|Michael Holtz, owner and CEO of SmartFlyer, uses social networking to enhance many aspects of his business.|
If it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen.” That’s Michael Holtz, owner and CEO of SmartFlyer, a Manhattan-based luxury travel agency, speaking of his dedication to the social network. He’s half kidding but he’s half not.
Holtz’s postings on his own Facebook page are a continuous flow of photos of his meet-ups with top industry suppliers and colleagues, as well as his visits to luxury hotels around the world. The latter so entices his clients that they’ll e-mail him or SmartFlyer’s director, Erina Pindar, insisting they want to visit the hotel where they saw “a photo of Michael in that amazing pool.” They’re not concerned with where it is; they just want to be where he was.
|Justin Harrison, account executive; Stella Kaplan, travel consultant; Darryn Weinstein, director, corporate; Fran Cutler, account executive; Jo Beth O’Leary, senior account executive; Joel Tankel, passport & visa coordinator; Michael Holtz; Melissa Gulotta, director, leisure; Tamara Gabra, client relations coordinator; Rob Long, director, finance; Jeff Traugot, senior account executive.|
For SmartFlyer, much more happens on Facebook, where it has a secret account through which its 15 employees in its New York office interact with its 50 or so affiliate agencies across the country. It’s a good business model since most SmartFlyer advisors are obsessed with their phones, says Pindar. “It’s a place where if an advisor has an inquiry about Africa, they can post it, asking for assistance. When someone writes a message on Facebook, it’s going to pop up on your phone immediately and you’ll be able to see it. So someone will always respond within, like, 10 minutes. It’s amazing. It’s awesome,” says Pindar, who handles social networking as well as the affiliate independent contractors program for SmartFlyer.
Then there’s the “Mr. Seat 2A” phenomenon. That’s Holtz’s favorite seat on just about any aircraft. He doesn’t like the bulkhead because of the lack of storage space so he says seat 2A is always a safe bet. For years now, when he’s snagged that particular accommodation (and it’s likely with his influence with the airlines), he snaps a photo of his boarding card with his phone and posts it on Facebook, maybe to flaunt it just a little. But Holtz, whose SmartFlyer agency pulls in a cool $45 million a year in revenue, isn’t flying around the world all the time and when his traveling friends snag seat 2A instead, they post a photo of their boarding card on Facebook and tag Holtz, teasing that they’re in his seat.
A passion-driven journey
That Holtz is a jet-setter today, running a successful luxury travel agency, was not a stroke of fate; in fact, the native New Yorker was plotting it early on from Washington University in St. Louis, where he attended college.
It was the early ’80s, the glory days of TWA. With hubs in both New York and St. Louis, the airline’s aircraft, which Holtz flew between home and school, was impressive. “Back then they flew 747s and L-1011s from St. Louis to Kennedy; it was a first-class product,” recalls Holtz. So deep was his love of the airline business, he opened his own travel agency while still in college called Fly High Travel. His clients were college students flying back and forth to the East Coast or going on Spring Break. “TWA always had promotions; if you flew a certain number of sectors in a specified time frame you would get bonus tickets. So [instead of flying directly between St. Louis and New York], my friends and I would fly from New York to Washington to Columbus to Chicago to St. Louis to get the extra segments,” notes Holtz. Their reward for earning all those bonus segments? “We’d go to Hawaii over Thanksgiving.”
His path was set. When Holtz returned to New York in 1987, he worked for the company whose founders went on to launch Hotels.com. When they left, Holtz inherited the airlines portion of the business and launched what was then called The Smart Flyer in 1990 on West 29th Street in the city’s Flower District. He used his Bar Mitzvah money as seed cash.
Strong alliances with air consolidators kept the business invulnerable to the airline commission cuts in 1995 and so his company continued selling purely air to corporate clients, many of whom were hedge fund managers or in other parts of the financial sector.
Then he met Helen Fullem of the Crown Collection, whom Holtz dubs “the sales rep for the luxury travel industry in the ’90s.” She introduced him to her bespoke Paris and London properties. “Helen was our entry to the leisure and luxury market,” says Holtz. “Suddenly we had these big bookings on $80,000 trips; we kind of came out of nowhere.”
The Smart Flyer hit its stride selling luxury travel to wealthy clients all over the world. During that time, the icons who inspired him to forge ahead in the carriage trade were Bill Fischer of Fischer Travel: “The first time I was seated next to him at a supplier dinner it was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool. I am sitting next to Mr. Fischer,’ ” recalls Holtz; and Bob Watson of Watson and Watson Travel: “Everybody loves Bob and they don’t come any classier,” says Holtz.
Holtz also furthered his luxury business by expanding the scope of his own travels.
“I started to hit the road myself, go to destinations that no one else was going to,” he says. “I’ve been to Estonia twice. I’ve been to Africa six times. Granted, a lot of people have gone to Africa but a lot of people didn’t go to Africa in the late ’90s.”
Where’s his favorite place to travel? “Anywhere no one’s been yet,” he says immediately. Such an intrepid view of the world is useful in dealing with savvy clients, celebrities, lawyers and financiers who are equally curious about emerging destinations.
“We like to dig a little bit deeper,” adds Holtz. “I’ve been to Bhutan three times, so we’re strong in destinations like Bhutan and India. I was in Australia three times last year alone. A lot of our competitors are bigger than we are, but I think SmartFlyer is probably one of Australia’s top clients. I’ve gone to see a number of lodges myself and I’ve got clips of them on the Internet taken with my phone. That’s what clients want. They are still going to go to French Riviera but they also want something new and different.”
He’s even more curious than before and won’t hesitate to jump on a plane with just a day’s notice to visit a place that’s piqued his interest. “‘That’s not possible’ is not in my vocabulary,” he says.
“Even today, he is still like that,” Pindar quickly adds with a laugh. “He’ll hear about a new destination and he’ll say, ‘I’ll go tomorrow.’ ”
Case in point: When The Dolder Grand relaunched in Zurich in 2008, management visited SmartFlyer’s offices on a sales call. “I was just blown away by what I saw,” remembers Holtz. “I had heard about the hotel but I hadn’t really focused on it since it was redone. I said to Anna [Roost], ‘I’ll be there Friday. She was like, ‘Really?’ When I did show up on Friday, she said, ‘You know what, I’ve been to a lot of agencies and a lot of people tell me they’re going to come visit but not many people show up that Friday. Thank you for coming.’ ”
Since then, “the Dolder has become one of our key hotel partners on the continent and it’s probably my favorite hotel in Europe,” says Holtz.
Today SmartFlyer’s mix is a healthy split between leisure and corporate travel. Luxury FITs are the main event, complemented by adventure travel itineraries and trips to cutting-edge destinations. But corporate travel itineraries are also carefully crafted for the C-level business traveler whose life on the road goes beyond a car rental and chain hotel stay.
“They are the captains of their industry, so their trips are treated like leisure travel down to the details but within a faster paced environment. They are still expecting that extra TLC that we give them while they are traveling for leisure.” says Pindar.
Adds Holtz: “For example, if they are going to London, they are more interested in hotels like the Corinthia or the Four Seasons that really cater to the high-end leisure crowd, and we have those relationships in place to make it a very smooth transition. So if the client is coming over and he’s got two meetings and everything has got to be crisp; they can calibrate the stay to exactly what the client wants from the business perspective.”
The details are important to SmartFlyer; in fact, the agency recently had a client, Mark Jeffries, a strategic communications specialist, come in to speak to its New York agents on that very topic.
What’s stuck in Holtz’s mind the most? “He said, ‘You know, when you come to work every day, the scales are balanced. Don’t do anything to let the scale tip against you. You always want it to tip in your favor.’ That means anticipating what the client wants and getting back to the client before they come to you. If the answer isn’t what the client wants, try to figure out a better way around. It’s always doing the little things that make the difference,” says Holtz.
Back to that Facebook dynamic at play at SmartFlyer: Holtz says the agency’s activity on the site makes dealing with suppliers a snap, since those that follow him, Pindar and the official SmartFlyer page have full view of the agency’s image which gives them a sense of the high-end, unusual places he and his team sell.
“They have an idea of what we’re looking for before we even have that discussion,” Holtz tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “They can scope us out, so they kind of know what we’re about because they see what we’re up to.”
Pindar, who coordinates travel for clients, handles the agency’s affiliate program for independent contractors and maintaining the agency’s relationships with vendors, is considered the vital force in SmartFlyer’s social networking moves. She was born in Jakarta and studied at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) to be a fashion buyer but realized it wasn’t for her. After getting a marketing degree at UNC Charlotte, she returned to New York City where she worked in public relations briefly before going to work at Linden Travel. People kept telling her she had to meet Michael Holtz and when they did meet, something clicked immediately.
“I wanted to have someone I could learn from and when I met Michael, I knew that he would be a good partner,” says Pindar.
At her first interview in late 2009, Pindar asked Holtz about the agency’s website, which was merely a static placeholder, and Holtz promptly and politely told her that her first assignment was to relaunch it. She updated the company’s logo, changed the name of the agency from The Smart Flyer to SmartFlyer and modified the colorful ’90s-style moniker to the one with cool grays. “I wanted something that communicates that we’re young and know what’s going on in the industry; something that says who we are online,” says Pindar.
Holtz and Pindar use social networking differently. Holtz is friends with many of his existing clients on Facebook who comment on his posts. Their comments show up in their friends’ Facebook streams and that’s how new clients find Holtz, who has been known to produce $30,000 to $50,000 bookings from Facebook, while he’s still away on a trip.
Pindar uses social networking more for branding purposes, seeing Twitter and Facebook as free billboards. People seek her out there, sensing a mystique and excitement in her frequent luxury travel postings.
Different methods, but both Holtz and Pindar are influencers, says Holtz. “We’re not just travel professionals, we’re influencers in the luxury space and I think as things evolve, you’re going to see companies like ours do more than just travel. Restaurants are kind of onto this in that they want the right people in their restaurant.”
In the meantime, Holtz plans on growing the business through affiliates (see sidebar) and within the Manhattan office as well. Last September he opened a large office on West 36th Street, which has what he and Pindar call “plenty of breathing room.” Indeed, there’s space for a pool table and a Foosball setup, which was a housewarming gift from Montage Laguna Beach.
“We moved here on Erina’s birthday,” recalls Holtz.
“He was like, ‘This is your birthday present,’ ” says Pindar.
Today, Pindar and Holtz say they balance each other out, learning from each other. “Erina keeps me in line, she does,” says Holtz.
“We get along,” Pindar agrees.
“I’ve been doing this 23 years and I don’t think I’ve ever had a sick day and I have never not wanted to come to the office,” says Holtz, who even drops by on the weekends. “Coming to the office on the weekends to me is like going to the library in college. The phone isn’t ringing, people aren’t bothering me. It’s great. I love it.”
He travels two to three times a month but tries to do so over long weekends because this jet-setter actually likes being in the office when the team is around. “I can’t begin to tell you how much fun we have here,” he says.
As for Facebook and other networks, Holtz feels it’s all still in a nascent phase. “We’re still in the early days of social media,” he says. “It always amazes me that people still say, ‘That’s for the young generation.’ A lot of hotels that come here want our counsel on social media, they want to know how to do it. The answer is, there is no right. There’s no wrong, either. Like anything else, it’s sort of a language. It takes years to learn a language. Social media has to be something that you dedicate yourself to. If you don’t want to do it you’re just not going to do it. It’s that simple.”
|SmartFlyer’s Director, Erina Pindar on the Trails of Giants environmental golf tour, planting her own native tree at Four Seasons Costa Rica.|