecting to hear that squeaky little voice saying, "Thanks for being part of the team. We love you and hope to work with you again to make our guests' dreams come true. Happy holidays!"

Instead, it was Teresa telling me that if they didn't receive payment on the "Smith" family reservations by 5 p.m., it would be automatically cancelled. The Smiths had spent more than $6,000 for this dream holiday vacation, and there was no way I'd be able to get them a hotel in the booked-up atmosphere that is Disney between Christmas and New Year's, let alone restore the dining reservations. I was so panicked, I nearly threw up. I spent Christmas Eve gathering every receipt I had to prove we had paid, and my husband was the one that noticed they were calling about a different reservation number than this family had.

When the dust settled (at 7 a.m. on December 26 -- yes, I was the first agent in the country to get into Disney's customer service line. Yea, me!) it was a computer error and my clients' reservations were just fine. Somehow they had a second number floating in the system for the exact same reservation.

I definitely think they owe me that happy holidays greeting this year.

And Julie, are you sending us those ginormous lollipops again? Cause we still have one left from last year.

I'm out of my stash and haven't had the next batch delivered yet. You are safe.


Isn't Julie funny? Her blog cracks me up too. Be sure to take a minute and visit her over there.

So our secrets out...Gulf Shores. I wanted beachy and that's all I told her. She's great.

I'll let you know how it turns out.

If you have any questions for Julie, ask away. And if you are vacation planning, truly she is fantastic.


Yara said...

enjoy your vacation Michelle!

Yara said...

enjoy your vacation Michelle!

Anonymous said...

Lovin these interviews! Where did you come up with the idea?

Teresa @ Grammy Girlfriend said...

one of the cutest headers I have seen....I am adding you to my, love your blog...
Hope you will stop by and visit my new Christmas blog. There is a great giveaway this week.

Stephanie Faris said...

I only tried a travel agent once...through AAA. I'm not sure if that counts? They worked up a deal that was about $100 more expensive than what I got when I crunched the numbers using Orbitz. So I made the assumption travel agents couldn't do what Orbitz could...but maybe it's just that AAA travel agents can't!

Michelle said...

No, Stephanie, last year when we went to Branson she WAY beat any prices I could find online for our condo or similar condos. Plus we got discount tickets to Silver Dollar City and 2 shows.

She even beat the prices my SIL found for theirs. And our condo was fabulous.

I have to admit this year I didnt look around as hard, because we trusted her more. My SIL was kind of disappointed with what she got in Branson and we were thrilled, so I didnt mind leaving it all up to Julie.

She did NOT let us down. Not only is our condo perfect but we got LOTS of discount tickets this year.

I didnt check Orbitz or anything like that, but I did check online rates and this price was 100's cheaper.

And she got us the top floor overlooking the ocean. You just cant be sure of the amenities when you go through Orbitz.

AND if anything goes wrong we have Julie to help us.

So I'm sold...even if some vacation, sometime, costs a little more through Julie, to me it's worth it. She does all the work for me. I do nothing.

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Teresa @ Grammy Girlfriend said...

Have a great trip....loved the stories...

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