Greg Bernd keeps Classic Vacations close to his beloved luxury travel advisor clients.
Co-Presidents: Greg Bernd, David Hu Headquarters: San Jose, CA Founded: 1978 Portfolio: Luxury FIT tour operator selling Europe, Caribbean, Hawaii, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Fiji and Costa Rica, with a full line of vacation components, including hotels, car rentals, flight options, in-destination activities and private transfers in top-class vehicles Awards for 2010: Best FIT Tour Operator, Virtuoso Website:www.classicvacations.com
When Greg Bernd was appointed co-president of Classic Vacations in January of 2009, the company demonstrated its commitment to the luxury travel advisor community. That’s because Bernd, a 26-year employee of the luxury FIT tour operator, has been a close ally of travel agents throughout his career.
Bernd, who succeeded Tim MacDonald as president, says his goal as co-president is for Classic to continue to capture market share. “We are in a growth mode right now that’s just really exciting and encouraging,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “We have really positioned ourselves in the luxury space. It’s always what we have been known for. But sometimes you kind of slip away and get yourself into situations where you feel like you always have to be paying the highest commissions and be 100 percent price-competitive. Those things are very important in today’s environment, but with all of the services that we are providing, we are worth more,” says Bernd. “My main focus is to figure out a way to differentiate ourselves more so than we ever have before,” he adds.
What makes Classic stand out from other companies that sell the higher-end and luxury products in the market? “No matter what we are selling,” Bernd says, “we provide the same consistent services throughout. Whether they are purchasing a three-star hotel or a five-star hotel, they are still getting the same service.”
Grege Bernd became co-president of Classic Vacations in 2009. “No matter what we are selling, we provide the same consistent service throughout,” he says.
This includes details that go right down to client documentation. While many companies are going paperless to e-documents, Classic has instead invested in the physical product to upgrade its appeal, since, at the end of the day, that is the only material proof of their trip their travel advisor can provide to them—besides a bill.
“My feeling is that our industry is so different, because everybody is buying something and, yet, they are not receiving anything tangible until they go on the trip,” says Bernd. “It’s all perception. They place money down to pay for their booking and, all of a sudden, those perceptions take hold. The first tangible presentation of a Classic product is the documentation. It sets the stage for what kind of a vacation experience they are going to have.”
As a result, document casing has changed from green to a more upscale black and includes a flap on the outside for the traveler’s boarding pass to be readily accessible. Instead of vouchers for each leg of the journey, clients have a coded identification card that they use to check into their hotel or pick up their car.
The card, the itinerary and the documents all have Classic’s customer service number on them, a number that is physically manned 24/7. And, for Bernd, no request from a client is too small, for any time of the day.
“If there is a problem, we don’t care how minor it is. That’s what we tell our travel agents to convey to their customers—that if anything goes wrong, call this 800 number and there will be somebody who’s going to be available to work through the problem.”
Consider this scenario: A client may have a beautiful room, but there could be a spot in the carpet that is bothersome. If so, “then let us move you to a different room,” says Bernd. “Our slogan in that department is ‘fix the problem, not the blame.’ That’s something that we really live by.”
Because Classic provides a one-stop shopping experience, it can supply the air, luxury hotel, private transfers, tours and activities, while providing higher commissions, which are processed the day the client departs on their trip. However, Classic’s strongest competitor, says Bernd, is not another travel provider; it’s advisors booking hotel, air and car products directly. Doing so, however, doesn’t give them access to Classic’s pricing, customer service and access to top hotel suites.
Classic continues to enhance its products throughout the destinations it sells, which include Europe, Caribbean, Hawaii, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Fiji and Costa Rica.
This year in Europe it’s added 24 hotels, including San Pietro di Positano in Italy. Classic is the only wholesaler with access to the resort. Bernd says hotels of this caliber like the fact that Classic clients tend to book suites and other higher-category rooms, bringing in higher revenue. Other luxury hotels in the Europe portfolio include the Villa d’Este in Lake Como, Villa la Massa in Florence and the Hotel Sacher in Vienna.
Aside from its high-end hotels, Classic also promotes the activities it has available in Europe. “I think we’ve picked some of the best, unique, fun things to do, such as private tours with private drivers,” says Bernd, who adds that when he used a Classic service in London, he was driven around in a Mercedes-Benz by a driver who had worked for the Royal Family. As a result, the driver knew all the ins and outs and dropped Bernd close enough to Buckingham Palace to witness the changing of the guards. “He timed it perfectly. I walked over, watched them change and then jumped back in the car,” he recalls.
Other additions in Europe include an extensive villa program in Tuscany and on the Amalfi Coast; activities include ballooning over the Tuscan Valley.
“These are just unbelievable memories. If you get a client to do some of these things, they’ll be customers for life,” says Bernd.
For its Europe program, Classic sells a waiver policy that protects the client against exchange-rate changes. “So if a client bought their trip when the dollar was strong and if they are traveling in November and the dollar weakens, the client will be protected at that lower price,” Bernd says. “If an agent books the hotel directly, their client will pay whatever the exchange rate is when they check out of the hotel.”
Aside from the actual product it supplies to clients, Bernd cites Classic’s reservations team as one of its strongest assets. “Some of the relationships they have with agents are incredibly strong,” he says. “It’s absolutely amazing and we encourage it. If an agent finds someone they like working with, we suggest they ask for their extension.”
Classic has about 100 res agents; interestingly, about 20 are remotely based, outside of the company’s San Jose, CA, headquarters.
“These res agents are the ones that are really established,” says Bernd, who notes that while many of them can get on the cue calls, they do probably 80 percent of their business through relationships they have developed with agents. There’s a strong knowledge base in this group, courtesy of the fact that their average tenure with Classic is six-and-a-half years, “which is pretty amazing in a call center atmosphere,” says Bernd.
“They’re also well-educated. When we hire a reservationist, they go through a five-week training program before they get on the phones. In every pay period, they go through a monitoring program where they are monitored at least twice,” he says. This is to ensure they are doing “all the right things and asking the right questions and doing everything they can so that the client experience is what they are looking for,” says Bernd.
Besides, there is recurring training and then the training from suppliers. “They are beating down our doors,” says Bernd. “We have to turn them away—they all want access to our res agents because they are so hungry for information.”
Moving on Up
Greg Bernd shares the title of co-president of Classic Vacations with David Hu, who oversees all of the company’s internal operations. “David is in charge of running the day-to-day operations. He was formerly our CFO,” says Bernd. “David’s job is to make sure that we make money. My job is to really further our position as the leading luxury FIT operator.”
Important to note is that when Bernd was promoted from vice president of sales, a replacement was not sought, which means he is still the major liaison for the travel advisor community, including all customer and consortia relationships.
With that responsibility now folding up under the co-president’s role, it’s clear that Classic is keen on doing all it can to keep its relationships with the retail travel industry robust and in growth mode.
Few are better suited for the task: Bernd joined Classic in 1984 as one of the company’s very first BDMs, working as a district sales manager in northern California. He moved up to become the national accounts director, a spot he held for more than 10 years before being promoted to vice president of sales and then co-president. All along the way, he forged important alliances with important groups.
“I am the one that established the first go-round of relationships with American Express and Virtuoso,” he said.
Bernd, a native San Francisco Bay Area resident, reveals he always wanted to be involved with sales and that he got a true taste of what the travel industry was all about when he attended the University of Hawaii. When he returned to the mainland, he held a sales job at a company that is now defunct; when he moved to Classic, he was hired by then president, Larry Pimentel (now president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises). He worked with Pimentel for eight years and then alongside Ron Letterman for 13 years after he became president.
“I learned a lot from both of them,” says Bernd. “They are both very dynamic.”
To ensure its res agents get the very latest news from suppliers, every August, Classic hosts a trade show in its San Jose office, inviting the many international hoteliers and suppliers en route to the Virtuoso Travel Mart in Las Vegas. It is mandatory for the res agents to attend the trade show, which includes 15-minute sessions with each supplier.
“The feedback I get from the hoteliers who come is that it was worth their investment because our people are so engaged and just hungry for information,” says Bernd.
New Booking Engine
A huge accomplishment for Classic this summer was the launch of its online booking engine at www.classicvacations.com, which gives agents instant pricing updates for all rooms, 24/7 access to book anytime and the ability to make online payments and get e-statements. There are also detailed hotel, tour and activity descriptions and current special offers. Agents can also add their fee to their billing so the customer isn’t billed separately.
The booking engine represents more than two years of planning and an enormous investment on Classic’s part. However, Bernd is quick to point out that it doesn’t replace the human factor that often goes into booking with the wholesaler.
“The booking engine is a great asset for us, but for the complicated high-end bookings, I will always encourage travel agents to talk to our reservation agents because of their knowledge,” he says. “For the simple transactions, for example, if a client is doing an island in Hawaii and they want roundtrip air, a car for seven nights and they know the hotel they want, we’ve got all specials loaded in the system. Those agents comfortable with it can go ahead and book online.
“Once they start doing multi-locations or multi-islands and they need transfers, a limo pickup and touring activities, that’s when I really encourage them to talk to one of our res agents,” says Bernd, adding that the new technology is “more about creating efficiencies for the agents and giving them access to a lot of information that they typically wouldn’t have.”
The 24/7 online access is a huge plus, he says, since Classic’s call center is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. With many agents working in different time zones and also working after 6 p.m., they can now book at any time that is convenient to them. The site also lets them do extensive research before calling one of Classic’s res agents. Additionally, agents can review existing statements or make payments online. “Looking at last week alone, I think we had close to 300 payments that were made online. That’s 300 fewer phone calls that came into our call center,” says Bernd.
Important to note is that if a travel agent desires, they can assign an online booking to a Classic reservations agent at the call center, who will be compensated.
As a way to encourage travel agents to constantly use Classic as a provider, the company has created a Loyalty Reward program. For every qualified booking, agents earn points that are automatically calculated toward travel to anywhere Classic Vacations serves.
A point is earned for every $100 in qualified sales. For every 200 points, agents earn $150 in travel with Classic, meaning that selling $20,000 of Classic product earns the travel agent $150.
“There are some agents out there who have earned a couple of business-class tickets to Europe,” says Bernd. “It’s just our way to thank the agents for their business.
“In some cases, there are travel agents selling well over a million dollars of business a year in Classic programs. The company’s top-producing agent actually sells Europe exclusively through Classic. “The only time she doesn’t use the company is if the hotel the client has requested is one that we don’t sell,” says Bernd.
Another noteworthy Classic program for travel advisors is its invitation-only product showcases, through which it brings in its best suppliers to host a trade show and a presentation for what’s new for the coming year.
At its West Coast showcase in October, it will unveil Collections by Classic Vacations, which comprises 111 “celebrated five-star hotels from some of the most coveted destinations in the world,” says Bernd. Properties are included by invitation only and will be showcased in a high-quality print collateral piece. These hotels have not only earned five stars, they have earned countless accolades and awards—from legendary grand hotels to romantic private villas and island hideaways. Each of these magical places promises a one-of-a-kind experience,” he says.
The catalogue will also provide enhanced content with insider tips to help travel advisors close the sale.
Collections enables Classic to enter destinations where it does not already have programs. “Agents tell us all the time that they would love to see us going to Asia, Dubai, the Maldives; there are just so many different destinations where there are so many beautiful products,” says Bernd, who notes it costs from $750,000 to $1 million to create a full-blown program in a new destination. “So what we decided to do with this Collections piece is to form a foundation where we start going to certain destinations with some of our best partners and instead of a full-blown product, offer kind of the best of the best.
“We already work extensively in all of our destinations with Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton, for instance; all of their hotels figure in our products and the destinations we serve. So why not go global with them?” Bernd says.
The program will work, in particular, for those advisors who have on-sites that they’re already very comfortable with, who can take care of the tours and activities for their clients. At the same time, the client would have access to Classic’s 24/7 customer service.
The cost of launching new destinations is extremely high for Classic because it doesn’t hire destination management companies to do its land programs; instead, it meets individually with ground operators and negotiates its own terms. If that operator doesn’t provide certain services, Classic insists they do and goes so far as to teach them how to meet and greet the customer at the airport.
Villa La Massa in Florence is just one of many luxury hotels in Classic Vacations’ Europe portfolio.
While Bernd says the destinations in the program are still in the works, he expects to launch it in Canada because of its strong relationship with Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, whose live pricing for rooms will be available on Classic’s booking engine. The program will likely be in operation by the end of the year.
The program will also be launched at Classic’s Marketing Partners event in November, an annual confab, through which it brings together its top 100 single and multi-location agencies in the country. This year’s meeting, whose theme will be “Ready to Roll,” will be held at the St. Regis Princeville on Kauai. Advisors who attend will have brought in about $500,000 in sales; they’ll be provided with an update on the company’s programs and will then be free to enjoy the destination as a Classic client does, with excursions and free time.
Classic also hosts another event for its “Star Performers,” who are the company’s top 75 frontline producers. The 2010 event was held at the Ritz-Carlton, Cancun; the 2011 program will be hosted by the Fairmont Kea Lani in Maui. “It’s really about celebrating their and our success together,” says Bernd.
Classic also has an A-list of luxury travel advisors on its advisory board, which includes Peter Carideo, CRC Travel; Maureen Conlin, Los Gatos Travel; Gary Davis, All About Travel; Sho Dozono, Azumano Travel; Kathy Falkensammer, Prestige Travel; Michael Ginsburg, Michael’s Travel Center; Roselyn Garber, Garber Travel; Troy Haas, Brownell Travel; Tom Jackson, World Travel Bureau; Bryan Leibman, Frosch Travel; Bob McMillen, Travel Wizard.com; Lois Mitchell, Protravel International; David Odaka, All Star Travel; Wido Schaefer, TravelStore, Inc.; and Kimberly Wilson Wetty, Valerie Wilson Travel. One member of the board, Lisa Benzakein, formerly vice president of leisure sales for Tzell Travel, is actually joining Classic as its new regional director of sales for the Northeast, says Bernd. “We’re very excited to have her,” he says.
In summary, he says it all comes down to Classic’s mission statement, which is posted all over its San Jose headquarters and quoted by most of its employees from memory; in fact, Bernd is able to quote it by rote himself: “To help the luxury travel professional deliver superior customer satisfaction, so that they can create and retain loyal customers for life…We do this by empowering and enabling every employee to do whatever it takes to ensure agents and their customers are not only satisfied, but delighted with their entire vacation experience.”