Travel agent to the rich and famous sounds like a nice job, doesn't it? I mean who doesn't love to travel and the opportunity to stay in the world’s top hotels, try out the five-star food on offer and experience once-in-a-lifetime excursions so you can recommend them to your filthy rich clients?
Yet the glamour and adventure come with immense pressure. And the industry has taken a very big hit in the past two decades. Thanks to the internet, cheap flights and hotel booking sites, job security is continually under threat and travel agents are often left scrambling to right impossible wrongs – not just collapsed travel companies (most recently Thomas Cook) but also extreme weather conditions and terrorist threats. Add in unsociable hours and difficult clients, and it’s no wonder that more than half of new recruits quit within the first six months.
What happens when the job is complicated even further by big budget clients and their big budget demands? We met a luxury travel agent to find out what exactly goes into booking holidays for the 1%, the most ridiculous requests she’s heard and her wildest on-the-job tales...
How long have you worked as a travel agent and why did you join the industry?
I started working in the travel industry in 2011. I left school with no clue what I wanted to do or what I wanted to be so applied to one of the big travel companies, simply thinking it would be a fun summer job. I ended up loving it and eight or so years later I’m still in the industry, now working for an independent bespoke travel agency.
What does a bespoke travel agency do?
Basically, we specialise in luxury travel, so the special once-in-a-lifetime holidays like honeymoons, cruises, skiing and big, extravagant family holidays. We’re dealing with clients who have very particular tastes and large budgets. It’s very different from life on the high street, selling package deals to Malaga!
What do you love most about your job?
The variety, the challenges and, of course, being able to travel as a job. Mostly though it’s the people you meet – clients of course, but colleagues too can absolutely make your day. For example, when Thomas Cook went bust the messages of support from competitors and the motivation to recruit their redundant staff were really inspiring to see. I’m not sure many other industries would act the same way.
What do you think about the stereotype that travel agents are – how can I put this – rowdy?
Being rowdy is a huge part of the job – after all, to be a good travel agent you have to be confident and sociable. We’re talking to people all day and have to be able to really understand what people want, so that 'rowdiness' is important. Though it does mean that when we get together, it can get lively!
Tell me about the travel perks…
They are amazing! We get offered what are called 'educationals' or 'fams' – it’s where a tour operator will invite you on a trip to experience hotels and destinations, usually when you have sold well for them. It means that we can sell these holidays with confidence and insider knowledge.
How do these 'fams' work?
Usually it’ll be a small group of about eight to 10 travel agents from different companies and agencies. You meet for the first time at the airport and by the time you’ve got home, you’re the best of friends.
Have you ever heard of any holiday romances on these 'fams'?
Definitely! Of course, 'fams' are supposed to be professional, working trips, but travel agents are still human and when the complimentary sangria is flowing… What happens on holiday, stays on holiday.
How much do you get paid and do you get commission?
Many people think that because I’m selling incredibly expensive holidays, I’m earning a similar amount but it’s not true. Currently my salary is £22k per year plus commission. When I was at a high street company it was minimum wage plus tiny bonuses when we made sales – £1 per £1,000 sold and then £3 per £1,000 if we hit our monthly targets. The irony is, in the travel industry, most agents are on minimum or low salaries but dealing with excessive luxury every day. There’s no way I could afford one of the holidays I’m selling right now.
Do you think that travel agents should be paid more?
Yes! It’s a hard job despite the perks and there are some huge responsibilities – we are expected to know every destination inside out, magically guess people’s budgets, read people’s expectations perfectly and be on the end of the phone 24 hours a day to assist with admin or talk to when things go wrong.
Where is the best place that you’ve travelled to?
Too many to mention them all! Because I work for an independent 'upmarket' agency, I’ve got to experience holidays only the very rich can afford. I’ve stayed in a royal palace in India, trekked the foothills of the Himalayas, been on a safari, learned how to sail around the Greek Islands, stayed on a luxury canal trip in France… That last one featured a lot of free champagne and a hot tub. I have been extremely lucky.
And the worst?
I can’t think of anywhere I would never go again, I’m up for any kind of travel. But I do now have such high standards for my own holidays. I look at hotels constantly so have a really good idea of what I would hate or know when hotels are scrimping.
What’s the worst part of the job?
Working long and unsociable hours – we often have to stay late or work weekends to be available when clients are free. Also, misquotes from suppliers – they never honour them, but we’re the ones that are left to deal with very angry clients and scrambling to find an alternative.
What sort of complaints do you often deal with?
Ha, if I had £1 for every time a client complained about external issues that we have no control over… I’ve had complaints about everything from Brexit to the weather, recessions and even foreign government policy! "I can’t help that it rained on your holiday, unfortunately you won’t receive the cost of your holiday back in full as I can’t control the weather," is something that I have had to say on more than one occasion.
What is the craziest request you have ever had from a customer?
Every time I’ve had a crazy request, I think it can’t be topped, but it always is. I’ve been asked if a transatlantic cruise can stop off at the Titanic sinking area so a passenger can 'pay their respects', have been asked on a press trip to 'lend' my passport to a journalist who had forgotten theirs, and even had to track down a pair of 'precious' designer knickers that a client left in her hotel room.
Some have been completely ridiculous, such as the time I had to book a couple on different flights from different airports because one was a regular client and the other was a new girlfriend. He said he didn’t know whether she would 'last' and didn’t want to spend too much money on her, so – without her knowing – booked her on an economy flight while he flew business class.
Others are downright stressful. A year or two ago, I booked a married couple a holiday in Jamaica. The husband came in just before they were due to fly to tell us that his wife had died, however the day after the flight, the same wife came in looking very much alive and asking us to book her another flight to join her husband. Thinking it was strange – but also being the new girl and presuming I must have misheard the husband – I did as she said. I found out later that the husband had actually booked a flight for his mistress and the wife had turned up while they were having dinner. It’s safe to say that they were divorced soon after, but then I had the husband storm into the office trying to blame us for the mix-up and claiming a refund for 'ruining his marriage'. The irony!
Have you ever had to deal with a particularly difficult customer?
Yes, I was once working a late shift when I had a call from a client. He wanted to book a very expensive cruise for himself and eight friends. A week later I got a very heated call from him claiming that he was drunk when he called and that I was stupid for following it through. He even demanded the CEO’s phone number to ask for his full holiday cost back.
Recently, with Thomas Cook going bust, there’s been a lot in the press about the worst possible holiday scenarios. Have you ever had to get your clients out of a really bad situation?
Yes, in 2017 I had clients caught up in the terrorist attack in Barcelona. Luckily, they weren’t badly hurt, and I’ve been given good crisis training – that includes calling the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to find out passengers’ situations, liaising with family members at home, sometimes flying them out or arranging emergency travel back to the UK.
It must be stressful organising something so important for people…
Yes, I think I felt that stress more when I worked for a high street company.
Why do you say that?
Because it almost felt like what I was doing was more important – people would save up all year, or even longer, for that one holiday, so they’re putting a lot of trust in us. Often it would be their only time off work, their only quality time with their family, or the first time someone had gone abroad. I definitely found it easier getting excited about their holidays than I do sometimes with my wealthy clients now.
So booking luxury holidays for wealthy clients is a different type of stress?
Yes, most clients know that when something goes wrong it isn’t your fault, but because a lot of the clients I deal with have so much money and spend a lot with us, there is an unspoken feeling that they are able to get away with things 'normal' people couldn’t. They seem to think that just because they are shelling out, we’re only working for them. I have one client who can get quite nasty – I had to return from my own holiday once because he wasn’t happy with his own trip and wouldn’t speak to anyone else in the office.
Do you think being a luxury travel agent demands more personally?
Yes, another client has my mobile number because he is a regular and spends a lot with us. He called me on Boxing Day because he didn’t like his hotel room, and even though he knew that I was out of the office at my mother-in-law’s funeral, called me at the wake to discuss his upcoming holiday. In those situations, I know that I should be able to say no, but because of the money issue, I don’t feel I can.
Is it frustrating being expected to plan everything for customers, like restaurants, activities, car rental?
Sometimes yes, even though it’s a big part of the job. Some clients really take it for granted. I once had a client who would travel every Christmas holiday. No matter where in the world she was or what the climate was, I had to make sure she had a fully decorated Christmas tree in her hotel waiting for her, which can be quite hard in a country that doesn’t celebrate it.
How much do your customers tend to spend?
An average of about £4,000 per person, per holiday.
Have you ever sold a really expensive holiday? What was it like?
My most expensive holiday was for one person and the total was £114,000 for an around-the-world cruise in a top suite. It can be fun having the freedom to book anything – especially for clients who are up for anything – but at the same time it can be hard to manage their expectations.
How do online holiday services like booking.com and Airbnb affect the industry and your job?
On one hand they’re actually brilliant. For high street travel agents, it means that there is less of what the industry calls 'bucket and spade' – spending days searching for cheap package holidays. It has meant that the travel industry has had to up its game and sometimes that competition can be a good thing. Of course, there are always horror stories, like people booking a hotel that doesn’t exist or the Thomas Cook fiasco.
Do you think Thomas Cook’s collapse will change how people approach holiday booking?
Yes, I think that so many people have had their fingers burned and it's gone full circle – people are returning to booking with a travel agent because they are realising that when they book online it’s all in their own hands and they need the trust and security they get from an agent. I would be lying if I said it doesn't give travel agents a little bit of satisfaction when we get to tell someone we can’t help them if they booked their own flights, hotels and transfers themselves on three different websites. I don’t think we will ever not be needed, but it’s nice knowing that we are in demand at the moment.
What is it like being a female travel agent? Have you ever had to deal with unsavoury comments from clients or sexism within the travel industry?
The travel industry is largely female dominated so within the industry itself I’ve never been made to feel uncomfortable, but when I worked on the high street I had to wear a uniform, much like the one air hostesses wear. I was often catcalled on the bus and it got so bad that I ended up changing at work.
Any insider holiday booking tips you can share?
There are a few simple things, like booking on a Tuesday or Wednesday can be cheaper and buy travel insurance when booking the holiday to save on cost.
I may be biased, but I also think booking with an independent travel agent or specialist operator – someone who is ABTA or AITO certified – is important, especially if you’re booking an important trip. We’re specialists so you’re only ever going to benefit from our knowledge and experience, plus if anything goes wrong, we can look after you.
If you must book online, book as a package deal. You may save money by booking it separately but especially since Thomas Cook has gone bust, it’s been highlighted that if you book flights alone or hotel alone, they aren’t always protected, and you might not get your money back.
Any holiday destination that you would recommend or have on your own bucket list?
Having just done an amazing itinerary for some clients who are travelling to Japan, no expense spared – for £50,000 – it’s now at the top of my bucket list.