The Taj Mahal is just one site in India Jody Bear steers her clients to. Simply "magnificient," she calls it.
When Steven Bear offered us something to drink as we visited his office in New York, we certainly didn’t expect to receive a double shot of espresso served on a silver tray. But that’s just how Steven and his business partner/wife, Jody Bear, do things. No wonder this duo has been in business together for 30 years, with an impressive roster of clients to boot, many culled from the haute fashion world.
Steven is first to admit that Jody is the true star of Bear & Bear Travel; it was she who started cultivating their A-list clientele in the 80s while he was managing a Manhattan restaurant that attracted models and other fashionistas. “It was the place to come to before heading over to Studio 54,” he says. There, Jody, who was just starting out in the travel business, got to rub shoulders with fashion executives and other top industry players—people she still counts as her clients.
Just like the restaurant was ahead of its time (its menu consisted largely of health-conscious food), that was an era when selling luxury travel exclusively was uncommon. “I was just starting out in travel and was working at JMC Travel, a small agency storefront in the West Village,” says Jody. “Nothing was computerized; I did the reports, the reservations, I was the office manager—I did everything. We were selling everything, from soup to nuts. But the owner had a lot of celebrity clients and there were a lot of interesting people. If I didn’t know about a place, I would read up about it.”
In Capri, Steven and Jody make a stop at a gelati cafe. "The paparazzi snapped our photo," JOdy says. "We felt like celebrities."
At JMC, Jody learned about destinations such as St. Barth, which was being sold by her boss at a time when it wasn’t yet en vogue. It’s these types of destinations that she has made a name in as one of the foremost purveyors of celebrations, weddings and honeymoons—a large portion of her business. “It just sort of evolved,” she says. More like snowballed. The reason? Jody takes pride in knowing every nook and cranny of a hotel, every vital person who works there and why it’s either a good fit, or not, for a client.
Jody’s wheels are always spinning. Case in point, a simple mention of Bora Bora turned into an analysis of the pros and cons of the conspicuous over-water bungalows. “A lot of the over-the-waters are not as impressive as rooms on the beach,” she points out (some are actually small and cramped). “You have to make sure to book a property where they have nice over-the-water bungalows or you get there and it’s always anti-climactic, especially for honeymooners. They think it’s going to be magical but it’s magical only if someone is there to do the research for them.”
How does Jody pull off this kind of recall? Hone this type of instinct? We soon find out one of her secrets—the little black books. On a shelf in her office, multiple black ledgers sit containing notes on each hotel or resort she visits. Steven holds one up: “This is every place Jody goes,” he says. “When I was in Anguilla,” says Jody, “it just so happened I had a site inspection at Cap Juluca, which I use a lot. When I came back, I had a request from a client for a honeymoon there and I knew exactly what room to book; I knew the area and the surrounding restaurants; and I knew the various managers and the general manager. You have to know everything.”
Jody and Steven straddle the Equator during an East African safari. "How cool is that!" she says.
As active and fastidious as Jody is, she insists her joy is only in seeing her clients happy. “I’m pretty low profile,” she says. “All I want to do is make the client happy and keep the client. I have no illusions of grandeur. I just want to do a good trip and that’s it.”
Most of all, she and her husband never prevaricate. “If you tell a lie, it never works,” says Steven. “We always tell the truth up front because then there’s never a surprise.” Honeymoons are the kind of trips you want without a hitch. “It starts from the moment you get on the plane,” says Jody. “No one wants to get on the plane and have a center seat or no seating assignment. The trip could go downhill from there. We make sure to tell them everything and if we can’t get them the seat they want we’ll work on it, but they know where we’re coming from. Communication is the key.”
The first thing that strikes you about Jody is she is an unmistakable New Yorker, having grown up in the South Bronx, right across the street from Yankee Stadium. Steven, a dapper Brooklyn native, dressed to the nines on the day we meet, is the operations brain at Bear & Bear. “I started out with keeping my own accounts,” says Jody. “I had no assistance at first, but then I got one, then another and, before long, it got to be overwhelming. That’s when Steven came in. He had a vision. I concentrated on working the accounts and making sure the clients are happy; he really wanted to develop the brand.”
The brand flourished under the duo and through its affiliation with Valerie Wilson Travel, the acclaimed New York-based luxury travel purveyor. Bear & Bear was a Valerie Wilson affiliate for 20 years, but joined hands with Tzell Travel Group in September 2008. “We were there for 20 years, but sometimes you just have to move on and evolve,” says Jody.
With an elephant in Jaipur, India.
So far, the partnership with Tzell has worked out, particularly from a technology standpoint. “We’re an island and we don’t really depend on too many people,” says Steven. “Tzell is able to offer us a strong back-office support system for where we’re going now.”
The partnership works well for Bear & Bear’s mix of leisure and corporate business. The office, which commands three floors near Bryant Park in Manhattan, has a staff of 10, but only two others, besides Jody, who work on the leisure side. Erika Chomsky is a seasoned agent and has been with Jody for nine years while the younger Melissa Rodriguez has been with the company for four years. Both look at Jody as a mentor. “I came from a completely different travel environment and with Jody I learned a lot about the luxury industry and my work ethic is completely different now than it was prior to coming here,” says Rodriguez, who was with Liberty Travel prior to Bear & Bear. “I’ve learned to know what to expect from a client. Luxury clients have much different requests than mainstream clients. They’re more demanding and I’m learning how to deal with them.”
Chomsky has been in the business longer than Rodriguez but still attributes much of her success to Jody. “I think people who have a lot of money live well and, as a client once told me, ‘When I go away, I don’t want to have less than I have at my own home,’” she says. That in mind, the two have been able to deliver those “wow” experiences with guidance from their boss and mentor.
Jody Bear has had a long and successful career in travel, her style hinging on two key components: leave nothing to chance and know every detail of a destination.
It’s not a coincidence, one of the most memorable trips Bear & Bear has ever put together was a honeymoon, a niche business that is a hallmark of the agency. The European trip combined land, sea and air with romance, culture and shopping. Beginning in Amsterdam, the couple was then off to Greece on a private yacht. Again, this is where Bear & Bear stands out for its consummate thoroughness and ability to go above and beyond. “That was a whole to-do,” says Chomsky, referring to the Greek yacht portion of the trip. “The Meltemi winds are terrible in the summer.” Now, how many agents are experts in wind patterns?
The couple then spent time in a private villa in Santorini. “We made them restaurant reservations; we knew every single restaurant in Santorini and how far it was from the hotel,” says Jody, who still likes to write out detailed itineraries for her clients, right down to how long it takes to go from one place to another by foot or car.
This two-week honeymoon didn’t end in Greece. From there it was off to Lake Como with Presidential Suite accommodations at the chic Villa d’Este, followed by a hop over to Milan for shopping. “We’re now doing his two-year anniversary trip,” Chomsky happily reports.
Steven and Jody Bear share a moment together (and with some pigeons, too) at Piazza San Marco in Venice.
Bear & Bear became so efficient and capable in its ability to fulfill even the most difficult of requests that it started its own in-house concierge service. “It sort of just happened,” says Jody. “People started asking us for so many things that it just developed on its own. So, we decided, ‘Might as well charge for it.’”
The service can be used for anything from reservations at a top restaurant to courtside seats at a Knicks game or finding a high-end tailor to fashion a bespoke suit. “Whatever you want,” Jody says.
The concierge service fee starts at $225, but varies depending on the complexity of the request. Take, for instance, one client’s request: white roses from Puerto Rico flown in daily to their Caribbean villa. In addition, the couple advised that they only eat organic and the island they were on could not accommodate their request. “We had to arrange for everything from organic produce to meat to soy milk and make sure they had a supply for a 14-day period,” says Jody.
This eye for detail not only comes naturally to Jody, but any other way is just bad business. “The key is that clients keep calling you back for trips,” she says. “I don’t need any kind of accolades, because it’s meaningless if you don’t get another trip out of them.”
Interestingly, in her 30 years on the job, she can’t pinpoint one specific destination as her favorite. “Whenever they ask me, I always say, ‘I like every place,’” she says. “I like every place for different reasons and I’m never disappointed.” At one point she turns to Chomsky. “I loved when I went to Vietnam and Cambodia,” she says in her direction. “You loved India,” Chomsky responds. “Yes, I loved India,” Jody agrees. “But my expression is, ‘It’s my new favorite place.’”