Cover Story: Focus on Plaza Travel

 

Steve Orens
Steve Orens started his travel career by joining a family business he has grown dramatically over 10 years. He is shown here at the Montage Beverly Hills.

Steve Orens, president of Plaza Travel, sits in the VIP lounge of Barcelona El Prat Airport, blogging about the fabulous dinner he had the night before at El Celler de Can Roca, just over an hour from the port of Barcelona in Girona. The feast had included a wine-pairing for 14 courses.

“It’s the second top-rated restaurant in the world!” he calls over as he types, conscious that his laptop battery has only 45 more minutes to live. He works intensely, chatting occasionally and the moment he is done, he comes around to share the photos he took the night before, of olives that were prepared for each diner and then hung from a bonsai tree on each table. Orens was on his way back from a trip to Europe that had included sailing on the christening cruise for Oceania’s new Riviera ship.

Orens is absolutely delighted with the meal he’s just had and with his entire experience in Barcelona. But if you get to know him well enough, you’ll understand it’s not only the travel that excites him, it’s being an integral part of this industry that makes him smile every morning when he walks into his Encino, CA, office of Plaza Travel, a SoCal travel agency with three area locations that generate $50 million in sales annually. With a staff of 75, it’s a member of the Signature Travel Network and is closely associated with the top luxury brands such as Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Orient-ExpressBellini Club, Classic Vacations and Destination Hotels & Resorts via dedicated participation in advisory boards and loyalty programs.

“For the last 22 years I have been learning and growing with the travel industry,” says Orens. “I have always been interested in moving and expanding my knowledge and relationships. Each day I wake up, I’m excited to work on a new opportunity and to continue working on all the business opportunities I had been dealing with. I love the people I get to work with, all the staff in my offices, the vendors and my peers, and especially working in one of the best industries in the world.”

 

Plaza Travel

President: Steve Orens

Headquarters: Encino, CA

Annual Volume: $50 million

Locations: Three—Encino, Santa Monica and Universal City

Overall staff: 75

Consortia: Signature Travel Network

Affiliations: Four Seasons Preferred Partner, The Ritz-Carlton STARS program, Orient-Express Bellini Club and TAMS

Advisory Boards: Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Classic Vacations, and Destination Hotels & Resorts

Industry Accolades: Vice chairman of Signature Travel Network, CTIE Certified Travel Industry Certificate

Website: www.plazatravel.com

 

 

The agency’s VIP clients include Hollywood production companies, entertainment personalities and affluent families across all industries and across the U.S., all of which inspire Plaza Travel’s mantra of “We focus on getting our clients to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that,’” says Orens.

That wow could come in the form of classy trip documents compiled neatly in a bound binder replete with destination guides; detailed hotel and cruise documents and a personal letter from Orens up front, bidding his clients bon voyage. But then there’s also the USB device Plaza Travel includes with its documents—a flash drive uploaded with all of the client’s itinerary details and passport information in a password-protected program. It all sits in a nifty little pouch, and the little device has reportedly spurred the agency’s clients to become the envy of fellow travelers as they ogle the practical innovative use of technology.

“We get a lot of compliments on it. It’s those special touches that make the difference. Otherwise, the Crystal Cruise is going to be the same for everybody on the ship,” says Orens.

Customer service wows also come in a more traditional manner; for example, Plaza Travel advisors don’t wait for their clients to return from a trip to see how they did. They call them while they are still away to inquire if the hotel room is as they had expected and if they are receiving good service. “We ask if there is anything we can do for them,” says Orens. “Sometimes we’re able to solve a problem and give them a better experience because we reached out to them and we spoke to them. So many people take the client’s credit card and push them out the door.”

Or it could be a more definable wow, such as arranging a journey through Brazil that included Iguassu Falls, complete with a 4x4 jeep ride through the rain forest, a helicopter ride over the falls followed by three nights at the Copacabana Palace in Rio. Or assisting a client who was taking a 19-day Crystal Cruise and wanted to do something charitable. Plaza Travel used a destination specialist who helped them contribute books and a water filter to a village.

Plaza Travel is a family-run operation that Orens joined after years of being in the restaurant business; his father had purchased a travel agency for his mother in 1985 to run, but she found it wasn’t for her. His father ran it instead and implemented his savvy sales experience to form the infrastructure for the agency’s business plan.

“He ran it like a business,” says Orens, who stepped in to assist in 1990, at first with the accounting, but soon branching out by attending industry events and returning with innovative ideas for expansion. He signed contracts for new technology to enhance office quality control and along the way integrated his strong background in customer service that he’d garnered from the restaurant trade. For the past 10 years he’s been running the company full time, expanding it from six agents to 75 currently via a few agency purchases that have provided him with three physical locations in the area and a slew of home-based agents who can work seamlessly within the agency’s system via an IP phone system.

“If an agent has a question on something, we’ll send it out to everybody. Among our whole staff, we have the entire world covered,” says Orens, who says such firsthand expert feedback could address the difference between the business-class and first-class experiences on a variety of airlines, for example, or what a specific hotel is really like.

“Our clients depend on that. When they call up and are deciding if they are going to spend $12,000 on a business-class airline ticket they want to know what it’s like to sit in that seat,” he says.

A big believer in painting the experience for the clients, Orens likes to draw on the senses when describing his favorite hotels. “We stayed at a hotel in Santorini and when we ordered a Mai Tai, they squeezed the juice right in front of us. It was the best Mai Tai I’ve ever had. So I can give you all the basic hotel information. But if I’m sitting here across the table from you saying when you stay in Santorini, at this hotel, and they squeeze the juice for your Mai Tai as you watch the sunset, that’s what they want to hear. They can’t Google that.”

The Clients' Ally

At the onset, Plaza Travel was focused on mass market and corporate travel but over the past five or six years it’s evolved nicely into the luxury arena.

“As I delved into it more, I found that luxury is actually a lot more fun and enjoyable than corporate and there is a lot more to learn,” says Orens. “Once you start working with luxury travel, you keep on going and when you find it enjoyable, it’s a lot easier to book.”

During this time, Orens has built his business by booking Signature’s preferred partners and its robust hotel amenities program, but he’s also grown his own network by earning a spot on advisory boards where he’s committed to giving invaluable feedback. (Case in point: He recommends advisory boards should be held over the weekend and not during the week, so the distractions of trying to run a business while behind closed doors are not as intense.)

Apart from always seeking to add on luxury value for its clients, the agency holds events for them that don’t include direct selling. Recently it hosted a day to allow those who had applied for Global Entry, a national program that expedites a traveler’s passage through U.S. borders via a pre-check application, to interview with U.S. customs and border patrol agents as the last step of the screening process. It was all held at Plaza Travel’s main office, which served up bagels and cream cheese in the morning and cookies and fruit in the afternoon. Plaza Travel advisors chatted with their clients as they waited for their interviews and afterward took them to lunch. Thirty-three people took advantage of the service.

“I want clients to see us as their trusted valued consultant,” says Orens.

It’s a clientele worth investing in. Plaza Travel’s A-list roster includes successful real estate executives, entertainers and business people who will spend upwards of $50,000 to $70,000 per person on a cruise. Services for Hollywood celebrities include booking private jets to deliver them to an exclusive movie premiere. If the jets don’t allow passengers to wear shoes, Plaza Travel supplies them with slippers adorned in a ribbon that has its logo wrapped around them as they get on the plane.

To arrange complete anonymity for those high-profile clients who need to fly under the radar, the agency will ensure the private jet sits in a hangar that limousines carrying VIPs can drive right into. Once they are in, the hangar doors close behind them to keep paparazzi fully at bay. Once the celebrity is safely aboard, the hangar doors open and the private jet takes off.

If instead the A-listers are flying first class on a commercial flight, Plaza Travel arranges for them to be serviced properly so that they can enter the plane discreetly.

“If this can’t be done, that’s when they go to private aviation, which is not always their first choice,” says Orens, adding that the challenges with commercial flights can arise from the need to work with airport security. But Orens says that if you do the math, flying privately might not be as exorbitant as you would think, especially if you’ve got an entourage in tow. “Ten first-class seats to London cost $200,000. We can maybe get a plane for $250,000 to $300,000, depending on what their routing is and the size of the plane. It can sometimes cost less, too,” he says.

Offering over-the-top experiences to clients came more easily to Orens as he encountered such opportunities himself. He recalls his first ultra-luxury experience outside of Sydney. “We went hiking down to the bottom of the rain forest and when we got there, the bellmen from the hotel served us caviar and champagne. That was pretty good. By being exposed to more of that, I started to acquire a taste of what we could offer and what we could do.”

Even better, Plaza Travel’s clients have evolved as affluent consumers over the years. The spate of extremely high-value travel deals during the recession didn’t hurt; premium travelers were able to enjoy a five-star cruise for half the price. Plaza Travel took those savings and booked more elaborate, custom shore excursions for those clients, whose tastes suddenly became ultra-luxurious.

Along the way, Signature Travel Network grew its destination specialist programs that allow Plaza Travel to provide unique experiences. Orens has enjoyed the manner in which Signature has evolved its technology offerings and is a big fan of the consortia’s new Pocket Travel Consultant app, which allows for city guides to be downloaded onto a client’s smartphone. Then there’s My Travel Site, which connects clients to blogs rich with destination content. Bottom line? If a client is going to Los Angeles, he’ll have a link to a very detailed city guide at the bottom of his itinerary.

The new technology serves as the backbone of Plaza Travel’s website as well as its client presentations, which also include content from Signature’s hotel program.

“I can now send my clients an entire write-up of a hotel and describe all the benefits that they are going to get by booking with us. It’s interactive and there are maps and links so that they can really get a true picture of what they are going to get,” Orens tells Luxury Travel Advisor. Another plus? “I don’t have to worry about the information going to a vendor-direct website that could promote a ‘10 percent off if you book with us’ deal,” he adds.

Steve and Gail Orens
In Sydney, Steve and Gail Orens do the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb.

Plaza Travel customizes its own e-mail campaigns in-house; for example, if Orens has been on a cruise similar to the one he’s promoting, he’ll write personally about its highlights. The agency then uses Signature Travel Network’s tools to send them out. ClientBase reveals who opened the e-mails and the success of the open rates, which can sometimes range in the enviable 30 percent range. Such efforts either deliver bookings right away or will generate a lucrative dialogue with clients, who may comment on the deal at hand but then suggest the cruise they really wanted to take. The agency also uses Signature’s e-mail promotions, which allow the agent’s name, biography and photo to appear at the bottom of the message.

While Plaza Travel is strong on technology, Orens is a big believer in the human touch. He sends a personal e-mail to each new client, short and to the point, emphasizing the agency’s dedication to customer service. His advisors send their clients personal birthday e-mails rather than relying on a program to generate a canned message.

Paul Gaughin
In Moorea on the Paul Gaughin, Orens, with son Jake, wife Gail, and son, Zach.

The concept of establishing a relationship based on trust and good business contributes to Plaza Travel’s strong track record in retaining agents. Over the years there’s been minimal turnover. That’s likely because Orens has weekly staff meetings in which he doesn’t speak of travel, he discusses customer service and has fun doing it. Most recently he put everyone’s name in a hat and had his agents draw from it.

“You picked a name and a number and let’s say you picked Jane,” says Orens. “That meant you were going to be Jane and you were going to give an elevator speech as if you were Jane.” The number related to the order in which you made your presentation over the course of three weeks. The success factor was high, he says. “People got to interact with each other more. The funny thing is, halfway through the assignment I got a call from a client and she asked me to give her my elevator speech. So such requests really do exist and I was able to tell the staff that.” In another assignment, Orens had his team list their five top complacencies. He met with each person to determine a plan of how they could overcome issues that were holding them from being the best they could be.

Machu Picchu
In Machu Picchu, Orens enjoys an Orient-Express adventure.

Why the keen focus on developing his staff? It’s competitive out there in the luxury travel arena. “We are all selling the same products and we have the same benefits we can give all our clients to. What’s going to set us apart?” says Orens, who, in another exercise sent out blind surveys to his staff. One of the survey statements was: “I always offer to help when the phone rings and everybody is busy.” When Orens presented the findings to the team, he revealed that eight people had answered “yes” to this question, upon which everyone voiced their concern that eight people certainly did not jump up every time the phone rang.

“It wasn’t to scold them but to point out this is what people think they are doing,” says Orens. “It helped them realize that when a client calls, you have to pick up the phone right away and you have to sound professional. It’s that type of thing that does help set us apart.”

Orens is also a big believer in sending his advisors out into the world so they return and share their experiences with the team. “I have somebody coming back from Botswana right now and she’s going to have a wealth of information. So that will be shared and we’ll probably write it up on our Facebook page and on our blog site,” he says.

Along those lines, Plaza Travel is big on social media, and has a dedicated staff member to focus on the Plaza Travel blog, and on its Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook accounts.

Orens says the efforts “are really not for business, it’s more for exposure and we have somewhat of a formula for Facebook in particular. We do a special every day, a fun fact, and list a vendor for something they’ve done for us or for coming into our offices that day. It’s not about selling the clients something. We could put on Facebook that today is National Cheeseburger Day along with the fact that they have the best cheeseburgers on the Oasis of the Seas at Johnny Rockets. It’s all about giving them information so that when they do want to go somewhere they know where to go.”

Heading up those social networking efforts is an employee in her mid-20s who is new to the industry. “She’ll rewrite the blogs so that they read the way that they should be read online. We’re trying to put everything in the right format so that it gets us the most value,” says Orens, noting he’s added to the cause by posting photos and blogs on Plaza Travel’s website from his trips to Africa and Machu Picchu and others.

At the age of 48, Orens, who is also working to bring new agents into the business, feels he can give suppliers confidence that he’ll be around in 20 years and most certainly operating in the luxury travel arena. “To be here in five years, you’re going to need to be heading more toward the upper end in luxury travel. My goal is to continue to do that. Whether I like it or not, I have to go in that direction, it just happens that I like it,” he says with a smile.

Plaza Travel will also likely expand in size. “I’m still looking for agencies to buy,” he says. “I’m looking for agents to be associated with us because I think we have a lot to offer. We’re very stable and secure and supportive and that’s really important.”

He recalls his last holiday party that brought all of his offices together. After Orens presented his welcome speech, a visiting vendor sought him out and said, “I want to work for you.”

It’s just this kind of experience that caps it all off, says Orens. “We’re lucky enough to be successful and to have a strong agency but it’s those things that validate you, that say, I’m making a difference and I’m making people happy.”

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