Super Bowl weekend is one of the most celebrity-studded events of the year. Usually reserved for warm-weather cities, such as Phoenix, San Diego or Miami, this year’s big game was held in Dallas, where, along with freezing temperatures, snow amassed not only on the roof of Cowboys Stadium, but along Interstate 30 and State Highway 360 leading into the house that Jerry Jones built. It was hardly ideal for football’s biggest weekend and worse for those trying to get to the big game—particularly stranded celebrities.
|David Odaka started All Star Travel Group in 2003. Among his A-list of clients includes actor Will Ferrell and tennis star Serena Williams.|
That’s when David Odaka, founder and president of All Star Travel Group in Los Angeles, steps in. In this case, one client, tennis superstar Serena Williams, had her flight out of Fort Lauderdale canceled due to the inclement weather that had clamped down on Texas and most of Middle America. For Odaka, travel is a 24/7 job, so it was no surprise when he received an early-morning call from a needful Williams.
“First, I arranged a flight for her out of Miami,” Odaka tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “Second, I arranged for a limo to pick her up and take her to the airport. We got her there.”
All in a day’s work for Odaka, whose list of clients is as impressive as it is long. In fact, it’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla as he ticks them off: actors John Cusack and Will Ferrell and NBA star Kevin Garnett, to name just a few A-listers. (He is also a frequent dinner companion of TV personality Ryan Seacrest.) Odaka also lists many famous musicians as clients along with a bevy of high-powered businesspeople and companies.
Odaka has turned the rare trick of leveraging a corporate business for leisure. “Our biggest account is William Morris Endeavor,” says Odaka of the group headed by Ari Emanuel, the inspiration for the character, Ari Gold, on the HBO show, Entourage. “We handle their business travel and it flows to leisure. If it’s a music agent, we’re helping an artist on their tour or concert; if it’s an actor, we’re helping them get to their set. When the tour ends or the movie wraps, they call and say, ‘We need a vacation.’ They see how responsive we are and how we get things done and open doors.”
|At Londolozi camp in South Africa during a game drive.|
Odaka has cultivated the entertainment business since he started in travel back in 1981 with a small agency called Travel International in Beverly Hills. “I really learned from the agents there how to do individual travel, and at the same time we were trying to build a kind of entertainment division. It was something new and it was more a younger person’s field, which fit me."
After his stint with Travel International, Odaka joined Altour in 1999, before striking out on his own four years later and opening All Star Travel Group, which is a branch of Tzell Travel. At first, the agency operated on a referral-only model, which worked. “I can trace it back to three people,” he says. “One was an agent, another an entertainment lawyer and the third a money manager. I was able to build up the entertainment business because they would say, ‘Oh, talk to this guy.’”
|Odaka at Camp Jabulani in South Africa. He says South Africa is his favorite place to visit and sell.|
While Odaka’s star rose fast, it didn’t all come easy; like any successful story, it took a resolute work ethic. “It’s not so much luck,” Odaka says. “It’s commitment to the job and putting in the time. Clients expect you to answer your phone at 3 a.m., and they don’t want to talk to your assistant—they want you.”
And that’s how Odaka prefers it. He is known as a president who still acts like a frontline agent. “That’s really what makes me and this company unique,” he says. “I’m on the frontline at least 50 percent of the time.”
Odaka just returned from a trip to check out the Four Seasons Park Lane in London, and Paris’ new Shangri-La. By doing so, he was able to work up personal contact with the general mangers and directors of sales. “That’s basically what it’s all about,” he says. “Networking with those types of people is really important.”
|Snorkeling at Four Seasons Bora Bora during the hotel company’s advisory board meeting.|
Odaka says it’s not enough to just have a quick meet-and-greet, but to spend real quality time. In London, he went out to dinner and then saw Billy Elliot with Dorchester, London executives. On a recent trip to Paris, he stayed at Hôtel Plaza Athénée and Le Meurice, both of the Dorchester Collection, and went out clubbing with sales staff from each hotel. “You’re really having personal time together and after that, the business comes their way.”
Though interacting with Tinseltown’s finest is a thrilling proposition, Odaka notes that his bread-and-butter clients are the high-net-worth financiers, investment bankers and CEOs. “They have tons of money, don’t expect things free and just really want you to do the job right,” Odaka says. While doing travel for athletes and celebrities is exciting, the true windfall is arranging travel for the owners of sports teams and other high-powered heads of companies—the men and women who sign the checks (Steve Tisch, owner of the New York Giants, is a client, as is the Crown family, which owns the Chicago Bulls and the Little Nell in Aspen, among other assets).
Odaka recently put together a London trip for members of the McCaw family, which is big in telecommunications. “It starts when they land on their private jets,” Odaka says. “They had kids in tow, so we arranged for them to go see Grease and get backstage access to take pictures with the actors and the cars. We also arranged for them to have a private London Eye capsule, instead of being huddled with 30 other people.”
Odaka has another client visiting India soon to judge the Cartier Vintage Car Show. He’s using the Aman New Delhi, The Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra and the Taj Rambagh Palace in Jaipur. “I never pick a property based on Virtuoso or Signature or something like that,” Odaka says. “What I try to do is fit the right property to the right customer.”
If there is one thing Odaka knows, it is the nuances of luxury—and he’s particular. For instance, if a hotel advertises English butler service, well, according to Odaka, that butler better be English. He’s also a stickler for common sense. “If you’re going to send an amenity of cheese to a guest room, you need to send plates and knives, too,” he says. “A lot of hotels don’t follow through with all the details.”
While Odaka creates over-the-top travel experiences for his clients, he’s also providing the services of a lifestyle concierge. “We’re in the fulfillment business,” Odaka says. “We fulfill requests—whatever they might be.” From the normal: an actress needing a peach-colored clutch to match her dress for the Oscars; to the bizarre: a private jet-landing and a request for blankets because the plane was freezing (“I had to call someone in Maine and get them to go to Walmart to buy some duvets,” Odaka says).
While Odaka has carved out a profitable niche for All Star Travel on the West Coast, his agency has benefited from its affiliation with Tzell, which actually runs its West Coast operations from All Star’s Los Angeles office. “They provide a huge volume and infrastructure that as a medium-to-small company I wouldn’t necessarily have on my own,” Odaka says. “They have a huge business, and because they’re crossing over so many lines, it’s a great economy of scale.”
Their relationship is also symbiotic. “Tzell has a division that only services huge ‘fulfillments,’ like millions of people and millions of dollars of revenues. So, if I can’t handle a lead like that, I’ll send it up to them and they’ll take care of it. In turn, I’ll get a finder’s fee or sometimes compensation for giving them that lead,” Odaka says. “Vice versa, if they get a really high-end lead that requires high touch, and not a call center, they’ll refer that down to me—something that I can service more effectively.”
All Star Travel also has a relationship with Signature Travel Network, which Odaka praises for its attention to technology and ability to deliver added value.
As for the future, All Star Travel will roll out an online booking tool on its website, a move, Odaka says, he’s resisted. “I’ve been fighting it because I really felt that we were not that kind of agency,” Odaka says. “We were the people that you could call and I pride myself on the fact that if you call the office, somebody will answer the phone. We are personable and that’s how we built our business.”
Luxury Travel Advisor also learned that Odaka plans to expand All Star Travel this year. While he’s reluctant to offer the details, he says the plan is to “expand into a specific demographic location.”
Although his clients are some of the most cutting-edge, forward people, Odaka still considers himself a travel advisor in the classic sense. “I’m a person that’s caught between two generations,” he says. “I was trained classically at a young age, but I’ve finally realized and am on board with trying to figure how I’m going to use technology to move this company into the next phase.”
It can be a tough transition: he built his business on his reputation and the good word of others. “I’ve been very hesitant to really move away from the old referral model,” he admits, touting the importance of customer interaction. “Where it’s going now, you don’t even meet these people. You talk over the phone or you don’t even talk over the phone, you’re just e-mailing them. It’s becoming very impersonal, but I’m realizing this is how the new generation communicates. It’s something I have to embrace.”