Young at Heart

 

Largay Travel
Largay Travel: Roland Largay (seated) started the agency back in 1969. Today, he’s backed by (from left) Mina DiSora, vice president of group and incentive travel; Paul Largay, Roland’s nephew and the agency’s president; and Amanda Klimak, vice president of operations.

 

Largay Travel is known for its humor, but it’s serious about selling luxury travel.

 

 

Largay Travel

Headquarters: Waterbury, CT
Chairman: Roland Largay
President: Paul Largay
VP of Operations: Amanda Klimak
VP of Groups & Incentives: Mina DiSora
Staff: 33 (18 in-house and 15 independent contractors)
Revenue: More than $20 million projected for 2010
Affiliations: Virtuoso, Tzell Travel Group, TAMS
Website: www.largaytravel.com

 

 


The first time we met Roland Largay, chairman of Largay Travel in Waterbury, CT, he conjured a rainbow-colored hanky from a dollar bill, then made his thumbs turn the shade of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s nose, all the while giggling uproariously like a school kid. But that’s exactly who “Uncle Largay”—as he’s fondly referred to in many circles—is. “I’m a kid at heart,” the 86-year-old Largay told Luxury Travel Advisor at the time. “I’ve never grown up.”

That spirit is evident throughout Largay Travel, whose tagline, “Please Go Away,” plays perfectly to the agency’s quirky humor. Largay Travel’s president, Paul Largay, Roland’s nephew, is proof that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Both Roland and Paul share a similar poignant wit and, as it turns out, similar paths to selling luxury travel. As Paul tells it, his father (Roland’s brother) was partly responsible for their travel careers. He owned a nuts-and-bolts business in Waterbury, where, at one time, both Roland and Paul were employed. “Forty years ago, my father called Roland into his office and said, ‘You know, Roland, you’ve got a lot of potential, a lot of talent. I want you to go see the world,’” Paul says.

 

At the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan
At the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan : Paul Largay poses at the sacred Buddhist temple with two clients, Kristen Bulkovitch (far left) and Dr. Peter Jacoby (far right). Paul’s girlfiend, Reenie Parker, is next to him in red.

 

 

 

 

Roland Largay’s Greatest Hits

Astounding and amusing tales follow Roland Largay wherever he goes. There’s the one about Roland mistaking his suite in the Bellagio for a mere studio-sized room (he was remiss to open an adjoining door that opened to a palatial suite with views of the Strip). Or, a “lost in translation” moment he had with a Maasai tribesman in East Africa. But maybe the most memorable Roland story is also one of Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch’s favorite. “It was during our 1997 Symposium in India,” Upchurch recalls. “We were riding in a motor coach driving from Agra back to New Delhi when we felt a bump. The coach abruptly pulled off to the side of road and, as it turned out, the motor coach had clipped a town elder on his tractor, sending him careening into a roadside ditch. In a matter of minutes, town residents surrounded us—first a few, then more. Those were tense moments. Then, to our surprise, the crowd of townspeople suddenly erupted into laughter. Why? It prompted me to exit the motor coach to investigate. And, there he was: Uncle Roland performing his famous magic tricks for the villagers. We knew he was a professional and had seen his tricks, but little did we know those tricks could truly become a lifesaving device for crowd control.” To underscore Paul and Roland’s relationship, Upchurch has another gem. “Roland and Paul have offices near each other,” Upchurch says, “and have lunch together most days (it’s true; on the days Roland comes into the office, he says two things to Paul, “Let me see the branch report and where are we going for lunch?”). One time Paul called asking if Roland was available for a chat. ‘He’s gone,’ was the receptionist’s reply. ‘What do you mean? Where did he go?’ Paul asked. ‘He went across the street to get a haircut,’ the receptionist said of Roland, who, as all know, is mostly bald. In classic Paul, he said, ‘Fine, I’ll hold.’”

 

 

Roland never looked back and started Largay Travel (née Farrington Travel) back in 1969. About 10 years later, the same man who gave Roland his walking papers, told Paul that his future also didn’t lie in the nuts-and-bolts business. Asked Paul, “Dad, are you firing me? He said, ‘Oh no, I’m setting you free.’” On his way home that day, Paul gave Uncle Roland a call. “I’ve got a little time on my hands,” he told him.

Largay Travel has always focused on luxury travel. Before moving to its current space, a storefront in a strip mall it shares with a dollar store (80 percent of Largay Travel’s clients have never set foot in the office, Roland says), Largay Travel worked out of Heritage Village, a retirement community in Connecticut. “It was one of those prototypical retirement communities,” Paul says. “People with the right demographics were coming up, primarily from New York, to retire. Roland saw an opportunity there to leverage his business with an ideal clientele. He told me that it was just as easy to sell a Royal Viking cruise as it was to sell a Circle Line around Manhattan.”

It’s been smooth sailing ever since. Largay Travel is known for putting together over-the-top Africa safari adventures (Roland has visited the continent 26 times; Paul 13). And, no two are alike. “Roland looks at every day like Play-Doh,” Paul says. “He takes it out of the can and depending upon who calls him, it sets him to sculpting and, as he says, he plans every trip as if he is taking it.”

With trips like these, it’s hard to not get jealous. “We live vicariously through our clients,” says Amanda Klimak, vice president of operations for Largay Travel.

One such client is among Largay’s most demanding—and one of its wealthiest. Paul wanted him to go to Africa, promising to handpick the best moments and string them together like a necklace. “You’ve finally worn me down,” the client, who is very hard to impress, told Paul one day. For two-and-a-half weeks, the family was given the full Africa treatment. They were on the famed Rovos Rail (Africa’s answer to the Orient Express); they traveled on the Blue Train; rafted the Zambezi River; experienced the Nairobi ghetto and Soweto; and the client even flew a fighter jet over the coast of South Africa.

The client, a Litchfield, CT, resident, phoned Largay upon landing at JFK airport; he couldn’t even wait to get home. “A receptionist takes the call and tells me he is crying,” Paul says. Sobbing actually. “I pick up the phone and he says, ‘Paul, you have been singly responsible for the best two-and-a-half weeks of my life. I’d like to set up a time next week, when I take your entire office to the finest restaurant locally. I want a private dining room and I want to stand up and pay testament to the incredible transformation that you’ve just created in my life.’” Days later, he did just that. “What you do is create awareness and access,” he said. “I had no idea that I could do what I just did.”

Gushing like this is common. And they happen because the destinations Largay Travel sells are close to their hearts. “You don’t necessarily just sell what you love,” says Paul. “But when you sell what you love, it makes such a difference.”

“One of the things we do is to collaborate on an itinerary,” Klimak says. “We have a weekly staff meeting and if somebody’s working on something, somebody else may say ‘Hey, did you think of this?’ That really is what makes a difference for this company and I think why Roland is successful is we really do embrace every single person’s knowledge.”

That came in handy when a Morocco trip the agency put together for a family almost derailed when the daughter decided she’d rather spend her 21st birthday at home. “The father called me up and said, ‘What do we do?’ I told him we’d go to Morocco and give her a birthday party she’ll never forget.” So a celebration was put together featuring a private jousting tournament. The grand finale took the cake. “After the jousting tournament, all the lights went out up on this hillside,” Paul says, “and a construction of wood spelled out ‘Happy 21st, Annie.’ “Her father said tears welled up because the transformation between ‘I don’t want to be with my family,’ and being there because of what we were able to do resonated with her and with her parents.”

Family is also key at Largay. While Roland and Paul are the only blood-related employees of Largay, the rest of the staff (18 in-house and 15 independent contractors) is seen as extended family. “It’s about the power of relationships,” Paul says. “What’s interesting is that Roland and I are obviously immediate family, but our extended family is truly right here with us.” (The typical Largay employee has been with the agency for 15 years.)

 

Uncle Roland and Dr. Travel
Uncle Roland and Dr. Travel: Affectionate nicknames for the real-life uncle and nephew duo. Here, they don traditional Chinese garb in Hong Kong at a Virtuoso Symposium in the late 90s.

To show their importance, Largay is known to throw extravagant Christmas parties. One year, Klimak explains, the entire office flew to the Bahamas and spent the weekend at Atlantis. Another year they went to Turning Stone and learned life skills. “It’s not just about building the business,” Klimak says, “but building them up so they can be better in their work and private lives. I think that’s what makes this agency work. We are really sharp and in tune with the business as a whole.”

Roland’s Christmas card doesn’t hurt either. In fact, along with his magic tricks, it’s his other calling card. And, if you don’t receive one, well, you might just be left wondering, “What did I do?”

“Roland’s Christmas cards make our relationships personal with suppliers and clients,” Klimak says. On the QT, we hear Roland has an A and a B list. “It’s really funny,” Paul says of people who don’t receive a card. “Vendors and clients alike, if two weeks have passed since the 25th, we’ll begin getting e-mails and phone calls saying, ‘What did I say to fall out of favor?’”

Roland brings a Santa Claus suit with him on all his travels and takes pictures for his cards at different locales. “A lot of it obviously is tongue-in-cheek,” Paul says. “One time he’s standing there next to the Taj Mahal and the card reads, ‘Season’s Greetings from two of the world’s legends.’ It really resonates with people because it’s human and that really is not only our personal philosophy but it translates to our professional one.”

Maybe that’s why Largay Travel is able to gain access through doors likely shut to others; such as at a time when Le Sirenuse in Positano, Italy, was fully booked. The exclusive hotel is owned by the Sersale family and managed by Antonio Sersale. “He and I went mountain biking in Whistler,” Paul says, revealing that, at one point, Sersale had the misfortune of flying over his handlebar. “I’m playing triage nurse and as humorous as the story ultimately becomes, it was one of those defining moments where we connected as human beings. He said to me, ‘If you ever need anything, I’m the guy to call.’” So, when Le Sirenuse was totally full and one of Largay’s clients needed a room, guess whom Paul called?

Roland Largay At Victoria Falls
Roland Largay At Victoria Falls : Largay Travel is heavily involved in Africa through Micato Safaris’ AmericaShare program.

While Largay Travel’s success is a team effort, Roland, the patriarch, is the constant source of inspiration and a well of knowledge. Getting on in years, he only makes it into the office a few days a week, but his mere presence, always nattily put together, gives the staff great pride—you can see it in their eyes as he makes his way through the office.

Roland’s love for travel can be traced back to his days in the Navy during World War II. “I went into the insurance business for a short while, hated it, and in anticipation of being called back into the Navy, I said, ‘Well, I’m going to live my passion and spend three months traveling around alone,’” he says. He went to Ireland and studied his family history, all the while writing letters home to his mother about his travels. “Ever since, I just loved it,” he says.

The genuine zest that Roland displays for life is pervasive throughout Largay Travel; it’s one of the reasons that the agency has such great relationships with its suppliers. “It doesn’t matter how dynamic and how funny and what great magic tricks Roland performs—if we are not putting bodies in beds, then we become an afterthought,” Paul says. “But I think there’s a method to our madness; we realize it’s a business and you’ve got to run it accordingly, but in the final analysis, it all ends in the same way for all of us. We want to create transformational relationships with our clients and for our clients, but we also want to leave miles of smiles in our wake.”

 

 

Largay Travel’s Backbone

Two of Largay Travel’s vital members are Amanda Klimak, vice president of operations, and Mina DiSora, vice president of group and incentive travel. “One of the things Paul always says is if you want to talk about travel, talk to me, if you want to get there, talk to Amanda,” says Klimak, who is also the chairperson of the Virtuoso Tour Committee and on the Virtuoso Technology Committee.

Klimak, who has been with Largay Travel for 13 years, is in charge of operations, overseeing sales and marketing, accounting and human resources. In addition to those duties, she has a select client base for which she does FIT bookings (Klimak’s specialty is family adventure travel). She’s also a familiar face on the travel circuit, attending many events such as Virtuoso Travel Mart and Crystal Cruises’ Gala. She also plays an active role in VAST (Virtuoso Active and Specialty Travel)—a group of suppliers and agents who specialize in adventure travel.

DiSora has been with Largay Travel for 16 years. She says groups and incentives are essential as they “not only provide useful, monthly cash-flow assistance but also a skeletal structure to our sales forecasts.” Good News: DiSora reports that lead times have continued to expand from an average of 12-18 months to 18-24 months. “To stay on top you have to continue to be unique and innovative,” she says. “In the long run, it is people, not computers, who make the difference.”

 

Amanda Klimak
Amanda Klimak

 

 

 

A typical Largay story proves this point. A vendor once sent Paul a note stating that Largay didn’t qualify for a dinner the supplier was hosting; however, people who did qualify for it unequivocally said that if Largay wasn’t there, they weren’t coming either. “When you’re real and don’t take yourself seriously, people like that,” Paul says. “It’s a natural human tendency to want to see the people you like succeed.”

One partnership that has lasted is between Largay and Virtuoso. “Our relationship with Virtuoso is very important,” Roland, who was the original chairman of the advisory board when Virtuoso was API and at one time was responsible for recruiting half of API’s members, says. (Since Virtuoso’s Travel Mart began, Roland has missed only one.) “We are still in business today because of Virtuoso,” Paul says. “What they’ve done is create a reservoir of services, people and affiliates. I look at Virtuoso like the mother ship that we attached an umbilical cord to. Just as soon as you hear that someone is Virtuoso, in my mind, it elevates their status.”

“It can be a company that I’ve never heard of, but because it’s a Virtuoso member, I feel okay,” says Klimak.

Largay Travel’s current focus is on its luxury FIT business, groups and incentives, and growing its independent contractor network. “These are the three legs to our stool,” Paul says. It’s a stool that has remained strong over the years via the vision and verve of Roland Largay. At a Luxury Travel Expo advisory board meeting in June, as an icebreaker, all in attendance were asked to state what profession they’d like to have tried had they not been a travel advisor. One person wanted to be a painter, another a Yoga instructor, one, half-jokingly, a kept woman. Then Roland stood up as everyone awaited some grand, dramatic answer (after all, this is a man who once dated Natalie Schafer, better known as Mrs. Lovey Howell from TV’s Gilligan’s Island). His response was perfect. “If I had to be reincarnated,” he said, “I’d come back as myself.”