Largay Travel: Innovating During the Pandemic to Revamp Business

Lori Bartlett, Paul Largay, Melissa Russo, Scott Largay, Amanda Klimak and Vira Mastroianni pose at Paul Largay’s home on Lake Quassapaug, Middlebury, CT
A close-knit team: From left, Lori Bartlett, Paul Largay, Melissa Russo, Scott Largay, Amanda Klimak and Vira Mastroianni pose at Paul Largay’s home on Lake Quassapaug, Middlebury, CT.(Largay Travel)

If 2020 seems like the longest year ever to some, it may feel as if it’s flying by for the folks at Largay Travel. That’s because the agency, which brought in $90 million in revenue in 2019, has spent the past seven months revamping its business model and restructuring its product offerings. That’s on top of the daily tasks that have become de rigueur for most travel businesses, such as meeting virtually with their advisors and clients frequently and finding ways to keep their customers engaged and dreaming about future travel during the pandemic.

In short, it’s taken a fair dose of human ingenuity and adaptiveness during COVID-19, the agency president, Amanda Klimak, tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

“Early on, we knew this pandemic would drastically affect the world, and that business as we knew it would change completely,” she says. “We got right to work, evolving and planning for not only what our agency looked like during this pandemic, but also what we wanted to look like when it was over.”

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But true to Largay style, the agency’s executives and advisors have been having as much fun as possible every step of the way.

Luxury Travel Advisor caught up with Klimak a few short weeks ago, as well as Paul Largay, CEO and Chief Culture Curator of Largay Travel (more on that later), and Scott Largay, the agency’s director of marketing, who joined the family business five years ago after a successful career in production in Boston. Our virtual Zoom meeting was filled with dynamic dialogue, some good laughs and a very serious dive into what the future holds for Largay Travel and the luxury travel business overall.

Let’s start with the Chief Culture Curator, who sets the tone for all things Largay. Paul Largay is the nephew of the legendary industry icon, Roland Largay, who founded the agency 50 years ago. Roland, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 88, was one of the most joyful human beings ever born and was known for his jokes, his magic tricks and his grin. (In fact, according to Paul, Roland believed he had led such a great life, he wanted to come back as himself.) But under that happy exterior was a most serious businessman. 

“When I joined him 40 years ago, he said to me, ‘Let me tell you what the one key to success is,’” recalls Paul Largay. “‘Focus on the relationship, not the transaction. You need to build this business one conversation, one connection, one relationship at a time. When we are successful, it will be based upon the repeat and referral aspects of business. If you don’t have a relationship-based organization or community, you cannot survive just on transactions.’”

Other words of advice? “‘Just because you’re wearing a smile doesn’t mean that you’re not professional and that you’re not successful. Quite the contrary. At the end of the day, what I want to do with our team is hold hands and laugh together all the way to the bank. If you’re honorable and you’re joyful, good things will come your way.’”

Please Go Away of Largay Travel

“Please Go Away” is Largay Travel’s new brand, which launched in April with its own website. The company’s top executives are shown here at their office in Waterbury, CT.

“My uncle was the essence of professionalism and he also was the essence of irreverence and joy,” says Largay. “People used to say, ‘Sometimes when we would walk into a room and we didn’t know where Roland or Paul was, we didn’t have to look, we just listened for the laughter. And automatically, we knew that they were at the source of it.’”

Largay has taken all of these life lessons to heart. When the company changed his title to Chief Culture Curator last year, it also trademarked the slogan, “We are practitioners of the art of joyful commerce.” 

“That means that we will never surrender our humanity or our humor to be successful or chase a dollar because, in our mind, that is not success,” says Largay. “The ethos and the brand of Largay Travel is its communal, supportive, familial, joyful existence. My uncle told me that if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Powerful Infrastructure

This very upbeat vibe has kept the business going over a very challenging 2020.

Case in point: Despite months of planning its annual, four-day company retreat for April 2-5 at the Grand Cascades Lodge in Hamburg, NJ (think: lots of education, a gala with dancing and even costumes), it became vastly apparent to the Largay team weeks prior that the onset of COVID-19 would be shutting those plans down. The agency quickly pivoted the event into an “engaging, virtual ‘Zoompaloosa’ with lots of laughs and learnings,” says Klimak. 

“We worked around the clock to learn how to go from small, one-to-four person Zoom meetings to orchestrating a four-day virtual event with over 150 participants,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

Hosting that virtual retreat so early into the pandemic forced the agency to immediately lean into the new normal that had blanketed the entire industry so abruptly. Steps were taken to find creative ways to communicate with the Largay team, its clients and its supplier partners. 

“Our goal remained unchanged — to continue to give our clients extraordinary service and foster a company culture that values professionalism, personality, fun and community,” says Klimak. “We had virtual dance parties, where everyone from the travel industry was invited, and Meditation Mondays to get everyone’s week started on the right foot. We launched a Travel Dreaming series every Wednesday night, a live virtual event for both advisors and their clients, full of inspirational and educational content to keep everyone’s wanderlust going and growing during the down time.”

The central narrative of all these activities? “Dream Now, Travel Later.”

These programs weren’t launched just for the fun of it. At the very core of the Largay team is a fierce sense of optimism for the future. After all, the company has survived and thrived through recessions, the bubble burst of the dot-coms, 9/11 and the 2008 economic downturn.

Largay Travel’s Big Night Out in Las Vegas during Virtuoso Travel Week

A fun environment: Largay Travel’s Big Night Out in Las Vegas during Virtuoso Travel Week

“Everything we’ve done and continue to do is planning for this incredible resurgence and opportunity once science and medicine do their thing,” says Largay.

For the agency, business is already picking up, with new bookings outweighing refunds. But there are plans for a big grand reopening when the time comes, and a large aspect of that is the debut of a new brand, “Please Go Away,” which is the tagline Roland Largay created for the agency half a century ago.

“Please Go Away” was already in the works in 2019 and launched in April with its own website. It’s a lead-generation source that matches clients to the ideal advisor. 

The move is timely, as Largay Travel has been transitioning its business model away from the agency / employee structure to having 100 percent independent contractors, or “business partners,” as they are called. That number is now up to 130.

The New Brand

“Please Go Away Journeys” allows visitors on the PleaseGoAway.com website to set up a 15-minute consultation with a travel advisor, assuring the individual that no fees will be charged until the actual trip design begins.

“Please Go Away Life,” uses the Virtuoso Wanderlist Planning Platform, which asks each traveler in a group or family to relate what their ultimate travel dreams are. A Wanderlist-certified advisor then sets a meeting to review all the results, inquire about milestone dates coming up and the blackout dates they cannot travel. The goal is to agree upon three to five possible future trips, so the advisor can begin setting up a travel portfolio for the clients.

Klimak says Largay Travel has 26 certified Wanderlist advisors on its team and that the program “has been a huge success. It’s something that we feel will continue to be a huge part of the process going forward. Everyone will be using that to share ideas. Virtuoso has come with some really great evolutions in that program that have really taken it to the next level.”

She likens the process to a travel vision board, or a “Pinterest for travel.” 

Now Big on Groups

Largay Travel has just published a “Please Go Away Groups” catalog comprising trips led by the agency’s advisors. The goal is to provide a structure for each advisor to share in the revenue that comes from the program.

“We have everything from advisors hosting trips on Lindblad in the Arctic and people going on polar bear trips with Natural Habitat Adventures,” says Klimak. “We have bike and hiking trips, so it’s really allowing them to dip their toe into the group travel market.”

Group size varies, based on the type of trip, but the best part, she says, is that Director of Marketing Scott Largay has worked with his team to create a template for each group and to produce videos, so clients can actually see and meet the host for the group they are interested in.

Paul Largay’s boat, the S.S. Please Go Away, on Lake Quassapaug, Middlebury, CT

A joyful journey: The executives are shown aboard Paul Largay’s boat, the S.S. Please Go Away, on Lake Quassapaug, Middlebury, CT.

When we spoke, Klimak was getting ready to host her own group called the “Great COVID Jailbreak,” using RVs as a mode of travel. 

“We actually all have agreed upon criteria that we’re all getting COVID tested three days before we leave, so that we can all hang out at night together at our campsites without masks and be able to feel relaxed amongst ourselves. There are eight of us total; four couples,” she says.

Family Legacy

During his five-year tenure with Largay Travel, Scott Largay has made significant additions to the business, while providing living proof to the agency’s advisors that there is a continuation plan for the company, should his father, Paul Largay, ever decide to retire (Paul warns that day isn’t coming any day soon).

Scott reports that during his tenure thus far, his focus has been on being “inspirational and educational” on a global basis.

For the short term, that means working with travel advisors over the past several months to help them create their own brands, having them participate in more destination specialty programs and, essentially, helping them reinvent what they want their business to look like. That practice has been constructive and healing during a very challenging work climate and Scott Largay says once those conversations happened, he could “really see the smiles started coming back.”

The programs, he says, have helped Largay’s advisor team become more educated on destinations and to track future trends into 2021 and 2022.

“We’re proactive instead of reactive, and that’s what I’m most proud of. Instead of pausing during this time, we’ve actually been so proactive in not only our own business but each one of our independent contractors, as well. We’ve had such great conversations with people who are saying, ‘I’ve always wanted to blog but I don’t know where to start.’ And, so, we’ll show them the process. Or they’ll say, ‘I’ve always wanted to have my own website to send people to in case I want to sell my own group trips,’ and we’ll show them how it’s done. 

“Once they start realizing that these things are actually possible and they have the time to do it, the joy is there. They’re so excited that now they can actually recreate themselves during this process,” says Largay.

He is as focused on the supplier side of the business, pushing out several initiatives that have received a positive response. 

“They’re so thankful when I send them e-mails or I’m setting up Zoom meetings, or when we launch our monthly e-magazine called the ‘Insider’s Club,’ where we focus on a destination and cool experiences.”

Advisors and their clients are invited to the agency’s weekly evening “Travel Dreaming” series, comprising inspirational content for clients so they know what’s waiting for them when the world opens up.

“The suppliers are so excited to be able to still get in front of people, whether it’s virtual or not,” he says, adding that it’s been a real morale builder for all involved. 

“It all comes back to relationship-building and that we’re coming up with these creative ideas where we’re not just sitting around and waiting. We’re coming up with different ways to communicate and make people feel comfortable about talking about travel now and what will that look like when we can actually really start traveling again.”

The clientele across Largay Travel varies by advisor, from soft adventure to family travel to group travel. The agency last year held programs that helped guide advisors to determine what their niche is, and how to communicate that to the world. Another component focused on helping them look for the right clients and to focus on the work that brings them the most joy. 

“It helped them figure out the things that don’t bring them joy but that they have to get done, and then delegate the things they absolutely despise,” says Klimak. The agency also recently worked with Bob Joselyn to help advisors determine their value and charge the right fees.

“We’ve done everything from helping them develop e-mail templates, as well as their terms and conditions for their business. We’re helping them make sure their forms that should be signed by every client for credit card authorizations, to acknowledge the terms and conditions, or to pay planning fees up front. We’ve worked together to come up with some samples that everyone can use,” Klimak adds.

Largay Travel's 50th aniversary

Company Retreat: Largay Travel celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

All in all, the executive team at Largay Travel has worked diligently to keep those advisors who want to be super engaged during the pandemic as busy as possible. For example, the “USA Project” included researching as much about travel in America as possible. “What they love about our program is that you can pick and choose what you participate in,” says Klimak. 

In other instances, some advisors have stepped away to take care of elderly parents or homeschool their children during these challenging times. To assist those hit especially hard, the agency has also formed the Largay United COVID Fund and raised thousands of dollars and gift card donations to help those on its team who are struggling financially.

“The whole premise and the vibe that we put out there to the world is that you can come here and completely be yourself and nobody will judge you,” says Klimak. “We help people with incredibly different business models and who do business in really unusual ways. And as long as it’s legal and ethical and they are professional and joyful, they fit in here. And that’s what I think everyone truly appreciates.”

To keep the advisor programs on a straight path, the agency has established the “LAB,” or “Largay Advisory Board,” comprising 12 independent contractors. 

“That has been a huge help in allowing us to know how we should be evolving our program, making sure the support is there working for people, and that we’re a good business partner with our independent contractors,” says Klimak. “Before we make any big decisions, we run it by them.”

Onward to 2021 and Beyond

As for the future, a positive that has come from 2020 is that consumers now understand the value of the travel advisor, notes Scott Largay, who says he hasn’t looked back once since joining the family business.

“The industry has forever battled to tell the story of why travel advisors are important and why people should be using them,” he says. “A lot of these do-it-yourselfers have gotten burned during this time by booking the trip themselves and calling an 800 number for help that didn’t pick up or had a busy signal. There’s a general consumer awareness of the importance of using a travel advisor now, not only when things go right but when things go wrong. That’s one thing that I’m super excited for our entire industry,” he says.

With that bright future in mind, Largay Travel will remain keenly focused on its independent contractor model, but it’s not looking to grow it dramatically over time. In fact, Paul Largay says that no one joins the agency until they speak to him first; he’s turned down individuals with strong books of business because they wouldn’t fit into the agency’s joyful mindset. 

The top brass at Largay Travel

Looking to the future: The top brass at Largay Travel has a fierce sense of optimism for the future.

Who he works with is important; so much so that every morning he is busy contacting advisors who have made sales the previous day to congratulate them. He adds that getting into the agency’s mentorship program is more rigorous than getting into Harvard.

“I tell every perspective mentee who comes into this business, ‘We’ve got a toolbox filled with so many different tools. We’ve got so much support. We’ve got an amazing environment. But here’s the reality. I was a frontline agent. This is a really hard business. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that I can bring to the table that’s going to make this easy. But what we can do, and what you need to really focus on, is the cultural climate here, and that we can make this a joyful, collaborative journey.’ 

“And that is really what the secret sauce has been with Largay Travel,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor

Largay Travel

Headquarters: Waterbury, CT
Top Executives:
CEO & CCC: Paul Largay
President: Amanda Klimak
Director of Marketing: Scott Largay
Director of Professional Development: Melissa Russo
Director of Supplier Relations and Leisure Sales: Vira Mastroianni
Director of Business Development: Lori Bartlett
Number of advisors: Pre-COVID: 35 employees; Post-COVID:18 employees, 130-plus independent contractors
Annual volume of business: 2019: $90 million
Affiliations: Virtuoso; a branch of the Tzell Travel Group Advisory board positions: Amanda Klimak is the Chair of the Virtuoso Member Advisory Board. Scott Largay is on the Virtuoso Marketing Committee
Agency website: www.LargayTravel.com; www.PleaseGoAway.com

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