|Richard Beck, founder of Classic Travel Service, Inc., believes online travel agencies are necessary for growth in the 21st century.|
Richard Beck is all about “out with the old.” Or perhaps it’s better to say, “out with the conventional.” Although he has been in the travel business for decades, Beck, founder of Classic Travel Service, Inc. in New York City, is all about breaking the mold. His fusion of technology and travel has seemed controversial to others in the business, but to Beck it’s simply the clear route for the modern travel agency. With annual sales revenue of $12 million, we say he may be onto something.
Luxury Travel Advisor met Beck on a rainy, cold morning in New York City to talk about this tech-driven, online vision that is changing the game of his business. It was 8 a.m. on a Friday and Beck had already been up for hours, working away, planning travel for his Rolodex of VIP clients (who have included international royalty, religious figureheads and corporate CEOs). He bounded into the coffee shop on Park Avenue in a rush of excitement, ready to talk to us about the brainchild that has transformed the style in which he does business.
For Beck, this marriage between technology and travel starts with a touchy subject: the harnessing of Online Travel Agencies (OTAs). In fact, Classic Travel Service, which has been Beck’s baby since 1982, launched its own online booking engine just a few years ago through which clients can make their own hotel reservations. Live, human travel advisors then supplement this process by being on hand to help customize and personalize travel.
“People want options,” says Beck. “That is the whole point. We are both. You can go to a bank and get cash at an ATM, or you can go to the teller. This union will become the tool of the modern travel agency.”
“Today’s online consumer is a lot savvier,” he says. “They are more adept at booking online and when they find a site where they can view and book a luxury hotel and get the services of a full agency, they’re reinforced and they return. This is the new world of travel.”
Beck’s online presence is his passion and he believes it to be absolutely necessary to the growth and longevity of travel advisors in the 21st century. On his booking engine, hotels can load rates specific to Classic Travel clients that no one else can have. Most of the rates are standard that are pulled from the GDS, but others can be opened up by individual hotels to reflect consortia rates, for example. Classic Travel Service is a member of Virtuoso, so hotels that are also in the Virtuoso portfolio can showcase rates that are part of the program. “The hotels are really working with us more and more. We have about 750 Virtuoso hotels that are onboard now,” says Beck. “If you’re in the travel business, you have to be part of this technology. But that’s me. Some people think I’m a little nuts,” he says with a laugh. We wouldn’t go so far as to say “nuts,” but Beck definitely has innovation and exploration in his bones.
A Long Road to Travel
Like so many luxury travel advisors, Beck took a roundabout route to get into the business. But of all the many hats he has worn in previous lives, there was always a theme of travel threaded throughout. In high school he would work weekends for his father, who owned an airfreight trucking company. “I booked freight instead of people,” he says. “I loved geography, and whenever I was booking foreign destinations, like Bangkok or London, I always imagined that I would visit these places someday.”
Originally from Long Island, Beck moved to New York City after college, where he held a part-time job as an usher at the Metropolitan Opera House. One night he was approached by a woman who asked if he would be interested in modeling. Soon he found himself on the first head sheet of Wilhelmina model agency, one of the top modeling agencies in New York. “During my modeling days I traveled whenever I got the chance, and that’s when I realized that I wanted to be in the travel business,” he says.
His first foray into selling travel took him to an agency on 42nd Street in the 1970s, where he began to learn the business from the ground up. It was here that he found his passion for technology and travel. “I knew how to use Sabre before they even sent us to school [to learn it],” he says. “I loved planning trips, and although I worked in the corporate travel department, I would volunteer to do research for anyone in the agency who was planning a leisure trip.” He loved researching destinations so much that when he would read an article on a destination, he would clip it and put it into labeled folders so that he had an arsenal of useful tips to give to his leisure agent colleagues who would come to him for advice. “Even if I hadn’t been to that destination, I knew more than most,” he says. “I was so nerdy!” he adds with a laugh. It was this practice that stuck with him through the years until he could implement a more tech-savvy method of storing destination information into his own business.
In 1982 Beck purchased Classic Travel Service, focusing on all types of travel, specifically leisure and eventually the luxury market. It was a full-service, traditional agency, and remained that way until a few years ago when Beck harnessed his love of technology into the new website.
Today his passion is the Internet and using technology to drive sales. His online vision has only come to fruition in the past four years, but it is this specific, detailed vision that is driving his success. “I sat with programmers for months explaining to them, from a travel agent’s perspective, what I wanted,” he says. “One thing was a destination guide that would allow me and my agents to upload content as we traveled to a live platform that both agents and clients could access.” His overall goal is to have his site have a magazine-type feel, with bold, striking photographs and a treasure chest of information that consumers can have at their fingertips.
But the most integral part to his vision was having the booking platform where hotels could actually load rates that would be accessible on Classic Travel’s website. “Our customers can research and book directly on our site, or contact one of our agents.” This allows Classic Travel to be a 24-hour agency, without having to have agents on call 24 hours per day. Clients can book, cancel or modify their reservations on their own at any time of day. Should they prefer the traditional method of booking with an agent, they have that option available to them, as well.
“Customer service is an integral part of the business, and some of our online clients need more hand-holding than the offline ones,” he says. “What I’ve learned is that the Web business, and especially our booking engine, is a tool and an extension of our brick-and-mortar agency.”
Advisors with Classic Travel earn commissions through the website, as well. There are nine in-house agents at Classic Travel, along with a handful of international independent contractors. Employees of Classic Travel have their own micropages within the website; so when a client begins working with a particular agent, the site tracks the client’s activity. When a client makes a booking on his or her own, that activity is recorded to the particular agent with whom they have been working, which ensures that Classic Travel and its employees continue to earn revenue.
“The new generation of travel professionals are those who are utilizing social media to promote their blogs, and link their clients back to a place that can offer instant gratification while keeping the client in the loop,” says Beck. One of his agents receives an average of 550 visits per day to the website. She has a personal blog on the site, and bookings from her blog have doubled in the last year.
A Cast of Characters
|Beck at Palais Namaskar in Marrakech, Morocco. Beck visits every hotel that he can, whenever he can, and urges his advisors to do the same.|
Just like traditional agencies, Classic Travel is attuned to the details of planning over-the-top experiences. But just like Beck, his clients tend to break the mold. He tells us about one of his clients, a wealthy woman who lived in Palm Beach, who insisted on interviewing Beck over lunch before she entrusted her travel in his hands. “She picked me up in a baby blue Rolls-Royce and we dined at Cote Basque. This is all true,” he swears. “When she ordered a martini at lunch and I didn’t, she told me she wouldn’t work with me unless I had a proper cocktail.” Beck remedied that immediately and, proper drink in hand, she decided he was worthy of her business. So worthy, in fact, that she handed him a blank, signed check. “She loved to travel back and forth to London by ship, and not only booked one of the major suites on the Queen Elizabeth 2, but also a deluxe cabin for her ‘walker,’ the man whose sole job it was to escort her to cocktails and dinner. She referred to him as Mr. Blue.”
Beck also handled the travel for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s first tour of the United States. Another time he arranged a trip to Egypt for a group of about two dozen, including the partner of a major law firm, the VP, Interior & Graphic design of a well-known hotel chain, and numerous other characters, including a Broadway chorus girl who wore rhinestone sunglasses and spike high heels, even when climbing the pyramids. “In New York, there is enough business to go around, and it seems that the super-rich all know each other,” he says. “I receive calls pretty frequently to plan one trip or another where, luckily, money is not so much a concern as is the quality of the experience and the knowledge I bring in making that happen.”
Experience is something that Beck prides himself on. He is adamant about visiting destinations and hotels so that his clients are never at risk of a sub-par experience. “I try to make my travel personal in the sense that I like to stay in one place at least three days,” he says. “It’s how you get a feeling for the destination, and that’s important when you’re speaking with a client or other members of your team.” Beck visits every hotel that he can, whenever he can, and urges his advisors to do the same. But these days it is more and more difficult to do. This is one of the reasons why he values his affiliation with Virtuoso so much. “Overall I really like Virtuoso because it is really hard to be able to vet various suppliers by yourself,” he says. “I am very cautious about working with a supplier. The worst thing is to have someone mess up your client’s vacation. It makes you look bad and it can be a disaster.” Beck is on Virtuoso’s advisory board and sees the dedication with which agents pick and choose which suppliers get the Virtuoso seal of approval. This helps tremendously when recommending and booking travel to clients. “The validity Virtuoso brings to the industry is fantastic. They are great about what they do,” he says.
Knowledge is Power…and Ultimately Sales
It goes without saying that Beck is blazing a trail with his unorthodox sales methods, but his confidence, and success, will have even the most skeptical advisors intrigued. “The Internet isn’t going away,” he says. “This is a tool. Some older agents are a little perplexed about what I’m doing, but the younger generation, and Virtuoso, understands and gets it.” Beck has both younger and older agents who work for Classic Travel Service. “The younger agent is the future, and their way of doing business is a way that the older agent can learn from. Older people don’t want to learn from younger people, but I’m the opposite,” he says. “I am so into it. I want to know what’s going on.”
Classic Travel Service, Inc.
Offices: New York, New York
Number of Advisors: 9
Annual Volume: 12 million
Affiliations: Virtuoso Advisory Board, Preferred Hotels Advisory Board, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts Advisory Board, Bellini Club