Entrepreneurs

Travel agents? No. Travel ‘designers’ create strategies, not trips

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Vittorio Zunino Celotto | Getty Images

George Straw, a dedicated globe-trotter, doesn't like the water. Near the water is fine, but on the water? No thanks. And that goes double for under the water. "A submarine observational thing to go down and look at coral reefs would never work for me," said Mr. Straw, 74, an owner of the Santé Center for Healing, an inpatient treatment program in Argyle, Tex., for drug and alcohol addiction and eating disorders.

Douglas Easton and John Ziegler, the managing partners of Celestielle, a luxury travel agency in West Hollywood, know all this and more about Mr. Straw, a longtime client. They know that he doesn't like onions, that he avoids hotel rooms without an abundance of windows and that he loves any opportunity to take photos. That is why, some while back, they sent him to a tiger reserve in India, and why they have booked him a late-summer trip to Hudson Bay in Manitoba to observe polar bears and other animals close up.

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Mr. Easton and Mr. Ziegler are part of a subset of travel planners — they prefer the term travel designers — who do far more than simply book trips. They manage the travel portfolios of their affluent clients, mapping out a schedule that might, over a year, include mother-daughter weekends in the Caribbean, father-son heli-skiing, a romantic husband-and-wife weekend getaway and an elaborate summer trip for the whole family.

"Every June, I'll start talking to Doug and John, and they'll start making plans for the next year," said Mr. Straw, who estimates that he spends $180,000 annually on leisure travel with his partner. In 2016, he took four major trips — to Egypt and South Africa; Peru, Machu Picchu and Colombia; Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Bali; Northern Ireland, the Czech Republic and Switzerland. "If I hear about something that sounds good," he said, "I just call them and say, 'This is what I want to do.'"

Some travel portfolio managers, like Gonzalo Gimeno, founder and general manager of Elefant Travel in Madrid and Barcelona, and Susan Farewell, the owner of Farewell Travels in Westport, Conn., make house calls, during which they get a read on family dynamics and make suggestions about possible destinations — often places that aren't even on their clients' radar. They also do reconnaissance, the better to make recommendations on lodging, tour guides and special excursions. During a recent trip to India, Mr. Gimeno sent a client a video with the message "your kids will love this."

After Ms. Farewell planned a trip to South Africa and Zambia for Bobbi Crocker, a college consultant in Westport, and her husband, Russell, a retired wealth manager, "Susan went before us to check everything out," Ms. Crocker said. "And when she came back she tweaked the itinerary and arranged for us to stay at a different hotel."

This level of planning and involvement "is part of an emerging market where there are people who have more money than time and want expertise," said Bjorn Hanson, a professor at the Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism at New York University. For example, he said, "a traditional travel agent wouldn't know to ask questions like 'what's the smallest plane you'd be willing to fly on?'"

Such clients, Mr. Hanson said, may not be price sensitive, but are highly sensitive to perceived slights. "Someone I know professionally," he said, "went on a trip to a remote location and was served frozen orange juice, and told me he would never use his travel designer again because he expected fresh juice."

Often, long-range planning is a practical necessity. Some of the most sought-after lodges and boutique hotels have limited space. For example, there are only four rooms at Zarafa, in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and at Split Apple in New Zealand; 10 rooms at Awasi in the Atacama Desert in Chile; and seven tents at Sala's Camp in Masai Mara, Kenya.

"We have clients who are bringing large groups of people and want to take over a whole lodge," said Mr. Easton, whose average booking per night is $1,165 per room. "They want to have the perfect trip at the time they want to take it, and that involves reserving a year or 18 months ahead."

Karen Boehlert and her husband, Thomas, the chief financial officer for an agribusiness company, had traveled extensively through Europe and South America before they met Mr. Easton and Mr. Ziegler, who had been recommended by friends. "They came to our apartment in New York, and we talked to them about where we'd been and where we wanted to go," Ms. Boehlert said. That discussion led to three weeks in Southeast Asia in 2015 and, last year, for Ms. Boehlert's 60th birthday, a three-week trip to Africa for the couple and their two adult sons.

"We've now done a fair amount of long-range planning with Doug and John," said Ms. Boehlert, ticking off a slate of trips, which have included a week in Dordogne, in the southwest of France, for her and her younger son, as well as trips coming up with her husband to South America in September, Paris in October, and two and a half weeks in Rwanda and Kenya in September 2018.

"There have been times that Doug has said, 'I think you should do this because the experience is better,'" Ms. Boehlert said. "'I'd make more money if you did the other thing, but I think you should do this thing instead.' They're really good like that, which is why we use them."

Not all of Ms. Farewell's clients have a five-year travel strategy. But she has one in mind for them just the same, thanks largely to her own cross-country and round-the-world trips with her daughter, Justine Seligson, now 20.

"I knew that my husband and I had to introduce her to travel in a methodical way, that she needed to see Maine and the Grand Canyon before we took her to Morocco," Ms. Farewell said. "When Justine was 6, I wasn't going to say to her, 'O.K., now we're going to Dubai.' You have to build up to these experiences."

Ms. Farewell's initial meetings with new clients amount to an intake. She isn't interested solely in where they would like to go, but in where they have been, their "style" (large hotel or boutique? adventurous or not so much? sedentary or active?), the ages of their children, the length of time they are willing to spend on a plane, the number of days they have available and the money they want to allot to travel annually. It's not unusual, she said, for some small families she works with to spend $50,000 for a weeklong trip (not including the private jets).

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George Rose | Getty Images

"This is not a line item for many of my clients — this kind of travel falls under the heading of education rather than recreation," said Ms. Farewell, who meets annually with such clients to review trips from the previous year and determine the next logical step. For instance: Would it be better for them to go to Greece this summer, or might this be the summer to take the children to Africa?

"It's all about setting people up for travel success," said Ms. Farewell, who has a minimum fee of $500 for putting together the itinerary for a weeklong trip. "There are no do-overs, because your kids will never be this age again."

Donna Hagberg and Richard Santarosa, who live in Greenwich, Conn., and have four children, get together with Ms. Farewell once a year "to plan out what we're hoping for in the next 12 months," said Dr. Hagberg, 54, a gynecologist. "We put it out there and will figure out the best locations to accomplish what we want. Susan knows we want to go to Patagonia at some point, and she's figuring out when would be the best time, because she knows how old our kids are, and she's figuring out what we should do there because she knows us."

Last year, during the meeting with Ms. Farewell, Dr. Hagberg said the family wanted to see glaciers and volcanic activity in late June and early July. Iceland became the destination, along with a stop in Denmark.

"My 20-year-old loved Copenhagen so much that she is going back for a semester," Dr. Hagberg said. "So I'll be calling Susan to help plan excursions for her and to plan our trip to go visit her."

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This article originally appeared on The New York Times.