Cristina Buaas, owner and president of CSB Travel, based in Houston, TX, got her feet wet in the industry much like many others — by informally planning travel for her friends and family. After years of doing so, Buaas finally took the plunge and turned her hobby into a full-time career.
Despite having no experience in the industry — or even any formal training, other than an online course — we would say that Buaas, who both manages her agency and maintains a book of clients, is doing quite well for herself. Ten years after taking that plunge, Buaas is the most recommended advisor in Virtuoso’s network. That’s a fact: She has the most reviews on Virtuoso’s website — 371, specifically — all of which have a 100 percent satisfaction rating. (The next highest at the time of printing is 292.) It’s made her the talk of quite a few conversations in the network, and with good reason.
Perhaps due to all of those satisfied clients, CSB Travel is having a banner year. The agency, which comprises Buaas, six independent contractors and two full-time employees (who support Buaas’ clients and handle managerial duties), is on pace to total $7 million in sales this year, an increase of nearly $2 million from one year ago.
Buaas tells Luxury Travel Advisor that the top factor for the increase in business is a new mindset among travelers.
“The economy, overall, is strong and people are feeling more confident about that,” Buaas says. “I also think that despite some of the uncertainty with things that are going on in the world today — whether it’s natural disasters or terrorism — people are realizing that there’s no time like the present.”
Buaas adds that with so many people being so busy in their lives, many of her clients are realizing that “that precious time together is even more important.” A result of this is a spike in experiential family travel, one of the top trends that Buaas is seeing.
Planning family vacations can be a bit of a task; each family member may want something different, so an advisor must find the right combination of activities and accommodations to please everyone — but Buaas accepts each challenge with excitement. When booking family travel, she’ll more often than not work with one family member primarily (or perhaps a couple), but will speak with everyone to learn about different destination ideas and “what really resonates” with them to help craft the perfect trip. Buaas likens it to painting a blank canvas for her clients.
Crafting Complex Journeys
Buaas has just created an itinerary for a family of four (two parents and two adult children), whom she has been working with for nine years. The family takes an annual bucket list trip; she has sent them to all seven continents. This year, they’ll spend two and a half weeks in South Africa and Namibia during the holidays. They’ll visit Cape Town, the neighboring wine regions and Singita’s Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Then they’ll head north to Sossusvlei, Etosha National Park and then to Windhoek, all in Namibia.
Although Buaas and the family were working about 10 months out, availability at the top game reserves is hard to come by during the holidays, especially when three rooms are needed at each property.
Another famous feat: Buaas recently organized a trip for 12 couples, all in their 50s and 60s. The group, all based in Texas, traveled to New Zealand for two weeks in March. Buaas tells Luxury Travel Advisor that she began meeting with the group organizer more than a year and a half out to plan. Having visited in 2015, Buaas knew they’d love New Zealand. Together, they put together a “bucket list itinerary,” which touched upon the destinations, activities, accommodations, and food and wine.
The couples stayed at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs (both part of Robertson Lodges’ portfolio), golfing at each. At “The Farm,” they participated in the Kiwi Discovery Walk, to see the endangered kiwi in its natural habitat and assist their guide in monitoring the kiwis’ well-being. They then traveled to Arrowtown for a day trip, and went on to Queenstown (where they partook in the Milford Sound helicopter glacier landing tour and a Dart River jet boating adventure). For a more relaxing activity, Buaas booked the group a wine tasting at Amisfield Vineyard & Bistro before traveling to Marlborough, New Zealand’s top wine region. Here, they took a private cruise to Motuara Island.
Then it was on to Huka Lodge up north for fly fishing before finishing up in Auckland.
The group was more than pleased. “Working with Cristina to create this bucket list trip to experience the very best of New Zealand has been such a pleasure,” said one of the happy clients in an online review. “Cristina literally collaborated with me for two years on the details to meet the expectations of several couples who are well-seasoned travelers with diverse interests and high expectations. She and her capable staff assembled a creative itinerary that reflected our need for adventure, fine dining, exquisite accommodations, golf, fishing and excellent service. Cristina and her staff were available to us 24/7 for the duration of the trip, which I found very reassuring. Cristina’s personal knowledge of New Zealand gave me great comfort in pitching the trip to our friends. She carries great credibility with all of us; we know if she recommends something, it has been properly vetted.”
Two other members also posted very positive reviews. “The itinerary was perfect … Her partners in New Zealand were excellent, providing an exceptional guide who traveled with us, kept us organized, assisted with last-minute plans and had infinite patience with our sometimes-rowdy and opinionated group,” one said; “Organized, responsive, customer-oriented and efficient,” said another.
Not surprisingly, Buaas is already working on sending the group to Patagonia in 2020.
Buaas recognized the importance of online client reviews as soon as Virtuoso began offering the Verified Traveler Review process.
CSB’s annual client and 10th anniversary event drew advisors and suppliers together earlier this year. Front row, right to left: KC Hoppe from Backroads; CSB team members Maddy Moffitt, Susan Lindstrom, Cristina Buaas, Kristie Beeler, Laura Carlson and Lisa McKay; Claudia Monks from Waldorf Astoria and Conrad Hotels and Resorts; Jessica Lewis from Terranea Resort, and a representative for Walt Disney. Second row, right to left: Kathy Hoot with Grand Velas; Mark Stoneham with Royal Caribbean; Stu Luchs with Chredo Hospitality; Danielle Dormand with Index Select; Danny Becker with Rocky Mountaineer; Betsy Burks with Silversea; Sharla Smith with Paul Gauguin Cruises; Kristi Green and Cheryl Bunker with Virtuoso; Hadyn Fitzpatrick with Tourism New Zealand and Nicky Brandon with Ker & Downey.
“People are so used to websites like TripAdvisor; ratings and reviews … really resonate with consumers today,” she tells us. “People will select me because I have the most reviews, so I take [my reviews] very seriously.”
Her tips for becoming the most reviewed advisor in a network comprising more than 17,500 advisors worldwide?
“It starts with the very first call with the client,” Buaas tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “You have to be sincere and interested in them and really listen to what they want, asking questions along the way. Then you have to take all of your knowledge, all of your connections, and put that together and create a great itinerary for them. And obviously be responsive, too.
“It’s critical to check back with them when they return and get their feedback: What was amazing, what would you change and what you would do differently next time? Because that’s how you learn about your clients: What’s resonating and what’s not. That also shows your clients that their trips are of the utmost importance to you.”
One last tip? “I then do ask for them to give me a review,” Buaas says.
Virtuoso’s Verified Traveler Review program is just one way that the network has helped Buaas and her agency. “I don’t think we’d be where we are today without Virtuoso,” she tells us.
Additionally, Buaas is a member of Virtuoso’s Benchmarking Team; she says it helps her learn best practices from variously located and sized agencies. She attends both Travel Week and the annual Symposium; the latter took place earlier this year aboard seven competing river cruises, which was eye-opening for Buaas, who tells us “the growth of river cruising is definitely one of the most exciting trends in luxury travel.”
Of the Symposium experience, Buaas says: “Cruising in unison, we were able to dine, explore and experience all of the ships side by side, in close comparison. This was an unparalleled opportunity for me to understand each line’s differences and specific attributes to better help us select the perfect ‘fit’ for our clients’ river cruise experience.”
All About Relationships
Buaas sends all of her advisors through Virtuoso’s Certified Travel Advisor training program, which is particularly helpful since most of CSB Travel’s advisors were new to the industry when she hired them. On the team, there’s a doctor, an engineer, an educator, a non-profit executive, and an advisor who was in sports sales. Buaas herself was a banker.
It was a conscious decision to bring other secondary career people into the business.
“You gravitate towards people that are like you,” Buaas says. “Having started my business by myself from scratch — I didn’t really have a mentor in the business and had to learn it on my own — gives me an enhanced ability to teach other people who are new to the business … and how to take your existing skillset and make it translate into something you’re passionate about, which is travel.”
What does Buaas look for in a new independent contractor?
“Sincerity, integrity and being a self-starter are some of the most important qualities in being an advisor,” she says. “You’ve got to be honest and sincere, not only with me and the team, but also with the clients. If you love what you do and you’re passionate about discovering new destinations, cultures and experiences, and you’re a sincere and honest person, that’s going to translate into success within our CSB family and it’s going to translate into success with clients.”
Buaas brings on at most two ICs a year, as “it takes a lot of time to properly train someone and to give them a lot of individual attention.” The agency’s success comes from the fact that the ICs have various specialties, from Europe, Asia or Africa to honeymoons, adventure or multigenerational trips.
Buaas herself sells a lot of Europe, South America and adventure travel. She says Italy is a perennial favorite, while Greece and Iceland are skyrocketing in popularity. In South America, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and the Galapagos are tops. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia are seeing strong growth.
Buaas urges her advisors to travel often; she will revisit the South of France this year to visit Provence and Luberon.
Just as she does with her ICs, Buaas vets her clients to make sure they’re a good fit; the primary source of growth comes from referrals. “Not a week goes by that we do not get referrals from our great clients,” Buaas says. The agency has a website, but Virtuoso’s site has been more important for attracting clients.
Most often, a client will contact the specific advisor they wish to work with, but Buaas says her team will refer potential clients to other advisors if they feel there is a better fit. Since CSB Travel does not have a brick-and-mortar office, Buaas and her ICs most often speak with their clients over the phone or via e-mail, but are open to meeting them wherever the client is most comfortable.
One initiative that Buaas has taken on to improve her advisor-client relationship is a yearly client event (hosted in January). Each of her advisors invites their top clients and the agency hosts them at a new members club in the center of Houston. Buaas brings in 12 suppliers, as well, who have the chance to meet directly with their clients to learn about what they liked and disliked or what they find interesting about their products. Food and travel prizes are part of the mix. The event is an annual hit, we hear.
Buaas also looks for specific traits in the suppliers that she works with. “With Virtuoso, we have a lot of wonderful referred suppliers in our network that we have an immediate connection to, which is so important. This access is a huge benefit to being a member of Virtuoso. Working with suppliers is a two-way street: We definitely want to work with those that are responsive to us and our needs as we are advocates for our clients, but at the same time, we are mindful and respectful of that relationship.”
In addition to Virtuoso partners, CSB advisors are allowed to work with suppliers who aren’t affiliated with the network, as long as they appear to be the best fit for the clients. If it is a new tour operator or DMC, Buaas will do her research first and find someone else in the industry who has had a positive experience with the company. “You don’t want to make a mistake with a client’s vacation,” she adds.
Family Matters: Buaas (far right) is shown here with her husband Jim and her daughters Courtnay and Allison in Varenna, Italy, on Lake Como.
Buaas’ clients are increasingly interested in voluntourism and frequently ask, regarding the Caribbean, if they’re going to an island that’s had problems, is there a place they can take things to donate. Buaas and her agency are not unfamiliar with volunteering themselves; last year, Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion worth of damage in the Houston metropolitan area, where CSB is based. Several clients lost their homes; others who didn’t, changed their travel habits. Those who could still travel took shorter vacations and to nearer destinations (domestic vacations and Central America trips were the most common).
One positive was that the hurricane reinforced that “people are, in today’s world, really valuing experiences over things,” says Buaas. Travel also helped her clients “get on with their lives as normal, as quickly as possible.”
Buaas tells Luxury Travel Advisor that other agency owners, advisors and even employees at Virtuoso sent her boxes full of goods that she would send to her church, which had set up “a sort of shopping center” offering the bare necessities to those who lost their homes. Buaas also spent time volunteering at the convention center where those affected were offered shelter.
Looking Back and Looking Forward
Selling travel wasn’t always in the plans for Buaas, but travel was always a part of her life.
“Had my grandmother been born in a different generation, I imagine she would have been a luxury travel advisor,” she tells us. “I can remember month-long summer vacations with my grandparents and Mimi would have every detail perfectly planned out and notated in red pen in the margins of her guidebooks.”
She also traveled to Europe frequently with her parents. Nonetheless, a career in travel was never on the board.
After graduating from Vanderbilt University, Buaas worked as a loan officer at a commercial bank in Houston, then for her family’s real estate development and management company. She stayed at home after having her second child but, in time, she was ready to get back to work.
Travel was an easy decision. Buaas took an online course, incorporated her business and worked as an independent contractor with a local agency. Buaas, who thought she would receive more hands-on training from the agency, says it turned out to be a poor fit. Just about one year later, Buaas left to go fully independent. The entire time she operated as CSB Travel.
A decade later, the industry has changed a lot. One of the biggest changes? The 24/7 access that clients now have with advisors. Buaas also says the popularity of the profession has exploded. “We’re the best-kept secret that’s not a secret anymore,” Buaas says.
The future is wide open for CSB Travel, Buaas tells Luxury Travel Advisor. Her short-term goals include adding to her administrative team (just one or two people) and bringing on a “handful” of additional advisors. “For me, it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality,” Buaas says. Her ideal agency? Perhaps double the size of its current situation; however, this could come from organic growth, by merging with another agency or even by acquiring one. “They are all things that I’m open to, for sure,” Buaas says.
While they don’t have any plans right now, down the line, Buaas would be excited if her children join the agency. Her two daughters, 23 and 20, both have plans of their own: One is studying communications and film, while the older is a consultant. Growing up with a mom who runs an agency, both have traveled plenty — and have even interned for her at times.
Buaas makes sure to travel with her family; last year, they all ventured to Greece and Italy to celebrate her older daughter’s college graduation. She plans to let the girls do what they want, but holds out hope that one or both of them will want to join the business.
Until then, Buaas plans to take it one day at a time. “What makes me excited about waking up every morning is that, in this business, each day is different and brings new surprises. And it’s great: I love to create ‘Wow’ experiences and moments for my clients,” she says.
Headquarters: Houston, TX
Top Executive: Cristina Buaas, Owner and President
Number of Employees: Six independent contractors; two full-time employees
Annual Revenue: $7 million
Affiliations: Virtuoso Travel Network
Advisory Board Positions: Virtuoso’s Member Advisory Board, Disney’s EarMarked Travel Advisory Council