Going for Gold

 

Victoria Boomgarden
Victoria Boomgarden believes in hiring young professionals with a liberal arts education who have a strong knowledge of culture. She is shown here in her elegant office building in Naperville, IL, a former furniture factory.

 

Growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin as the only girl with six brothers taught Victoria Boomgarden a thing or two about surviving and succeeding in business. “It’s called ‘fighting for your life from a very early age,’” the president of the luxury division of Best Travel Gold tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

And successful she is. Today, Boomgarden has travel clients from around the world who count on her and her team to create picture-perfect itineraries for them. She is a world traveler herself, venturing off to far-away landscapes to bring back the latest for her demanding A-list clientele.

That’s a far cry from growing up on a farm.

“The big trip was to go to the state capital in Madison if you were lucky, I kid you not. But I was a voracious reader from very early on, particularly English literature—C.S. Lewis, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, you name it, I was absolutely addicted—and my goal in life was to live in England someday,” she says.

Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui
In Thailand: Boomgarden checks out the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui.

That dream came true in the neatest fashion possible. She married a young military officer in the Air Force, Michael Boomgarden, when she was 23. (He’s now a retired colonel and they remain married to this day.) He ended up getting into law school in Boston; she was assigned Boston as her base as a flight attendant for American Airlines. After deciding she truly wanted to live in England, Michael got a new assignment from the Air Force, which stationed him at the RAF Upper Heyford, just outside of Oxford. “It was almost a miracle,” says Boomgarden. “It was karma.”

And so began four years of living in a dream world for Boomgarden, in the land of her beloved authors; the present wasn’t so bad, either. Because of her husband’s security clearance, the couple was invited to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot and the Henley Royal Regatta. “We did the circuit that the wealth market was doing without even knowing it,” she recalls. The time was well spent for other reasons; although Boomgarden never returned to American Airlines, she had attended its management school which taught her a lot about the business; everything from ramp services to customer service to reservations. The experience got her a job at a British travel company that wanted to increase its American market share. She was soon running two of its offices, planning trips and escorting tours. Every other weekend found her “on the continent” in Europe, either with a group or enjoying duty-free shopping in France. 

Best Travel Gold

President: Victoria R. Boomgarden

Number of Advisors: Five full-time, 10 part-time or outside advisors who each bring in “several million dollars” of revenue a year.

Offices: Naperville and Northbrook, IL

Parent Company: Best Travel & Tours (Chicago)

Parent Company Annual Volume: $163 million Parent Company Number of Advisors: 95

Company Structure: Wholly employee-owned company (ESOP)

Affiliations: Virtuoso, Four Seasons Preferred Partner, Orient-Express Bellini, Ritz-Carlton STARS, Rosewood Elite, Starwood Privilege and Dorchester Diamond.

Advisory Boards Seats: Starwood, Orient-Express and Four Seasons

 

The real world beckoned soon enough. Her husband was reassigned to Travis Air Force Base in California and Boomgarden says she returned back to the U.S., “sobbing all the way.” She knew she wanted to work for a U.S.-based travel agency and her research unearthed for her the name of a gentleman named Dick Patterson—one of the founding members of Ensemble, whose Patterson Travel had nine travel agency offices in Sacramento. She was hired on the spot. Three years later, when she left California, she was running several of its offices.

This time, Boomgarden had a new reason to change her home base; she and her husband had had their only child, Alexander, and they were determined to share him with their families who were both back in the Midwest. This move brought her to Naperville, IL, where she worked for more than a decade—from 1988 to 1999—as a senior vice president running Harris Bank’s worldwide travel program, which had several leisure offices in England and downtown Chicago. Boomgarden was managing their worldwide corporate travel as well. “That was when banks could still own travel agencies,” says Boomgarden. But a consolidation craze hit the industry; Bank of Montréal bought Harris Bank and decided to focus on its core product. As a result, Boomgarden was instructed to sell off the bank’s travel assets.

“I had to find a buyer; when I did, I became part of the contract, which is how I ended up at Best Travel,” she says.

Boomgarden told the folks at Best Travel that she wanted to launch a luxury division where she could service the celebrity clientele that had come into her fold during her time in England and then in California. She outlined what she could do and how much profit she could deliver. The outcome was “beyond successful” and she was eventually made a partner in the company. Currently, she oversees two offices in Illinois, one in Northbrook and the other in Naperville, where she resides.

Today, as she runs Best Travel Gold, Boomgarden has the advantage of having use of the tools of a very large company, Best Travel & Tours, behind her. With $163 million in annual revenue, the parent travel management company has its own airline deals and a “fantastic” 24-hour service for clients. It’s structured as an ESOP, a wholly employee-owned entity of which Best Travel Gold is a private division. Parent company Best Travel & Tours equally leverages Best Travel Gold when it’s vying for a corporate account. In such cases, Boomgarden may come in during the final bid to elaborate on the services the luxury division can deliver, in particular for incentive travel or for the corporation’s C-level executives. That’s a distinct difference from simply having a VIP desk to handle such matters, she says. “It’s really been a great benefit to both sides—for me to have the corporate volume to fall back on and for them to have us as a resource for the most important person on the account,” says Boomgarden.

Such a strong infrastructure allows Best Travel Gold to function at a very high level of efficiency. It services a private clientele, which grows by referral only. 

“If  I have a client and his friend wants our services, that client has to call and introduce him to us. Then we still do quite a strong vetting to make sure they know what we do, that this isn’t just about delivering the cheapest product. That’s not us,” explains Boomgarden. Moreover, clients pay an hourly access fee to consult with Boomgarden. “This is a business,” she says.

Best Travel Gold’s clients are worldwide. In fact, her strongest market is Greenwich, CT; she’s worked with a sheikh in Saudi Arabia for years, and of course, there are still her U.K. customers. Boomgarden travels afar to consult with these clients. “I am a firm believer in the concept of face-to-face meetings, that’s where you build the style and the warmth of these relationships,” she says. 

Many of her clients have been with her “forever,” and working with their children has not proven to be difficult. “The next generation who has traveled with their parents understands the value that we bring, so I don’t have any problem with ‘how are you going to appeal to them?’ You have to work a little differently, you have to know that they are going to be on the Internet checking different things, but there is no reason you can’t work with that newer generation.”

VIP clients have tasked Boomgarden with such challenges as planning a 30th anniversary party that included chartering a yacht in the Mediterranean for their A-list friends, followed by a blow-out party in Venice for their B-list acquaintances.  Boomgarden, who learned Venice from the ground up through this experience, ended up renting two palaces as venues and arranging for Diana Ross to perform. The guest list comprised every big name in television at the time. That was 24 years ago and to this day, she has retained 50 percent of the event’s attendees as clients.

Other famous feats?  A 50th birthday party held at a villa in Tuscany; Boomgarden brought in The Three Tenors and arranged for fireworks over the vineyard. 

More recently, she was even able to get clients on to the receiving line at the Royal Wedding in London.

Taj Mahal
EXploring India: Boomgarden is shown at the Taj Mahal.

She’s also crafted an around-the-world honeymoon where every element planned was done as an FIT. The first stop was Bora Bora, where the groom learned to ride the biggest waves in the world with the same expert he’d seen on the Travel Channel. Another stop was at a tented camp in Thailand where the bride could ride the elephants. The entire trip lasted three months.

One more three-month jaunt for a different set of clients had them traveling via private jet through South America to visit every country. Armored cars, private security and guardian angels in railway stations were part of the entire itinerary. But such is the norm for Best Travel Gold. “That is what we do on a regular basis,” says Boomgarden.

Vital Relationships

Boomgarden also garners a healthy share of Chicago’s affluent market, a dynamic she had never planned on. However, she’s lived in Naperville, IL, for 25 years now and her prominence on school boards has brought her into close touch with the local wealth market. When she chaired the USO of Illinois Ball at Navy Pier in Chicago last year (Alexander is a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army), guests were able to witness the level of ultra-luxury travel experiences she brought in for a silent auction; all were donated by travel suppliers.

The travel companies Boomgarden and her team work with are precious to her in the sense that she protects them with vigor.

The  Amber Fort
The Amber Fort in Jaipur.

“It’s everything to us. I have my reputation at stake,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I teach my teams in Northbrook and Naperville that if you are going to call a supplier, you make darn sure that you are delivering on the business, that you are not asking for something that’s unfair and that you keep your promises. We very much count on our suppliers and we absolutely work out of a super-preferred network,” she says. As such, when sales representatives visit her offices, they are given 100 percent of her advisors’ attention, as well as a welcoming cold drink or an espresso. If evening nears, they’re invited to Boomgarden’s nearby home for cocktails. “That’s a Midwestern thing,” she says.

It’s this nature of care and hospitality to her partners that has put Boomgarden in the top running for the Virtuoso network’s “Most Admired Travel Advisor” for the third year in a row now. She was also named Four Seasons Preferred Partner Ambassador of the Year in 2010.

Aside from those personal accolades, Best Travel Gold is a Four Seasons Preferred Partner and a member of the Orient-Express Bellini Club, Ritz-Carlton STARS, Rosewood Elite, Starwood Privilege and Dorchester Diamond.  

With this strong backing of relationships, she and her team ensure that they notify each hotel to let them know when a client is coming, even if they have worked through a wholesaler such as Classic Vacations. “We will still call so we know everything is going to be checked correctly before the client comes in. The hotel knows exactly what’s being celebrated, who is coming, what their title is and what they mean to us. It doesn’t matter if you are a 25-year-old on your honeymoon or if you are a top celebrity.”

Best Travel Gold keeps amazingly detailed records on its clients, to the point where even every minute detail about the family pet is known. “In the ultra-wealth market, if you want to endear somebody and you know they are traveling with their dog, have something monogrammed or have an amenity ready for that dog [at the hotel]. You will have a client for life,” Boomgarden advises.

Boomgarden is a certified yacht and private aircraft broker and frequently charters aircraft so that pets can visit with their owners. She once arranged for a Maine Coon cat named Lyndon to fly to Durango, CO. Because his owners did not want Lyndon to be caged at any point during the journey, Boomgarden brought the feline to a stretch limousine whose driver was dressed in full livery attire, got the cat comfortable into the vehicle and then put him on the aircraft. 

How to Get Started

What advice does Boomgarden, who counsels a lot of young people, have for a fledgling travel advisor?  “Do the things that are within your control,” such as getting your college degree, she says. Boomgarden recently took her goddaughter to Paris as a high school graduation present. Prior to departure, Boomgarden had given the young woman a very long list of things she needed to accomplish to earn the trip, which included taking courses that are not necessarily based around her primary interests. 

"Right now, she is keen on the science field, but I suggested she take courses on art and to take up something that would give her some idea of world culture. I think if you can inspire young people to stay on task, you can make it happen; I really can see her as somebody I can groom in this industry,” says Boomgarden, who, once in Paris arranged for her goddaughter to meet with the general manager of the Lancaster and sit for tea, and have a facial at the Four Seasons. 

“The world awareness that we can bring from travel is just so amazing for them. So, open up, give them a small opportunity to travel with school or to do a semester abroad,” says Boomgarden, who worked with North Central College, a small liberal arts school in Naperville, to develop a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies.

Hiring liberal arts graduates is a practice Boomgarden believes in.

“I want people who have an understanding of art and history and culture and religion,” she says.

Once her new advisors are on board, she not only allows them to travel to see the world, she requires it. They are given a travel budget and Boomgarden consults with them on how to develop their own travel portfolio and to determine what type of travel will also benefit the agency. They are trained very specifically to be a Best Travel Gold advisor, where the goal is not to be a “million-dollar” advisor but a “multimillion-dollar” advisor.

Boomgarden also likes to hire those who are switching careers; she has a former attorney on her team who had wanted to make a lifestyle change. She is now quite adept at creating itineraries for her young professionals’ network and has learned how to market her services. Another team member who was with a high level FIT operator for years has expressed interest in creating a women’s tour division for Best Travel Gold where the measure of expertise in an experience, such as yoga or cooking, doesn’t have to be at an extremely high level.

“She has come up with some amazing itineraries and did them on her own to show me what she could do. There are so many opportunities for us to bring in people from other industries and let them go for their dream,” says Boomgarden, who, as a member of Virtuoso, contributes to that luxury consortia’s team whose focus is creating the “Million-Dollar Advisor” by identifying the key traits for a successful advisor and steps needed to be followed to help them evolve.

The Virtuoso relationship is important to Best Travel Gold because of the way it strengthens the inner workings of the agency’s portfolio. “Virtuoso is a great tool for us, particularly for the team. There is an empowerment there; there is a world of acknowledgment of respect for the Virtuoso agency or the agent who feels confident in stating something like, ‘I need this room cleared,’ or whatever the need may be.”

Boomgarden charges herself with visiting new places to keep her own first-hand knowledge of private guides and cars available in destinations current. “Personally, I have to keep adding the exotics,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I have to look for the trends. I spent a month in Southeast Asia last year. I did Vietnam north to south; I did Cambodia and Thailand again from top to bottom. I did India the same way just prior to that and I need to get back to do Southern India.”

During these trips, Boomgarden says she expects to be wowed; that the physical aspects of her journey will be fantastic and that she will see the best hotels. But it’s the actual human experiences that truly move her, sometimes to tears.

“That happens very infrequently, but it happened in Botswana, and it wasn’t with necessarily the animals. The people have a very musical language. When they are very, very happy, this spontaneous singing happens. I could cry now just thinking about it. I will never forget the feeling of hearing them,” she says.

In Machu Picchu, Boomgarden thought  a private Shaman ceremony after dark would be hokey but “something literally spiritual happened to me in the course of it,” she says. “It’s happened in India. When you see beauty in the poorest conditions, the dignity and the grace of a woman who is putting on her sari; she has got this wonderful piece of color and you see her holding a child and it’s just beyond this world, and you think, ‘Thank you, thank you God for giving me this experience.' It’s in your heart. Those are things you will never forget."  

Boomgarden says she believes the path that led her to where she’s arrived has been paved with serendipity. But looking back at her time in Wisconsin, then England and California and Naperville, it all seems to roll back around to when she was growing up with that big family of boys—when she perhaps had learned everything she knew to get through life.

“It took me years of living on both coasts and in Europe and thinking I was so beyond this farm life to realize that, oh, my gosh, my mother and father taught me every single thing I needed to be successful today,” she says.“ ‘Don’t quit,’ ” they told her. “‘Move forward if you have a dream. You go for it.’” 

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