A Star is Born

 

Gary Stevens used to act in the theaters of New York City. Though acting is now behind him, he took much of what he learned along The Great White Way and applied it to marketing and selling high-end travel.

 

Early on, it was apparent that Gary Stevens, vice president of leisure sales and marketing for Great Neck, NY-based Leaders in Travel, was comfortable in front of a camera. If you search YouTube’s catalogue of bygone commercials, you might spot him in a Dixie cups or Keds ad. He was also the voice of the Hershey boy. “There’s nothing like the face of a kid eating a Hershey bar,” he sings or, rather, hurriedly spits out the 1969 jingle during a visit with Luxury Travel Advisor. Stevens was the epitome of child actor: he had an agent, did his first national TV commercial at the age of six, appeared in an ill-fated Broadway show at nine, then went on to appear in road shows and other commercials for the likes of McDonald’s. “I remember being on stage and looking out at an audience,” he says. “Performing was in my blood.”

Though his acting career petered out (“Too young to be a leading man, too old to be a kid,” he says), his entertainment connections got him into travel, an industry well served—and one that has served him well—by his showman personality. “I was always fascinated by travel,” he says, “and I knew that I needed something else to do. I always had a very promotional-oriented personality and felt that it would be something really cool for me to explore and try out.”

And so a life in travel began. First at a tour operator in New York called Flyfaire, where he dealt directly with travel agents. But while Stevens had the travel bug, he was having trouble shaking off the performance bug. After four months, he landed a song-and-dance gig aboard a cruise ship. A few months later, loneliness and isolation set in and he returned to New York. An agent friend, who initially got him into travel, knew of his background and asked if he’d like to start a tour operation at Basbrasil Travel, a once-upon-a-time prominent agency that catered to Brazilian clients. “I was handling itineraries from Point A to Point B,” Stevens says. He parlayed his experience into an opportunity to lead the leisure division at an agency called Travel Horizons, which, up to then, dealt mainly in corporate travel. “That’s where I learned to hone my skills and really take high-end clients and develop special experiences for them.”

Here is also where he began to see more of the world. “I was off every Friday, and they would send me off saying, ‘Go to Europe for the weekend.’ They wanted me to explore.” After Travel Horizons, he did a brief stint living in Florida. Soon, however, the native New Yorker (Stevens grew up in the Bronx and Queens) again pined for the Empire State. A new opportunity also presented itself.

 

 

Gary in the Canadian Rockies with his partner of 23 years, Alan George.

 

The Lawyers’ Travel Service, now a unit of Ovation Travel Group, caters exclusively to lawyers, but back in the early Nineties, “nobody was cultivating leisure,” Stevens says. “We all know that whether you are a secretary, attorney, CEO—everyone takes vacations.”

Stevens was hired to cultivate a lawyers’ vacation department. He was pretty much the entire operation, barnstorming New York’s white-collar law firms, presenting in cafeterias and passing out collateral of his own creation. He was a one-man band. “I would develop relationships with the administrators, human resources, the lawyers, whoever I needed to, to introduce vacation services,” he says. “We had the expertise, we had the deals, we had everything, all the elements that can deliver the goods on fabulous trips, but they just didn’t know about it. So I needed to create that whole awareness campaign and bring it to the forefront.”

He succeeded, becoming a cubicle sensation. “You meet a senior partner, do well for him, and his secretary says ‘Omigosh, Gary in the vacation department did such a great job,’” Stevens says. “She tells that to the next cubicle over and the next…it’s that domino effect and that’s really what you want. I focused on the higher-end, but I had to give equal attention to the needs of everyone. Although they may not be in a position themselves to go on a Crystal cruise, they might be married or know someone who is.”

It was also around this time that he began to dabble in charting psychographs. “I wanted to know who these people were—what their specific interests and hobbies were geared toward,” he says. His success got him work with the likes of GIANTS (which later became Ensemble Travel Group), where he worked on educating agents. Having his hands in many parts of the travel business is part of his appeal today. “I’ve been on the supplier side, the consortia side and worn the travel agent hat, so I know the needs of all these different aspects of leisure travel and am able to put them together,” Stevens says.

 

 

In India, with Shriji Arvind Singhji Mewar, the Maharana of Udaipur.

 

Soon, agencies were requesting his services. He bounced around as a consultant, for awhile, even in Los Angeles, cultivating marketing plans and databases and working on execution. Around this time, as the Internet began to evolve, he, an early adapter, created e-newsletters and e-blasts.

Today, Stevens lives a less-itinerant lifestyle, having put down roots in Weehawken, NJ, with Alan George, his partner of 23 years. (A perfect match, both are self-ascribed Lucille Ball zealots; their mutual love of all things Lucy helped fuse their relationship.) As vice president of leisure sales and marketing at Leaders in Travel, an agency he joined in 2007 and which caters to the affluent community of Great Neck and beyond, his aim has been to broaden the company’s online presence (“I tore the website apart and started over,” he says), but by being smart about it. “You have to have a defined vision to make it happen. I try to keep it fresh and relevant.” He’s dogged about it. “We have a section on the website devoted to travel with pets and it’s all from Luke’s point of view.” Who’s Luke? Why, Leaders in Travel’s office dog/mascot. “I went to various suppliers and asked them if they were pet-friendly and, if so, what programs they had. I put those on the site and it’s been great. What you do in promotion and marketing is really all about testing, seeing what works and tossing out what doesn’t.”

 

 

The staff of leaders in travel. The agency is based in Great Neck, NY, close to Manhattan. It was established in 1981 by its president, Marla Schaffer, with a primary goal to maintain superior service. Gary is looking to add even younger agents into the mix. “I’m thinking of job fairs and working with tour operators that cater to more of a youthful market,” he says.

 

Stevens isn’t only a marketer extraordinaire. He still maintains an exclusive group of clients for whom he creates bespoke itineraries. One particular vacation he put together had all the markings of a luxury trip. Not uncommon, the client’s chief commendation was not in regard to a luxury suite, but a small, memorable gesture. “He was on his honeymoon and it was first-class Singapore Airlines all the way. He was going to Tokyo and Hong Kong and, believe it or not, the Maldives as well. I arranged for Rolls-Royce private transfers, sightseeing, the works. But what did he come home and tell me was the most exciting part of the trip? I had alerted my contacts at the airline that he was going on his honeymoon and just after they had taken off, the pilot, over the loud speaker, announced that this couple had just gotten married. He congratulated them and asked the entire 747 to give them a round of applause. He was overwhelmed. That’s a moment and a memory he’ll always have.”

Leaders in Travel is known for creating above-and-beyond experiences. Its president, Marla Schaffer, is “the most brilliant FIT creator I’ve ever come across,” Stevens says, then references a six-week Asia trip Schaffer put together for a family; it took an entire year for her to develop. “They didn’t just want to go stay in a hotel, they wanted to roll up their sleeves and breathe and feel the life. Marla created that for them.”

For Stevens, luxury isn’t only a touchpoint; it’s a state of mind. “Luxury means something different to every individual,” Stevens says. “For me, it’s all about experiences—moments and circumstances that you remember forever.”

Great service, of course, is imperative. “Our number one priority, and what we’re known for both on the supplier side and with clientele, is really over-the-top service,” Stevens says. “We hand-hold from inception all the way through to completion and then we follow up afterwards. It’s serving every need and anticipating all the elements that could possibly be wanted by the individual.” Leaders in Travel’s status is helped out by its association with Ritz-Carlton STARS, Four Seasons Preferred Partners, Rosewood Elite and Orient Express’ Bellini Club.

A child star himself, Stevens is always on the lookout for stars of tomorrow, specifically younger travel advisors. “I want to try and engage the younger set, to attract them into coming here,” Stevens says. Problem is, when younger people think about a career in travel, they figure it will be working for a hotel or other supplier. “They’re not exposed to it [the travel agency industry],” he says. “So I’m thinking of job fairs, working with tour operators that cater to more of a youthful market and coming up with ways through school programs and such to really present ourselves and try to gain their interest.”

While Stevens possesses a host of marketing and agent skills, it’s his ability to connect with people that makes him an industry sensation. On one particular trip with Star Clippers, one of his favorite cruise lines, his showbiz DNA got the best of him and, as often happens, he found himself on the floor dancing one evening, imploring fellow guests to join.

At one point he spotted a woman by herself in a corner and motioned toward her. She was hesitant, but he was able to pry her out on the dance floor for a spin. Turns out, this woman, Eliza, loved to dance, but hadn’t since her husband passed away. “I have the ability to break through the wall,” Stevens says.

Three weeks later he received a letter. “Gary,” it read, “you don’t know how you changed my life.” Signed, Eliza.

 

A Chorus Line

 

Not only is Gary Stevens a bright star in the travel industry, he’s also quite the Broadway theater aficionado. So much so that he even wrote a book about his favorite production, A Chorus Line. The Longest Line: Broadway’s Most Singular Sensation, A Chorus Line was authored by Stevens and his partner, Alan George. The book actually stemmed from an original idea by Stevens to commemorate the musical, which ran uninterrupted on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre from 1975 to 1990. Stevens saw the show on Broadway over 50 times. “I wrote to the Shubert and said that there needed to be some kind of permanent recognition of the show,” Stevens says. His idea clicked and they asked him to spearhead the effort. He commenced a year-long fundraiser. The undertaking paid off and, today, a bas-relief plaque honoring the show is inlaid in a lobby wall at the Shubert. “We wanted to give back to the show that gave us such joy all those years,” says Stevens of the plaque, which was dedicated on October 30, 1991.

Subsequently, he was convinced by many people close to the show to write a book. He interviewed a slew of past actors and others involved in the production. The book is now in its 14th year of print.

 

 

Gary with Marla Schaffer, president of Leaders in Travel. He calls her “the most brilliant FIT creator ever.”