Ricci Zukerman at her home in Orange County, CA. She’s been an outspoken proponent of specialization.
Today’s challenging economic climate isn’t holding Ricci Zukerman back at all. The president and founder of Worldview Travel, which is based in Santa Ana, CA, and has seven offices in Southern California, two in Florida and one in New York, has a very positive mantra: “When times get tough, opportunities abound.”
Case in point: In February, Zukerman acquired Gayle Gillies Travel, a well-regarded Rancho Santa Fe Village, CA, travel agency that’s been in business since 1982. That move came just six months after purchasing New York’s Pisa Brothers Travel, an iconic agency in Rockefeller Center that was established back in 1924.
Today, the combined annual revenue of the three companies totals more than $200 million, generated from travel itineraries prepared for Hollywood A-listers, New York’s “old guard” entertainment elite and good old-fashioned rich people “who like very attentive service,” says Zukerman.
At the top of her game after being in the industry since 1974, Zukerman attributes her business acumen to the fact that she didn’t start her agency business as a travel agent. As a result, she’s always looked at travel as a business first, a passion second. “Almost everybody I know comes to the job from starting off as an independent agent and then an inside agent,” she says. “They love it, and then they open an agency. What’s good is that they fulfill a dream, what’s bad is that they don’t run it like a business. They run it like, ‘Oh, I love to travel. I love to talk about travel.’
The road to success took a bit of time, however. Zukerman’s original agency business started out with five locations and grew to 15. At the time, luxury travel was not the company’s niche by any means; in fact, the agencies were located in major malls in Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles Counties. The bulk of their transactions came from selling mid-priced vacations to middle-class families.
“People came to the mall like it was a mecca; they ran from store to store and did all their shopping. So if they saw a travel agency, they came in. I did extremely well,” says Zukerman, who jokes that, back then, the level of her business was on par with, well, a hot dog, when it needed to be a steak. She made her decision. “No more hot dogs for me. Done.”
To fit in with the new image, Zukerman moved from the malls to office buildings, which provided a more professional environment. Her business became less transactional and more personalized and the destinations she sold were more exotic.
The reinvention carried through to her staff; she decided each agent needed to have their own niche.
“Today everybody talks about specialization, but I was talking about it 18 years ago,” Zukerman recalls. “I said, ‘Steak means that everybody has to specialize in their area and know everything about it.’”
Zukerman insists on having a good balance between corporate and leisure business and she uses her intuition when deciding which area new hires will work in.
“I ask them what their passion is. If they start to tell me a story, I’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re a storyteller, you’re going to work in vacation and cruise.’ If I see someone who is very precise and to the point, I say, ‘Okay, you’re corporate.’”
In addition to distinct corporate and leisure divisions, Worldview Travel has a very diverse cruise division. Ten years ago, Zukerman realized cruising was a profitable niche, so she purchased a cruise-only agency. She’d always sold cruises, but that consisted primarily of taking orders. “We were not creating smoke,” she says. With the purchase came the dedication of aggressively marketing the product, “rather than waiting for someone to show up and say they wanted to go on a cruise.”
Since then, Zukerman has successfully pushed her three departments separately, tending fastidiously to each of their needs. She is big on technology; her corporate business uses the most cutting-edge back-office reporting tools available. “I believe if you’re going to do it, do it in the best manner possible,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
She also has a dedicated human resources department and a full-time marketing vice president, Judy Parker, who hailed originally from the May Company-Robinsons travel agencies and Crystal Cruises.
“[Having Judy] really puts me on a totally different level so that when the cruise lines come in she talks to them about how to go forward, how to market together. It’s not the same as talking to an owner who maybe knows corporate and maybe also a little about cruise.”
Worldview Executive Team: Front Row (l-r) Ricci Zukerman, Julie Shen (Account Executive), Craig Carter (Business Development), Shahla Vaziri (General Manager), Judy Parker (VP, Sales & Marketing). Back Row (l-r) Yossi Mymon (VP, Operations), Carl Fabruada (Director, Finance), Max Noxon (Director, IT Services)
Zukerman isn’t prepared to let the momentum she’s built over the past 20 years fizzle out. Because the economy is bad, she is focusing more than ever on advertising.
“If you don’t spend, you don’t make,” she says, noting that newspapers these days are actually willing to cut deals, so marketing is not as expensive as it would typically be. It’s worked: The tactic of running full- and half-page ads twice a month has made Worldview Travel a virtual household name in some areas where it hadn’t previously been known at all. The ads, which are professionally created by an in-house designer, give the impression that Worldview Travel is a really gigantic company. “We’re large, but we’re not gigantic,” says Zukerman. “A lot of clients come in and say, ‘I can’t believe that in these bad times you are advertising such beautiful pages in the paper!’ But even though times are bad, we are acting as if times are good because I truly believe that how you present yourself and how you act sets a tone.”
For the same reason, Worldview Travel is focusing on hosting high-end client events. The evening before Luxury Travel Advisor interviewed her, Zukerman, with Parker’s orchestration, hosted a cross-marketing venture with a very large jewelry store, which brought its high-end wares; Moët & Chandon, which brought its champagne; and an interior designer who transported a beautiful Italian couch to the venue, which no doubt served as a conversation piece during the evening. Each of the hosting partners invited their affluent clientele for a casual evening of networking.
“Someone might say, ‘Why are you doing that now? Who’s going to buy now?’” says Zukerman. “Well, people still buy. If you treat them as if they are still luxury people and not desperate people, they react accordingly.”
Time For Growth
The fact that the clients who attended the event skewed young “floored” Zukerman. “I’m constantly looking for a younger audience. Everybody there was in their forties at the most. They were very well dressed and they drank their champagne. Nobody was complaining about the economy and saying, ‘Okay, so find me something cheap.’”
Other collaboration efforts are in the works. Zukerman and Parker are spearheading an evening that will team up all of the Virtuoso agencies in the area to host a client event in a private club. Each agency will invite its clients, and select hotels will present their properties. During better times, this might be considered an unusual circumstance because things can get, well, a bit competitive in the luxury travel arena.
Ricci Zukerman with her husband, Arie, in New York at a 21 Club reception she hosted to welcome Pisa Brothers to Worldview Travel’s fold.??
“It’s surprising and pleasing to me that the competition is so up on it,” says Zukerman.
As for purchasing agencies during these times, Zukerman says, “I’m the best at adversity, I don’t know why; maybe my background.” (See “Selling Israel” below.) But there was another reason for purchasing Pisa Brothers—she wanted to see how things are done in New York.
“On the West Coast, as much as competition is fierce, it’s very laid back in comparison,” says Zukerman. “In New York, it’s total barracudas. When you’re only on one side of the country you just understand really 50 percent of the business.”
The purchase came about simply enough: One of the partners in Pisa Brothers also had a small agency in San Diego, which was what Zukerman really had her eye on for years. She stayed in touch with him and the day finally came that he called and said, “Ricci, are you interested?”
After she purchased the agency, she hired Mary Kleen, previously with Virtuoso, to run the office. “She’s very warm, very kind, and that was a good thing for Pisa. The people love her,” says Zukerman.
The Gayle Gillies merger seemed equally serendipitous; Zukerman and Gillies have known each other for years. When Gillies was ready to sell, she made the call. “Her business is luxury leisure with a strong repeat clientele and travel advisors who are very seasoned and knowledgeable,” according to Zukerman.
Gillies, who already sits on several luxury travel boards, will now represent Worldview Travel in that function. She’ll also bring in new business, “so I’m calling her the ‘ambassador.’ She’s going to represent us in a lot of these functions, and she’ll represent us beautifully because she’s so sweet and wonderful and elegant,” says Zukerman, who prefers to focus on the day-to-day aspects of travel agency life.
“I absolutely love being a businesswoman,” she says. “It gives me a platform to express my creative side as I thrive on new ideas and new opportunities.” Zukerman says she feels fortunate to be surrounded by a team of people who share her same passion. “They give of their talent, and I give them love and support to make this a good place to work,” she says.
Zukerman feels this philosophy has served her well. She also has a steadfast belief in being honest.
“We do not have control over what the world throws our way; only our decision of what to do with it,” Zukerman says. “I believe people deserve to be treated in a straightforward and direct manner, which some may feel is too direct. But that’s the only way I know how to be. To be myself.”
Ricci Zukerman’s success is based on her management expertise, but she does actually sell one destination—Israel. She knows the country well, having lived there for 18 years after her family fled Poland during World War II.
“I don’t sell, but when it comes to Israel, honestly, I can do it with my eyes closed because I really know the ins and outs. So that’s the one thing I do myself. I help all my agents when it comes to Israel because it’s different and you need to really know it so the people you send have a life-changing experience. Families go for Bar Mitzvahs; the non-Jews go for their pilgrimage. That never stops.”
Ricci Zukerman with Greg Tepper from Exeter International
We asked Ricci, who is pictured above with Greg Tepper from Exeter International, at Negev (on their way to Eilat), to give our readers a few tips on what first-time visitors to Israel “must” do during their trip. Her secrets:
“A visit to Israel should be a life-altering experience. This can only happen if you use a specialist to that area,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I do not recommend driving in Israel. Every Israeli drives as if the country belongs to him personally.
“One should use a travel agent who will hire a guide (they are all wonderful and knowledgeable) to satisfy the particular traveler’s or family’s interest in archeology, biblical sources or sports.
“Israel is the safest place in the world—you can go to a restaurant at 1 a.m. alone and not worry. At the same time, it is a tiny country and one wrong turn, unfortunately, will bring you to enemy land. This is another reason to have a guide.
“One must stay at a four- star hotel, preferably five-star. The difference in hotel standards is great. Anything under four stars is not going to be acceptable.
“The best hotel in Jerusalem is the King David; the best in Tel-Aviv is the Hilton; and the best in Eilat (Palm Springs with a beach) is the Dan.”