John Clifford, sole proprietor of International Travel Management in San Diego, CA, succeeds by practicing the “lost art” of “being a good listener.”
John Clifford, sole proprietor of International Travel Management in San Diego, CA, succeeds by practicing the “lost art” of “being a good listener.”

Mention a city to John Clifford and he’ll respond with a diverse list of hotels he loves there, all of which you’ll feel you must see immediately. If you’ve already returned from your trip, you’ll find yourself compelled to go back, pronto, because you may have certainly missed some hidden treasures he’s just revealed to you.

When we brought up Paris, we learned Clifford had just sent a wealthy client (old money) to “the gorgeous Pavillon de la Reine in Le Marais and they absolutely loved, loved, loved it,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. And although Clifford has been avidly booking “a slew of new gorgeous hotels in Paris for my fashion account clients,” he’s also a super sleuth at unearthing some gems, such as the Dupond-Smith (a “super-luxe tiny boutique property”) and two “cheap chic” finds, Hotel Emile and Paradis, all on the Rive Droite or near Le Marais.

Clifford, sole proprietor of International Travel Management in San Diego, CA, is a passionate hotel aficionado who loves matching under-the-radar places with clients who are seeking a special experience.

“So much of what we do today as expert advisors is to tell stories and to give our clients a venue in which to tell and write theirs. A perfect hotel is the base of all your experiences and I’m utterly picky, detail-oriented and fussy about which hotels I hand pick for each trip,” he says.

For that reason, when a client comes to him seeking to book big-box hotels because they’ve got loyalty points to burn, a red flag goes up for Clifford, who is a big believer in giving much more thought to the selection of a hotel for a meaningful vacation. And though it would be easy in such a situation to rattle off a well-curated list of more interesting hotels, Clifford is careful not to do that, either. He starts out each new client relationship with a heart-to-heart conversation that doesn’t even begin with travel. Instead, he might ask them what their everyday lives are like these days, if they’re single or married and whether their kids are still at home or in college. “Then I’ll ask, ‘What are some things that excite and motivate you? Are you a fitness junkie? Are you cooking and food motivated?’ I try, early on, before we even talk about travel, to find their passion points,” he says.

Often these answers will elicit the ideal hotel for the client in Clifford’s mind, but still, he continues to explore. Do they prefer large or small hotels? Grand dames? Do they want to be on the beach? Do they prefer city center or an emerging neighborhood, such as London or Shoreditch?

“I try to take the time to really get to the soul of what my clients’ motives are for traveling. Being a good listener is really a lost art,” says Clifford, who feels luxury travel advisors often get too caught up in raving about the latest luxury hotels they’ve just visited rather than considering the tastes of the client.

“To be a successful travel advisor, my job really is to wholly take myself out of the equation so that I don’t insert my taste and my interests in any way,” he adds.

Clifford recently curated a trip for a retired gay executive who had found him on Travel + Leisure’s A-list of Travel Advisors. The client wanted to commemorate an anniversary with his partner using loyalty points to stay at a large, chain hotel in Costa Rica in a heavy tourist area. Clifford listened closely to why the trip was important to the couple and then challenged the entire concept of the big hotel.

“I said, ‘What in the heck are you doing? You want to go with your partner where you can feel comfortable with him. You have money. You want to be in a luxurious environment,’” he recalls.

Clifford instead suggested Gaia Hotel and Reserve, further down the Pacific Coast, in Quepos. The adults-only hotel, a member of Preferred Hotel Group, is a mainstream property, says Clifford, “but it happens to be owned by three incredible gay men. It’s not gay-marketed per se, but I knew it was going to be an environment where they would really be comfortable.”

He convinced the client to forget about using points to pay for accommodations and it was worth the risk; the trip was a huge success, in part because they were upgraded to the Presidential Suite, thanks to Clifford’s connection with the hotel owners. But it wasn’t all about the upgrade. “Not only did they have the time of their life, but they felt like they had discovered something that would not normally have been on their radar,” he says.

Missing the Point

The eternal race to use up hotel points can skew the entire purpose of a trip, he says. “These points-junkies are not always looking through the lens of ‘What do I want to achieve?’ but rather ‘Ooh, I’ve got all these ridiculous points. Let’s use them.’ And just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

Navigating customers through a thought process that will make them happy in the end is what a good travel advisor should do, he says. “That really is the art of what any advisor does; to give people what they really need, not always what they’re asking for.”

The scope of clients Clifford handles allows him to put his love for hand-picking new and unique hotels and resorts to good use. He works with several global fashion brands whose employees travel to interesting locales for business on a regular basis. An example is the team at Rag & Bone: “Every other day, when they’re in London, Paris, Milan or Tokyo, they’re getting exposed to something new, and it’s so important that I keep them inspired,” says Clifford.

He also has a large LGBT clientele, having been highlighted as a specialist in that market by consumer travel publications over the years. Furthermore, he works with a mainstream mix of honeymooners, entrepreneurs and luxury travelers; the entire scope of his business helps him bring in more than $2 million in revenue a year. Clifford believes in having a broad base of clients, especially for independent advisors. “Niche markets come and go and can be decimated by global events. It’s great to be an expert in one or a few niches and/or destinations, but diversity is crucial and a base knowledge of global hot spots is essential these days,” he says. Luxury travel comprises 80 percent of his business and 99 percent of his communication is done via e-mail. Should a client request to meet in person, it would be by appointment only.

Clifford says things have come full circle since the ‘80s, “especially in the luxury segment, with suppliers realizing our value.”
Clifford says things have come full circle since the ‘80s, “especially in the luxury segment, with suppliers realizing our value.”

Leisure clients are requesting a lot of Asia this year, he says, and Taipei seems to have come on their radar in particular. “It’s really getting a bit of a buzz. It’s got some new luxury hotels. It has the new W. It’s really hitting the radar of a lot of clients who have been to other places in Asia, but not Taiwan for whatever reason,” he tells us. Indonesia is also gaining traction again. Clifford is planning a gay couple’s honeymoon; they originally wanted to stay at a resort in Bali they’d seen on a reality TV show in Nusa Dua, which has a large enclave of internationally branded hotels. Clifford assessed the tastes of his client, who is a designer, and steered him in another direction.

“You want to stay in Seminyak, which is the Beverly Hills, the Rodeo Drive, the South Beach of Bali,” Clifford told him. He recommended The Legian Bali, a GHM hotel, that’s a luxurious design property. His client was satisfied with the assessment.

“He said, ‘John, you hit the nail on the head. This is the perfect mix of the theatrics and big features I was looking for, but with the luxury services and amenities that the other hotel didn’t have,’” Clifford says.

Working with Millennial travelers is another specialty of Clifford’s, but he says it’s often necessary to cut through all the clutter they’re exposed to on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “Just because your friends are talking about it doesn’t mean that it’s right for you,” warns Clifford, who recently acquired a Gen-Y client who prefers high-end design hotels. After sending him on several trips, the young man said to him, “John, do you know what it’s like having a travel agent? Most of my friends do not know that you guys even exist. I feel like I am a member of a private, secret club and this gives me bragging rights that none of them have.” He reported that when his friends questioned if his travel advisor charged for his services, he responded, “Yeah, but wouldn’t you pay 100 bucks to get $700 of upgrades and services and meals?”

That math speaks for itself, but Clifford insists it’s not just a numbers game. “It’s the advice that’s priceless,” he says, noting that he could buy and sell stocks on his own using E-Trade but that he pays a certified financial planner to invest for him, “because he’s giving me value; advice and a window into a world that I don’t understand. That’s also what we do as travel advisors.”

As an affiliate with Montecito Village Travel, a Virtuoso agency, whose owner also owns Your Travel Center, a Tzell/Travel Leaders office, Clifford can use the hotel amenity programs of both networks, which provide generous value-adds for hotel stays. “There’s nothing like having three of the travel industry’s top powerhouses behind me. This partnership enables me to offer my clients big-agency clout with small-agency service, i.e. the best of all worlds,” says Clifford, who also uses the amenities available via the private hotel company VIP programs to which his host agency has access. These include the Belmond Bellini Club, Dorchester Diamond, Four Seasons Preferred Partners, Langham Couture, Mandarin Oriental Fan Club, Park Hyatt Prive, Peninsula Pen Club, Rocco Forte Knights, Rosewood Elite, Sofitel Step and Starwood Luxury Privileges.

“These private programs often offer extra benefits not possible without consortium partnerships, which really help me stand out by adding free nights, hotel credits, mega-upgrades, confirmed early check-in/late check-out, special custom amenities and client gifts,” reports Clifford. The end result? “I can surprise and delight my clients,” he says, noting that he also uses the inbound travel partner programs available through Tzell, Travel Leaders and Virtuoso to craft custom journeys.

This ammunition, as well as the relationships Clifford has built up over the 30 years he’s been a travel advisor, helps him to achieve those famous feats that many luxury travel advisors are challenged with, such as getting a fashion CEO into their favorite hotel during Milan or Paris fashion week at the very last minute when everything is sold out. That’s a coup in itself, but what’s even more impressive is getting them upgraded to a top suite to boot.

Early Days

Clifford credits his love for the unique and the eclectic to the fact that he lived in New York until he was 10, then moved to New Mexico, where his big-city view of the world was melded with the multicultural and artistic diversity of Santa Fe.

“The city’s rich Spanish and Native American culture and growing cosmopolitan epicenter of the arts inspired my curiosity to travel abroad at a young age,” he says. Right out of high school he had a calling, he says, that he was meant to explore the world, so he attended Certified Travel Advisor training and started a full-time career as an advisor at the ripe age of 18 while still living in Santa Fe.

Opting out of college, he instead became a global citizen, getting his education by traveling around the word, “embracing different cultures, beliefs and ways of living, meeting people, learning their stories and developing my talents,” says Clifford. “I felt called away and never looked back.”

Fueling that education was a whirlwind, courtesy of  airline tickets to Europe that Clifford won at a trade show. The fast-paced group tour he booked visited London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Munich, Salzburg, Venice, Florence, Rome and Vatican City. Clifford, whose bloodlines hail from Ireland, Hungary and Sicily, felt at home and immediately wanted to go back.

He has indeed returned to Europe 50 times over the course of his career thus far, supplementing that travel with visits to Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan and Taiwan. He claims he’s still a city boy at heart and enjoys returning to New York, as well as the iconic cities in the world, particularly in Europe (think Athens, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Rome and Istanbul).

“I also love the Mediterranean; I’m enthralled with Greece and Turkey. From the cliffs of Oia (I love Andronis and Mystique) in Santorini to the glamorous scene in Mykonos (Bill & Coo, Cavo Tagoo and Belvedere are my top picks here) and in Bodrum I love the new Amanruya, Mandarin Oriental and an old favorite, Macakizi,” he says.

The cultural immersion domestic destinations like his old hometown of Santa Fe can deliver also fascinate Clifford. “Its annual opera season is world class, the local cuisine is second to none and the city’s Spanish heritage and unique, adobe architecture is alive in the city center. My favorite properties here are: Inn of the Five Graces, Four Seasons Santa Fe, La Posada, House of Three Moons and Ten Thousand Waves,” says Clifford.

In the tropics, Clifford favors the Caribbean, particularly Puerto Rico and Vieques (“The new El Blok hotel is a 'Gaudiesque' masterpiece”), St. Lucia, Curacao, St. Barths, Antigua and Anguilla.

In Mexico, he's a fan of Los Cabos (“The new Gen-Y hot spot here is Drift in San Jose del Cabo”), the Yucatan and Quintana Roo (“Isla Holbox is still a bit of a secret getaway isle. I love the Casa Sandra boutique hotel there”) and he’s also partial to Mexico’s Mayan ruins, jungles, caves and powder-white beaches.

Nothing, however, compares to Costa Rica. “What a Garden of Eden,” says Clifford. “It has it all: mountains, beaches, volcanoes, abundant nature and wildlife, and some of the world’s most beautiful resorts at great value.” His favorite hotels here are the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo, El Mangroove and Nayara Springs.

He’s keen on Australia and feels it’s on a “comeback trail,” and that New Zealand is growing in large part due to movie publicity. “I love how better luxury options now exist in both destinations,” says Clifford. His top hotel picks in the region are Southern Ocean Lodge, Saffire Freycinet and Lake House.

The Glamour is Back

Being a travel consultant has once again become enticing and that keeps Clifford smiling these days.

“I always saw the travel advisor profession as a very exciting, jet-setting, cosmopolitan lifestyle, which it truly was in the ’80s. We had free tickets, trips, hotel stays and much more always thrown at us all the time. That all changed in the ’90s, but now it’s back almost like in the old days. I can’t visit a destination without a hotel partner wanting me to experience their property: old, new or redone. It’s exciting how things have come full circle, especially in the luxury segment, with suppliers realizing our value and influence,” he says.

Indeed, the past four years have been the best ever for Clifford’s business and he doesn’t see that slowing down as the global economy continues to recover and as Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials continue to place strong value on how travel enhances their life experiences.

That dynamic presents plenty of opportunity for this entrepreneurial independent travel advisor, who plans to remain independent. “I am a sole proprietor and I’m happy working this way. I am the brand and although I have a backup system, people buy people. And as the saying goes, ‘nobody can do it quite the way I do it,’” says Clifford. “I have developed a signature style of doing things that makes me unique.”

Nor does he have an overarching desire to expand dramatically over the next five to 10 years; he’s in fact working to sell fewer trips, focusing on those that have a higher value.

“My goal is to work only with clients who see this partnership as a long-term, trusted relationship,” he says. “I need to continue to focus on what I love, which is crafting moments and memories to exotic destinations with hand-picked hotels that I know will move and inspire my clients and give them life-long memories,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

Executing that strategy well will mean he’s achieved something that’s meaningful.

“Every day I achieve this will be a success to me,” says Clifford. “Success isn’t measured by money or volume, it’s measured by happiness—both mine and my clients’.”

International Travel Management

Sole Proprietor: John Clifford

Location: Ocean Beach (San Diego), CA

Annual Revenue: $2 million-plus

Affiliations: Montecito Village Travel; Virtuoso, Tzell/Travel Leaders


Beyond Over-the-Top

John Clifford of International Travel Management has crafted many over-the-top vacations for his clients, but we were most impressed with a round-the-world honeymoon he curated.

This Jade Mountain suite has front-row seat views of St. Lucia’s Pitons.
This Jade Mountain suite has front-row seat views of St. Lucia’s Pitons.

“It began by flying the couple to St. Lucia where I secured them four nights in a 2,000-square-foot suite at Jade Mountain, with 180-degree views of twin Pitons and a stunning infinity pool. I arranged private beach excursions, jungle treks and scuba diving, while the couple decompressed from the wedding hubbub. Karolin Troubetzkoy, the owner of the resort, looked after them personally.

“Next, the couple was off to Madrid, where I got them the best suite at the uber-mod Hotel Urban and mixed in an experience—for the bride it was a private/after hours entry to The Museo del Traje for a look at fashion throughout the centuries, and for the groom, cooking lessons with a Michelin-rated chef on Basque cuisine.

“The couple jetted off to Taormina, Sicily, where their suite at the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo opened to the infamous Teatro Greco [Greek Amphitheater], on the grounds of which I had pre-arranged a private, candlelight dinner. I included an expert naturalist/guide on an excursion to Mt. Etna followed by a visit to a private winery and a dip in the cooling Alcantara Gorge on the way back.

“From there, the newlyweds took a turn for some tropical adventure in The Maldives—a two-island experience at Soneva Fushi & Soneva Gili resorts. Their private seaplane whisked them off to their first few days at Fushi. Their butler was waiting for them on arrival with spa treatments at the Jungle Reserve. After four days of pampering they set off via speedboat to Soneva’s swankier sister resort, Gili. I had dinner planned and ready for them on a nearby, deserted island for just the two of them. Here, they stayed in the Private Reserve, a virtual private estate in the middle of the Indian Ocean. On a spa day for the bride, we arranged a private boat to take the husband surfing. Sonu Shivdasani, the chairman & CEO of Soneva/Six Senses Resorts, helped secure the best of the best for the honeymoon couple and provided the highest level of personal attention.

“Then, I arranged a private jet to the mythical isle of Bali. I had booked them the best suite at Bulgari’s new resort near the cliff-top Pura Luhur Uluwatu temple. The general manager, Robert Lagerwey, personally facilitated all VIP activities for the couple and met them on arrival. On the isle, I arranged a private sunrise ceremony performed by a local shaman; visits to have custom jewelry made in Ubud; and private guides to the many temples, monuments, volcanoes and villages. A private plane and guide were secured for a visit to Borobudur, a ninth-century Mahayana Buddhist monument in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia and an overnight stay at Amanjiwo in their best Dalem Jiwo Suite prior to returning to Bali.”