Ignacio Maza: Signature's EVP Sees No Limit to Luxury Travel’s Possibilities

Ignacio Maza, here seen at The Bar at The Baccarat Hotel in New York, says, “The luxury travel consumer is the sector that needs advisors the most. Luxury’s potential is nearly limitless.” // Photo by Joseph Laronga NYC

Ignacio Maza boarded a Pan Am flight when he was just four years old and has never been the same. When he was a child, he used to go to the airport to watch planes take off and land. He’s that guy. “As far as I can remember, travel has been my passion and my vocation,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “To paraphrase the writer Paul Theroux, I never saw an airplane I didn’t want to board.”

Today, as the executive vice president of Signature Travel Network, Maza is overseeing the network’s new luxury sales development program, which tops off a career that’s included working for the airlines, American Express and Virtuoso. A veteran of Signature for 14 years, Maza was promoted in January to run the program, which will enable Signature’s 200-plus member agencies sell even more luxury, the network’s fastest growing segment. It’s guided by Signature’s Luxury Committee, composed of member advisors who are leaders in the luxury travel space and supported by many teams within Signature, including marketing, training, supplier relations, meetings, events and public relations.

It’s the right job for Maza; he’s been with Signature for 14 years, having previously run Signature’s hotels and resorts program, while wearing a multitude of other hats for the network. 

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“Our front-line travel advisors make my world go ’round,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I never forget that until our advisors make a sale, nothing else matters.”

We caught up with Maza in his Manhattan office recently to get his take on how advisors can better sell luxury travel. He told us that luxury is a sweet spot because it provides travel advisors with the highest earning potential. “The luxury travel consumer is the sector that needs advisors the most. Luxury’s potential is nearly limitless,” he says.

“Our competition is not so much other networks and other organizations,” says Maza. “Instead, we believe our main competition is from consumers who are making their own travel arrangements and don’t believe that professionals like our members exist or can add value.” 

This savvy consumer has changed the concept of luxury more in the last 10 to 15 years than in the previous 100 years, says Maza. Earlier, luxury was more narrowly defined and universally understood by consumers. Some mainstays of luxury remain, such as quality, exclusivity and a high level of service.

What’s changed? “Today, luxury is individual to every person,” says Maza. “Luxury today is much broader and more supple. It’s about authenticity and a sense of place, as well as access.”

So what does this mean for the luxury travel advisor who is dealing with this savvy, experienced and demanding consumer? 

“There are no shortcuts. You have to do your homework, and know your business. Secondly, you will be tested over and over, until the day of departure. Consumers today are the savviest, most knowledgeable generation of travelers, ever. Finally, you have to know your customer, even better than they know themselves. The hardest and most necessary thing in our business is learning how to say ‘No’ to a customer. ‘No, this is not for you, and here’s why. I have a much better option for you, which is X.’”

Challenging yes, but the payoff is huge, since there’s never been a better time to sell luxury travel.

“Travel and experiences are the number-one aspiration of an affluent society that has already acquired just about every material thing they could possibly want,” says Maza. “The range of luxury travel products available today has never been richer or of higher quality. The opportunity has never been greater. The right approach to selling luxury travel today is to deliver expertise, craftsmanship, innovation, value, wonder and top-notch service — with all your heart.”

To enhance his own expertise, Maza takes one or two deep immersion trips a year. He’s ventured to Japan, Brazil, Bhutan, Ecuador, Australia, Iceland, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Peru and Bolivia, and Europe over the past few years. Along the way, he’s sharpened his Instagram skills. On a recent trip to Iceland, he consistently updated followers on the hotel and adventure experiences he was inspecting, as well as the travel industry folks he met along the way.

Earlier this year, an in-depth trip to Australia provided posts of diving and sunset photos of Lizard Island, a tour of Uluru and a visit to Southern Ocean Lodge where kangaroos came out to visit. On these trips, Maza meticulously includes the names and talents of the guides who take him around, as well as his participatory events in as many activities as possible. 

On Instagram, you might also see some photos of his hometown, New York, which he loves. “It’s the cultural menu,” Maza says. “I am a big art enthusiast and love spending time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMa, the Neue Galerie and so many of the great art collections in our city. I also enjoy going to the theater and movies — especially foreign films and documentaries,” he reveals.

Ignacio Maza is a gifted writer: His recent Australia journey generated nine blog posts about Australia. He’ll also present a seminar on various destinations at the network’s annual sales meeting this month. 

Hearing Maza present is also a treat. He’s incredibly detail-oriented and entertaining (read: funny and witty), to boot. “I think growing up in a very large family and trying to get their attention was great training,” he tells us. “I find the more you practice, the better your presentations are. I am comfortable addressing an audience, regardless of size.”

There are more immersion trips to come. On his wish list are Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, The South Island of New Zealand, Grenada, Madagascar, the Canadian Rockies, Mozambique, Argentina’s glacier region, São Tomé and Príncipe.

With his new role at Signature, Maza also travels domestically to conduct training sessions; the intent is to create programs and events for all members interested in growing their luxury business. 

“If you are a successful seller of luxury and it represents 70 percent of your sales and you want more, you’re welcome,” says Maza. “And if luxury represents a smaller percentage of your business, but you want to develop it, you are also welcome. The idea is to create a tent big enough where all 8,000 advisors in our program can fit in.”

Signature also recognizes that some members are happy with their current sales strategies. “If you’re a very successful seller of premium travel and that’s your wheelhouse, we’re not here to disrupt your business or tell you what to do. But I think the vast majority of the network is very interested in engaging with what we are doing with luxury,” he says.

Some examples of his efforts: In June, Maza presented a seminar across the U.S. on how to work with the network’s destination specialists throughout the world. “These are handpicked companies in Europe, Asia, Africa — all over the world — that do very special things for us every day,” says Maza. “It’s about the access, the curated experiences, the extraordinary guides, the surprises and delights that we deliver to our clients.”

Because Europe counts for more than 50 percent of Signature’s destination specialist sales, Maza presented a seminar on Europe’s hottest destinations, such as Spain, Italy, Iceland and Portugal. His efforts paid off: The highly rated seminar generated positive growth for the destination specialists. In particular, Virginia Irurita of Made for Spain and Portugal reported that her business with Signature was up 22 percent as a result.

Embark is another major initiative. It replaces a young professionals group and also welcomes older advisors with past careers. Embark launched October 1 in Signature’s new Los Angeles office (it recently moved from Marina del Rey to El Segundo), which has a dedicated training center with state-of-the-art technology. The move gives Signature more control over its training environment, which, in the past, had to be done offsite.

Embark covers every aspect of selling travel, including destinations, marketing, sales and, of course, luxury.

“I was very keen that as advisors enter the industry, that luxury is part of the conversation,” says Maza. “We don’t want luxury to be some Mount Everest for them in the distance that they will never get to. We want people to be completely comfortable with selling a room at the Ritz in Paris at $1,200 a night.”

Owning the luxury mindset is vital because the affluent traveler is so complex.

“A consumer could be going on a contemporary ship, such as the new Symphony of the Seas, which launches this November out of Miami as the largest ship in the world with FlowRiders, a Central Park, shows and ice skating. But, at the same time, it has two-story suites on board. There’s all this luxury product within the contemporary space,” he notes.

Maza at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa, French Polynesia.

Maza’s Top Tips

Here’s his essential advice for selling luxury: “When you quote a client, you need to aim high, because it’s much easier to come down a little bit if you have to,” says Maza. 

Understanding how the client lives day-to-day also provides tremendous insight. 

“Nobody wants to travel worse than they live at home,” says Maza. “You want something equal or better when you travel, that is going to deliver that quality component that the consumer expects.”

Do not underestimate the client, he warns. “People have a pretty good idea of what the best looks like,” says Maza. “The appetites of travelers have been whetted by what they read and hear; we have such a savvy, sophisticated consumer right now who has so much information at their fingertips.”

We asked Maza if he feels suppliers are developing new product quickly enough to accommodate this curious traveler. Many certainly are, he says, but not all are at the level they need to be to deliver the experiences the traveler is craving. 

“That’s why you have so many consumers booking with Airbnb and wanting that feeling, ‘I am a native of Paris or Tokyo or Bangkok or wherever I might be.’”

And yet, a hotel can be absolutely authentic and provide an experience that no apartment or Airbnb will ever replicate. 

“If you’re in Bangkok at the Mandarin Oriental; when you’re having breakfast on the terrace, on the Chao Phraya River, it’s extraordinary,” says Maza.

It’s essential to choose where you’re staying wisely, but the advisor also has to create the moments around the trip that will be meaningful to that customer. 

He cites Marina Safonova from Nordic Luxury in Reykjavik. “What I love best is how she weaves things into the itinerary that the consumer doesn’t expect,” says Maza. “Clients could be in a Zodiac zipping around the coastline of Iceland looking for puffins and whales and, all of a sudden, the boat pulls into a cave and she has lunch set up and it’s a feast, because she’s brought in a chef from Reykjavik as a surprise.”

The advisor should encourage the consumer to stretch their boundaries, he adds.

“Authenticity can come by taking a risk and doing things differently, or by going to regions that are not as popular, that are less crowded,” says Maza. 

Venice, for example, can overflow with tourists at certain times and so Maza suggests visiting nearby Torcello. “It’s a beautiful island on the lagoon with an extraordinary Byzantine church; you can also enjoy a wonderful lunch. You’re not going to have 57,000 people on the island, and yet, in the distance, you can see Venice. If you were in Piazza San Marco, it’s whitewater rafting with the crowds.”

Another tip? If a client has already done northern Italy and stayed at Lake Como, send them next to the Piedmont region and to the city of Turin, says Maza. That itinerary will allow you to visit the Alps and the vineyards of Nebbiolo d’Alba and Asti. “It’s not crowded, it’s unspoiled, has delicious food and wonderful places to stay at a fraction of what you would pay elsewhere and you’re having this authentic experience,” Maza tells us.

It takes more work, more time and certainly more ingenuity to deliver such wonderful itineraries, he notes. Here’s an artful way to encourage clients to try something new.

“Ask them to give you one day of the itinerary so you can create a perfect day for them,” says Maza. This works even for clients who may be on a budget, he adds. Then, get to work with local destination specialists and create a day that is truly magical, whether it’s a cruise or land vacation. 

Case in point: If an art-loving client is going to Madrid, arrange a private visit to the Prado before or after hours. “If the consumer has that passion, they will invest in that because that moment is priceless, and they will never have that opportunity again,” says Maza.

He is betting that even the price-conscious client will come back and say, “That perfect day that you created for us was the highlight of the whole trip.”

Even better, such unique experiences change the consumer’s perception of what travel can be and encourages them to be more aspirational with their trip-planning. One caveat? “The client has to trust you enough to be able to do that,” he says.

Trust can be earned if the advisor invests the time and energy up front to get to know the customer, Maza advises. “I think, so often, we run to close the sale and we think that we know what the client wants, but we really don’t.”

Understanding their likes is one thing, but knowing their dislikes is paramount. “We cannot stress enough how important it is to remove the  ‘points of friction’ in the trip,” says Maza. This could mean knowing your client must always have an aisle seat, or that they prefer a hotel room on a high or low floor, or away from the elevator. 

The advisor should then articulate to the client how they’ve acted on their behalf. “Be sure to communicate to the client that, ‘I know you don’t want a window seat, so I have you on the aisle. I know you want this room, so I contacted the hotel and [secured it for you],’” says Maza. 

“Advisors work very hard but they need to do a better job of conveying to their customer all that they are doing on their behalf, that they contacted the management to arrange for an early arrival at the hotel so that the room is ready. These are all of the little things that make the trip extraordinary,” he notes. 

There are additional ways to build trust with the customer, he says. He cites a strategy of Olga Placeres at Preferred Travel of Naples; the agency hosts open houses with specific luxury suppliers. “This isn’t a hard sell, it’s just an opportunity for the consumer to engage and listen to a cruise line or a tour operator or another supplier, along with the travel counselor. The consumer is very hungry for information and to understand the differences between the products. That’s important because everybody is so overwhelmed.”

Supplier Trust

Maza is an expert at building supplier relationships; for 14 years, he ran Signature’s hotel program, developing amenity and value-add programs with properties all around the world. He achieved this just after Signature had rebranded from Leisure Travel Group in 2004. That provided a challenge because not everybody was familiar with the brand and people didn’t understand the network, he says. “But, we launched in January of 2005, with about 150 hotels, and now we’re around 1,100 properties for the 2018-2019 cycle, which is extraordinary.”

Those numbers also reflect Signature’s growth; in 2004, the network was generating $2 billion to $3 billion in sales; today that number is $8 billion.

It’s also become much more international; aside from its strong U.S. core, there are member agencies in Canada and Mexico, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. With advisors all over the world, Signature as a matter of course had to vary its hotel offerings. 

It’s not always easy to add destinations to the hotel program; Maza cites Iceland as an example. “For years we tried to persuade hotels in Iceland to join us but, of course, they’re all full and they’re doing so well that they don’t need anybody. But we were very proud earlier this year to reach agreement with a wonderful Icelandic hotel company called ION, which are the two Design Hotels: One in Reykjavik, ION City, and then one in the countryside, which is ION Adventure. Signature was the first network to have partner hotels in Iceland, and to have the opportunity to work with ION.”

Another challenge over the years was getting hotels to include Wi-Fi in the Signature hotel program. “Eventually, we just came to a point in the road where we just had to say to our partners, ‘We need the Wi-Fi included as a Signature benefit.’ And it was tough, because some of the hotels didn’t want to give up that revenue. But, I’m happy to say we can make the universal promise to the consumer that Wi-Fi is part of our benefit program.”

Signature looks at building its hotel program based on the needs of its members and their clients. That means in London, it has about 30 hotel partners.

“That’s a lot of hotels, but remember that many are small, and that London is a large city; it is also our number-one destination outside of the U.S.,” Maza says. “You also have all these different neighborhoods in London. If you’re a die-hard Kensington fan, you don’t want to stay in the theater district over by the Strand, because you’re not going to be happy.”

Signature has created a vast supplier network that provides its members with contacts they can reach out to if they need assistance with a special booking. But Maza doesn’t believe in going straight to the top of each company or hotel for every single booking.

“I don’t believe you should be calling the general manager of a particular property every five minutes,” he says. “Otherwise you’re VIPing everybody. I always say to general managers, ‘If I contact you, it’s because I really, really need you,’ because otherwise, it just becomes white noise.”

“Signature advisors know they can ask for help when they’ve exhausted all their resources at a local level. For every category of travel, whether it’s cruise, land or hotel, Signature has a team of people who will jump in to respond. People sometimes are surprised at how close we are to our front-line advisors, but they are the listening posts who give us intelligence and tell us, ‘This is what’s working, this is what’s not working.’”

Maza at Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest), Bhutan. To enhance his own expertise, he takes one or two deep immersion trips a year.

A Look Back

Ignacio Maza was born in Havana, Cuba. His family left after the revolution and lived in Puerto Rico, Colombia, Argentina and Venezuela, before settling in the United States. “My father worked for a multinational firm, so we were on the move every two to three years,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “This is where I got my wanderlust from, at an early age. I didn’t know how, but I was determined to work in the travel business and see the world.”

He did so by working for National Airlines, Pan Am and TWA for a number of years in passenger services, reservations, the rate desk, industry affairs, pricing and tariffs. 

In 1988, he joined American Express’ supplier relations group; 11 years later, he moved to Virtuoso as executive vice president of supplier relations. In 2004, Maza joined Signature where he opened the New York office; that was a big move for the network, which was strong on the West Coast. He launched Signature’s hotel and destination specialist programs and supported efforts in marketing, membership, training, public relations and meetings, all with great gusto.

Now, 14 years later, he’s still enamored. “I love my job and I love the network,” he says. “My colleagues are such extraordinary people. We’re only 60 people, and yet we’re so close and there’s such camaraderie. We could all be stuffing bags at the annual sales meeting, for who knows how long, but whatever has to be done, has to be done. There are no egos. Here, you check your ego at the door.”

During Maza’s artful career climb, he’s learned a thing or two, such as, if you truly have a passion for travel, don’t wait for the perfect job. “If a job opens up in the travel industry, take it and learn the business,” he advises. “Maybe your aspiration is to work in the cruise industry, but that’s not available to you now, but a hotel job is; take the hotel job and learn while building a bridge to get to the cruise job you’re aspiring to.”

His second piece of advice? Be disciplined. “If you’re in the travel business, you have to stay current, and that is a huge commitment,” says Maza. He spends hours each week reading The New York Times, travel publications and the Financial Times’ weekend travel section. “It’s the same analogy as with a doctor or a specialist; if you need a surgeon, you want that surgeon to know the latest. You don’t want somebody to operate on you with information from 10 years ago.”

You should also find a mentor — someone  in a high capacity whom you admire. “Make it a point to have a cup of coffee with them, so you can ask them questions that may help you develop your career,” says Maza.

It’s important to travel, even if you’re busy. “If you’re going to do it right, you have to devote weeks out of every year to it, because nothing matches being there. Travel fuels your passion and recharges your batteries,” he says.

 Travel advisors should also attend their annual network conference, advises Maza. “That’s where you’ll have those face-to-face meetings to ask questions and to build a portfolio of relationships,” he notes.

A Team Effort

Maza stays in close touch with Signature’s luxury committee to get their input. “Everything that is spoken in the room stays in the room, where we can speak freely about opportunities, about issues for things that are not working and about things that concern our members. This is all coming from people who are experts in their field, like Karen Schragle at Wayland Travel, and Olga Placeres at Preferred, and Felipe Soubhia at PHD Travel in Sao Paulo. These are all extraordinary people that are so successful, and we need to listen very carefully to what they have to say. Their guidance is really important,” he notes.

Maza also credit’s Signature’s success to the network’s president and CEO, Alex Sharpe.

“Alex is a wonderful boss and a great leader of our network. He is very smart and has a passion for excellence in everything Signature does. At the same time, Alex listens, genuinely cares and has tremendous compassion. I have learned a great deal from Alex, not only about the world of travel, but also about life outside the office. Alex sets very high expectations for us, but — no one works harder than Alex. I feel very fortunate to work for someone I respect, admire and love,” says Maza.

Harkening back to Signature’s former leader, Michelle Morgan, who passed away in 2013, Maza has kind words. “She was my friend; I never thought of Michelle as a boss, even though I reported to her,” says Maza. The idea of his joining Signature came about while he and Morgan were having dinner in his living room. Maza said he didn’t want to move to Los Angeles and she suggested he could do the job from New York. By the following Monday morning the deal was sealed. “She was a wonderful person and I miss her terribly,” he says.

For someone who always wanted a career in travel, Maza has indeed found his niche.

“This industry has been my home for many years. I know no other,” says Maza. “I feel fortunate to know so many people who have taught me a great deal and who have been so kind to me. I have traveled all over the world and the experiences and destinations have exceeded all my expectations. Not too many people can say ‘My dreams have come true,’ but I can. And I genuinely believe that the best is yet to come.”  

Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network.

View From the Top

We asked Alex Sharpe, the president and CEO of the Signature Travel Network, to provide insight on what it’s like to work with Ignacio Maza:

“Ignacio is our not-so-secret weapon,” he told us. “Quite simply, I find Ignacio to be the most knowledgeable and inspirational person in our industry. His knowledge on destination and product brings it to life, which, in turn, gives our advisors the inspiration and confidence to present it to their clients. He has a cult-like following in our industry, not only by the advisors, but by the suppliers, too. He makes everyone around him better and has certainly helped take Signature to the next level. I couldn’t be happier to work alongside my friend.”

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