Becky Lukovic: Paying it Forward 

A year or so into her career as a travel advisor back in the early 2000s, Becky Lukovic discovered there were other people who were cultivating businesses similar to what she envisioned—personalized, independent travel—rather than the packed cruises and tours that some tried to pigeonhole her into selling. Lukovic, now the owner of Bella Travel Planning, an affiliate of Travel Experts, says those colleagues became her heroes and mentors. And in the same way she had someone’s lead to follow when she was building her travel agency, Lukovic is always trying to pay it forward to younger advisors in the industry. 

Perhaps the best example came during 2020 when Lukovic began offering mentoring services for both new and experienced advisors who wanted to take their business to the next level. Lukovic says she saw an opportunity to break down the walls between agencies and assist anyone seeking help. During these consultations, she gives advisors a fresh look at their business, discussing such topics as implementing fees, streamlining their processes, or even shifting their business to the luxury market.  

“As our industry continues to grow, I see this as a growing need—to train advisors and to connect them with mentors,” Lukovic tells Luxury Travel Advisor

 “We can look at people as our competition, but really there are plenty of clients out there. I want to learn from the best, I want to be around the best and I want to invest in other people’s lives … because people invested in me,” she adds.

Some of her early travel industry “heroes” were Kelly Shea, owner of Earle Travel Co. and Deb Mangas of Menno Travel. 

“How’d you get into travel? What do you focus on?” Lukovic recalls asking Shea at an industry event in Indianapolis, where they were both located at the time. “I was a sponge soaking up everyone’s story and their success story because I wanted to see what worked [for them].”

As for Mangas, “she instilled in me early on that if a supplier bought a round of drinks in a social situation, you should reciprocate and buy the next one,” Lukovic says. “She shared with me that the travel industry was a very close-knit group and that you’d see the same faces time and time again—possibly in different roles or different companies.”

On FAM trips, Lukovic tells us how she would listen to the other advisors, see how they interacted and observe the way they would look at a resort. “I think that really shaped me and shaped my business,” she tells us.

But learning from her colleagues didn’t stop once she “got the hang of things”—that’s a practice Lukovic continues to employ. “That’s the crux of who I am in my business,” Lukovic says, adding that on an educational trip earlier this year, she saw a fellow travel advisor giving hand-written thank you cards to their hosts before departure. “I respect that so much, and I’m inspired to start doing likewise to show my appreciation. It really stuck with me.”

Becky Lukovic and Susan Edson
Working Together: Lukovic is shown here with Susan Edson, whose role in the agency is growing. (Bella Travel Planning)

How it All Started

Back in 2001, while standing on a bridge in Sorrento overlooking the Gulf of Naples, Lukovic thought to herself, “I could do this for a living.” Right then, she decided she would go to travel school “and become a consultant to those who wanted to travel independently and in a culturally engaging manner,” says Lukovic. 

Upon graduation from travel school, she opened On the Go Travel, an independent contractor business working with a host agency she met through the travel school. “It was perfect for me because I could start slow, learn the ropes and cultivate my clientele on my own terms,” Lukovic says. 

Eventually, however, she decided to swap host agencies for one located in her city as it became difficult for her to meet with suppliers who, at the time, didn’t have a good way to track and meet ICs outside of their territory. “I wasn’t meeting as many industry contacts as I needed,” Lukovic explains.

In 2006, she made the decision to become an employee for the Virtuoso agency she was affiliated with and took on their group and meetings travel. In that time, she additionally received walk-in clients and continued cultivating her leisure business. Lukovic also, at the time, gained confidence in her ability to sell luxury travel. “It was a good decision for that time of my life. I was able to experience life in a luxury storefront travel agency,” she says. “I was a sponge—taking it all in.”

She adds, “Once I learned the value of having private guides, private drivers, and the difference between experiencing simply a clean and safe hotel to lay your head versus a place so grand you’ll remember it forever, I was all-in where luxury travel was concerned.

“For me, it wasn’t about the sale; it was about giving people the opportunity to experience something truly extraordinary. That was when I knew I’d be in the travel industry forever.” 

It was with this agency that Lukovic became more familiar with Virtuoso and all of its offerings. “I appreciate the care they use in selecting their preferred partners—especially with destination management companies and hotels in places where I don’t have many connections,” she explains. 

Lukovic also noted the benefits she receives for her clients through the luxury travel network, along with its contact section for suppliers (which she uses “extensively”), the client-facing marketing and the hosted cruise program. 

Becky Lukovic
Lukovic is shown here with Nicolas Egloff, sales director for Saint James Paris. (Bella Travel Planning)

“In 2011, my entrepreneurial spirit stirred again, and I knew it was time to have control over my own destiny again — to market my brand and to create something of my own,” Lukovic tells us. So, she created Bella Travel Planning, and worked again as an independent contractor for the Virtuoso agency. On the branding change, she says, “the word, ‘bella’—Italian for ‘beautiful’—kept coming to the top [of my mind] … Bella Travel Planning seemed to be the perfect name to create a brand around ‘beautiful’—beautiful travel, beautiful experiences, beautiful life.” 

This was followed by a move to the Atlanta area (Alpharetta, specifically, where she’s currently located) in 2015, as well as another change in host agencies, this time to Travel Experts, in 2016 (whom she remains affiliated with). Lukovic tells us she chose Travel Experts for a few reasons, but at the top is its fee / commission model. Simply put, “I made more money.” She adds that she was also really impressed with Travel Experts’ host arrangement, as it doesn’t have any in-house advisors. “I am their client and I really appreciate being their client and their job is helping support me.” 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lukovic says she was projecting to hit $1.5 million in sales by the end of 2020. While falling short of that number, she tells us she “did much better than I thought we would” and that they are tracking for “well over $1 million” this year. As for next year, Lukovic says she expects even more growth, perhaps surpassing the $1.5 million she had initially projected for 2020. 

“I am extremely optimistic about our potential of growth—not just in raw numbers, but in per-client spend,” she tells us.

In 2017, Lukovic brought on Susan Edson, her only full-time employee. “Susan was extremely well-traveled when she joined Bella and was a heck of a salesperson before I met her,” Lukovic says. 

Originally, Edson was hired as an assistant to help with administrative work, which would allow Lukovic to focus more on her clients. While her business was successful, Lukovic says she was “tied to my desk,” working from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in order to maintain the proper quality of trips her clients expected. Over time, Edson started building up a client base of her own. “I want to be you. I want to do what you do,” Lukovic recalls Edson telling her. 

Now Edson works a split role, still handling administrative work and functioning as Bella Travel Planning’s cruise guru and Asia, Australia and New Zealand specialist. Had 2020 not been the unprecedented year it was, Lukovic tells us she would have added to her staff and moved Edson into a full-time consulting role. 

Lukovic says Bella Travel Planning will likely wait to add an administrative assistant, which would then allow Edson to make the transition. “Things are too uncertain [now],” Lukovic says. Eventually, she would like to see the team grow by one or two more dynamic advisors “who understand our culture and our priorities.”

“I want Bella Travel Planning’s growth to be intentional with the right people, the right partners, and the right clients,” says Lukovic.

Working With Clients

Whether it’s clients or suppliers, it’s all about the relationship, Lukovic tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “You have to build a relationship because I know I don’t like feeling like I’m just a sale or a number; I want to be important to people besides what I can do for them.”

For example, Lukovic shared how she secured a prominent international culinary organization as a client. “This didn’t just happen overnight, though,” she says. “It took literally years of networking, volunteering and getting to know the people in the organization. 

“Many times, advisors get discouraged after several months of reaching out and meeting with prospective organizations to utilize your services. People are savvy. They want to know if you care about getting to know them; they want to know if you are after a relationship and a partnership, or if you are just looking for a big sale. There is a big difference in the two.”

Now, Bella Travel Planning assists with certain travel components for the organization’s annual meeting, as well as creating travel opportunities for its members. One such group trip she’s planning includes a culinary-themed bike trip through Napa.

Lukovic adds that many of her clients come via referral, although some come through web searches, the Virtuoso site or via social media. Regardless of how prospective clients find her agency, Lukovic says she’s always up for seeing how it goes. “Meeting over coffee or wine is helpful—either for those first discovery conversations, going over travel documents or for a debriefing of their last trip. It’s so beneficial, so human having that connection.”

Since Bella Travel Planning is run from her home office, Lukovic meets with clients by appointment only. She’s proud of her terrace-level setup: “My office has lots of windows overlooking the gardens outside … It’s both professional and comfortable—and steps from the bar.”

That said, knowing which clients are a right fit can remain a challenge. “It’s hard because I think a lot of travel advisors are inherently people-pleasers; we want to help people and we want to do things for them. It is sometimes hard to say no.”

As for her client makeup? Most are from the Southeast or Midwest but there is a scattering across the U.S. Many are entrepreneurs or C-level executives, and a growing number are in their late 20s to mid-30s. “I love how these younger affluent travelers approach their travel lists—they are fearless in their need to explore,” Lukovic says. “Travel takes a high priority in their lives.”

Bella Travel Planning’s specialties include culinary and wine travel, independent cultural travel and romantic getaways.

During the downturn last year, Lukovic made sure to stay in front of her clients and remind them that she’s there when they’re ready to take to the skies once more. For one such event, she partnered with Andy Swann Voyage. “We didn’t sell anything; we just talked about the destination,” she tells us. “It was just a way to stay relevant in front of my clients when they weren’t traveling yet.”

As far as luxury travel trends in 2021, Lukovic tells us, “I love that people are wanting to spend more time up close and personal with their family and friends. They want that common space to share stories, play cards and build memories.” To that end, she’s also seeing a boom in villa and yacht travel. “The use of villas and yachts was increasing pre-COVID, but I believe they are here to stay and it’s a great way to travel. I hope more of my hotel and resort partners build, buy and start offering even more villa and yacht products.”

Selling these segments can be tricky, however—and not just because of their popularity and short supply right now. As they can be tough to vet, Lukovic says she sticks to those that belong to a villa company she knows or if it’s part of a hotel property. With these, “You have that implicit sense of trust,” she says. 

“I’m always thinking about not just the sale and the product, but also what recourse do I have if there’s a problem?” Lukovic adds. “Because problems do happen. It’s one of the reasons I’m in business … people encounter problems when they travel and I’m their person.”

One trip that Lukovic is planning right now involves a client who is celebrating a milestone birthday. He and his wife will be taking a 27-day, round-the-world private jet trip in 2022. Following their excursion, they will be traveling one-on-one with their adult children (and their families) to hit some of their bucket-list destinations, taking a deeper dive into each of these. Each “individual” trip will be one to two weeks; in all, it will be between two and three months of travel for the couple. “I find this to be a lot of fun because mom and dad are going to go create a special one-on-one memory with that child or that child’s family,” says Lukovic. 

Working With Suppliers

“My relationships with my suppliers is much like a partnership,” Lukovic says—although we would argue, based off what she tells us, that it’s not “much like a partnership;” rather it simply is a partnership. 

Lukovic told Luxury Travel Advisor about an event she attended on “Best Practices for Advisors,” presented by Anne Scully (now with Embark Beyond). “She said something that really stuck with me—that I should always treat my partners with kindness, grace and respect,” Lukovic explains. “While there are times to be firm with your partners, one should seek to approach a situation as a problem to be solved and not a scapegoat to blame.”

She adds that she has suppliers she likes to work with almost exclusively and that “these partner selections are based on mutual respect, timeliness, their ability to take good care of my clients, friendliness—grouches need not apply!—and financial solvency.” 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Lukovic says she learned some suppliers did not act as the partners she thought they were. “If I’m expected to be a partner … then a company needs to act like a partner and doesn’t mean that they have to do everything my way or the way I think they should do it. But they should treat me as a partner and I feel like some of my partners have been, basically, ‘my way or the highway.’”

Lukovic tells us how she had issues receiving refunds for clients from select suppliers when it cancelled the departure; others put strict parameters on when and how travel credits could be used, which caused many clients distress over the potential of losing their vacation investment—even when they had insurance; and some suppliers withheld commissions when no refund was offered.  

“I had to really fight hard for [my clients], which I don’t mind doing, but it bothered me that you’re doing business with someone for 10 years or 15 years or 20 years and then they’re not trying to be collaborative for solutions” she says. 

Becky Lukovic and family
Generational Girls Trip: Lukovic traveled with her mom, sister and daughter to Alaska with Celebrity Cruises for her mother’s 70th birthday. (Bella Travel Planning)

Some companies, however, stepped up to the plate for Lukovic and her clients. “There are travel partners who worked with us to find acceptable solutions—sometimes after some serious negotiation—and we will remember those who worked with us for a long time,” she adds. In one such instance, back in February 2020, before the pandemic was fully global, one of Bella Travel Planning’s clients was set to visit Italy with a tour operator but he felt uncomfortable given the outbreak in the country at the time. The company had not yet come out with a COVID-related cancellation policy, but they (at first) rescheduled him and (later) offered him a credit before they offered this to the general public. 

“I really appreciated that because they listened to me and [the representative] knew I was really trying to do the best thing for my client and she went to her higher-ups and they came up with a solution,” Lukovic says. “It really helped me because, to my client, I came out looking like a rock star.”

Another positive of the pandemic is the increased focus on flexibility. “Many of our partners are allowing more flexibility in their terms, and I hope to see this trend continue,” she says. “It takes the stress out of unexpected changes and gives the customer confidence in the booking process if they know they have options if an emergency happens or if the world shuts down again.”

As far as building relationships with suppliers, Lukovic tells us she meets with them when they come to Atlanta, at industry events or when she’s in their area. “For me, the one thing to remember is that just as much as we want to be seen as a person and not just a number or a sale, they also want to be seen as a person and not just as a supplier to service our clients.”

Becky Lukovic
Ciao Bella is a new venture in the works for Becky Lukovic. (Bella Travel Planning)

Surviving the Pandemic

Lukovic started her career in the travel industry right before September 11, she worked at an agency during the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and is currently enduring the COVID-19 pandemic. “The difference,” she tells us, “is this is truly worldwide.” 

As Lukovic explains, with 9/11, there was an increased level of terror on planes, as well as increased regulations; however, travel began opening back up within a few months of the attack. And in 2008, she tells us she still had luxury clients traveling, although the mid- and upper-mid-range travel dropped off. With COVID, clients have similar levels of fear and uncertainty—but not just when it comes to contracting coronavirus but also with getting stuck overseas. “There’s definitely some trepidation that wasn’t really there before,” she says.

Another problem as a result of the pandemic is now formerly simple tasks have become near monumental. “This doesn’t sound like such a big thing, but the time it takes to do many of my advisor tasks has been increased substantially during COVID. It’s a real issue right now with all agencies and advisors,” Lukovic tells us. “Hold times can be untenably long—if you can even get through. Many times, we are forced to call our suppliers for simple changes because their technology doesn’t allow the changes. Other times, we have to call because the inventory or product promotion is incorrect.”

Lukovic says it’s “the Wild, Wild West out there in the travel-planning world.”

It can be a challenge but remaining even-keeled is key. “Everyone is perpetually short-handed, and our clients get antsy while waiting … sometimes I want to tell my client I just spent six hours on hold to change your car or your room category, but that’s not the answer, either,” she says.

During the pandemic, Lukovic has invested in some technology to make her life easier. One such tool is DragonSlayer, a clearing house for all the countries’ entry requirements. As Lukovic puts it, it’s a “fricking lifesaver.” She also began digging more into Canva’s capabilities, namely for creating professional-looking photos to use as headers for her blog or on social media. Lastly, she’s been using EmailMeFrom in order to collect documents, show her terms and conditions and collect credit card information. 

On a more exciting note, throughout the pandemic, Bella Travel Planning has been gearing up to launch a concept “we’ve been dreaming about for a while.” 

Introducing: Ciao Bella, a travel club for women who are looking for like-minded women to have adventures with—whether independently or with a small group. “It’s for women who love food and wine; adventure and relaxation; museums and street art,” says Lukovic. She tells us she has met plenty of women who are single, widowed or have a spouse who doesn’t have the same urge to travel. This club is for them.

Beyond set group departures (with 12 to 20 women), Lukovic will have an online platform where women in the group (which will require a membership and includes a yearly fee) will be able to meet, discuss and share trip ideas. Ciao Bella will also offer chances to meet with suppliers over wine and dinner. 

Lukovic anticipates doing two to four trips a year with Ciao Bella, which will make its debut this fall. And although there aren’t any “larger” group trips planned, should Susan Edson and the group want to do a river cruise with 30-plus women, for instance, that’s OK, too. 

To start, Ciao Bella will be “within our general area” in order to best facilitate in-person events but Lukovic is already thinking about expansion. “We’ve had a few meetings with some really well-connected entrepreneurial ladies just to bat it around and see what they thought and we’re definitely getting the thumbs up.”

Lukovic tells us, “I am super, super excited about that.”

The Future of Travel

It’s not just Ciao Bella that has Lukovic enthusiastic; it’s everything about the outlook for travel. “The thing that gets me most excited about the future of our industry is the increased level of professionalism and creativity among our ranks. I’m seeing travel advisors really up their game and they’re looking at their business like a business,” she tells us.

Lukovic adds that conversations have shifted from “What’s your favorite hotel in Maui?” to “How are you collecting credit card information? How are you dealing with your terms and conditions? What fees are you charging? Should I be doing a subscription fee? That really gives me so much hope for our industry because we’re getting collectively better.”

With Lukovic, it always comes back to relationships. “I see this level of communication increasing, and I think it’s awesome,” she says. “I think the professional relationships within our industry from advisor to advisor are strengthening beyond our agency walls.”

While Lukovic’s dream of launching a travel business began on that bridge in Sorrento in 2001, travel has basically always been a part of her life. Her earliest memories, she tells us, were of her traveling with her grandparents, aunts and uncles (and tons of cousins) to the State and National Parks in Arkansas, where she grew up. “All our travels were multigenerational, group adventures, and it was glorious. We spent our time hiking, swimming, exploring, canoeing and old-school inner-tubing on rivers—all with dramatic scenery.” 

She adds, “These experiences shaped my love for exploring the natural world and adventure travel.”

Traveling the world continues to inspire Lukovic, she tells us. As a travel advisor, travel has its practical reasons—like checking out hotels and destinations to determine if they suit a particular client. But Lukovic adds, “Even visiting a place I’ve been to before can uncover new experiences, new insight and a fresh perspective. It’s easy to get into a planning rut and traveling sharpens my creativity.”

She tells us her favorite part of being a travel advisor is “when my clients send me texts of their travel photos; having a client tell me they trust me explicitly because I know them so well; seeing people’s eyes light up when they talk about their impending travel; and those days when I make the impossible happen.”

And while it may be a bit rough right now, it won’t always be like this. “We aren’t content to be armchair travelers,” Lukovic tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “The beauty of luxury travel is that luxury isn’t defined by a price tag or by a level of stuffiness. You can experience luxury wearing hiking boots and the same hat for days. Luxury travel can be experienced once a year, once a quarter or once in a lifetime.  

“When people dream, they dream in travel technicolor. We make dreams happen—and until people stop dreaming, we’re going to be here selling luxury travel.”

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