Many in the travel industry describe themselves as free spirits, but in the case of Hope Smith of Born to Travel, that’s exactly true. She’s been an independent travel advisor for more than 25 years and has never worked full time in an office setting. The energy she infuses into her $1 million-plus travel business is generated from the rich experiences she garners from road trips all over the world, and what road trips they are, paid for at her own expense that she’s planned out at her own pace to review new destinations and hotels. “I like the freedom of making my own decisions on what I want to see and do,” she says. “It’s more expensive, but in the long run I’m much happier and I have an open mind of what to sell. I also come back with so much knowledge that I can translate into sales.”
Curiosity also keeps Smith’s business thriving; that’s a trait she finely honed as a former Chicago police officer, a job she held for more than 21 years before going full time into travel. Having served on some very challenging details (think gang crimes and narcotics), Smith would slip away for vacations that got her away from the stress of her daily life.
“I would go to Mexico, and because of my inquisitiveness from being in the police department, I always had this detective mentality, I would always dig and say, ‘How does this work?’ and ‘Why do you do it this way?’ I became very friendly with the tourist offices in Mexico, with the people who could help me sell the destination in a different way, not just the all-inclusives,” she says.
Indeed, Smith became an expert in Mexico very early on (She was born in Monterrey but her family moved to Chicago when she was 10) and she’s been named the Mexico travel expert for Condé Nast Traveler twice.
And while Smith loves Mexico’s resort areas, she is enamored of the entire country, noting that the country’s tourism product keeps getting better and better.
“I know Mexico, and not just the beach, but all the other states which I have visited,” she says. “I’m so happy that business to Mexico has returned, and not only to the beach, but to its capital and the colonial towns.” She considers hot spots for the country to be Mexico City, for its food, markets, art, museums and architecture; the Yucatan Peninsula; Baja California; and the Copper Canyon.
Mexico is clearly her niche, but so is active travel. “I love the mountains, whether it’s sleeping in a refugio or a luxury lodge. I gave up camping many years ago, but I will do it if I have to! It’s all about the experience you have with nature and the outdoors,” she says.
When we recently caught up with Smith, she had just returned from Chile, marking her fourth trip to the country. “Every time I go, there’s a new lodge opening up. It’s exciting how these countries just keep getting better all the time,” Smith says.
In Chile, she took “challenging” hikes in Patagonia National Park and stayed at the new Awasi Patagonia, where, she says, “it’s all customized to create your own adventures. Nothing beats having your own vehicle, guide and being able to hike wherever you want to hike.”
In fact, being outdoors in such a manner is what Smith considers luxury adventure travel because she can learn about the destination she’s experiencing, mix with local people, learn about their cuisine and share the experiences with her clients.
“It’s all about immersing yourself where you are,” she says.
Keeping Smith pumped about selling luxury travel is her clients, who are avid explorers as well, something that keeps her from considering retirement.
“Every year is exciting when you have clients who are looking for new places to visit,” she tells us. “Travel is exciting; when you lose that spark it’s time to quit.” For now, however, she’s still quite dazzled with the many new travel possibilities out there for the clients, and she’s convinced, keeping herself educated about the new hotels and luxury lodges is a key to her agency’s success.
In fact, so integral is product knowledge to Smith’s game plan that she will not sell a hotel that she hasn’t seen firsthand to ensure she’s matching the right hotel to the right client.
“Luxury means so many different things to people,” she says, and for that reason she insists on selling hotels beyond the obvious luxury brands, especially if she feels there are better options for her clients. “My job is to fit the client with the property and the destination,” says Smith.
That very positive energy also keeps her clients thirsty for the type of knowledge and service that she can provide.This travel advisor already knows her clients fairly well, since most of them have been with her for more than two decades. Few live in California as she does, rather, they’re in Chicago, her former hometown, and many are her former police colleagues. Aside from speaking with them by phone, they’re all well aware of what she’s up to, for Smith has a robust presence on Facebook where she traces her journeys day by day. Photos posted there might show her on a motorcycle in Marrakech or sitting with a group of locals on the steps of a building in a town, with a caption that reads, “Travel ... it’s all about the people.”
“I have people who have shopped on the Internet and are so confused they give up and call me. I see that very often, especially to Mexico, where there are so many properties for couples, singles and families. They want to speak to me as the advisor who can get them to the right property,” she says.
Smith’s wanderlust also brought her to an entirely new region this year.
“I decided I wanted to visit the 'Stans' in April. I started talking to friends and clients about my trip. Three people jumped on board and decided they wanted to come with me. But as time went on and world politics started to change they got cold feet and wanted to cancel. I promised them I would become their bodyguard and we would have a great time. It was a challenge, but we went and it was a terrific trip. Next year we’re going to Iran in October; they are having second thoughts, but I remind them it will all work out. There are always challenges in travel, that’s why it’s so important to work with suppliers you know and trust, they’ll always take care of my clients and of me.”
Travel was always part of Smith’s DNA, ever since she took geography classes in grammar school and pondered about places like Spain and Italy. As soon as she graduated high school she ventured to Europe with two friends; KLM was selling $99 round-trip airline tickets and “Europe on $5 a Day” was their Bible. They bought a used car and drove through Europe for three months.
“I remember every minute; I remember being in Yugoslavia while it was still under Tito. I remember waiting outside the American Express offices waiting for mail or money to come from home. There was no Wi-Fi, no ATMs and no cell phones,” she recalls.
She also learned about the many types of accommodations available in Europe, staying in hostels and B&B's on some nights, then staying at an actual hotel in certain cities, a huge luxury at the time.
“Learning about the different types of travel really sank in,” she says.
Life took her on a few twists and turns; she became a paralegal, got married and was widowed at a young age. Friends of her husband suggested she try out for the Chicago Police Department; Smith found herself in the police academy; upon graduation she worked her way up in to gang crimes, narcotics and, for the last 12 years, to the team that served the younger Mayor Richard Daley’s detail. A generous allotment of vacation time meant Smith could travel far afield, and she did, going to the base camp of Mount Everest, to India and to Rwanda. (In fact, she met her husband, Ronald Smith in Argentina in 1990, after climbing Aconcagua, the highest point in the western hemisphere. They've now been married for 25 years.)
Eventually, the travel agency that booked her trips asked her to come in on her off days to help its agents learn about destinations and to explain to them the logistics of getting from one place to another practically. Smith found that exciting until the agency asked her to learn the GDS; she politely declined and stayed just a few months after that.
“I knew there was more to travel than airline tickets,” she says.
It was the early ’70s and Smith read about Joanie Ogg and how to become an independent travel agent. Ogg advised her to get her CTC, and continued to advise Smith as she developed her travel business, which back then was selling mass market vacations to Las Vegas and Jamaica to her fellow police officers. By the ’80s, Smith had read about Susan Ferrell of Travel Experts, the independent travel agent network that belonged to the luxury travel consortia API, which has since morphed into Virtuoso. The move meant Smith was on the path to selling bespoke travel and she has since taken just one break from it; that was 10 years ago when her husband’s job prompted the couple to move to California. Smith took a one-year hiatus to get settled. When she got back into the travel business she became an affiliated independent contractor with Montecito Village Travel that has alliances with Virtuoso, Travel Leaders and Tzell, which she considers a great combo. “The education that all three have for agents is fantastic,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “And of course, being able to attend Virtuoso Travel Week and meet so many of our suppliers provides a wealth of knowledge. I am what I am today because of Virtuoso; I owe them the expertise they have shown me through educational trips, webinars, assistance from staff and the constant positive attitude they have for their agents.”
When it comes to working with suppliers, Smith works within and outside of the Virtuoso network. She meets many by attending ILTM in Cannes, or Pure, and, of course, Virtuoso Travel Week.
“I develop relationships with suppliers just as I have with clients,” she says. “I try to get the supplier involved early on and might have three-way conversations to make sure we are on track and not wasting time.”
Smith also likes to support smaller suppliers, such as those she meets at the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) Summit, an event she's been attending since its inception in 2005.
Looking ahead, Smith’s goal is to keep educating herself in order to fulfill her clients’ travel dreams. “The more I know, the better I can sell these destinations. The energy that I have from where I just came from makes me want to talk to all my clients and advise them — this is a trip for them,” she says.
She’ll also keep refining her definition of luxury travel, which for her will always include that authentic angle. “I once thought luxury had to be about staying in an incredible suite and having that bottle of champagne,” says Smith. “That is definitely luxury, but luxury also could be sitting on a beach with a fisherman, fishing for your meal, cooking it and then going back to your suite. To me now, the luxury was catching and cooking the fish and talking to that local.”
Born To Travel
Owner: Hope Smith
Headquarters: Sierra Madre, CA
Annual Revenue: $1 million-plus
Niches: Mexico, safaris, hiking and adventure trips
Affiliations: Independent contractor with Montecito Village Travel; Virtuoso, Travel Leaders and Tzell
Boards: Saveur Advisory Board; Ski Travel Advisory Board
Advisor Insight: An Insider’s Mexico
“Luxury adventure comes in many forms of accommodations, but the rush for adrenaline adventures can be found in almost every state of Mexico,” says Hope Smith of Born to Travel.
“In the state of Colima, my all-time favorite hidden jewel is Hacienda de San Antonio, a 19th-century restored mansion on a 470-acre working ranch with an organic farm that makes its own cheese. I like this hacienda because of its hiking trails and you can even hike to the nearby volcano.
“Its sister property, Cuixmala, is on the beach and they can be combined. This property is set on 25,000 acres with a manor home, villas and casitas. There is scuba diving, horseback riding, hiking and kayaking. It’s all a great combo,” she says.
Smith also favors Copper Canyon in Mexico. “It combines hiking, birding and a trip on a train. It’s a great adventure for families and it includes the chance to encounter the Tarahumara Indians. There’s also the Copper Canyon Adventure Park for zip lining.”
Where to stay? Smith recommends The Copper Canyon Riverside Lodge and Hotel Mirador.
Here’s another tip from Smith for a hidden gem in Mexico.
“Many people don’t know about The Explorean Kohunlich; it’s in the Mayan rainforest in Chetumal in the state of Quintana Roo,” she tells us. “It’s nature at its best; it’s rustic, but with all the modern amenities. I like this resort because it’s so removed from all that we know in the Riviera Maya. You can bike through the rainforest and visit archeological sites, kayak and rappel in the jungle and experience the Mayan culture.”