Kay Merrill is on a roll. The owner of Are We There Yet? Family Adventures was just recognized for her outstanding sales in 2015 by her host agency, Andavo Travel, that’s the fourth year in a row she’s received the accolade. The luxury travel advisor, who is based in northern California, was also named as a top family travel specialist in December by Condé Nast Travel, marking the 11th time she’s been on the list.
The world of luxury travel is as enticing as ever to Merrill, and that’s after 22 years of being in the business. “It’s exciting and challenging to stay up to date on the abundance of new luxury products announced over the last year, and I enjoy helping my clients who are often overwhelmed with this flood of new product,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. That includes a litany of Four Seasons’ hotels set to debut across the world, new ocean and river vessels from Crystal Cruises, routes to new markets from Emirates and exotic itineraries being added on by tour companies and ground operators. “If there’s any destination you want to visit, there’s probably an outstanding option available to experience it or one that’s coming out soon,” says Merrill.
Her clientele is adventure driven, yet they seek luxury accommodations and services, she tells us. They’re based in the U.S. and abroad, having found Merrill via word of mouth and from seeing her listed consistently as a family travel specialist in consumer publications. Many hail from the high-income Marin County, just north of San Francisco, where Merrill is based. “Marin is a small county where I’ve retained repeat clients and I usually acquire their friends,” says Merrill. “My clients like to get out there in the day and get involved, maybe even get a little dirty. They enjoy fun activities; but at night, they want to come back to feather pillows, nice sheets, a superb meal and maybe a massage. They like to be blown away by the day’s adventures and like to travel in style.”
She reports that her clients generally fall into four groups:
1. Families with older children who appreciate active trips to adventurous destinations and are looking for cultural experiences;
2. Multigenerational family groups who want an experience fitting their various needs, and who want professional coordination for the logistical complexities;
3. Several families traveling together who would like to be immersed in a destination and want to enrich their experience of the culture and history;
4. Couples traveling together also comprise a large portion of her business. Once their children have grown up, the empty nesters want to travel with their adult family friends. Merrill promotes her services to this group under the title of “It’s Our Time.”
Accommodating special needs is another of her specialties. She recently booked a very high-end family of four from New York to India during Christmas. The challenge was that the father is confined to a wheel chair, so Merrill found luxury hotels that would work well for him and coordinated with a ground operator who could specifically assist with his sightseeing needs. “My DMC was able to hire the appropriate staff to lift him and his chair so he could visit certain forts and palaces with his family,” says Merrill. “We arranged for a car and driver that would work with his wheel chair and made all dinner reservations with this in mind.” Best part? “All the plans were taken care of in a way that was not embarrassing or awkward. My clients came back extremely grateful,” she says.
Plotting out multigenerational family trips of 20 to 25 people are also one of Merrill’s fortes. Her tip? Begin the planning process by finding the right destination agreeable to everyone. The next hurdle is often being able to confirm a large number of rooms in a smaller luxury hotel, typically during the holidays. Next up on the list of challenges is “booking the air from around the world on the same or varying dates depending on each client’s individual work and school schedules,” she says. It all sounds daunting, but Merrill says she appreciates such challenges and feels “very accomplished when all the parts are in place.”
With such a strong book of business, one would imagine Merrill could have easily expanded her agency to a larger size over the years, but working on her own fits her style best and besides, she realized at one point that her clients wanted to speak only to her, wanting to hear her specific knowledge, experiences and personal opinions. “I’m basically a one-woman show,” says Merrill, who has kept her annual $2 million-plus sales volume steady for five years as a sole proprietor. “I’ve tried several assistants and prefer the freedom of keeping it small and personal. There’s something to be said for answering only to your clients and yourself,” she says.
And while her business is her own, she prefers to work in a large private office at Andavo Travel’s Larkspur headquarters, where she enjoys the communal environment working with 12 other high-producing consultants.
“It’s motivating to be in an office and far less isolating than working from home,” she says. On site as well are two Andavo “air gurus” to help out the independent contractors as well as other administrative support staff, including a new social media director. Merrill says she uses all the Andavo services available. “They allow me the time to do what I do best: sell travel.”
Luxury educational trips keep her selling skills current; she sometimes takes as many as six a year. Most recently, she visited Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Dubai, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe and South Africa, Burma, Turkey and Greece, Bhutan, New Zealand, Fiji and Tahiti. Closer to home, she’s visited Arizona, Montana, Florida, New York and even done some exploring in her own backyard of California.
No matter where she is, she makes it a point to inspect all of the luxury hotels in a destination, investigating the actual guestrooms and the restaurants and bars. She also makes it a point to connect with the concierges there. It can be a lot of work at times, but it has its benefits.
“I’m inspired by every trip I take. I always return highly motivated and enthusiastic,” says Merrill.
With her Andavo Travel association (the host company has 120 independent contractors affiliated with its Marin, Denver and Alabama offices), Merrill has Virtuoso as her consortia; she was voted as that network’s “most admired advisor” in 2011, a highly contested category amongst the candidates. She says she appreciates Virtuoso’s high standards and how it’s developed consumer awareness of the brand. “Its hotel amenities are a huge plus and clients always ask for them,” she says. “The new website is a huge improvement, and I utilize its immediate access to hotel and suppliers daily. Having been in advertising, I find the Virtuoso marketing pieces the best in the industry and I am proud to send them to my clients — they make me look good.” She’s also a fan of Virtuoso’s continued training, which includes Webex classes. Bottom line? Merrill feels the network listens to its agent members “and gives us what we need, even if we have not identified what our needs are yet. They are miles ahead of the curve.”
The Journey to Advisor
It’s wanderlust that led Merrill into her very successful career of travel consulting. As a teenager, she studied art history and lived for a semester abroad in a 13th-century convent in Fiesole, Italy. She had multiple other adventures as well. “I sailed across the Sea of Cortez and up the coast of Baja on a 43-foot sail boat, drove through Mexico to Guatemala in a VW Van, traveled throughout Europe by train — all between the ages of 19 to 25,” she reports. When it was time to launch a career, she chose advertising and spent 15 years running her own agency, Graphis, in Northern California, designing, packaging and collateral for wines, waters and ice cream. It was also the inception of the health food industry and Graphis introduced many new products in that niche to consumers.
Pictured: Kay Merrill is shown here in the Aegean region of Turkey, near Marmaris, on an excursion provided by Sea Song.
Along the way, she got married and had a son and so family travel became her expertise. Finding she was also sharing her knowledge with friends, she decided to become a travel advisor. Getting started was a snap as Merrill used her advertising and marketing know-how to promote herself.
“I was one of the first in the industry to recognize that the family travel market calls for a unique response to a range of needs. I basically packaged myself before people were actually coming up with these markets. I came up with a cute little logo and the [Are We There Yet?] name; people didn’t really do that then,” she recalls.
Are We There Yet? was launched with a newsletter that Merrill distributed to her son’s soccer team. The agency’s humble mailing list (promotions were hand-addressed and sent out by traditional post at the time) eventually grew from 200 to 6,000. Her newsletter is still a vital part of her business, but now it’s sent in the form of an e-mail blast to her Constant Contact list; most recently she promoted Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Merrill says she enjoys working on itineraries for new places, taking disparate destinations and connecting them. “It’s like a puzzle with all these little pieces and when you put it all together, you finally have the right picture of what you want and what you’re trying to achieve,” she says.
“Traveling is not something you’re good at. It’s something you do. Like breathing.” That’s a popular quote by Gayle Forman that Merrill uses as her mantra for her personal life and her business. She says it inspires her. “I wake up most days excited to have an office to go to, and I often wonder what new destination I’ll work on today. Will it be Africa, Antarctica, South America or Bhutan? There are always more destinations to explore and adventures to enjoy,” she says.
The good news for her clients is that this top-producing advisor doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon.
“I will continue wandering and hopefully inspiring my friends and clients to do the same, to explore and learn more about the world,” Merrill tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
Are We There Yet? Family Adventures
Locaton: Larkspur, CA
Owner: Kay Merrill
Annual volume of business: $2 million
Affiliation: Andavo Travel, Virtuoso
Agency website: www.arewethereyetadventures.net