Staying ahead of the curve in the luxury travel industry and setting the trends instead of following them is a tall order — especially when the definition of “luxury” is ever-changing — but it’s what makes the advisors who pull it off so special.
Enter John Oberacker, founder and CEO of Eden for Your World, an affiliate of Montecito Village Travel in Long Beach, CA.
In August, Oberacker was named Virtuoso’s most innovative advisor, which the luxury travel network defines as the “travel advisor [who] has demonstrated the most innovative, imaginative and out-of-the-box thinking in selling travel.” It was the second year in a row that Oberacker was nominated for the award and his fourth nomination by Virtuoso in total (the previous two were for Virtuoso’s Rising Star, the “person, in the early stages of her or his career, [who] exhibits exceptional promise for reaching an elite level of professionalism and achievement”).
“I think I won because suppliers are the ones that vote for you, and they’ve seen my dedication,” Oberacker tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I really make it a point to create great personal relationships with the suppliers.”
He adds, “The title of ‘Most Innovative’ is a strange thing because we all, in the luxury travel business, strive to innovate; so, to be much more innovative than someone else is hard to gauge. In the end, I just think my dedication to my clients and my connection with the suppliers helped me win it.”
In fact, it is his relationship with his clients that earned him the title. And coming from the ones who work with him the most, we think it’s pretty telling of the way Oberacker conducts his business. As for the voting: Virtuoso invites nominations from each person in the network. It then reviews the nominations and selects five finalists, who are then voted on by its partners (for advisor awards) and its advisors (for partner awards).
Oberacker tells us that one of his suppliers, from Journey Mexico, personally escorted a client of his around Mexico City. They arranged shopping trips to small boutiques, local artisans and local designers “that otherwise would not have been possible.” He adds that “this blew my client away, to have such a personal experience — and I could have never provided this without the personal connection to the supplier.”
Oberacker also gives credit to Virtuoso for the benefits it affords his clients that help make him look like a rock star, such as “an exclusive free night, VIP airport transfers or just a discounted Virtuoso rate that is lower than the published BAR.”
One tip that Oberacker offers up, however, is to not forget about the small suppliers.
“I have my preferred suppliers around the world and try to stick with on-sites and / or DMCs that are physically in the destination I am working on, or at least cover just that specific region,” he says. “I have found that tour operators and other suppliers that cover too much tend to lose that up-to-date, exclusive knowledge of a specific destination. This is so important to travel advisors when looking for special, unique experiences, insider tips, hot new restaurants and more.”
The Latest Trends
Oberacker tells Luxury Travel Advisor that FIT, adventure, honeymoon and multigenerational travel are all among the most common requests he’s seeing from clients. Of these, multigenerational travel is the fastest-growing segment. He says that clients comprising small family groups, larger extended families and even ‘skip-generation’ groups are coming to him looking for unique experiences. Oberacker adds that honeymooners are going more luxury than they have before. He attributes both to the rise in social media and the role it plays in travel: Clients see what their friends or family are doing, as well as what’s available in general, and are looking for the same experiences.
Destination-wise, Oberacker says Croatia is “really hot;” he adds that Portugal, Southeast Asia and South Africa are also very popular. For a destination within a destination, he says Puglia, Italy is gaining steam. Among families, however, South Africa seems to be the most popular.
“I think because it’s ‘Africa lite,’” he says. The lack of a language barrier, the cuisine, and the opportunity for city, adventure and wine experiences make it popular, we’re told.
Oberacker adds, “I always tell my clients it’s great. Do South Africa first. It’s a great introduction if you’re going with the family. It’s comfortable. It’s perfect. Then, you’re going to be bit by the bug, and you’re going to want to go back to the other parts.”
Regarding his clients, Oberacker only takes new ones by referral. He tells us his business is growing so fast that if someone calls who’s interested in working with him, he will refer them to someone else on his team. The exception, he says, is if the new client found him through the Virtuoso network or website. Eden for Your World operates out of home offices and many of their clients are across the country, so most “meetings” are over the phone. For local clients, on the other hand, Oberacker says they will meet face-to-face. Either way, Oberacker tells us that there’s always a vetting process, which is constantly ongoing. “Sometimes I have to vet them after I’ve done several trips for them and get rid of them.” Addition by subtraction, he says.
Oberacker even tells us, “I’m going through a big breakup with a very good client right now but it’s just not a match. Our personalities don’t mix: He wants something from me that I can’t give him, and I want something from him he can’t give me. I told him this will be his last trip, and we will go separate ways.”
The decision to be more selective with clients is one of the top business decisions Oberacker has made this year, he says. On the same note, he says that he made a conscious decision to work less on weekends (“aside from emergencies, of course”).
It’s more proof that quality always beats quantity and that you don’t have to say “Yes” to everyone in order to run a successful agency.
Although, sometimes, you just have to: A former acquaintance from Oberacker’s previous life (in landscaping) reached out to him recently. He had given her his business card almost a decade ago when he was just launching Eden for Your World.
“She had never been out of the country and did not have the means to travel in luxury, but she really wanted to get out and see the world and take her little brother with her,” Oberacker tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “She thought I would turn her away with her low budget request, but I did not and, instead, took it as a challenge to find her the best I could with the budget she had.
“There was no way I could have turned away her curiosity and drive to get out there. In the end, I was able to give her something she could have never dreamed of: Through Small Luxury Hotels and local tour guides that would work in her budget and small things, like custom amenities and VIP treatment from our partners, she had the most luxurious experience she could have ever imagined, and her eyes were opened to a whole new world she never thought possible.
“Luxury is personal, and I was able to provide her with an experience she will never forget, and she is ready for the next adventure. It is not always about the biggest budget or the top-level client; it is about creating experiences of a lifetime for anyone, and this is what I love about my career.”
The backstory: Oberacker had worked with her for about 12 years prior to him opening Eden for Your World, and the two had a good working relationship. While she was cleaning out her car, she stumbled upon his card and decided to give him a call. “I was so thrown off guard,” he says but added, “I felt like I had to help this girl.” He told her he wasn’t going to go “super budget” but that he would look for rooms from $400 to $500 per night and would squeeze in a few tours. Oberacker sent her and her brother to Madrid and Barcelona; he booked them “decent rooms, but through our connections with the hotels, we were able to upgrade them to suites.” During the trip, on her birthday, the management at the hotel offered her a complimentary massage.
“All of us in the luxury travel business do crazy things,” Oberacker tells us. “We arrange helicopters to take people from Como to Tuscany — all sorts of awesome stuff like that. But this, to me, really stuck out.”
We’d say so, too.
Oberacker has created those “crazy,” over-the-top trips, as well. For one, he booked an Instagram influencer / fashion consultant, designer and curator a month-long trip to France, Poland and Italy, where she received tour guides from experts and fashionistas, who had insider access to local artisans, boutiques and designers.
He also sent a family to Israel for two weeks. The oldest son was already visiting for Birthright but the family wanted to take their two young daughters, one of whom has Down syndrome, as well as one cousin to experience the destination. Oberacker had to find tour operators who had experience in working with families with handicapped children. He wanted to book activities that would be culturally immersive but would be stimulating to the child; these were: Cooking classes with Druze women; a visit to the Buza Ice Cream factory; hiking in a nature reserve; kayaking in the Jordan River; swimming in the natural springs of Sachne; a tour of a date farm; a visit to the fortress of Masada and the Dead Sea to float in the water; and a visit to the Israeli Children’s Museum.
Who Is Eden for Your World?
Eden for Your World comprises Oberacker, his partner and COO, Kasra Esteghamat, and three ICs. Combined, the four (Esteghamat doesn’t manage his own book of clients; rather, he helps manage the business) pulled in $4 million in sales last year. This year, they’re on pace for $4.5 million.
Some of the advisors may know a destination or a brand better than another but none have specialties, or niches, per se.
“We get asked this [if we have a specialty] all the time and it always comes back to specializing in our clients,” Oberacker says. “We specialize in their individual needs, by asking the right questions and, thus, finding the services they are looking for.”
Oberacker adds that he and Esteghamat have been to roughly 80 countries to maintain their knowledge of the destinations that his clients are looking for. On top of that, he adds that he no longer attends FAMs but, instead, travels with Esteghamat “on our own ‘personal FAMs.’” It costs more, Oberacker says, “but we have found that it pays of, with firsthand product knowledge that makes our clients very comfortable with what we are selling.”
In total, the pair travels about four months of the year. This year, they’ve been to Alaska; Puglia, Italy; Michoacán, Mexico; South Thailand, Hawaii; Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania; Israel and Croatia.
And, of course, Oberacker encourages his team to travel as often as possible. “Nothing compares to firsthand knowledge,” he says.
In some ways, Oberacker has a story similar to many travel advisors. He was bitten by the travel bug at a young age. He had a successful career but was looking for a change and began by casually creating trips for himself and his family.
After 12 years of running a successful design and horticultural business with Esteghamat, Oberacker decided it was time for a change of pace. A friend of theirs, who was a Virtuoso advisor (David Rubin of DavidTravel, an independent affiliate of Montecito Village Travel), had casually suggested to them that they should consider being agents. Oh, and this was in 2008 — at the worst point of the recession.
“We thought that was just kind of insane because, at that time, we knew a lot of travel agencies were closing and people weren’t really going into the business at that point,” Oberacker notes. But Rubin “discussed how successful he is, and how we could probably make it work using our existing client base that we had with the landscape and interior design company.
“Two weeks later, I found myself at Virtuoso week wondering what the heck I’m doing here,” Oberacker says.
At first, Oberacker was the only one of the two to make the plunge; Esteghamat continued running the design portion of their business. (Due to the recession their business began to slow down a bit and they decided they needed to diversify their assets.) Roughly two years in, Esteghamat joined Eden for Your World as COO.
In addition to Rubin, Hope Smith of Born to Travel, an independent affiliate of Montecito Village Travel, also took Oberacker under her wing. The two met at his first Virtuoso Travel Week. “She continues to provide us with lots of insight and help,” he says. “I’m happy to say, at this point, I’m able to provide her with a lot of insight and help, too.”
With the exception of some guidance, Oberacker was almost entirely self-taught. It was a struggle, at first, Oberacker admits. “It was challenging the first couple years just trying to build that client base, to get our clients to trust us that they should use us for their travels, because, at that time, it was also when everybody was going to Expedia and online agencies. We had to convince people and steer them away from those.”
In the first year, he made just a couple thousand dollars, he tells us. But was there any point when he was starting off when he said, ‘Why did I do this? What am I doing?’
“No, never,” he says.
He learned how to really work for his business these years, something that’s paid off in the decade since.
Despite the two years they spent running separate businesses, it made sense that Oberacker and Esteghamat eventually joined back up. The two had met in junior high school in Orange County, CA, where they then went to the same high school. They both attended University of Maryland, College Park (where Oberacker received a Bachelor of Arts in horticulture; Esteghamat received a BA in art history and archaeology). After college, the two returned to California to open their landscape and interior design company. As the company flourished, it allowed them to travel (often finding antiques to decorate their clients’ homes and gardens).
“We worked to travel,” Oberacker says. Fast forward a bit and their work is travel.
Oberacker and husband, co-agency owner, Kasra Esteghamat travel about four months of the year and have visited roughly 80 countries.
A Decade Later
Ten years after the recession, the industry has changed a tremendous amount. But what has Oberacker the most excited about travel in 2018 and beyond?
“I think the hotels have come to realize that travel advisors are their bread and butter,” he says.
He’s also excited about new product. “I have heard rumors that they are talking about a new supersonic option from New York to London, which would be amazing,” Oberacker tells us. He adds that, although cruising isn’t one of his top “niches,” he is excited for where the industry is going: “The cruise world continues to add more and more luxury options, such a Crystal entering the river cruise market, as well as the yachting market — the same goes for Ritz-Carlton.”
Even luxury rail has caught his eye, namely the increased offerings in Europe and options like Belmond’s Andean Explorer.
Oberacker has a very positive outlook for luxury travel and, looking to the future, he could see Eden for Your World expanding — but not by much.
“We’re not actively out there asking people to join us,” he says. “We would love it, but I think it has to happen naturally. It has to be a good fit.”
In a perfect world, Oberacker tells us he would like to bring on an experienced advisor or two. The three previous advisors that he brought on were all new to the industry and Oberacker had to show them the ropes. It worked out well for these three but training someone new isn’t something that Oberacker has the time or resources for at the moment, with the way his business is increasing.
An ideal agency size, he says, would be six to eight employees. Adding an assistant, so that way Oberacker can continue working with his clients (“I want to be able to service my clients directly, as much as I can,” he says), is also a possibility.
Oberacker sees a change among his clients, as well. “On the consumer side, I think the idea of luxury has really changed in the past 10 years,” he tells us. “I think everybody has a different perception of luxury and I think people have really decided that experiences are the things they’re looking for. People do love the nice hotels and their suites, but they’re looking for those experiences and one-on-one connections with local people.”
With the definition of “luxury” changing with each trip, we asked Oberacker how he would define the term.
He says: “Luxury, to me, is having a great meal, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and some sort of fantastic experience, like an amazing cooking class, helping kids in a village in Uganda or having some sort of interactive experience with local people.”
The accessibility of travel also has Oberacker excited about travel. With the increase in available product and number of advisors who can book over-the-top trips — either for the money-is-no-concern type of traveler or the semi-budget-conscious client — more experiences are available to more people.
“The world has really opened up to so many people, and that’s just going to continue to grow,” he notes.
“As we all know, luxury is subjective and means something different to everyone. As the world becomes smaller, and travel easier and more accessible, I am excited that luxury travel is becoming more available to everyone based on his or her own interpretation of luxury … the possibilities are there, and I can’t wait to help my clients find their own personal luxury,” he says.
Catching Up With Kasra Esteghamat
Luxury Travel Advisor also spoke with Kasra Esteghamat to get the lowdown on his relationship — personally and professionally — with Oberacker.
“On the edge,” he joked, before telling us that their relationship is great.
“Professionally, we do completely different things,” he tells us. Esteghamat is the back-office person for Oberacker and the rest of the team, and he “hardly ever” works with clients directly.
“Very seldom do I take on a client or a booking or something like that, and deal with it from start to finish,” he says. “It’s insanely stressful for me to have so many moving pieces and parts.”
In this sense, it’s a good play, Esteghamat tells us. “We have our own strengths when it comes to Eden for Your World. Personally, I think, obviously, the passions are the same when it came to beautifying spaces for our clients in our past business — and with this one, making their free time beautiful.
“I think our passion is the same when it comes to that, and to travel itself.”
Esteghamat adds that he sees luxury in the same sense as Oberacker: A good room, good food and unique experiences, although part of their desire for all of these great experiences is so they can find them for their clients.
“True luxury,” however, Esteghamat says, is having a minute of free time.
Regardless of what a client is looking for, or how much they’re able to spend, they all want their time to be well spent and worth the investment. It’s what makes a travel advisor so important — since they’re managing their clients’ most valuable resource: Time.
Eden for Your World
Headquarters: Long Beach, CA
Top Executives: John Oberacker, CEO; Kastra Esteghamat, COO
Number of Employees: Five, including three independent contractors
Annual Volume of Business: $4.5 million
Affiliations: Virtuoso Travel Network, Frosch Travel
Advisory Board Positions: Montecito Village Travel Advisory Board, Marriott Luxury Brand Celestial Club, 2016-17 and 2017-18