Hometown Luxury


 

Roger and Lenore Miller
Roger and Lenore Miller of Minnetonka Travel & Cruises, both veterans of Northwest Airlines, share a deep appreciation of the importance of suppliers.

 

Travel for Roger Miller, CEO of Minnetonka Travel & Cruises, has always served as an escape, in the true sense of the word. His father began taking the family on a steady stream of vacations when he saw that the family lake house in Minnesota had become too much of a resort for friends visiting from the nearby Twin Cities.

“Our guests would arrive at the lake house even before we did. They’d be out water skiing while we were mowing the lawn,” Miller tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “So, as a family, very early, we did amazing road trips all across the U.S.”

The love of travel entrenched in his soul, Miller took his own children on 12 vacations a year, after his local school superintendent concurred that going to places like Greece and Rio would provide much more insight than studying about them in a classroom.

But Miller, like his father, was seeking to escape from a domestic scenario: which for him, involved a house full of active teenagers. Whenever he got wind that a potentially rowdy event was brewing on his teens’ social scene, Miller would whisk the entire family away for the weekend. The kids never realized they were traveling so that they’d avoid getting into mischief. Because his wife Lenore worked for Northwest Airlines, they could easily travel afar from Minnesota, to cities like San Francisco.

“It was somewhat self-defense, but it became a great means to see much of the world,” Miller says with a laugh. It all worked like a well-devised plan; his children fell in love with travel as well.

In fact, Miller’s daughter, Jennifer, is now president of the agency, working her way up in the business after she returned from college. Minnetonka Travel & Cruises today is indeed a family affair; Miller’s wife and son-in-law also work at the agency, which serves an ultra-affluent community in Wayzata, MN. If you haven’t heard of it, idyllic Wayzata is just 11 miles from downtown Minneapolis. Miller likens its vibe to the well-toned Greenwich, CT, where neighbors have larger-than-life homes in a picturesque waterside setting. Minnetonka Travel is set on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, a vacation spot that draws tourists to a super-friendly, polished community.

 

Moving Ahead of the Times

Over the years, Roger Miller, CEO of Minnetonka Travel & Cruises, has seen the world of luxury travel evolve. At its inception 35 years ago, the firm focused heavily on corporate travel, providing services for General Mills in the Minneapolis area.

“I had very large corporate accounts and got off to a roaring start by having some great friends through golf and my association with Northwest Airlines. We were soon able to build ourselves as a corporate agency. I was probably 80 percent corporate,” he says.

Over time, however, Miller had qualms over the changing corporate travel landscape and shifted the agency’s focus to leisure travel well before the airline commission caps hit.

“We had a beautiful storefront location with excellent parking and we were able to convert our business to about 85 percent leisure,” he recalls.

Timing was on his side again when Minnetonka Travel became one of the first agencies to be a part of Vacation.com.

“Dick Knodt, the founder of the Vacation.com, was a very close friend and I went to meet with him in Alexandria, Virginia, before he even formed this whole consortium,” says Miller. “So, I had a chance to see where he was going and what his vision was. I was one of the very first to jump on board and follow his lead.” It all came about, says Miller, when AURA, the consortium his agency belonged to, became part of the group that merged with Vacation.com. Miller was one of the earliest national advisory board members of Vacation.com and he’s been with it through its entire existence.

Miller tells Luxury Travel Advisor he is also quite excited that Travel Leaders, based right next door in Minneapolis, recently purchased Vacation.com to bring it under its umbrella of consortia. He knows Chairman Michael Batt well. In fact, he plays golf with him regularly. He also thinks the world of the newly named Vacation.com president, John Lovell. “He is a perfect fit for what we are doing,” says Miller.

 

Over the 35 years it’s been in existence, the agency has always positioned itself as the hometown travel agency. “We use it as our strength,” says Miller. “So instead of having phone calls go to a voice menu program, we have a receptionist, who is a person that our clients know very well. That creates a good feeling,” he says. “People want to have trust when they’re planning a luxury vacation. In our relationships with our clients, we listen very closely to their requests to try to create their dream vacations.”

Focus on the Community

As Miller developed the luxury aspect of his agency, he said, his original goal was never to be the largest, but “hopefully to develop like an extremely good restaurant, to be one of the very best, and we focus directly on our own community—I really like being here.”

The agency, which is also next to a historical train depot, has plenty of storefront parking, making it easy for clients to drive over to plan their trips. And what trips they are! It’s not unusual for the itineraries Miller and his travel advisors devise to run in the $100,000 to $200,000 range. The agency has just arranged a 120-day Seabourn cruise for one treasured client. But there's more.

It also recently created a program for a group of friends, each flying to Switzerland in their own airplane to stay in a castle. (Miller and his family are very fond of alpine regions; in fact, they own a home in Austria in the area that sits right where the opening scene of The Sound of Music was filmed. He calls it “our happy place.”)

“The castle itself was an unbelievable experience of a lifetime. It was dinner every night in the castle with beautiful outings that went along with it; this was a fantastic experience for every one of these families," says Miller, who also just recently rented a cow to be waiting for a family on the lawn of a magnificent chalet in Grindelwald, Switzerland.

Another client took 30 people to Alaska for his birthday. The detailed itinerary traversed the entire state. Another requested to visit all seven continents on one trip.

The agency had also just arranged a destination wedding in Mauritius when Luxury Travel Advisor spoke with Miller for this article, but booking destination weddings and other high-end itineraries that include world-class villas and resorts are not an unusual event for the company.

“We do a lot of destination weddings all over the world, as well as honeymoons, family vacations and family reunions,” says Miller. “It’s quite a variety of products.”

Minnetonka Travel also likes to surprise its clients with destinations that are new to them; one of its favorites is Aitutaki, considered the “blue lagoon” in the Cook Islands. “It’s a very beautiful, spectacular island; a great place to visit there is One Foot Island,” says Miller, who adds he has a fondness for the South Pacific.

The agency’s Minnesota location also helps to encourage travel. “Our long winters up here in Minnesota are perfect for vacation travel,” Miller says. “It encourages people to book early.”

Miller, a veteran of Northwest Airlines who started the agency with a dear friend 35 years ago before buying him out after a time, took a grassroots approach to selling travel when he realized the Internet might become a challenge to travel advisors.

“We were all trying to identify what the Internet really meant. I reversed things and went back to becoming extremely involved within my own community,” he says. Because his agency is very close to the downtown Minneapolis area, he had a big nucleus of people to draw from, but Miller is also well known in Wayzata itself. In fact, he’s been named “Person of the Year” for the area. He also serves on a number of boards, including those for his bank, his country club, his school and his church. Miller is also frequently invited to appear in TV interviews about travel in the Minneapolis area. “That helps to add strength to our business as well,” he says.

An award-winning golfer, Miller is a former director of the Minnesota Golf Association, which brings in clients from the sports and media world. “My interest in golf has been really helpful in developing our business,” says Miller. Hint: To welcome the golfers among his clients, he’s added a putting green to the agency’s layout.

Today, Minnetonka Travel has 11 luxury travel advisors in an office that’s quite closely knit. “We focus on what we are doing right. At the end of the day, we celebrate what we have been able to accomplish, which is really fun. It keeps the morale very high for all of our employees,” says Miller, who credits Lenore for being an excellent travel advisor.

“A lot of [her clients] come in having no idea that they are about to leave for a trip. They start with an idea and by the time they’re done, they’re going away that weekend,” says Miller. “This is a very unusual group of salespeople.”

One of Miller’s strategies is to think of each advisor as a manager in the area they’re best at selling. “Each one finds the areas they are most gifted and talented in and then we try to match that up with our clients,” he says.

His advisors also travel quite a lot. “That certainly helps because clients can really tell how well they really know the product,” says Miller. “With the luxury product, you need substantial trust of your clients; they have to feel at home with us. We really have to listen and give them as much as we can.”

Education goes on internally at morning meetings around the conference table where everyone shares ideas. Fridays are used to celebrate a toast to the agency’s successes. Nice Touch: Whoever had the biggest sales for the week gets to select the wine.

 

Minnetonka Travel & Cruises

Location: Wayzata, MN

Owners: Roger and Lenore Miller, Jennifer Yokiel

Annual Sales Volume: $9 million

Number of travel advisors: 11

Website: www.minnetonkatravel.com

Affiliation: Vacation.com

Miller, who worked at Northwest Airlines for 10 years, is very cognizant of the importance of travel suppliers to the business. In fact, he doesn’t understand why, in some instances, travel advisors in some agencies are rude to suppliers. “They don’t respect what they are bringing to us. My goodness, we have great opportunities to learn more from our representatives who help encourage our sales and reach our goals,” says Miller. He recalls that, when at Northwest, he’d often drive around the block a few times before pulling up to certain travel agencies so he could be mentally prepared for what awaited him, such as complaints that an agent didn’t get a window seat on a recent flight. “Some just didn’t seem to appreciate us as a supplier and I thought how unfortunate it was that they didn’t realize all of the things I could share with them to make them a better agency,” he says.

Over recent years, Minnetonka Travel & Cruises has become a top producer for Seabourn, Tauck, Classic Vacations and Delta Vacations. The agency is also a top producer for its consortium, Vacation.com, of which Miller is a founding national advisory board member and a national director. For that reason, it's no surprise that Minnetonka Travel focuses on Vacation.com’s preferred suppliers.

“I follow our Vacation.com program to the last inch,” he says, noting that by doing this, the agency recently tripled its business with Delta Vacations. “We have learned their destinations very well and we are now high in their system. They’ve been extremely good to help us with our clients. It’s all about building relationships.”

Hands-on Approach

Overall, Miller, as a luxury travel advisor, is pleased with Vacation.com’s array of products. “I think they give us every option through their relationships with suppliers,” he says.

 

Roger and Lenore Miller
The Millers have decorated their agency’s office in a manner that complements its fun, homey environment.

As a national director of Vacation.com, Miller works on a hands-on basis with the group's agencies. “I actually fly out to visit a number of members throughout the season to see what’s working in other areas in the country. It’s very helpful to go to Dallas, Texas or Kansas City, Atlanta, or Hartford to see what’s actually working there,” says Miller, who also speaks to other Vacation.com board members frequently. “It gives me great ideas to hopefully do a great job for our client base as well.”

To strengthen his relationships with suppliers, Miller and his staff attend Luxury Travel Expo in Las Vegas (organized by Questex Media, which owns Luxury Travel Advisor). “I was very impressed with the trade show; it was magnificent,” he says.

They also attend Vacation.com’s annual conference where they get to know the principal players at the supplier companies.

“It’s extremely important to be able to do special things for our clients and to make sure they not only take one trip with us, but more,” he says. In fact, Miller believes that the more details you’re able to add to an itinerary, the better. “At our agency, we kind of relive the itineraries as each client is traveling; we are thinking about them constantly and it’s quite a special feeling. It feels like you are on the trip yourself.”

'A Very Happy Business'

An open-office environment and ClientBase help all of the agency’s advisors to know each other’s clients so they can all jump in and assist when needed.

“So, we get a lot of calls from people saying, ‘This is amazing, you have done a great job,’ and that make to us feel so terrific. I can’t tell you, it’s the best,” says Miller. “This is a very happy business and I think it all depends on how you approach it. You will always have somebody that seems to find some faults, somewhere down the road. We really focus very much on what we are doing right.”

 

Minnetonka Travel & Cruises
Sailing Along Roger and Lenore Miller of Minnetonka Travel & Cruises recently sailed on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas.

Keeping things positive is a coach whom Miller hired to train the staff; he was so successful, he now has a desk at Minnetonka Travel. “It’s important to feel positive and to not have a Monday-to-Friday syndrome, that you come to work with a feeling of wanting to be there. I am sure it reflects in dealing with your clients. I see a lot of smiling faces right now in our office, which is totally full,” Miller tells Luxury Travel Advisor as he sat in his office, which, true to style, has glass walls so he can be a part of the open environment.

The décor of the office is of vital important to Miller, who has attractive lamps on each desk and original paintings adorning the walls. He also has a huge Northwest Airlines 747 in the midst, which draws comments from clients and suppliers alike.

“Along with being right on the lake, our office is kind of unique. So many people are tucked away in an office building setting, but this is just kind a little hometown product.”
If he had it to do over, Miller says he wouldn’t change a thing.

“It’s a very friendly setting and we have got an amazing group of people that we work with. We really like being here; it’s really fun. I would without question select the same path and do this all over,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

“We are involved in something that’s really terrific; we help create dreams for people. We try to make amazing things happen and hopefully exceed our clients’ expectations. That’s our goal. For us, failure is not an option. You have to somehow help these people find something that will be above and beyond what they are even thinking of. So, if you can in any way encourage them to go a step beyond their budget and to try and get a just little higher in the category they’re looking at, it brings tremendous rewards,” he says.