Send a welcome letter to every hotel — This goes back to establishing a relationship with your client and adding a personal touch to every trip. Leaving a welcome letter at every hotel leaves a long-lasting impression and is a great precedent to set. It lets the client know you are thinking about them every step of the way and that you have thought of everything! The client might have some leftover anxiety from hiccups that were out of your hands, like a long travel day or a fully booked flight, so this sets a new tone and eases any leftover stressors, so your client can reset and be fully present in their trip.
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Christopher, owner and founder of HC Travel Firm.
Heather Christopher, CTA is the founder of HC Travel Firm and a tenured travel advisor specializing in creating dream vacations for her clients. Heather and her team of twelve work with only the best partners in the hospitality industry, ensuring a memorable and stress-free vacation for her clients. Heather has been featured in Travel Agent Magazine, Global Travel Marketplace, TravelAgeWest, and Luxury Travel Advisor.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My origin is pretty specific. TL;DR: When I was a senior in high school, my dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He and I were the driving force behind our family vacations. In March of 2005, I woke up from a very vivid dream that I needed to join the travel industry if I wanted to continue traveling. Fortunately, my family used a travel advisor, so I was familiar with this career choice. Within 24 hours of that dream, I declined my scholarship and acceptance to Chatham College in Pittsburgh and found a local business college that offered travel and tourism. Admittedly, I never told my dad that I wasn’t going to the college we had toured and had early acceptance to because I was terrified at how disappointed he would be. Although, I’ve never felt that he wouldn’t be so proud of my success and ventures.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
A pandemic. It was the most unexpected, unknown and absolute wild card I’ve ever worked through. I’ve been advising since ’06, so I thought I had been through it all — from the recession to the Iceland volcano that stopped flights to and from Europe for weeks. HA! If only I knew then what was to come. Something that could have completely wiped me out of business actually increased our credibility for our consumers, now more than ever!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
To be honest, I have blocked out every mistake I made when I started as a travel agent. I’ve always been very passionate and driven about my career, so every mistake I made was a learning opportunity for myself rather than a funny story I could look back on. There is one lesson I learned over and over that I wish I could tell my younger self, and anyone else starting in the industry, to save yourself from the growing pains — read, read, and READ again! It is crucial to be extremely detail-oriented in this industry because things can go wrong so quickly if you skim over what you think are minute travel details or assume what a client wants without reading their travel requests thoroughly.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Absolutely! I owe all of my success to Pamela Bivens and Debbie Prindle. Debbie is my mentor and the owner of the only other travel agency I worked at. Pam also worked alongside me for the decade I was there and is still one of my dearest friends and “aunt” to my daughters. Those women shaped me as an adult, as an advisor, and as a manager. They taught me everything I know and how to get things done!
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
I spent three years working alongside my co-founder, Kate Thomas, at Travel Pro Theory. Travel Pro Theory’s purpose has always been to push our no-barrier-to-entry profession to improve, whether in sales, partner relationships, client relationships or time management. Here at HC Travel Firm, we work with the world’s top hospitality brands, offering only a premier, white glove service to create a truly unique and personalized travel experience for each one of our clients. We want to create a travel plan unlike anything they could find anywhere else or plan for themselves. A vacation should be just that — a getaway free of stress and anxiety. By completely taking over the planning aspect and catering to each one of their asks, the client is able to kick their feet up and truly enjoy their experience.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
By completely taking over the planning experience for the client, we are able to introduce them to brands and experiences they had no idea existed! Everyone loves to go snorkeling on their tropical vacation, but have you ever paraglided through a forest? We have successfully drawn business to the road less traveled, finding truly upscale boutique hotels and once-in-a-lifetime experiences you cannot find with a simple Google search that align with our business values. Each vendor on our preferred list is someone we have extensively researched and worked with before, so you can be sure you are getting only the best of the best! This is exactly what makes us stand out from the rest — we would never send someone on a trip if we wouldn’t plan that trip for ourselves.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
The industry is always working in the present to try and stay ahead of the future. Currently, there is a new introduction of long-term stay hotels across many major brands. Additionally, rental companies are conducting internal reviews and strengthening their rental home options to eliminate the possibility of booking a dodgy rental that doesn’t exist. Our partners and colleagues are always comparing notes to determine what is trending so we can adjust our strategy accordingly. Each season, we review how far out consumers are booking and what options will be readily available in the event of a client booking last minute during the busy season. Travel technology, the backend, has significantly improved since I started in the industry. I get emailed frequently to talk about pain points in the industry, so I’ve spent time reflecting on how far the industry has come since I began, and I am thrilled with the progress. In my first ten years of business, we had quite possibly the slowest technology of all time!
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
This is such a fun question! Hawaii is my happy place, so we MUST go there! I would book business class tickets on our flight to LA for my sweet hubby and three girls. Once we arrive in LA, we would spend some time in the PS Suite while we wait for our flight to Honolulu. Then, we would charter a private jet to the Four Seasons Lanai for a seven-night stay (perfect for a trip to Hawaii!). We would spend our days snorkeling in the warm, turquoise water, horseback riding across the picturesque island, taking a thrilling 4×4 ride through the tropical landscape, eating delicious poke and going to the spa in absolute bliss. Of course, we would end the trip with a relaxing business class ride back home!
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Wellness, to me, is anything that makes you feel settled, comfortable and truly relaxed. For my clients, I try to provide an experience with as many luxury amenities as possible, with accommodations that make you feel at home. A nice light scent, monogrammed pillowcases, not paying for water ;), comfortable seating and bedding, just to name a few! This means even when my clients are touring all day they can experience wellness and come back from a trip refreshed instead of exhausted.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Curate the options — I like to call this the “Joanna Gaines” method! Whenever you’re in a position with “extra funds”, give the client a few different choices about where those funds would go. It gets the client involved in the planning process and gives them a chance to “choose their own adventure”. This adds a little extra fun and excitement! This also helps you get to know a little more about the clients and their tastes. Pay attention to which option they choose and let that guide you as you plan the rest of their trip!
- Create a Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience they can’t get anywhere else — This is truly the key to creating a travel experience that keeps people coming back for more. What makes your business stand out from all the rest? Your client had thousands of choices when they were looking for a travel agent, so show them why choosing you was their best option! Go above and beyond what they are asking for and really listen to what they are asking for on a trip.
- Be honest with your clients — Honesty hour time — managing expectations is one of the most important aspects of my job. While it may be daunting, being upfront with your client and managing expectations is the key to a great experience. When an experience matches and exceeds expectations, everyone is happy! For example, if you are planning a safari to Africa for your client and they ask to have a ride on a lion included in their experience, obviously that will not be possible as that is EXTREMELY dangerous for both parties. By being upfront and honest with your client and letting them know WHY something can’t be done, you are creating realistic expectations. By saying anything along the lines of “Let me see what I can do” or “Let me check on that” you are insinuating that it MAY happen. If you know in your gut something can or shouldn’t be done, go with your instinct and be upfront with the client. They may be disappointed, but it will better their experience in the long run!
- Connect with a local partner to ensure a seamless experience — This is so important to me and my business. I try to bring the money as close to the source as possible each time I plan a trip. By connecting your clients with a local partner on their trip, you are not only keeping the business local, but you are creating a truly authentic experience for your client. Additionally, you will have someone on the ground to assist with any last-minute changes or hiccups, creating a seamless and stress-free experience for your client.
- Send a welcome letter to every hotel — This goes back to establishing a relationship with your client and adding a personal touch to every trip. Leaving a welcome letter at every hotel leaves a long-lasting impression and is a great precedent to set. It lets the client know you are thinking about them every step of the way and that you have thought of everything! The client might have some leftover anxiety from hiccups that were out of your hands, like a long travel day or a fully booked flight, so this sets a new tone and eases any leftover stressors, so your client can reset and be fully present in their trip.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
By booking luxury vacations, we are bringing significant business to tourism industries around the world! The travel industry employs 1 in 9 people in local regions, which brings more jobs and positively impacts the culture/city. By working with ONLY local destination management companies from areas where we are planning a trip, we bring the money as close to the source as we can get. They are on the ground, working 1-on-1 with our clients to connect them with other locals to ensure the business stays local. Additionally, every year we donate to several different charities that are close to my heart.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Keeping our business local is one of the most important parts of my business. I would like to take this practice to other travel agencies and share my point of view to encourage others to remain local with their business. By connecting clients with locals from around the world, I feel that it has the potential to create a better world and generate empathy across borders.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!