Kate Murphy: Modern Luxury

 

Kate Murphy
“It’s an excellent opportunity for me to be able to do what I do,” says Kate Murphy, president of Wings Travel Group.

In the eyes of Kate Murphy, president of Wings Travel Group in Blue Bell, PA, everyone is entitled to a little bit of luxury. In fact, it is to this philosophy that she attributes the enormous success of her agency and its luxury travel advisors over the last 26 years.

Murphy, like many, came into the industry on a career change. “My brother and his friend [who later became my husband] bought a travel agency as an investment in June 1986,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. At the time, Murphy was running an admission office in a hospital in Philadelphia, but it did not take long for her brother to convince her into joining the agency. “If I could handle [medical] emergencies and things like that, I could handle travel,” she says.

At first Murphy worked part-time learning the ropes from the then manager. “I told her to pretend I was her blackboard. I was ready to learn and absorb from her,” Murphy says. Within a year, however, Murphy took a leading role as her predecessor relocated to Florida.

Right out of the gate, Murphy had big ideas for growing the business. “At the time we were a very small agency. We were doing just under $1 million [in sales],” she says. “The business was 99 percent corporate travel. In that time I saw the writing on the wall—that we didn’t want all of our eggs in one basket. We liked the idea of being full-service.”

Today the leisure segment makes up 70 percent of Wings Travel Group’s business, which pulls in upwards of $30 million in sales annually. Murphy has since bought her brother out of the business and today runs the company as its president, with her husband acting as CFO. “It’s an excellent opportunity for me to be able to do what I do—the marketing and managing side of the business. I always say I’m ‘numbers challenged,’ and I’m so lucky to have my husband working that side of the business,” she says. “It’s not easy to work with the person you’re married to, but since we both work on opposite ends of the spectrum, it works. It just frees me up to be able to do what I need to do.”

Wings Travel Group

President & CEO: Kate Murphy

Headquarters: Blue Bell, PA

Annual Sales Volume: +$30 million

Number of Advisors: 22 employees and 20 ICs

Website: www.wingstrips.com

Affiliation: Vacation.com

 

 Another Side of Luxury

What Murphy “does” is look at luxury differently. “We can add luxury to almost anyone’s vacation,” she says. “You, as a travel advisor, need to be able to take people away. I think everyone is entitled to a little luxury on their vacation.” Murphy looks at selling luxury travel in a new light, or what she likes to refer to as “Modern Luxury,” which she borrowed from Celebrity Cruises’ Dondra Ritzenthaler.

“I went to the Thesaurus one day and looked up the word luxury. I found ‘opulence,’ ‘extravagance,’ ‘treat’ and ‘indulgence,’ ” she says. “It’s our job to help our clients to be able to attain that for a week, two weeks, or however long.”

The idea of “modern luxury,” to Murphy, is making sure that all travelers know they are entitled to something special on their journeys. Wings Travel Group sells a majority of high-end operators like Tauck and Crystal Cruises, but it tries to apply this philosophy to mid-level market bookings, as well. “If a client wants to book Royal Caribbean, we try to sell them into a suite. If a client is booking Celebrity Cruises, we talk to them about Concierge Class. We get our clients to look at their travels in a different way, and this has helped grow our business,” she says.

Some of the other high-end vendors that Wings works with are Starwood and Marriott. “The No. 1 hotel that we book across the board is Ritz-Carlton. We never hear a complaint, everyone is happy, and they just do a great job.” She also recommends booking with St. Regis and W hotels, as well as Four Seasons and Fairmont.

Terry Vaughan
Local Radio Station Ben 95.7 at their Women of the Week Luncheon (where Murphy was a guest speaker) left to right—Jack Sharp, Disney Destinations; Terry Vaughan, executive VP, Wings Travel Group; Deborah Norville, American TV broadcaster and journalist; Kate Murphy, Wings Travel Group; and Mitch Gordon, director of leisure services, Wings Travel Group.

When it comes to personal travel, Murphy is incredibly active. Seeing and doing are two of her top priorities. “I could go to Europe all the time,” she says. “I’m at an age where I just want to see and learn all over the world, while enjoying nice wine and good food.” River cruising is a perfect way to make this happen and for this she recommends Avalon Waterways, Viking River Cruises and Tauck.

Utilizing Consortia

Murphy also attributes the growth of her business to the resources she has access to with her consortium, Vacation.com. The agency joined Vacation.com in the early 2000s and since then its leisure business has taken off. In fact, Murphy sits on the consortium’s advisory board, which has allowed her to make invaluable contacts. “I get to meet with top-tier vendors because of my position on the Vacation.com advisory board,” she says. “The position gave me more clout with vendors before I was entitled to it. Luckily I grew into the role.” Murphy is also on the advisory boards for Passport Online and Travel Insured International.

Murphy has a unique way of bringing her vendor relationships to the table. She hosts an Internet radio show every Wednesday titled, Travel Talk with Wings Travel. Each week she chats with a different vendor about travel and the business. These segments have been turned into podcasts which are hosted on her company’s website. “It’s a light way of touching your clients; it’s not a sales pitch,” she says. “Maybe you’ve never sailed Cunard before, and you need to hear about it. Open the podcast and there I am with my Cunard account manager talking about the business.”

Kate Murphy
Kate Murphy hosts a radio show Travel Talk with Wings Travel where she speaks with a different vendor every week.

Being a part of Vacation.com gives Murphy an arsenal of tools to use to help sell luxury travel. Vacation.com’s Vacation Vignettes program, for example, entitles travelers to free shore excursions and other exclusive benefits when cruising exclusively with Vacation.com partners. The Culinary Collection is another great tool that members have at their fingertips to sell. These themed culinary vacations offer cooking classes, wine tastings, chef tutorials and more. Murphy is also a big fan of the consortium’s Amenity Cruises program, which offers clients exclusive gifts while cruising.

Vacation.com also provides its members specially crafted “In Sites,” a way for agents to showcase their expertise on their own agency’s consumer sites. In Sites is a series of microsites that demonstrate agents’ specialties and can be put directly onto a company’s personal website. Currently Wings Travel Group showcases Explore Alaska and Cruising Europe In Sites; it just added a luxury In Site on March 15.

“Vacation.com just gives me a lot of support. I can ask a lot of questions. It’s like getting an outside consultation and it is a big help,” Murphy says.

The Wings Family

When describing her current clientele, Murphy goes back to that term, “modern luxury.” “They are all very well-traveled and they have an idea of what they want, but they need our expertise to get it, add value for their money, and add a touch of luxury. That’s what we’re here for.”

Kate and Doug
Kate and her husband, Doug at the Disney Fantasy Christening in New York, March 2012.

One of the most extravagant vacations Murphy ever booked was for a CEO of a company who was looking to get engaged to his girlfriend in Paris. “He wanted to give her five gifts, with the fifth gift being the engagement ring. And he knew he wanted to propose at Le Jules Verne restaurant on the Eiffel Tower,” says Murphy. The best part about planning this particular trip was that Murphy was able to put a little bit of herself into the itinerary. Having never had been to Paris before, her client was unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the city, so Murphy was able to guide him to the very best, and the most romantic, locations. (She urged him to whisk his girlfriend off to the Musée d’Orsay, rather than fight the throngs of tourists at the Louvre.)

“We’re in travel,” she says. “We sell a dream to people.”

Because Wings has a corporate division, it handles a lot of CEO travel. When these clients wish to book leisure travel, their corporate agents can recommend the best leisure agent to work with. “My corporate staff knows that when their clients ask them about anything, they can put them with the correct leisure agent,” says Murphy. She also tells us that many of Wings’ offices are in affluent communities; so much of their business comes from local community members. For example, the company’s headquarters is directly across the street from the Blue Bell Country Club.

Murphy’s staff consists of approximately 22 employees and 20 independent contractors. “My staff is fabulous,” she says. “Their input to me is invaluable and my door is open to them constantly.”

Wings Travel Group is headquartered right outside Philadelphia, but is made up of five other branch offices in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. But Murphy doesn’t plan to stop there. “If you don’t want to keep growing you should get out of the business,” she says. “We are always looking for good, new acquisitions. We’re not a host agency, but an excellent mid-size agency. Our ICs feel like they are part of the family, as well. We always go back to the same thing: The Wings Family.”

Following Murphy’s lead, the Wings Family has embraced her concept of “modern luxury,” meaning they know that one size does not fit all in the travel world. It’s about what fits the client specifically and tailoring each trip to that client and adding a special, luxury touch. It’s about using technology and your consortium to the fullest and making sure you are always growing.

“In business you can’t stand still. You need to grow,” she says. “If the rest of the year keeps up like we’ve started, it is going to be a boom year.”

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