Category Archives: Travel Agents

Expert Travel Agents Know The Best of Both Worlds.

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For a good time…call a Travel Agent!

That’s what it reads on a string backpack I carry every now and then. I often forget about it until someone stops me to ask if I’m a travel agent or if travel agents still exist.

Yes, thankfully, travel agents still exist. They’re also sometimes referred to as travel counselors. But no matter what you call them, they are there not only to help you plan a good time—a good agent has your back, as well.

As wonderful as online shopping has made our world, lately I’ve run into a lot of people who are completely overwhelmed by it. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, the time-suck that you can get dragged into by shopping for something as simple as a sweater often takes you on a never-ending journey when it comes to planning a trip online. And with consumers wanting more memorable experiences, leaving that solely to the online distribution channel is pretty risky.

Yes, the Internet is a wonderful thing but at some point you just need to have a conversation. You need the human touch. Human touch brings inspiration and creativity. That creativity comes from listening to your customer and asking the right questions.

Last month I attended The New York Times Travel Show in NYC and sat in on a panel discussion between industry experts called Forecasting the Future of Travel – Where Will We Be in the Next 10 Years. Much of the focus was on the power of technology in relation to travel agents. The question of whether all these travel technology options would at some point make agents obsolete hung in the air, so it was refreshing to hear panelists Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel correspondent, Arabella Bowen, editor in chief, Fodor’s Travel, David Pavelko, director, Google Travel, Google Inc, and Wendy Perrin, travel advocate, TripAdvisor, rally around the value of the travel agent. While they all made nods to technology, the consensus was that technology doesn’t provide service.

There was a bit of myth-busting too. We hear terms thrown around all the time about what the data is showing. “Big data solves a lot [of problems], but it doesn’t solve the surprise and delight of discovery,” said Arabella Bowen, editor-in-chief of Fodor’s Travel. “There’s no way to get an experience like that except with a travel agent.” Their bottom line was technology can’t replace travel agents.

As technology continues to innovate, travel agents will need to adapt to those innovations and use them to better service their customers. Expert travel agents know how to navigate the online and offline world. They use the best of both worlds to their advantage, combining their knowledge and expertise to provide you with the best possible service.

Finding an agent who specializes in a specific destination or certain type of travel provides more customization around your journey, making for a more targeted experience. This doesn’t mean you can’t still go off and do your own thing. It just means that they’ve done the groundwork for you to get your trip off on the right foot. They are also your go to person should anything go wrong, a human touch. Something the Internet certainly can’t replicate.

If you’ve never used a travel agent and are interested in working with one, T+L’s A-List Travel Agents is a good place to start. It’ll give you an idea of why it just might be worth your while to get a relationship going with a good one.

So, yeah, for a good time—call a travel agent.

NYT | Chinese Tourism in Vietnam

A good one for travel agents to take note of, this fits under the category of “we’re all connected.” I’m always treated to great visuals when I read From Swerve of Shore and always learn something through this blog. Hope you do too!

From Swerve of Shore

AJS Chinese Tourism Danang

A few weeks back, I shot a really interesting story with Mike Ives (among the top writers in this region in my opinion) about the drop offs in Chinese tourism in central Vietnam. We spent a few days in Danang speaking with tourism officials, hotel managers, and the handful of Chinese businessmen we could find. What was just a few months ago a city with a heavy reliance on tours from all over China, has now seen nearly 100% of those tours cancel, and hotels are reeling and travel agencies are wondering what the future holds. And I’m wasting my time writing anything about it, when really you should just be reading the article (and watching the slideshow): China Tensions Choke Off Tourism to Vietnam.

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Our Asian Adventure Aboard the Crystal Symphony Continues…

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Guest blogger Robyn Bushong sets sail for Xiaman.

Today is Palm Sunday, April 13th. Hard to believe Cynthia, my travel buddy, and I have been “home” on the Crystal Symphony now for three days.

We sailed from Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor late Thursday, evening, April 10th and had a welcome sea day on the 11th, followed by a whirlwind visit to Xiamen yesterday. When we first boarded—after our 3+ days of travel and non-stop marathon sightseeing tour of Hong Kong—we were welcomed like family and that’s exactly how we felt. Our embarkation was efficient, taking all of five minutes. In our beautiful stateroom on the Penthouse Deck (Deck 10), we unpacked, met our Austrian butler, Rainer, and our cabin stewardess Monika. After a quick tour of the ship, we enjoyed a very light dinner and were early to bed.

(Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

Our home away from home. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

The first day of boarding, I couldn’t wait to get up to the Lido Café and sit in my favorite “spot,” a window table for two, where my dear friend Dorothy and I had sat for breakfast every day on our 13-day Trans Pacific cruise in December 2012. How nice that three of the dining room staff remembered us! Keeping with the routine from previous cruise, it was up to the gym and a good work out. What a nice surprise that Brian, the fitness director and spin instructor, remembered me, too. Friday was a sea day and everyone seemed glad to leave behind the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong and just relax. And what a superb place to relax—every amenity is at your fingertips. The service is superb but unobtrusive. The staff prides themselves on making you feel as if you are the ONLY guest onboard. It’s hard to describe: atmosphere is casual but classy. The food, in all venues, is exceptionally good with great variety and selections. Housekeeping-– some of the very best you could ever expect to find anywhere.

I think one of the best ways to describe the relaxed ambience on this gorgeous sunny, breezy day was to watch the guests stretched out on lounge chairs, their favorite beverage at their side, book in their hand and they’re half asleep and half reading. All the while listening to a great sextet at the pool playing Santana-style music.

Saturday we docked in Xiamen. Also known as the “Pearl on the Sea”, Xiamen is a gorgeous tropical seaport that is also the second largest city in China with a population of 3 ½ million. Other than Victoria, BC, I don’t recall EVER seeing so many tree-lined esplanades, a kaleidoscope of color at every corner and a park every 500 meters. Unbelievably beautiful! My observation of sanity with traffic and pedestrians in Hong Kong was just the opposite here. The traffic on this Saturday morning was beyond indescribable. No sooner had we boarded our motor coach for a 4-hour tour, and we knew we were in for a wild ride. Our driver was fearless. Everyone jaywalked; pedestrians competed with giant buses for the right of way and bedlam ensued.

A delightful young lady, a graduate of Xiamen University, conducted our tour. We’d read in our daily bulletin that our guides would be university students with limited English. This young lady, whose English name was “Theona,” gave 110% to making our tour interesting. The problem was that with thousands and thousands and THOUSANDS of visitors at our first stop—The South Putuo Temple—that we just had to observe, as it was impossible to hear. I don’t ever remember there being so many people in one place as at this temple. (It’s interesting to note that South Putuo, or Nanputuo, is a very famous Buddhist temple founded in the Tang Dynasty (618-907.) Of the many beautiful temples in Xiamen, this is by far the most famous. It is so named because it is south of the Buddhist holy site Mount Putuo in Zhejiang Province.

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(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Afterward, we visited the Overseas Chinese Museum. This 3-level museum, filled with over 15,000 artifacts, highlights the history and happenings of Chinese who went abroad to work and live. One of the most interesting accounts is of those Chinese immigrants who made a major contribution to the US’s Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 1800s. (These immigrants worked long hours in severe conditions for minimal pay to help build the tracks across 1,800 miles of arid plains and deserts and the rugged granite walls of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains.) Only suggestion: it would have been so helpful to English-speaking visitors to have had access to a brochure in English, since several of the major exhibits related to these immigrants’ lives in both the USA and Canada. Our tour concluded with a tea-tasting ceremony of five different varieties for our group of 34 at a government-run teahouse. Once back on board, our busy day in Xiamen concluded with a concert in the Galaxy Lounge by internationally acclaimed pianist, Tian Jiang. Outstanding.

(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

The next day was foggy and extremely windy. In fact, the promenade deck doors were blocked for exiting outside because of the wind.  A plethora of cultural enrichment opportunities, ranging from a hands-on cooking demonstration by a guest chef in the Starlite lounge, to a fitness Boot Camp, to “Movie Editing Made Easy” where you can learn “iMovie Basics Part 1” on your iPad, highlighted the ship’s activities options. Today’s lecture by World Affairs Lecturer, Sir James Hodge discussing “China Today; the Giant Awakens” was mesmerizing.” Highlights of his talk: “China can now produce more in two weeks than it used to produce in a year.” Currently 18 million Chinese belong to the Communist Party, with 20 million wanting to join each year. Pork is the preferred meat. There are over 600,000 different villages in the country, 55 recognized ethnic minorities within 110 million inhabitants and 300 local dialects!” And that’s just the beginning of what I learned in an hour.

Guest chef demonstration.  (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Guest chef demonstration. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Tonight, we look forward to dinner at Prego (the popular Italian specialty dining venue) with our new friends we met yesterday from Dallas. Tomorrow, we dock in Shanghai, to enjoy three days/two nights of sightseeing and culture.  Our Asian adventure aboard Crystal Symphony continues…

HONG KONG… Our Asian Adventure Began Here!

Guest—and first time—blogger Robyn Bushong travels to Hong Kong, and Ports Are Calling is happy to feature her posts as she sets sail.

We arrived in Hong Kong as first-time visitors only to be greeted with torrential rains and dense fog. Welcome to Hong Kong! But the pouring rain didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the adventure that lay ahead. My dear friend Cynthia and I had just completed 21+ hours of travel from Galveston, Texas to begin our Asian adventure aboard Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony “Pearls of China, itinerary that was to begin in Hong Kong, April 9th, with calls in Xiamen, Shanghai (two overnights), Dalian and then concluding with a three-day land package in Beijing on April 21st.

We were met by our private guide (who we had arranged through the Hong Kong Tourism Board) and taken to our hotel –The InterContinental. Highly recommended as the property is located directly on Victoria Harbor and the unobstructed view from our room: Simply Spectacular! First order of business upon arrival at the hotel was lunch and to review our priorities for sightseeing in this intriguing and enticing city. Since the hotel’s specialty restaurant, Yan Toh Heen, featured dim sum, we eagerly chose this venue and learned it was a recipient of a “1-Michelin Star.” Our guide ordered for us and the quality and presentation was outstanding. As we concluded our fine lunch, we told our guide we wanted to walk since the rain was subsiding, as we were ready to see, do and experience everything possible in the time we had to enjoy this exciting, world-class city.

The InterContinental's night view.

The InterContinental’s night view.

We headed to the Star Ferry for the 10-minute ride between Kowloon (where our hotel was) and Hong Kong. A friend who handles tours in Hong Kong had set our priorities for sights: First and foremost, take the tram to the top of Victoria Peak. Next, see the Financial District, Hollywood Road, Man Mo Temple and browse the fine shopping district; enjoy dim sum (check!) and experience the Stanley Street Market.

With all the trees, dramatic and colorful flowers, and gorgeous landscaping, Hong Kong’s “green space” was amazing. What was also amazing were the hundreds and hundreds of tourists out and about on this rainy Tuesday afternoon. What we learned was that the previous Saturday (April 5th) was a national holiday: Tomb Sweeping Day. In Chinese it’s Ching Ming – which literally means “Clear and Bright” and is a tradition where families travel to their family tomb to sweep, clean and place flowers or other memorials on the gravesite. Because the national holiday fell on a Saturday, the banks/financial institutions were closed on Monday and apparently many people added an extra day to their holiday weekend.

We walked through the Financial District and the IFC (International Financial Center), and passed such fine stores as Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Piaget, Rolex, etc. As we headed towards the Peak tram station, we passed St Andrew’s, an elegant Anglican Church (Episcopalian) and the historic St. John’s Cathedral completed in 1849. Then we boarded the tram for the ride to the top of the Peak. The trams, which have been operating for over 125 years, hold 120 people each and run about every 8 minutes. Following the brief—albeit very steep—ride to the top, we arrived at an incredible sight. Our friend was right: Standing on the top of Victoria Peak and looking down over the entire city…WOW! While we were walking around, a volunteer greeted us with a complimentary headset device that provides a detailed overview of the area. We had wanted to do the 90-minute walk around the perimeter of the peak, but it started raining again so we departed.

A rainy view from top of Victoria Peak.  (Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

A rainy view from the top of Victoria Peak. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

After we took the tram back down, the rain had stopped again and we walked to Man Mo Temple. Built in 1847, the temple is one of the oldest traditional-styled temples in Hong Kong and is dedicated to the gods of literature (Man) and the god of war (Mo). From there, we stayed on Hollywood Road to view some of the city’s most beautiful antique shops and fine jewelry stores. To ensure we got a bit more immersed in the local culture, our guide suggested we take the subway to the Temple Street Market area. Living in Texas we’d never experienced anything like this before. Crowds on the New York City subways couldn’t hold a candle to the throngs and throngs and throngs of people traveling in all different directions in Hong Kong’s subways. Everyone had an electronic device in their hands. And how these commuters could maneuver from one escalator and subway car to another—while seemingly never taking their eyes off their cell phone—was simply incredible. From there, we worked our way along the busy streets of food vendors, pastry and coffee shops, neighborhood grocery stores, drug stores, camera shops, and other small, neighborhood businesses. Food vendors sold fresh crabs, fish, lobster, and “internal organs” of other creatures cooked to order, and served on a skewer with hot and spicy sauces. As we observed the frenzied pace at which everyone was moving, our guide told us that since most locals work from 9am till about 7pm, we were right in the middle of the prime rush hour pedestrian traffic.

Downtown Hong Kong bustles.  (Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

Downtown Hong Kong bustles. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

We kept moving along the bustling streets, heading towards Temple Street Market. Once there, we were amazed at the stalls—everything from cheap watches, imitation leather goods, jewelry, silk scarves, t-shirts, shoes, camera and electronic equipment, toys and souvenirs. Our guide told us that the market is only open nights from about 6pm-midnight. Each of these hundreds of vendors packs up their wares at night, only to set-up again the next evening. What a hard way to earn a living. We didn’t buy anything, but were glad we saw the market. From there, we took a taxi back to the hotel, bid our guide farewell, and at 8pm on our first night in Hong Kong… we were DONE!

The next morning we awoke early to gorgeous sunshine and an indescribably beautiful skyline. As we ate breakfast, we watched the buildings come to life as neon signs lit the skyline starting around 7am. We were to board Crystal Symphony early that afternoon, so we had time to do a little shopping and sightseeing on our own. We set off on a leisurely walk through the streets near our hotel to shop and later enjoyed lunch at the world-renowned hotel, The Peninsula. We didn’t realize at first just how close we were to the Ocean Cruise Terminal as it was only a short walk from our hotel. We also learned that Hong Kong had recently completed a new terminal, but that it was miles from the city centre. Ocean Terminal, where Crystal Symphony was docked, showcased multi levels of retail shops offering everything from Gucci to Nike and all literally just footsteps from where we were to board our ship. What a great way to start a cruise.

Awesome view from our balcony on the Crystal Symphony.  (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Awesome view from our balcony on the Crystal Symphony. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

I also just learned that Crystal Symphony will return to Hong Kong during the holidays for a 15-day “China Sea Holiday Spectacular” (December 21- January 5, 2015), and will be docked at Ocean Terminal during the New Year’s Eve celebration. Can you imagine what an experience that would be to see one of the world’s most spectacular fireworks displays light the skies over Victoria Harbor—and all to be enjoyed from the prime vantage point of a balcony or deck aboard the ship!

Well, we’ll be boarding soon and our Asian adventure aboard the Crystal Symphony…it’s just about to begin!

Even Bishops Do It.

Salisbury, England.

Salisbury, England.

Ibn Battuta, a 14th century Moroccan explorer, wrote, “Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” Considered one of the greatest travelers of all time, accounts of his journeys were published in the Rihla.

I'd like to follow in his footsteps.

I’d like to follow in his footsteps.

Two weeks ago while roaming around online looking for some spiritual inspiration, I came across Huffington Post’s live Lenten blog. I wasn’t looking for any religious instruction but what I discovered was an inspiring, travel related, surprise.

If you’re unfamiliar with Lent, it’s the 40 days of observance, beginning with Ash Wednesday, leading up to Easter, and probably the most significant and spiritual season for Christians. It’s a time of repentance and fasting. In the self-denial department you can go big or small but chocolate, desserts, smoking, dieting, cursing—these are usually the big ones on the Lenten hit list. And that’s how I came across Bishop Edward Condry of the Diocese of Salisbury.

Salisbury's most famous house draws loads of visitors.

Salisbury’s most famous house draws loads of visitors.

Forget the sweets. The Bishop went big and put some thought into his Lenten challenge by ditching his car and committing to serve his rural community by bike, by foot, and limited public transportation. Granted, he is an avid biker but anyone who’s ever visited a city in England like Salisbury knows it’s not easy to traipse around from one end to the other without a car, but the bishop was intent on doing this for several reasons. The first is for the traditional Lenten observance of fasting, the second is to call attention to climate change, and the third is to be more respectable of nature’s gifts and resources.

The coolest thing is, he’s blogging about it daily.

And that brings me to travel. Specifically to travel agents and travel ambassadors everywhere. Every place you go, including your own backyard, is an opportunity to share your experience. The bicycling bishop may be pedaling around town inspiring others through his unique choice of Lenten observance but his travels are generating ideas and he’s finding inspiration to write about them.

Because that’s what travel does, it generates ideas. Towards people, food, wine, arts, fashion, architecture, sports, culture, politics, the environment, or religion. No matter how near or far we travel, it stimulates us in some way. Bishop Condry was stimulated by his faith to look around and approach abstinence in 2014 from a different perspective. The view from his handlebars stimulated him to write about it.cropped-ed-cycling-email

If you’re not used to writing it may feel a bit daunting at first, as in—who am I to write about this? But I’d ask—who are you not to write about it? I have a feeling the bishop would ask you the same thing.

Once you brush your fear aside and get your thoughts on the page you just might discover that you have a lot to say. You can start as big or as small as you like. There are no rules, so don’t make any. Bishop Condry didn’t.

In this world of user-generated content, travelers everywhere contribute to thousands of travel sites. If you’re afraid to take a big leap, start small. Sites like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Vimeo, are great outlets to share your travel experience through words and photos. Just find the one that works for you. Skittish about social media or afraid to click the publish button? No sweat, just break out the old pen and paper, it works every time.

Travel agents who might think there’s no way they can write just might surprise themselves. Speak with your owner or manager about doing a piece on your next trip and publishing it on the company website. If your agency has a marketing department, ask a colleague for guidance to help craft it.

ed-static-with-lock-emailBishop Condry’s goal is to clock 2,000 miles without a car and he’s halfway there. His daily blog posts are musings on his Lenten experience, and about nature, wet clothing, climate change, the people he meets along his travels, and about transportation. Through this observance he’s discovered a few new ways to spread the good word and share it. He’s certainly inspired me to ride and to write. The man is one cool dude.

Whether you hop on a bike or a plane, take a page out of the bishop’s book. Don’t be shy.

Interested in riding along with the Bishop Condry? Click here.

Return of the Travel Agent.

Ienno-Guio-Dia, friend of travelers. (Photo credit: Nicholas Roerich)

Ienno-Guio-Dia, friend of travelers. (Photo credit: Nicholas Roerich)

Last week’s wintery weather got a lot of play in the news and across the blogosphere. As mentioned in the last post, while the weather wreaked a lot of havoc, travel agents also grabbed some limelight as they came to the rescue of customers stranded in the deep freeze at airports or in places they were trying to make their way to or home from.

On the heels of their success in dealing with the upset caused by the weather disruptions, travel agents are getting another boost. It seems like self-booking online is beginning to drop like those cold temperatures, which has travelers looking towards travel agents for their expertise. For more details around this, check out Travel Agents Back In Demand.

For some folks, getting away from booking online is like weaning yourself off caffeine. We’ve become so addicted to living life through online channels, it’s a hard attachment to walk away from…but it can be done. The same way you bonded to your smartphone, you can bond with a travel agent.

If you’re accustomed to navigating your life through online activity, you probably cringe at the idea of someone else handling your travel. I get it, you like the self-drive aspect. It’s a control thing, especially if you’re good at it.

Most people flock to the web with the goal of finding affordable travel, forgetting that time is money. And while it’s unlikely that millennials will start using travel agents anytime soon, for anyone who has ever been burned by an online travel “deal” or whose online booking has been derailed, there’s security in knowing there’s someone who’s got your back, who’ll go to bat for you, and who acts as a lifeline of sorts. Plus, they’re real and won’t run out of batteries.

After taking a hit from all of the online competition, it’s good to see travel agents on the rise. There’s plenty of great travel booking options to suit every need, let’s not forget that they’re one of them.

Travel Agents Battle Frozen Flights

Hank Cain, Chicago, Polar Vortex

Chicago, a frozen city. (Photo credit: Pilot Hank Cain)

Some people feel a bit pressured over resolutions when the New Year rolls around. If you don’t have any, it’s easy to buy into the belief that you need to make some. At some point, it just becomes overkill.

The thing is, any time is a good time to bring positive changes into your life but the New Year certainly helps. If you’re a travel agent, counselor, advisor, or travel ambassador of any kind, and have been meaning to take a stab at writing about your trips, or publicizing photos or videos of your experiences, then why not use 2014 as the inspiration to do it? Forget about labeling it as a resolution; instead think of it more as a chance to play around.

I haven’t cracked the code entirely on how to deal with the bad angels that hold us back from putting pen to paper but I do believe that giving yourself time to play is one powerful arrow to have in your quiver. And that’s the great thing about writing, or taking pictures. Because when you start playing with an idea you go places in your mind that aren’t set up with boundaries and “do not enter” zones. It’s the ultimate playground. And there’s a bonus to playing, you get happy—and who doesn’t want to be happy?

This week, travel agents have been busy bees, working overtime helping their customers out of a frozen jam. Between holiday travelers trying to make it back home or business travelers hitting the road again, the recent snowstorms that socked the Midwest and Northeast grounded thousands of flights. Things got worse when something called a polar vortex delivered a bone chilling, deep freeze that settled in across much of the country and the temperature plummeted into the single digits.  Chicago, with record-breaking temps of -15 degrees and a wind chill of -47 that gripped the area, seemed to take the brunt of it and looked like a city suspended in a giant ice-pool. Niagara Fall froze.  But when JetBlue canceled thousands of flights it was the icing on the cake.

The polar vortex even gripped Niagra Falls. (Photo credit: Reuters)

The polar vortex even gripped Niagara Falls. (Photo credit: Reuters)

For anyone who booked their travel online, you could tap away on that smartphone and it wasn’t going to do you much good. Without the likes a travel agent or airline rep trying to sort it all out for you behind the scenes, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that you were getting on a plane. Yeah, I know, I’m tossing the clichés around but it’s kind of hard not to play with them given the circumstances.

Any time there’s disaster that affects air transportation, travel agents hustle to get travelers where they need to go. These days, most folks find it hard to believe there was a time when if you wanted to fly, you’d have to use a travel agent. With all of the online options out there to book travel and hotels, it’s understandable. Especially for anyone who came of age using the Internet.

Polar Vortex, Boston, canceled flights, JetBlue

Boston’s frozen flights.

Although it’s faced mammoth competition from online services, the travel agency industry is still holding its own. It continues to prove that travel agents matter, but it shouldn’t take bad weather or a disaster for consumers to recognize their value.

Right out of the gate, 2014 presented travel advisors with the perfect opportunity to prove their mettle but there’s a lot more that they bring to the party and I hope they share it. With all of the competition out there in the travel zone, agents and advisors shouldn’t feel awkward about tooting their own horn.

It’s a new year—be bold, be brave, have fun with it. Play.