Rudi Steele, the owner and president of Rudi Steele Travel, has been a master of selling luxury travel since 1978. He is shown here at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in New York.
You’d think by now, Rudi Steele, owner and president of Rudi Steele Travel, would be able to send his clients on wonderful trips with his eyes shut. After all, he’s bound to have enough luxury itineraries up his sleeve, considering his Dallas-based agency has focused solely on luxury leisure travel since it debuted in 1978.
That’s not the case, however. Steele insists that each of his clients, who consist of A-list celebrities, the ultra-affluent and a good-sized following of high-profile physicians, be treated to a unique trip, each and every time, to suit their current psyche and needs.
For this reason, Steele never once considered adding corporate travel to his mix, even when years ago one of his long-time clients, Ross Perot, asked him to take on the lucrative task of handling in-house travel for the tech giant, Texas Instruments.
“That’s when I would have had the opportunity to go big, but I decided no,” Steele recalls. “It’s order taking and it changes every five minutes. To me that’s terribly boring.”
Of course, many years later, Steele is able to see what could have been the upside of going with Perot. “Like airline reservationists, [corporate travel agents] don’t take anything home with them. When it’s done, that’s it. Whereas I wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about things, but to me that’s what I like.”
Nevertheless, the decision wouldn’t have gone over well with his employees.
“None of my agents would have liked to do that kind of work,” he says. “I have a collection of agents who like to design travel. Each trip is different,” he says.
So passionate is he about the fact that each trip be custom built to suit each individual, Steele doesn’t even think it’s wise to arrange the same travel experience a client has previously enjoyed, even if they’ve requested it.
“So many times you create something which is very special for the client, whether it was a special occasion or it just worked right. Many times when clients come to me and say, ‘let’s do that again,’ I’m very hesitant. I’m very straightforward and tell them you can go back to a hotel if you have a favorite room, but you cannot recreate some special happening or moment. You can’t.”
Case in point: One magic moment Steele designed for his clients took place in Salzburg at the Hotel Schloss Mönchstein. “It was snowing on Christmas Eve and the hotel put a real Christmas tree in their suite with real clip-on candles, which they still do in Europe. And the whole thing was magical,” says Steele. “Two years later they wanted to recreate that and bring other members of the family, but the weather was warm, it was raining and it was just something you couldn’t recreate.”
Steele, in fact, will not plan a vacation for someone until he has had the chance to determine what they really want from their trip. After he’s gone through this fact-finding process, they often find themselves going somewhere completely different from where they intended to go.
“That’s why most of my loyal clients realize they cannot find on the web what I try to create for them. My job is to sit down with people and feel them out, to determine what they are really looking for. That’s why it’s so important to really get to know your clients well. That’s why each trip is different. You can give someone an example of a trip, but I don’t want to do the same trip I’ve done for someone else for that person. It has to be personalized.”
Such a painstaking process leads to some extremely satisfied clients who are more than happy to spread the word of Steele Travel’s high level of service to their friends and colleagues. However, even though those referrals are great leads, Steele still proceeds cautiously.
“My first question for the people who referred them is, ‘Are these really good friends? Have you traveled with them? Do you know them well?’ Sometimes when you get a referral you might do more damage if you take them on, because if it doesn’t click, they will go back to your regular clients and that can do some damage. You have to be very, very careful.”
If he decides to proceed with the client, he does as much exploratory research with them as possible.
“They have to jot down what they like, what they don’t like, places they want to visit and what they’re thinking about. If it’s a family trip, then each family member has to send me a wish list. Or, if it’s a couple, they have to send me what they want to do, totally separately.”
These lists are truly meant to evoke a client’s concept of a fantasy vacation. “Even if you’re just going for a week and you’re thinking of going to 30 different places, I tell them not to worry about it, just put it all down and let me sort it out,” says Steele, who then develops an itinerary that factors in the distance between point A and point B.
Another challenge is if the prospective customers are friends of Steele’s ultra-affluent clients. Perhaps they’re not quite as affluent and that’s when budget comes into play. Then Steele has to be politely blunt.
“I’ve said, ‘How much are you planning on spending on this trip? Be very honest with me, don’t be embarrassed.’ And then we have to work from there.” In some cases, rather than booking these folks into the least expensive room in a five-star hotel, Steele would rather put them in a nicer room in a lower-rated property.
That logic, unfortunately, doesn’t always sell. “There are people who say, ‘Well, I can’t possibly stay at the other hotel. I could never come home and tell my friends I didn’t stay at [a certain hotel].’ There are those people. And then I say, ‘Okay, if you want to be on a budget at a five-star hotel then don’t come back to me and don’t call me in the middle of the night, saying, I don’t like my room, get me out of here.’”
To hear this, one can’t help but think his role is more that of a psychiatrist or therapist than a luxury travel advisor.
“I think that’s what we have to be anyway,” Steele says. “We have to do a lot of hand-holding and going that extra step.”
Rudi Steele flying around Mount Cook in New Zealand in a private plane.
Because he understands the psyche of his clients so well, he’s not threatened by the Internet in the slightest; in fact, he typically sends them to the web with instructions to browse through the vacation options he’s suggesting for them. (Steele says the idea of handing out hotel brochures is long gone.) “If it turns out someone wants to book direct, then they’re not my clients anyway,” he says.
Steele laughs when he notes how savvy consumers are now, having an opinion even on where they sit in the airplane. “They’ll look their spot up on seatguru.com and complain that their seat is ‘no good.’”
All of this pre-planning is as important as the vacation itself, he notes.
“It’s all about details and it’s all because people get excited. Planning and preparation for a trip is sometimes more important than the trip itself.”
While the majority of Steele Travel’s business was once logically generated from his Dallas base, it has grown into one that is international in scope. Many of the children and grandchildren of his original clientele still call him even though they’re living in New York or California or overseas. “It’s sort of like a doctor-patient relationship. If you go on a trip you have to call Rudi,” he says. “But that’s no problem at all nowadays with communication.”
Because Rudi Steele has long been profiled as an expert luxury travel advisor in some of the top consumer travel publications, he’s often contacted by those who have already booked their trips and now want to tap into his expertise to get an upgrade or added amenity. They’ve also read that Steele knows the general managers of the top hotels all over the world, a set of relationships they’d like to benefit from.
He admits that he is familiar with many, many hotel managers. “I know a lot of them and I follow them around to see where they’re going next,” he says. Those relationships are, of course, also cultivated and maintained by the fact that Steele spends one third of the year traveling to maintain and grow his base of knowledge. When he goes, he never checks in with the office since he trusts his agents 100 percent to take care of things.
“I will call back if there is a problem or if something needs to be done.
They know where they can reach me, but I don’t check up on them. I don’t have to because I fully trust everybody. That’s the case, even though I’m gone for three and four weeks at a time,” he says.
He does travel with a BlackBerry and laptop so that he can stay on top of his clients’ travel. Because he is electronically connected, most never know he is out of the office. Those who do know he travels a lot realize he is doing it to check things out for their own benefit.
Indeed, even when Steele made the quick visit to New York for this interview, he was on his BlackBerry communicating with clients in the Maldives and with the general manager of a Venice hotel, where some of his top clients were just checking in. During that call, Steele learned that the couple he’d sent there was being upgraded to the Presidential Suite, all thanks to a last-minute cancellation.
Steele’s own travels are not easy itineraries; his goal with each trip is to inspect as many hotels as possible. He recently visited Hong Kong three times, all on one trip, staying in three different hotels as part of his trek to Australia for the Virtuoso symposium.
Hong Kong Update
“The Peninsula in Hong Kong looks good, they’ve done a fantastic job, it’s refreshed and full of energy,” he reports. “The Four Seasons is in a great location and it’s a good hotel. I think that more and more the place to be now is no longer Kowloon, it’s Victoria. It’s the island where you have the Four Seasons and the Island of Shangri-La. And, of course, they’re reclaiming land. Pretty soon Kowloon and Victoria will touch. It no longer looks like a bay, it looks like a river.”
While he is clearly an expert at selling the world, Steele is also lauded for his expertise on Western Europe.
“I think Italy is still the place for Europe,” he says. “It’s expensive, but people will pay 700 to 800 euros per night for just a room—not a suite—in a deluxe hotel in Italy; whereas if you were to tell them the same price in Paris, or London, or New York they would rebel.”
Steele surmises that that’s because in Italy there are just a handful of ultra-luxury hotels such as the Cipriani (Venice), the Hotel Splendido (Portofino) and Villa d’Este (Lake Como), to name a few. “I mean, that’s it,” he says. “They’re wonderful and thank heavens I know all the people at those places.”
Steele says that he also sends people to Spain, “but it’s not the same experience.” He sees Croatia as an up and comer. “I love Croatia; it’s the new Italy coming up, when they have decent hotels.”
There are many tricks of the trade that Steele engages in to make a client’s trip a “wow.” They sound simple enough, but when executed, the results are absolutely brilliant.
“If you know a client likes a certain cocktail, tell the barman ahead of time. Just send the information in,” says Steele, noting that that practice follows the same philosophy of the bellman at the luxury hotel who reads the arriving guest’s name on their luggage tag and radios it in to the welcoming hotel staff, who then greet that guest by name.
Another tip? Before a client travels, research if it’s possible to request a laptop in the room so there’s no need for them to lug a personal computer across the world and, worse yet, through airport security. That’s a possibility at most of the major hotels these days, for the cost of about 20 euros, which is not much when someone is paying more than 1,000 euros a night for a room, says Steele.
Each of Steele’s A-listers requires a different level of care on a trip; some want a spelled-out itinerary with every contact name listed for every step of the journey, while others want just the details for the air and hotel. Regardless of their psyche, he always has them check to see how their cell phones will work overseas. He knows that if a client can’t even figure out how to dial through on their cell phone for assistance, the problem only gets exacerbated.
Steele also makes strong use of the hotel concierge; before finalizing an itinerary, his luxury travel advisors double check it with the concierge to ensure there are no potential conflicts, say, if plans fall on a national holiday or another special event when shops and museums might be closed. “These are the things you have to do, because otherwise, clients come home and say how come you didn’t tell me?”
He then hands the traveler over to the concierge for on-location planning.
“I think that is so much more beneficial for my clients instead of trying to do it myself with an outside company,” he says. “There’s no connection, no rapport.”
He is less liberal with his general manager contacts. “There are some people who would call the general manager if the alarm clock doesn’t work, so you have to weigh that,” he says.
Another big part of Steele’s business is selling villas, but it’s imperative that he has seen them first or that he knows the people who constantly check them. Yachts are also a strong niche; he uses a contact in Palm Beach who works for Camper & Nicholsons. “I fully trust her,” he says. “A yacht can be big, big business. We have people who rent a yacht for two or three weeks, usually around Turkey and Greece.”
Steele also does quite a bit in Alaska, noting that he uses Marc Télio’s new company, Entrée Alaska. Télio, who is the successful owner of the bespoke Entrée Canada, has also created a company around the Virgin Galactic space program for which Steele reveals he did the training for.“It was amazing,” he says, noting that he might eventually go up in space.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising to hear that Steele is very keen on selling active travel, such as biking and hiking trips. (He uses Backroads and Butterfield & Robinson). When booking such programs, he says it’s imperative to verify that the traveler is up to the experience. “You have to ask, ‘What is your level of fitness? And don’t lie to me because suddenly you’ll be there and you’ll realize you can’t do it.’”
Having turned down Ross Perot’s offer to make Rudi Steele Travel a huge enterprise early on, Steele has maintained a small agency ever since and he prefers it that way. His agents are quite loyal; most have been with him 10, 15, 20 years. In turn, Steele’s appreciation for his agents is strong. He is candid about the fact that his company will not get caught up in the mergers and acquisitions trend that has hit the travel agency industry. When he decides to stop selling travel, a plan that is not imminent, Steele says the company will be turned over to his existing employees. “I could never have done it without them,” he says. “When I get any recognition from anyone I always say, ‘It’s not just me; it’s the family.’”
For now, however, he’s not going anywhere. “Someone once asked me what my exit plans are,” he says with a laugh. “I said, ‘I die.’ People also ask me when I’m going to grow up and I say, ‘never.’”
Rudi Steele began his career in the travel industry more than 45 years ago in Zurich were he worked for the company, HotelPlan. After living in Montreal, he eventually ended up in San Francisco working for Thomas Cook, thereafter moving to Dallas to head up their office there. After a six-year stint as the manager for Neiman Marcus Travel in North Park, TX, Steele went out on his own and founded Rudi Steele Travel in 1978.
Since that very first day, Steele differentiated himself by offering a high level of personalized service. Here, he shares his philosophy on how to develop an itinerary that truly speaks to the traveler it’s being created for.
“Some clients need extra hand holding and others just need a confirmation from the hotel sent to their BlackBerry,” he says. “Each client is different and each itinerary is different. The secret is to always listen to your clients very carefully as they will tell you ‘all’ without your having to ask. People planning a vacation love to talk about it as that’s a very important part of the entire trip.
“One should also always be straightforward when it comes to budget and pricing, so there will never be any sudden surprises. The only surprise allowed is an upgrade and perhaps special amenities,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.