Chris Austin: Luxury Sales Executive of the Year

Chris Austin, senior vice president of global marketing and sales for Seabourn, has a long and successful career in the luxury travel industry. We caught up with Austin recently, after he had won the Luxury Travel Advisor Award of Excellence “Top Sales Executive of the Year Worldwide” for the second time. He had earlier received the prestigious accolade, which is voted on by the readers of Luxury Travel Advisor, in 2016 during his tenure at Starwood Hotels & Resorts. 

Anyone familiar with the luxury travel trade knows Austin is always front and center at conferences that are geared to the top advisors in the industry. If he’s sponsoring an event, he’ll see down to the last detail that everything is perfect. If asked to present, he comes to the table with detailed trend reports and advice on how travel advisors can sell better.

Austin confirms that he is an ardent supporter of travel advisors because he believes in them. 

“I’m proud to reflect on an industry that took its destiny under control, blowing the headlines away, standing tall, fighting back and being more powerful, more visionary, more wanted than ever before,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor

But how does that actually translate in to earning the trust of the luxury travel advisor community?

“For me, it’s response time — as in, answer every e-mail in a timely manner, as if it were a live conversation,” says Austin. “Think about it: If the person were in front of you, they wouldn’t wait days for you to answer or perhaps never even receive an answer. I answer every e-mail as quickly as possible. I answer every phone call that comes to my desk and I’m present at events and conferences.”

He also works with his team to develop innovative new programs, communications, training platforms and experiences that all have relevance and value for the travel advisor, he adds.

We asked Austin about his management style, which has clearly been part of his success throughout the years.

He admits he doesn’t use any of the popular buzzwords that go along with leadership today; rather, he says, his style is simply to be a real person. “I try to be very approachable. I’m incredibly supportive to my team and our partners,” he says, adding that he responds to his team as quickly as he does to travel advisors.

The strength of the team is of paramount importance. “I do like to surround myself with great talent; I don’t think any leader is individually going to conquer the world,” he says. 

He loves the creativity that teamwork brings and says there is no such thing as a bad idea. 

“There are ideas that we will execute earlier and others we may decide just aren’t part of the picture at the moment,” he says.

His management perspective is an international one. “I want to balance the expertise and feedback from all of our team members globally. We could have a great idea in Australia that solves an issue in North America. You have to balance cultures, but I have a one-team, one-voice approach.”

He’s not the sort to say, “Do things my way,” rather he prefers to help his team members come to the right conclusion. “I want them to drive the decision,” he says.

But, he’s not one to lay back when it comes to the decision process.

“I’ll try to move people along pretty fast because, I think in today’s world, agility is key. At the end of the day, the biggest challenge is the amount of time we have.”

Another tenet to Austin’s management style? Celebrating successes. “There has to be a balance between people feeling the value that they have in their roles and their work, being complimented for jobs well done, and also getting the coaching to improve,” he advises. “That coaching can be at the water cooler, in a quick conversation or it could be in the boardroom. I’m less of a formal boardroom person, as people tend to think that they’re in trouble or have done something wrong.”

Chris Austin and Anne Morgan Scully of McCabe World Travel at a Starwood brunch. Austin is always front and center at events that involve the luxury travel advisor.

A Lovely Beginning

Austin’s career has brought him around the world to some of the world’s must beautiful places, whether it’s a top luxury hotel or an exquisite port on a Seabourn cruise. If you ask him, his childhood sounds positively idyllic, perhaps laying the foundation for a life of being in beautiful places. He was born in Royal Leamington Spa, a former Victoria spa town in the heart of England. His father called it “God’s country” because of its rolling meadows, pastures, farm land and cute towns with hundreds of years of history. He grew up with his parents and his older sister, Jane, “who was excellent at her English literature and is now a teacher,” says Austin. 

They lived in a home his father had designed. “My father was an architect and told me never to go into the profession for two reasons: One, if there is a downturn in housing you would be out of work, and secondly, he said it’s all ‘mud and bullets,’” says Austin. “I still don’t really know what he meant by that, though I do love interior design and perhaps I get that from my father.”

It gets more appealing. Austin’s family vacationed twice a year in the Mediterranean. “Both of my parents truly loved their holidays, both in terms of the planning and the expectations it brought, along with the actual trip itself,” Austin recalls. Every Boxing Day was spent plotting out the family’s top three choices for the coming year’s holidays; his mother would collect tour operator brochures during the year and Chris and his sister would ponder over where to go.

“That excitement is something I still have and, to some degree, wish we could make it contagious in today’s world, where more and more people seem to book travel so last-minute rather than plan it out where the anticipation builds,” says Austin.

He remembers celebrating his fifth birthday on the island of Majorca and feeling very fortunate to be spending it in such a beautiful place. But then there was the trip to Ibiza two years later, when Austin “got lost.” His mother went to the hotel’s front desk if they’d by any chance seen young Chris. They had indeed. “The Spanish receptionist conveyed that — yes, not to worry — I was in the back office with the reservations team helping them take future bookings. So I guess that may be where my career in hospitality was born,” says Austin.

That he also had the soul of an entrepreneur became clear on his 13th birthday, when his father told him he’d have to start earning his own pocket money and gave him a bucket, sponge and chamois cloth. “So off I went to wash cars,” says Austin. The good news? “I actually earned more than my pocket money,” says Austin. “This act, which I was initially angry over, certainly instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in me, which I still have today.”

By age 15, he was working weekends as a bar-back, washing glasses in Kenilworth’s top hotel, The De Montfort, which was named after Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester. By 16, he was working in the main hotel bar where he says he continued to earn significantly more than the pocket money his father had once given him. When the time came, Austin chose to attend Bournemouth University for a Bachelor of Science in Hospitality Management. He had other choices, but Bournemouth, in Southern England had beaches and was known to have the most sunlight of any city in England. “Bournemouth is one of England’s great resort towns, full of hotels, bed & breakfasts, theaters, a pier and some of the best beaches in the country,” says Austin, noting his university years were wonderful and that his hospitality education gave him a diverse background.

“I can attribute being able to cut a pretty sharp baton carrot, plus argue hospitality law all at the same time, thanks to my university years and I passed my four-year degree with a Commendation,” he recalls. 

Austin knew he wanted to work for a global hotel brand and wrote to “the big five:” Hilton, Sheraton, Hyatt, Intercontinental and Marriott. He scored interviews with Sheraton and Hilton.

He was offered identical sales executive roles at the Gatwick Hilton and the Sheraton Skyline at Heathrow Airport. 

How to choose? He asked each for a company car with gas included. Sheraton said yes and the decision was made. Austin worked at the Heathrow hotel, managing a number of corporate accounts along with the British Airways crew contracts. Eighteen months later he was moved to banqueting so he could get the full view of hotel operations. “We worked hard, long hours, including many weekends but it was rewarding,” says Austin. And indeed, it was. He earned the coveted “The ITT Sheraton President’s Award” and still has the plaque to this day.

The honor earned him a move to the ITT Sheraton Corporation global sales office in London where he managed the American Express partnership, several tour operator partners, and a series of corporate and leisure agency accounts. 

And so it began. Austin got his first full view of what the travel advisor can do for clients and “that they are an extension of a company’s sales force and that they have the focus, efficiency and a daily mantra to simply do the right thing,” he says.

Those were heady days for Austin, who was working on a joint promotion for U.S. travel advisors with American Express UK, the newly opened St. Regis New York and British Airways. 

“We flew Concorde both ways, and on my outbound flight, Boy George was heading to New York, too,” says Austin. “What a shame Instagram didn’t exist then! Thanks to British Airways and their focus to cultivate business and demonstrate their full support of the travel advisor, I actually flew five times on Concorde. I still have several of those beautiful Wedgewood plates they would give to each passenger as a memento.”

His career was gaining momentum and in one week, Austin, at age 29, had three career options, one of them being the chance to interview for the newly created position of director of leisure sales for ITT Sheraton Corporation. It was a global role based in New York. Seven months later he was living the dream in Manhattan.

The move to New York was exciting but it’s possible Austin loved his actual job even more. “New positions are a true gift,” he says. “They allow you to chart your own course, to conform to your company’s strategy but to have freedom within the framework. They allow you to listen, to learn, to create, to listen again and recreate again, fine-tuning strategy, tools and programs so the brand becomes more valuable and respected by your partners and by your guests.”

There are challenges, of course. A job with no structure means you need to create it. There are no files from your predecessor so you’re starting from scratch and it can be downright lonely, notes Austin, who says in such circumstances, you’ve just got to have drive and passion. “The daily challenge is to win, to earn more of a partner’s business, to chart the course and not follow anyone,” he advises.

Things were going well at ITT Sheraton as Austin was developing deep roots in the leisure sales arena. Change was afoot, however, and that came when Starwood Capital acquired ITT Sheraton Corporation in 1998, creating Starwood Hotels & Resorts. Starwood Capital was a real estate investment trust (REIT) that had acquired Westin Hotels & Resorts the year before. It was run by hotel innovator Barry Sternlicht, who led the new Starwood through an era of innovations for the hospitality industry, including W Hotels, the Heavenly Bed and The St. Regis brand, to name but a few.

This new climate at Starwood meant Austin could continue with his own innovative style; he and his team created tools and programs, such as Luxury Privileges, Starwoodpro and ProLearning, to support the travel advisor. “These were all revolutionary at the time, leveraging the power of the guest loyalty program but shifting focus and earning power to the travel advisor,” recalls Austin. 

Starwood had also become the largest owner and operator of luxury hotels in the world at the time and, in turn, Austin launched a global luxury advisory board, as well as a leisure travel advisory board with leaders from tour operators, cruise lines and OTAs. 

All told, Austin spent 29 years of his career with Starwood Hotels & Resorts (counting his tenure with ITT Sheraton). When he left, he held the position of vice president of global leisure, luxury & TMC (travel management companies) sales.

Change came back around in 2016 when Starwood Hotels & Resorts announced it would be “reviewing strategic alternatives.” In the end, Marriott International bought the company, creating a new powerhouse of hotel brands. Austin says he has tremendous respect for Marriott, but was feeling a virtual nudge at the time, an urge to tackle something new. 

“In life, you either let destiny rule you or you control your destiny,” says Austin. “I’m a firm believer that there is no right or wrong here. Sometimes destiny brings opportunities to you at the most unexpected times and sometimes you have to create those doors opening. I truly believe that is true every day of our lives, especially for travel advisors who can control their destiny and build their business by being proactive, identifying new business, new clients and new experiences.”

As fate would have it, he was sitting at home one Saturday morning, sipping a Nespresso, when he read that the senior vice president of Seabourn had left to lead another cruise line. Austin’s husband, Alex, asked him what he was reading and when Austin read him the news tidbit about the new job opening aloud, Alex asked him, “Isn’t that your dream job?” 

“He was right,” said Austin. “I had talked for a long time about joining the cruise side of the hospitality industry; ‘floating resorts and hotels,’ as I saw them.” Seabourn itself  had long been on Austin’s radar. He recalls years prior being on vacation with Alex on the Amalfi Coast. 

“We saw this stunningly beautiful yacht-like vessel anchored off shore,” said Austin. “I turned to Alex and said, ‘One day we should cruise on that — it looks very special.’ Alex replied, saying, ‘Perhaps you should work for Seabourn.’… So I guess dreams do come true.”

And so Austin wrote a short e-mail to Seabourn’s president, Rick Meadows, asking to connect to have a chat. Fast forward: Austin has now been at Seabourn for nearly three years; he holds the position of senior vice president of global marketing and sales, responsible for the luxury line’s overall global marketing efforts, brand management, sales and public relations. 

A different style: Chris Austin doesn’t use any of the popular buzzwords that go along with leadership today; rather, he says, his style is simply to be a real person.

What Makes a Good Travel Advisor?

Austin now has nearly three decades experience of working with travel advisors and so we asked him what the traits of the best in the business are.

“I often say I don’t care if people work from home, wear fuzzy slippers and a bathrobe and work off the kitchen table. That is completely irrelevant. What I care about is professionalism, and how the travel advisor represents their own brand and the brand that they’re working for. They need to represent it very, very well,” says Austin.

Advisors also have to be very knowledgeable about the destinations and products they’re passionate about; however, they should realize they can’t be an expert in everything. “When they find themselves in that situation, they should have the forethought to say, ‘I’ll get the information for you,’” says Austin. “That approach builds a trusting relationship.”

His top tip? When a client asks for information, it’s not always necessary to drop everything to begin the research. Instead, calmly ask when they need the information by. The answer might be “not until the following week,” in which case the advisor has bought themselves seven days to do a good job of finding the right information.

“That is a part of a good advisor’s DNA, that ability to naturally forge deep, meaningful relationships with clients,” says Austin. “We fall in love with people, not with computers.”

Travel advisors shouldn’t walk on eggshells with clients and they must also have the discipline to not overpromise, he says. “Clients might come to an advisor and say, ‘I want this, this and this, but I only want to pay this.’ The good advisor is the one who takes the time to say, ‘Let me give you just a little bit of advice on how this really works.’”

Having a business strategy is key for travel advisors, but Austin says newcomers to the industry shouldn’t be intimidated by that thought. “I’m a great believer that marketing plans don’t need to be more than one piece of paper, maybe even a couple of sentences. It’s about setting a vision, setting a goal,” he says.

When he joined Seabourn, Austin met a travel advisor at a conference and made certain to follow up with her when he returned to the office. She recently contacted him to say she’d just made her fifth Seabourn booking. “Before I came here, she’d never booked Seabourn in her life, she’d never booked an ultra-luxury cruise in her life,” says Austin. “She set the vision, she set her goal and, to a degree, she wanted to demonstrate her appreciation that I had followed up with her after meeting her at a trade show,” says Austin.

Indeed, following up is the biggest request he makes of his sales team; it’s as simple as setting a timer on your calendar ahead of time, reminding you to get back to those people you’ve met on sales calls or trade shows.

“When others don’t do this, and you do, you’re setting yourself apart,” Austin advises. “There’s nothing rocket science about sales, and that’s the same for an advisor. If you can get the basics right, you’re already head and shoulders above your competition.”

More Tips for Travel Professionals

During every career, one must make choices when there are options to make a change. We asked Austin what drives him during the decision-making process.

“You have to listen to your head, heart and gut, and maybe if they’re all telling you the same thing, then you know it’s the right thing to do,” says Austin. He also takes family into concern, particularly if the change involves physically moving to another place.

Case in point: When he left the U.K. to come to America, he actually had several offers to choose from. He chose New York because it would be easier to get back home to England from say, Thailand. 

Years later, Austin was up for the role of overseeing sales for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, based in Brussels. His husband, Alex had just taken a role at The St. Regis New York as the director of international sales. It was based in Miami, where he and Austin were living.

Austin knew Brussels was a fantastic opportunity, but when he spoke to the executive who would make the final decision on who got the job, Austin was quite candid.

“I said, ‘I may earn more than 50 percent of my household income, but I don’t carry more than 50 percent of the vote. The vote is to basically stay in North America, not to move to Europe, because Alex is in this fairly new role, and we need him to get his wings and develop and fly, as well.’” 

Alternately, when the chance to move over to Seabourn was a possibility, Austin and Alex pondered the idea of relocating to Seattle, where Seabourn is based. 

“Alex’s first response was, ‘Send the e-mail to [Rick Meadows], because there are places we wouldn’t live, and there are places we would live, and we would live in the Seattle area.’”

Being happy about where you live makes you happy about where you work, says Austin. “I think sometimes people chase titles,” he says. “They chase a promotion too fast, perhaps. They don’t consider the total equation of happiness.”

To hear Austin’s enthusiasm for his relatively new career at Seabourn and for continuing on with a life that’s been solidly rooted in the luxury travel arena, one would think he’s just beginning. And in a way, he is, because his joy at working in an industry he loves seems to be renewed every morning he wakes up.

“This industry is all about having full respect for our partners and trusting that they respect me, my global team and our brand in return,” says Austin. “Perhaps most important is that their guests receive experiences that surpass their expectations. If you take this approach and live by these goals every single day, you will easily earn more than your fair share of business. 

“After all,” he concludes, “together we’re in the business of making dreams, lifelong memories and transforming and celebrating lives, and ultimately making the world a better place. Now isn’t that rewarding?” 

Globetrotters: Chris and Alex enjoy traveling and exploring new cultures. 

Life at Leisure

A British national, born in Royal Leamington Spa, in the heart of Shakespeare country, England, Chris Austin relocated to North America over 20-plus years ago and initially moved to Manhattan, and then to Miami, where he loved the winter sun, met his now-husband Alex and spent the past 12 years. Chris and Alex relocated to Seattle from Miami in 2017 with their two dogs, Isabella and Sophie. 

Chris says he loves a great film, especially James Bond, or a good drama, thriller or action movie. He and Alex love hosting dinner parties and finding new and unique dining opportunities, and are currently enjoying discovering the Pacific North West culinary scene. His favorite cuisine is Italian. Alex is the best cook at home, however; Chris makes a great lasagna, but favors his British roots and loves to make Shepherd’s or Cottage pie. He’s also a major lover of Cadbury’s chocolate. 

If Chris has PTO time to burn, he and Alex would head to the ski slopes, with Val D’Isere in France being their favorite winter destination of choice; their favorite summer destination is Mykonos, Greece. Chris and Alex enjoy traveling and exploring new cultures. Chris is a big lover of history and says he is really excited about the UNESCO World Heritage partnership with Seabourn.

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