Shelby Donley and team deliver hands-on, white-glove service to clients craving luxury.
Shelby Donley may appear to be one of the luxury travel industry’s up-and-comers, after all, she’s only been in the business since 2008 and she’s still in her early 30s. However, upon meeting her, one realizes that Donley, by all accounts, is an accomplished businesswoman who is already on her second successful career.
That second career is as owner and president of Camelback Odyssey Travel, a 55-year-old bespoke travel agency, based in the financial heart of the metro-Phoenix area. Donley purchased the business two years ago from Ian Danvers, who had already built the agency into a strong brand. Today, the business produces $10 million in revenue annually, with luxury travel being the main driver for growth.
Another sign of Donley’s success? Being named Virtuoso’s Rising Star for 2010, an achievement that firmly cements her place in the world of luxury travel advisors.
Success came early to Donley, a native Texan who came to Phoenix for college and never left. She started selling advertising and found out she was good at it, even though that wasn’t necessarily the career path she’d planned.
“I enjoyed it and I grew really fast,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “The one thing about corporate America is that you are well compensated, but then you blink and it’s like your life is passing you by. Even though I had three weeks off a year, there was part of me that felt like I was missing out, that I had to get off that track.”
Donley contemplated taking the entrepreneurial route by launching or buying a business. Travel had never even been a consideration for her until her mother-in-law, Betsy Donley, a very successful travel advisor at Camelback Odyssey Travel, casually mentioned at a football game that Ian Danvers, the owner of the agency, was considering selling the business. “Well, maybe I want to buy it,” Donley recalls saying offhandedly.
This was no small business they were talking about: Camelback Odyssey Travel had enjoyed 30 years of success with Danvers as owner and was known for its superb travel advisors and high level of service.
|Shelby Donley is one of the industry’s young stars, having bought Camelback Odyssey Travel in 2008.|
Danvers and Donley connected and established a dialogue that went on for quite some time. “I didn’t know if it was right for me and he didn’t know if he was ready to sell,” she recalls. “But there were some commonalities in our personalities in the way we solved things, and we had similar visions.”
Donley closed the purchase of Camelback Odyssey Travel in October 2008. The timing wasn’t great, since, by then, the economy was starting to slide, especially in Phoenix, a city that was hit particularly hard.
“It was difficult walking into a business with no previous knowledge and no history in an industry with people who are very well established,” Donley says. “But they got onboard quickly and gave me their support right away, and that’s what made it possible for us to thrive in such difficult conditions.” She also cites the support of Danvers, who continued to visit the office and to this day is part of the culture of the agency.
She also had the strong backing of Virtuoso, the luxury travel consortium of which Camelback Odyssey remains a member. “[CEO] Matthew Upchurch told me how the business was changing from a transactional agency model where your frontline travel agents were the agents of the airlines and the cruise lines, to where, now, as advocates for our clients, we create customized experiences for them.”
The sage advice was timely for Donley, who noted that as the economy continued its steep downturn, the agency’s luxury business grew as the mid-market business declined. “It got to the point where clients were booking their second and third trips before they’d even left for their first,” she says. Donley attributes this to the fact that luxury consumers were changing their mindsets; instead of valuing the kind of car they drove, they were craving something to look forward to as an escape. “Travel had become an outlet for feeling good, more about ‘I need a break and this is my reward for my hard work,’” she says.
The luxury business also picked up as Donley applied some tactics learned from her previous life in advertising, in particular, building a trip proposal for clients. This strategy replaced the act of sending out e-mail campaigns asking for about $50,000 of business, she says.
“I felt like we needed to take the next step,” says Donley, who adds that the agency’s trip proposals include photos and historical information about the destination the client is going to. If the itinerary includes a resort, it’s likely the agency would provide an aerial shot of the property pointing out where the room is in relation to the pool or the ocean.
“Then we’ll put in our favorite restaurants and recommend which nights to eat there, as well as activities because that’s the whole experience,” she says. Instead of writing a one-line sentence about a guided tour of a museum, Camelback Odyssey Travel provides details of the things they’ll see, with photos. “It makes it all come to life a little bit more; it makes it all a bit more tangible,” she says.
Customization is the name of the game. For those clients who don’t want to do motorcoach tours during cruise port calls, the agency creates land programs to ensure every day is well spent. It will also reserve dining and spa sessions for them on board the ship.
For full land programs in Europe, the agency will go into details of where the client’s hotel is and which restaurants and shops are within walking distance.
This is all quite similar to structuring an advertising marketing program for a client, Donley says. “We’d build the whole campaign and then present it to them,” she says. “That’s very similar to what we’re doing here, we’re literally building a campaign for their trip.”
Creating such detailed presentations takes time, so the work is delegated to those advisors in the office who are comfortable with customizing documents using PowerPoint and Publisher templates. Another advisor takes the proposals and prepares a VIP Welcome Pack that’s sent off to the client with a big bow tied around it.
The work creates a good buzz around the office, with all of the advisors taking pride and ownership in the process. This translates into excitement for the client, says Donley. “It gives us the feeling that we are doing more than just selling a product for somebody else,” she says.
Camelback Odyssey Travel’s clientele is global and often comes via word of mouth and through referrals, says Donley, “even though we may not have a storefront agency in their town.” Word travels, she says, because these clients “are looking for a like-minded person who really can execute in a manner that’s very hands-on, with white-glove service.”
Her clientele also grows through her own network of acquaintances who compliment her on her “glamorous, rock-star lifestyle.”
“It’s really anything but, though I am happy for it to look that way because it’s a really good advertisement for the business,” she says, noting that she’s recently been to Greece, France and Australia for the Virtuoso Overseas Symposium last year.
“When I run into people, they always say, ‘Tell me where you have just been or where you’re going next.’ For me, this sets a good image because that’s really what people are interested in.”
Donley also takes advantage of leads she receives from Virtuoso, “which enable you to get connected with really strong clients. If you put your best foot forward it’s as if they can’t get enough of your services,” she says. “Despite the stereotype that travel agents are going out of business and nobody needs us anymore, it’s actually quite the opposite. People are so hungry for that hands-on custom experience because it’s not easy to find.”
The agency also provides the service of coordinating trips with family members, even helping to negotiate family politics; if a brother and sister want to do one thing and the parents prefer to do another, she’ll play the traffic cop to get everyone on the same page in terms of itinerary and price.
Camelback Odyssey Travel charges fees and Donley explains to clients that the agency is not more expensive than others, it’s that “we are providing a different type of service.” That its advisors shop different properties to determine their value offerings often means the clients are actually saving money.
Charging a fee also lets the client know that the agency is choosing the product that is best suited for them, and not the one that pays the higher commission—which develops a sense of trust. “It also makes the client more vested in the process; it also puts pressure on us to make sure we are delivering something to them,” says Donley.
This white-glove service is achieved with a healthy blend of advisors who have been with Camelback Odyssey Travel for tenures that stretch over 10-20 years, as well as some newcomers. Altogether, the agency has 30 travel advisors, most of them independent contractors. Three of them—Karen Benson, Betsy Donley and Cassandra Bookholder—made the latest Travel + Leisure A-List of agents.
“That’s one of the things that makes the business so great, we have an amazing group of really talented, richly traveled, independent contractors. I feel so immensely proud that their repertoire of travel is something I can learn a lot from,” says Donley, who notes that the team is also quick to help teach the younger travel advisors. “So instead of being an environment of animosity, it’s an environment where everyone mutually benefits.”
When she interviews prospective travel advisors, she observes how they dress for the meeting. “I figure when they come for the interview, they are probably wearing their nicest clothes. I look at their level of professionalism and then of course go check out their Facebook and MySpace pages.”
Donley says she is very upfront about what her expectations are and adamant that advisors respect the company’s culture, which includes the credo that preferred suppliers are the agency’s partners. “They do not work for us. It is a respectful relationship. We don’t call and berate people or beat them up over price. We may want to have a conversation about negotiating something based on what we are bringing on the table but we are respectful to them. That’s really important to me.”
When it comes to sales training, she explains to new advisors that this is no longer a transactional environment. “It’s about what the clients’ needs are and how we deliver on those needs.” She has new agents practice sending e-mails to clients, to be sure they’re written correctly and in the right tone.
It doesn’t end there. Two senior advisors train them on how to speak on the phone. “How we answer the phone is our first interaction. If we’re short with someone or sound like we’re too busy, that’s sending a really loud message about our service overall.”
Then come the practice sessions; Donley has her new advisors listen in on client calls to observe how a rapport is built. When it’s time to write up trip proposals, there are at least 100 templates to use. New advisors are also exposed to product training provided by suppliers. Then Donley likes to get them traveling as soon as possible.
“Most of the people who are new in this office are on a trip within three months because that’s how they are going to build the passion that they can share with the clients,” she says.
It’s key that new hires realize the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. “They don’t see the Friday nights that I am taking phone calls or the dinners I walk out of because I am taking a phone call. And I like to personally answer every single e-mail,” says Donley.
Another time-consuming factor to consider? “High-net worth individuals deal with you on their terms, so they’ll call you back on a Saturday or Sunday when it’s good for them.” It’s important to take these calls, she says, because such people are often not available come Monday morning, when their work week is already back in full gear.
Meeting Face to Face
The downturn in Phoenix real estate enabled Donley to secure some stunning office facilities in a 3,000-square-foot space in the affluent Biltmore Estates area of Phoenix. She rented it fully furnished with beautiful southwestern style accoutrements such as Spanish tiling, wooden floors and even a fireplace. It worked out well; Donley says she wanted an office that was consistent with the type of travel that her clients do and with the Camelback Odyssey Travel brand. “If we are trying to put together beautiful itineraries based on our taste level and our professional experience, our environment better reflect it,” she says.
It’s easy to invite her clients up to the office for a visit in such a setting, which establishes a scene for the good, old-fashioned way of communicating.
“It’s kind of back to the future,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “One of the things I was successful at in advertising was relationship-building and it’s hard to build a relationship over the phone. In this day and age so much is done over e-mail, so we really encourage clients, even those who have been with us for a long time, to come in and sit down and talk or to go to lunch. They are thrilled and eager to do it, it’s all part of the trip experience,” she says.
She takes the face-to-face strategy much further, making it a common practice to get on an airplane to visit those clients whose trip portfolio demands it. “Once the trip goes to six figures, I let the travel advisor know that I would like to go and visit the client. We have to get to know them as people and what appeals to them, then we can really understand what we can do.”
|Team Camelback (left to right): Leyna Huber, Shelby Donley, Jonathan Phillips, Valerie Rooney, Tracy Donley and Lisa Appelbe. The agency has a diverse mix of advisors—some who have been there 20 years to those just starting their careers in travel.|
This practice can help understand them on a most basic level. Donley traveled to Atlanta recently to visit clients she’d previously only spoken to on the phone. She’d thought they were “much older;” it turned out they were in their 30s, just like her. That discovery made her rethink all of the itineraries she’d been planning for them, particularly their cruise travel, “which needs to be age-appropriate.”
Clients are surprised whenever Donley tells them she’s coming for a visit, but she’s found that it makes for a lasting friendship. “You can learn more over dinner with somebody than in a year of working over the telephone and over e-mail.”
Donley says that the biggest source of growth for her client base is from a younger, affluent demographic in their late 20s and early 30s “who don’t want to do it themselves but don’t like the idea of using their parents’ travel agent. So when they find out that we’re more of a travel advising firm, they love it. They feel good, too, in dealing with a person with a similar lifestyle. We can have conversations about where to go out at night and which clubs that I went to that they might like. It’s a dynamic experience when you are both interested in the same type of things.”
Cultivating relationships with partners is “hugely important” to what Camelback Odyssey Travel is about, says Donley. “I think it’s really important that we are consistent and that we support them. It builds a stronger partnership that lets us deliver more for our client.”
The agency benefits from frequent supplier visits, perhaps even more than it would typically since the American Express Platinum call center is also in Phoenix.
“We get the entire world, so we are unbelievably lucky,” she says, noting that Camelback Odyssey Travel strives to take every Virtuoso supplier requesting an appointment. “Even though we may not be selling their product now, we might need them tomorrow,” she says.
Preferred suppliers are many. However, Donley points to Crystal Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Heritage Tours in New York, which covers South Africa and Madrid. She’s also been doing strong business with Sea Song in Turkey.
“I have called [Sea Song owner] Karen Fedorko on a Sunday afternoon when it’s some odd hour in Istanbul and she gets on the phone and makes it all happen. When we can deliver that, all of a sudden we have got a client for life. Those are the people who make us look really great, they are the ones who have really helped build our success.”
Speaking of success, Donley doesn’t have a set size she wants to expand Camelback Odyssey Travel to, but she knows she wants to do so with like-minded advisors, who may not even be in the travel industry yet. “I think there are a lot of people like me who are really successful at what they do but who want something different and more enrichment in their lives. That’s where a lot of our growth is going to come from,” she says.
Ironically, Donley left corporate America for a career in the travel industry to gain more balance in her life, but these days, she’s working twice as much as she did previously, “and I worked a lot before,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. But she has no regrets and, in fact, seems to be enjoying it all.
“There has not been one day I have looked back and thought, ‘Oh, I wish I had my old life back,’” she says.