King of the Hill

 

 

Barbara King
Barbara King of Great Getaways Travel never lets anyone forget her agency’s Kansas roots. “We are most definitely Kansans who ‘Can Do!’” she says. “We are ‘The Little Engine that Could!’”

Few things in Kansas City are more revered than great barbecue. So, when Barbara King, president of Great Getaways Travel, based in the "BBQ Capital of the World," tells us where to head for the best ribs and beef brisket in town, we listen. “Let me give you a bit of insider information,” King says in a hushed tone, as if to not let just anyone in on it. “Oklahoma Joe’s is the place."

Armed with that intelligence—not to mention a voracious appetite—we quickly understand why King is known as one of the best luxury travel advisors going. Most luxury travel advisors can tick off the top hotels, restaurants and attractions in any far-flung destination—but it’s the insider local tidbits that really set apart the greats.

Not surprisingly, King’s love of travel was formed at an early age. “My dad was an importer,” she says, and, as such, traveled frequently around the world. Though King wasn’t able to accompany him on these business trips, her father made sure that vacations were aplenty.

"I’d been to places like Florida several times even before first grade,” says King, who grew up in Chicago but has lived in Kansas City for close to 40 years. She also had a worldly sense at a very young age. King learned to use chopsticks by picking dimes off the kitchen table and counting to 10 in Japanese each time she snagged one. The family dog, a French poodle, too had a Japanese name. “My father had many Asian guests over, so he’d want to make them feel comfortable.”

 

Great Getaways Travel

Headquarters: Leawood, KS

President: Barbara King

Number of Advisors: Five in-house; three independent contractors

2010 Gross Revenue: $5 million

Affiliation: Virtuoso

Website: www.greatgetaways.travel

 

Before joining the travel advisor ranks, King worked in real estate, a profession that, similar to selling travel, requires a keen sense of understanding and industry insight. Ultimately King realized that selling travel, not homes, was her true calling. A friend of King, in the early 1990s, said to her: “You always talk about travel; why don’t you work in it?” Indeed, whenever King had a moment of free time, she was traveling—whether by herself or with someone else.

Confidence is Key

One thing you have to know about King is she is unabashedly egoistic. “Like the Pope has religion,” she likes to say. In 1992, an opportunity presented itself: an agency was for sale in Kansas City. “I thought: [If] I can sell real estate, I can sell travel,” King says.

She bought what at the time was Fox Hill Travel and promptly rebranded it Great Getaways Travel. She then made one of many wise decisions. “The agency was in the back corner of an office building and on a month-to-month lease,” King says. She moved the agency to an upscale strip mall in the affluent Kansas City suburb of Leawood, KS, then 10 years later moved again, this time to a one-story office building about a mile away. “In 1992, we thrived on walk-ins,” she says. “By 2002, we had an established clientele and no longer sought the walk-in traffic.”

From the get-go, King was only interested in selling high-end FIT travel, eschewing corporate travel, which raised eyebrows, particularly from independent contractors who rented space from her. “I said, ‘Here, you take it,” she says. “Looking back it was a brilliant move, but at the time people thought I was crazy.”

Crazy as a fox. While everyone told her to sell what people want, she went the other way. “I wanted to sell what I wanted to sell and educate the people on the product,” King says. “That kind of flies in the face of good business.”

It’s worked—with revenues reaching $5 million in 2010 and expectations to beat that this year.

Today King has a total staff of 11 (five full-time advisors, two support staff, one marketing person and three independent contractors) and has cultivated a nice mix of affluent clients, particularly in the Plains states (more than half of her business comes from Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska). But she also has international clients from such countries as China and, oddly, Uzbekistan (he wanted to book a trip to Hawaii and found information on Judi Chaitman, Great Getaways’ vice president and general manager, and Hawaii specialist).

One thing King knows is how to sell luxury. “When I think luxury, I don’t think of it in terms of dollars,” she says. “I think of it in terms of the luxury of experience. We do not focus on luxury if you define it as excessive pampering for the often-flamboyant ego-driven consumer.” For the agency’s 15th anniversary, each attendee was given a framed print of a door that had been photographed from somewhere in the world. Underneath the inscription read: “At Great Getaways, we open the door to the luxury of experience.”

 

Luxury Selling 101

Barbara King of Great Getaways uses the most unlikely of professions as her sales model: doctors. “Let’s say you are going to see Dr. King,” she says of the fictitious physician—referring to herself. “I already know why you are here because I have good notes. Then, when I’m talking to you and I ask what’s wrong and you tell me you have a headache, I don’t immediately prescribe two aspirins. I probe and diagnose. In other words, I qualify you: when did it start, are you eating new foods, do you have a new job, how are things at home, any new pets, etc.?

“What makes me a better salesperson is that I probably want to have some tests run to confirm what I think is going on. You gladly go ahead and do them, even though some of them may be uncomfortable. You come back to me and I say, ‘I found the problem. You need a head transplant,’ and you say, ‘What!’ And I tell you how it’s going to be terribly expensive, and it may even be very painful, but afterwards, you’re going to feel better than you ever felt, and what do you do? You say thank you, you smile, and you write out a check. What better salesperson is there?”

 

More specifically, King didn’t get into the business to just sell the high-ticket items. “Taking over an entire floor of The Ritz Paris or throwing an elaborate multimillion-dollar birthday party in Morocco is not our specialty,” she says. “Our specialty is delivering the most experiential vacation that exceeds our clients’ expectations, while offering consistent value for every dollar invested.”

Toward that, Great Getaways prides itself on customizing their clients’ experiences with dinners, walking tours, sightseeing, theater and interaction with specialists who live and work at the selected destination.

That’s not to say Great Getaways doesn’t put together a plentitude of over-the-top itineraries. One such involved Europe and southern Africa. “The client wanted an unforgettable anniversary journey,” King says. The trip got kick-started in Paris where the couple visited Hermès to buy a scarf (a tradition that began on their honeymoon). From Paris, the couple flew to Johannesburg for two nights at the Saxon. From there, it was off to Botswana and a stay at safari camp Vumbura Plains within the Okavanga Delta. “We asked that all accommodations be at the end of the safari camps in order to provide privacy for the ‘renew-a-moon,’” King says. “We surprised the couple with a romantic, private butler dinner on the night of their anniversary. The camp provided a candlelight setting on the lanai and had the plunge pool outlined in candles with rose petals scattered in the water.”

The three-week trip continued at safari camps throughout Botswana—a stop in Zambia, including a personalized tour of Victoria Falls—and culminated in Mauritius with a stay at the Oberoi Mauritius and a surprise dinner arranged by Great Getaways at the hotel restaurant.

In the Know

King also maintains a stout Rolodex of top-end luxury contacts. David Morgan-Hewitt, managing director of The Goring in London, is at her fingertips, as is Heidi Denecke, senior sales manager at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. King also says that a third of her hotel reservations are Four Seasons properties. “It is the consistency of our business that has forged these relationships,” she says.

“We are confident of our abilities and operate by the theory of ‘plenty’ versus ‘scarcity,’” she says. “We won’t appeal to every person desiring a vacation and we don’t want to. We are comfortable telling clients when to ‘do it themselves’ and when to use our services.”

Her affiliation with Virtuoso (Great Getaways is the only Kansas City-based Virtuoso agency) since 1996 has helped her generate more luxury sales. “It’s been a boon to my business,” she says. To create exceptional experiences for her clients, she is adroit at using Virtuoso’s on-sites and preferred suppliers.

 

King and Salim
King Is A Big Supporter Of Americashare. Here, she is pictured with a young man named Salim, in Nairobi, in 2010.

With a rather small staff, being nimble and creative is key to Great Getaways’ success. “We’re very small but mighty,” King says of her in-house staff of eight and three ICs. You can bet that Great Getaways will not ever become a monolithic travel agency; King doesn’t want to. “I’ve made the decision to stay boutique,” she says. “We will never be huge.” One employee she had to hire, however, was her husband, Michael, who joined Great Getaways in 2004. “His line is, ‘I’ve got the best job in the world; I can go home and sleep with the boss!’”

Social Media Move

One easy way Great Getaways looks to up its profile is through social media and blogging. Like most parents, King's entry into the realm of social media was more about snooping than business. She admits that “while hacking into my son’s Facebook account may have been my original impetus, I have taken to this mode of communication like a second skin. Social media allows me and encourages me to be real—to share my views and use my quirky sense of humor with the goal of igniting and enhancing someone’s passion to explore the world."

While monetizing sites such as Facebook is still preliminary, King has chalked up luxury sales to it. “We had a person who was already signed up for a Virgin Galactic flight,” King says. “He noticed that I had posted on Facebook that Neil Armstrong was going to be a featured guest on a Lindblad Expeditions cruise to Antarctica. He said, ‘Wow, I’m going into space, I have to meet Neil Armstrong.’ So, because we love Antarctica and posted about it, we sold a $60,000 trip.”

King cut her teeth on Facebook before moving on to Twitter and blogs. You can read all about her journeys and experiences at Great Getaways’ website, travelingking.net or at spacegoddess.net under the blog name “Space Goddess and Other Worldly Pursuits”(King was chosen in 2006 to be one of the original Virtuoso accredited space agents, hence the blog handle).

 

King And Michael
At Victoria Falls, in Livingstone, Zambia, in 2008, with husband Michael.

King is an employee’s dream: so into social media, she orders her staff to keep their Facebook pages open at work. “They are like, ‘You want us to do what?’” says King, who also uses the site animoto.com to create travel videos and slideshows (her latest project is developing video biographies of the agency’s travel advisors). Many Virtuoso members have also approached her for social media advice and tidbits. “I think there are some people of my generation who are intimidated by social media,” says baby boomer King. “There’s no need to be. There’s nothing you can press on your keyboard that’s going to make Facebook or Twitter blow up.”

As much as Great Getaways does in the luxury sector, it still feels a bit like the late Rodney Dangerfield: “No respect.” King is quick to defend her agency’s location and grouses over those who call Kansas and Missouri mere fly-over states. “People need to know that there is life between the two coasts,” she says.

 

Barbara And Michael
Barbara And Michael at the Great Wall of China in 2008.

To make it clear, at last year’s Virtuoso Travel Mart, King and her husband appeared at the closing dinner, where the theme was to come dressed as a culture you admired, donning Dorothy and the Lion costumes from The Wizard of Oz. “People came dressed in saris and Far Eastern garb,” she says, acknowledging that everyone at the dinner got a kick out of their attire. “We wanted to drive home the point that where we come from counts.”

Great Getaways continues to chug along turning vacation itineraries into life-changing moments. “We want to create memories to tuck into your heart,” King says. “There is nothing like a memory and, unlike a new car, you can’t break it.”