WHEN LAURA Fenamore set out to walk part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain she interviewed three travel experts. One had never been to Spain. One she found too hesitant and bereft of ideas. In the end, she hired Nicole Lee, founder of The Curated Travel in New York and a former private equity associate. Ms. Lee was well-traveled, had an eye for detail and knew the best hidden tapas bars in Barcelona. She developed a multipage itinerary that occupied many of Ms. Fenamore's waking hours.
“It had options for everything…buses and planes and trains. Hotels and food and museums. If we went to a museum, the restaurant suggestions were nearby. It was complete,” said Ms. Fenamore. In the days leading up to the trip, Ms. Lee was in constant contact via text. She uploaded the itinerary to travel app TripCase so Ms. Fenamore could check it from her phone. Ms. Lee was available 24 hours a day once her client was abroad in case trains were late or airplanes were missed. “I felt so held,” said Ms. Fenamore.
Gone are the days of the old-school travel agents, with their 9-to-5 days and their reflexive love of the all-inclusive cruise. Today's travel advisers promise to deliver convenience, access and hard-core expertise. Often for a steep fee. Some fashion themselves as magazine editors for hire, able to identify obscure new destinations and food trends. Many have carved out a country-specific niche, from Mongolia to the Maldives. Others have morphed into spiritual coaches and party planners for the ultra-elite. Unexpectedly, the internet has helped them flourish.
“People desperately need travel planning help,” said Wendy Perrin, whose eponymous website helps people find travel planners for their specific trips. “You wouldn't think so because of Expedia. But they are frustrated by online stuff and don't know who to trust.” A time-rich traveler can still plan his or her own vacation but for those with high expectations and complex lives (think: children, a desire to experience closed cultures, tight schedules and the inarticulate but clear assumption of luxury) travel advisers are essential.
“Luxury is the absence of worry,” said Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal, the president of subscription- based travel and lifestyle planners Fischer Travel, which has been around since 1959. “We can spend months coming up with the itinerary and the client gets there in their plane and says, 'It's raining.' We figure it out.” Ms. Fischer said she recently convinced an ice hotel in Norway to add a suite this season to accommodate clients who needed bigger rooms. She also helped a woman who thought she was possessed find a priest in Rome to perform an exorcism. (The priest informed her she was not, in fact, possessed.) In the old days, such demands weren't typically made of the humble travel agent.
Fischer Travel bends toward the extremely pricey end of the spectrum: The initiation fee is $100,000 with an annual fee of $25,000 plus trip specific fees on top of that. Other outfits charge a yearly subscription. But many travel agents don't charge anything at all or a minimal trip-planning fee. They take a cut of hotel or tour payments, as well as first-class airline tickets and trip insurance. Nicole Lee of The Curated Travel requires $15 a day for a simple trip such as a week in Europe.
The benefits lie not just in the service but in the trip planners' abilities to negotiate after-hours or VIP access for their clients. Exeter International, a travel company with deep ties in Russia, can get you into the Grand Kremlin Palace, normally closed to the public. The agency Made for Spain and Portugal can arrange for a private, after-hours tour of the Prado. Italy's IC Bellagio will take clients to Gucci's leather atelier near Florence or the Versace flagship store in Milan for a private fashion show with runway models.
“People think 'I'm going to Rome. Why do I need help?'” said Ms. Perrin. “You don't, unless you want to get in to the Vatican for a private meal or see the Sistine Chapel without crowds.”
Last year Rita Regimbal from Warren, N.J., sought assistance planning a two-week trip to Iceland with her husband and four kids. Her children are all teenagers or older with various interests and eating habits. “Although we can afford the Ritz, we don't always like to stay in places like that,” said Ms. Regimbal “We like to experience the country.”
They turned to Nicole Lee for guidance. She came up with a characteristically comprehensive minute-byminute itinerary. She booked the family an Airbnb (unusual for a travel agent since there is no commission), a luxury hotel in Reykjavik and a converted farmhouse near the Skógafoss waterfall on Iceland's south coast. They hiked during the day and played cards at night. Ms. Lee booked a local guide to take the family snorkeling in freezing water, which entailed a dry suit under a wetsuit. “I never would have been able to plan something like that alone,” said Ms. Regimbal. “Snorkeling in Iceland didn't occur to me.”
Ms. Regimbal paid $150 to The Curated Travel to plan that trip and considers the fee a bargain, especially since the vacation went off without a hitch. She recalls with horror a family holiday four years ago that entailed a drive across much of Europe. She and her family got stuck at the border between Germany and Austria because she lacked the right paperwork for her rental car. She was forced to pay a large fine. “It ruined the trip,” she said.
A desire for convenience often goes hand in hand with a competing desire for authentic experiences. Jaclyn Sienna India runs a small highend agency, Sienna Charles, that caters to about 30 families and costs $36,000 a year. She asks to meet her clients in person to get to know their tastes and interests. She sees a rise in sabbaticals where clients take their children out of school to embark on round-the-world tours complete with tutors. “My clients are top of their field and they want their kids to be the same,” said Ms. India. “If they are learning Mandarin they go to China, if it's Roman history to Rome.”
Adults also like travel's educational aspects. Agencies are increasingly pairing art and history experts with travelers. Want to see the Vatican's secret archives and library, normally not open to the public? Marchay travel agency (see “Much More Than Brochures,” at right) can arrange a private tour with a professor of theology as your guide.
Sophisticated Travel will arrange for a local Turkish archaeologist to lead you around Ephesus. Fischer Travel offers a meeting with Hiroshima survivors followed by a tour.
Many people still use travel agents for the more basic service of getting deals. High-end trip planners, such as those who are members of the Virtuoso network of luxury travel agencies, are able to secure room upgrades, free breakfasts and spa vouchers. More important, they are on call if disaster strikes. On a recent family trip to China, Victoria Chen's mother fell and broke her femur. Ms. Chen, an attorney in San Diego, alerted her agency, Balboa Vacations in Southern California, who worked with the Peninsula Shanghai to send the hospital sheets, towels, a robe and nonhospital- quality food. Balboa's contact in Shanghai stopped by to see Ms. Chen and sent over a gift certificate for the Peninsula spa. The agency in California persuaded the hotel to advance thousands of dollars to Ms. Chen to pay for the procedures, adding the charges to the room bill. Then they found a doctor to fly to Shanghai and fly home with the Chens. “I wasn't going to get such complete health coverage,” said Ms. Chen, referring to the trip insurance a Balboa agent convinced her to buy. “But he told me to. Thank god he did.”
NOT THE CORNER TRAVEL AGENCY
|DATE NIGHT AT THE LOUVRE|
THE RIGHT TRAVEL AGENT CAN OPEN ALL KINDS OF DOORS. HERE, A SAMPLING
Florida-based Exeter International, which specializes in high-end trips to Central and Eastern Europe, can get clients private access to the Kremlin before the grounds open to the public. Visitors may also visit the Grand Kremlin Palace, once home to the Czars and closed to tourists, where the president of Russia entertains foreign heads of state. From $1,500 for up to 20 people for the Kremlin, from $2,500 for the Grand Kremlin Palace, exeterinternational.com
|MUCH MORE THAN BROCHURES|
THE RISE OF SUBSCRIPTION-BASED TRAVEL PLANNERS
While most agents still take a commission from hotel and tour operators, annual subscriptions—or membership fees—ensure that enough money is coming in to the agency that they don't have to automatically push $1,000- a-night hotels. That said the models vary in price and structure. Some agencies are best-suited for billionaires who want the last room at Paris's La Réserve, others for an upper-middle-class family of four who wants to go to Japan but doesn't quite know how to plan it.
BY NINA SOVICH