Starting Anew: How Kathleen Stahl Rebuilt Her All-Star Agency

Kathleen Stahl says, “As long as people want to dream about places not yet visited, adventures not yet taken, bucket lists not yet completed, we will always, as advisors, be appreciated and needed.”(Paula Maxheim / Maxheim Photography)

When Kathleen Stahl’s last travel advisor retired in 2017, she didn’t wind down her business or try to sell it; instead, she hired a group of new advisors and started anew with her agency, which sells luxury FITs, corporate jet and yacht travel and high-end meetings. The move has invigorated Stahl, who has been operating her Des Moines, Iowa, agency for 26 years. In 2018, she increased sales by 25 percent over the previous year. With annual sales of $10 million, she and her team pulled in $3 million during the most recent holiday season alone.

Stahl tells us that she is surprised at how many new, younger clients are hitting the agency’s website and signing up to get travel information. Many of these leads are coming from social media generated by her new team, which includes a paid intern.

“I think the number of younger [under 45] clients who are using us has been exciting,” says Stahl. “That was the group that always thought they could do it on their own and now they are coming to agencies for help.”

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Stahl, a member of the Signature Travel Network, loves working with her three advisors, who are all employees of the agency. (She is not a fan of the independent contractor model; more on that later). She considers herself their mentor. “I have been blessed with a whole new team all under the age of 35; they come from finance, banking and accounting. Our office manager refers to it as ‘Kathleen’s boot camp,’” says Stahl.

It works like this: Leads and referrals come through Stahl, who parcels them out to her advisors. Those advisors then consult with Stahl about how to put the trip together, which pitfalls to avoid and how to communicate with the client.

She requires that each new advisor has a college degree. “We talk about how best to organize it for the client. I am the ‘Yoda’ and they are the pupils,” says Stahl.

When she hires, Stahl steers away from those who go on about how much they love to travel. “I don’t want somebody who loves to travel. Everybody loves to travel. I need somebody that I can sit with and have a dialogue with and teach,” she says. Having a concept of the practical aspects of travel, such as the logistics of getting from one place to another, is also important, she adds.

Stahl’s boot camp is not just about the trip details, it’s about the overall mantra of Kathleen Stahl Travel. “I tell everybody here, we do not sell for pricing. We sell for quality. We want to talk to our clients and let them know that they’re getting value by doing ‘this’ and by not doing ‘that,’” she says.

How it Began

Being a travel advisor was never on the agenda for Stahl, who holds a master’s degree in special education and a minor in psychology. Raised in Indiana, she went to school on the East Coast, earning her B.A. from Georgian Court College and her masters from Fordham. Along the way, she met her husband, a physician who hailed from Ohio. The two lived in New York City for some time before deciding to return to the Midwest because they preferred its values. They lived in Michigan, then Cleveland and then her husband’s medical career led them to Des Moines and provided them with three months of vacation a year. They both loved to travel and did it frequently. “Our children traveled from the time they were two,” says Stahl. When her kids went away to school, she didn’t want to return to teaching; special education was a specialized field and much had changed since she’d been gone. A friend suggested she start a travel consulting business since Stahl was always providing specific advice on destinations, hotels and restaurants. She launched a small business, charging $35 just for a list of her recommendations. As that enterprise grew, she found a nearby agency to do airline ticketing for her. She worked as an independent contractor for that agency briefly, which was “unheard of” in 1991.

The team at Kathleen Stahl Travel: Left to right: Abbi Holmes, Carrie Goossen, Addison O’Conner and Megan Hintz are all being mentored by agency owner, Kathleen Stahl.

Kathleen Stahl Travel catapulted into success when a friend at Meredith Corp. asked her to help him plan a barge trip, which included his dear friends Norman Lear and Bill Moyers. Lear afterwards contacted Stahl. He was impressed with how she put the trip together and asked her to arrange travel for him and his wife. “That was 1994 and we didn’t have the technology that we have now,” says Stahl. “He’d fly me out to California and I’d sit with them and plan all their trips.”

Bill Moyers had the same reaction to Stahl’s trip expertise and also asked her to arrange travel for him and his wife. Before she knew it, Lear was handing her name out to his friends on the West Coast and Moyers was doing the same thing on the East Coast.

And that is how an agency in Iowa developed a roster of major A-listers.

“Somebody is always calling and saying, ‘Seriously, Iowa?’” says Stahl. She says that sales reps get a kick out of visiting her because it’s such a unique experience to come to Des Moines.

A Jetsetting Advisor

Stahl travels frequently to visit new hotels and meet with general managers around the world; for years, she has maintained executive platinum status with American Airlines, traveling on average 125,000 miles a year. “Firsthand experience is the best experience,” says Stahl.

Still, she remains extremely hands-on with her clients, many of whom are “extra-ordinarily high-end.” Some are on the Forbes 400 list who still want her to oversee their travel and she does so gladly. “Like Michael Bloomberg always said, you need to be in the trenches to know what is happening,” says Stahl.

“I think the secret to a successful transition for me is to teach my younger ones to arrange the trips but, at the same time, still be a liaison between them and the client so the client always feels comfortable,” she says. Periodically, a client will want to remain “velcroed” to her in the beginning of the trip-planning stage but they typically move on to smoothly work with the team person.

“If the confidence is there between my team people and the client, I try to take a back seat,” she notes.

Stahl is willing to take on some clients whose budgets are limited; but after speaking with her for a bit you realize she plans some very, very big trips. Most recently, she and her advisors finished up a trip for a family to Australia. The family of nine each bought a first-class seat on Emirates because they decided that would be more cost effective than taking their own plane. That meant, however, that Stahl had to charter a private plane within Australia so they could fly from one destination to the next. Not surprisingly, they stayed at the finest resorts in the country, and at the end of the day, the final price tag was in the $750,000 range.

“You can only imagine what the detailing was on that trip,” says Stahl.

When we spoke, she was just finishing up a guys’ getaway for three extremely affluent fellows who wanted to traverse the remote regions of South America, visiting under-the-radar places and finding great bars. That four-night trip was done through Abercrombie & Kent and totaled $100,000.

“I love these trips as they are so much fun for me to map out; they keep my mind sharp,” says Stahl.

“It’s exciting to see how much consumers want to experience on their vacations these days,” she says. “I think younger people feel they need to get away to reconnect with life and to seek a peace that goes along with travel.”

Suppliers are keeping pace with this demand. “There is a vast array of places that will pique almost anyone’s interest,” she says. “There is more product and more levels of travel than ever before.”

Megan Hintz is the office manager who loves the fast-paced environment at the agency and enjoys building relationships with clients and suppliers.

It’s not just about younger travelers, either. “People over 50 who have saved and budgeted are all about the adventures they had to put on the back burner when they were younger,” says Stahl. “They don’t just want a cruise, they want an ‘expedition’ experience. They are pushing themselves because they are in great health and have the financial means to do it.”

Her belief is that it’s important to have a direct rapport with clients and to tell them confidently they’re going down the wrong path when it’s necessary.

Here’s an example: When we spoke, Stahl had a client going to Australia and New Zealand. He told one of her advisors he planned to land in Sydney at 8:45 at night, rent a car and drive to his resort, an hour and a half away.

When Stahl heard this, she told the advisor to get back on the phone with the client and tell it like it is, which was, “You’re getting in at 8:45 at night. You’ve got to go through passport control. You’ve got to get your bags. You’ve got to go to the car rental place. You have to get the car. Your car is right-hand drive. You have an hour and a half, hour and 45 minutes up through the mountains and find the hotel in the dark. So you’ll get there roughly at 11:30 at night.”

“I told her to tell him, ‘Kathleen and I feel very strongly that you should just get a hotel room at the airport that night and get up at 8 in the morning and drive to the hotel, where your room will be ready because you’ll have taken it anyway for the night before. It’s going to make your whole life a lot easier.”

She says that that type of input is what makes a travel advisor a travel advisor. “A travel facilitator is one who simply says, ‘Okay, if that’s what you want to do, that’s what we’ll book.’ They could be doing that on their own.”

The agency does charge a service fee, but not in the ordinary way. After the clients return from their trip, Stahl sends them a nice note and requests to charge the $250. “We never charge anything without getting the clients’ permission. In 27 years, I’ve only had two people who said they didn’t want to pay the fee,” she says.

Still, she says, she doesn’t personally know 85 percent of her clients, since they’re from all over the world (95 percent of her business is through referral). Much of that comes from the website she was required to set up when she joined Signature; for the first 21 years of her business, the only advertising she did was through a small listing in the white pages of the local telephone book.

Advisor Addison O’Conner has international work experience in many locations. She enjoys sharing her love of adventure and providing great service to clients. 

Today, her roster includes a large number of clients in the entertainment business, Fortune 500 CEOs and executives and many “regular lovely people who need our help.”

E-mail and phone are the primary ways to speak to clients; when it comes to suppliers, Stahl is adamant that picking up the phone is vital. “I encourage them to call hotels in the United States and speak to the in-house reservationists. I have instructed them to pull up and have handy the website and to review it before speaking to someone in reservations. It’s so much easier then to discuss room types, locations of rooms or what might suit the family or the individual best at the hotel,” she notes.

For overseas, e-mail is acceptable but, overall, Stahl feels that speaking over the phone creates a relationship. 

“I also think you get better service that way,” she says. “My mantra is always pick up the phone because you need to talk to people. You need to get to know your reps. You need to make a connection with the people that you’re going to be working with at these hotels. They have the ability to rock your world, to make you look good because if they like you, and they want to work with you, and you’re nice to them, every day they have a power to VIP guests and decide who they’re going to upgrade at their hotel. If they see your name or the name of this agency they might say, ‘Oh, she was so nice to work with. Hey, if we’ve got this room upgrade let’s put her client in this room.’”

A team approach is how Kathleen Stahl Travel operates; Stahl wants all of her advisors to know all of her clients’ particulars in case one of the agents is out of the office. She is currently seeking a fourth advisor and also employs someone who does the accounting and commission tracking for the agency. A paid intern from Iowa State University works 20 to 30 hours a week. “She is a marketing major and is excellent,” says Stahl. “My goal is to mentor these younger ones, so I believe in internships.”

Also a big believer in quality control, Stahl does not favor the independent contractor model. “I have never had any desire to be the largest travel agency; I prefer to be the best travel agency. I have my hand in absolutely everything that goes on in this office and I believe that that would be impossible if I were running [a very large agency with many independent contractors].”

“I will never have 300 ICs; that is not what I want to accomplish,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I have thought about it, but I have decided I like my own way of doing travel.”

She says she would be up all night, worrying that someone affiliated with her agency was out there selling something to someone that she considered to be an inferior offering.

While she admits that might make her a control freak, she can say that she has never operated at a loss in the past 25 years, even in 2008, during the economic downturn.

Carrie Goossen is one of the “travel detailers” at Stahl Travel, seeing to the specifics of each itinerary.

“Every year, we’ve seen growth between 10 percent and 25 percent, reaching 25 percent over the previous year, and I believe it’s because we’re all so passionate here at the office about giving people the best experience,” says Stahl.

That’s also led to a very low attrition rate with clients and a referral rate of 95 percent. That slow and steady growth, she says, comes from having extremely competent people on her team and dedication to making each and every experience memorable.

When it comes to her advisors getting out to see the world, Stahl sends them to destinations that will be life-altering for them. “And we have great rates, so it is affordable,” she says. “I have two people who I’m sending to South Africa this summer where they are staying at the Royal Malewane, Moremi and Victoria Falls. It was a gift from me because they were so dedicated, working 60-hour weeks and on weekends to be sure they were on top of their clients. It’s my responsibility to make sure they know how much they are appreciated here at the office.”

She joined the Signature Travel Network five years ago at the suggestion of Peter Carideo of CRC Travel, who is also a member. “I will always have a very special place in my heart for Peter because he took the time to help me and that is partly why I, too, want to pay it forward and help someone else coming down the road,” she says.

Stahl loves the people and the spirit at Signature. “It’s really about partnerships and friendships and when you come from the Midwest that means a lot. [President and CEO] Alex Sharpe is one of the kindest, most well-liked and respected people I know. He is so positive and passionate that you, too, become passionate,” she says. 

As for EVP Ignacio Maza, Stahl says, “I sincerely believe Ignacio is so convincing about things, he could probably talk me into bungee jumping off some bridge and explain how much I’m going to love the experience once I try it. I don’t think you can just use the term ‘passionate’ with Ignacio, he is simply electrifying.”

When it comes to selecting suppliers to work with, Stahl, not surprisingly, is quite selective, but then she sticks with them. Her young team at times comes to her with new names they’ve met up with and Stahl is open to learning more, but in the end, “I tend to stay focused on the ones I know.”

Cathy Moran of Abercrombie & Kent was persistent in getting her business and would fly to Des Moines periodically to meet with Stahl, even if it was just to use the company for FITs. “I just could not give up control to another entity, so I would thank her and then do it all myself,” she says.

Stahl says it was Carideo who convinced her to use trusted suppliers to help her with itineraries. Today, she is one of A&K’s top producers. As for Moran, Stahl says, “She never gave up on me.”

What does the future hold for Stahl? Certainly not plans to move away from what she loves best — planning travel — particularly when the business is growing so steadily.

Abbi Holmes is the marketing coordinator at the agency and uses social media to attract clients.

“I feel very strongly, from past history, that if we stay on the same trajectory and deliver the same, quality product, we will continue to get referrals and the company will continue to grow,” Stahl says.

She feels blessed to have a fresh new team that really wants to learn about the luxury travel business, and she has no intention of walking away from them.

“I love what I do,” she says. “I get up every morning looking forward to my day at work and what new trips will come our way. I think about the adventures we will plan to make people’s lives happier and more enriched. I wonder how I will challenge myself and the others here with broadening our horizons and helping to make magic for others.”

She says that one never knows what is just around the corner; for now, she is filled with optimism about the future of luxury travel and for luxury travel advisors.

“As long as people want to dream about places not yet visited, adventures not yet taken, bucket lists not yet completed, we will always, as advisors, be appreciated and needed,” says Stahl. “We can all soar to new heights for clients, as long as we keep our heads in the game and always remind ourselves that we are helping to make magic and memories for people.” 

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