You never know what it’s going to be like joining a family business. That’s what Clay Keene, co-owner and executive vice president of operations and sales of Keene Luxury Travel, tells us. His mother, Ngaire Keene Hutyra, opened Keene Luxury Travel in 1999 (then known as Brown and Keene Travel) and brought Clay aboard just six years ago when she needed more help running the company.
“We took a risk because we had a great relationship when we started [working together],” Hutyra, the co-owner and president, says. From the moment her son joined the team, however, he was a star, she adds. Clay Keene grew up traveling a lot with his mother and family — mostly on cruises — but had never seriously considered a career in the industry. Before joining the agency, he owned a construction company and worked as a firefighter. With the fire department, he would work 24 hours straight, which was followed by two days off. In his time off, he started helping Hutyra with the agency; just a day and a half, two days of the week. It was intended to be temporary, but once he proved his value, his mother couldn’t let him go.
“I have a sister as well, so I knew that one day, one of us would help manage the company, and I didn’t really know that would be me, but it worked out really great,” Keene says. “Ngaire and I have never had an issue between the two of us. You never know what it’s going to be like — I’ve never worked for my parents before, but she brought me on and it’s been just a great experience.”
But the mother-son duo’s success has expanded beyond their personal, managerial relationship. “Clients used to love me,” Hutyra tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “[Some of my clients] have worked with Clay two times, and now they just call him — they don’t call me back anymore. He’s really perfect.”
“He’s the star now,” she says.
Keene Luxury Travel, a boutique agency based out of Frisco, TX, is on pace to pull in over $15 million in sales this year, up from $12 million in 2016. There are six advisors and four support agents, all of whom are full-time employees. Many of the agency’s clients are retired and are located all over the country with varying careers — in fact, very few are local. Clay and his team’s specialties are luxury cruises, expedition cruises and guided safaris — the last of which was never part of the original plan; however, it’s become one of the agency’s most popular offerings.
When Keene joined, he took control of the daily operations of the company; this allowed Hutyra to host more group safaris each year. Prior to Keene joining the family business, Hutyra traveled about two weeks annually, but now, we’re told, she’s traveling on her own or with groups up to 70 percent of the year.
He may have the less exciting roles of the two, but Keene is a key cog in the agency. Either at the office or on the road, he maintains relationships with the agency’s vendors. He’s also booking trips for clients and providing customer service when needed.
One of the major decisions that Keene made when he came aboard was to join Signature Travel Network. At the time, Keene Luxury Travel was independent, but Keene and his mother had a good relationship with Signature CEO and President Alex Sharpe from his time with Regent Seven Seas Cruises, and, after some discussion, they opted to join the consortium.
“It ended up being one of the best things we ever did,” Keene says. Once they were part of Signature’s platform, they had access to updated software and additional client benefits (such as increased shipboard credit) as well as support with clients and marketing.
Clay Keene and his wife, Brooke Keene, find the time to do some traveling on their own, despite the heavy behind-the-desk demands of Clay’s role with the agency.
Keene also handled the transition of offices in 2015. The original location in Dallas was no longer suited to the growing company’s needs. Keene pushed to move the company to Frisco. They bought and built out the space they are currently in, which Keene tells us is a great environment for his employees to work and excel. At that same time, Brown and Keene Travel officially rebranded to Keene Luxury Travel.
How It Began
Hutyra got her start in the industry when she was on a Paul Gauguin cruise to Tahiti and met Randall Soy of Regent (then Radisson Seven Seas Cruises). He told her that she knew more about cruising than most travel agents — and that planted the seed for her. At the time, Hutyra ran an employment placement company, Brown and Keene Personnel, which she started in 1980. Toward the end of the ’90s, she had the foresight to see that the Internet could kill off the core of her business.
She asked herself, “What do I want to do?” Thinking of the advice Soy had given her, and of the 40 cruises she had been on, she made the decision to switch to travel.
There were many similarities between the industries; after all, both are primarily based on working closely with people; the only difference was that instead of finding someone the perfect place to work, she was now finding them the perfect place to vacation. The best part? The majority of Hutyra’s employees followed her into her new venture. One employee has served the company in different capacities for 36 years; another for 28.
Relying on her knowledge of the cruise industry, Brown and Keene Travel started booking luxury cruises exclusively. Then all at once it seemed as if many of her clients wanted to go to Africa — but they wanted her to travel with them to handle the logistics. To see if she would like it, Hutyra flew to South Africa. She fell in love. Since that moment on, hosting safaris has been at the core of what she does, accompanying groups of 16 and taking over entire camps. She turns the trips into an all-inclusive experience: there is no tipping and no laundry or transfer charges. Guests are met at the airport and everything from there on is handled by Hutyra.
For select clients, Keene and Hutyra will create FIT itineraries if they wish to travel on their own. However, on occasion, they’ll refer these clients to one of their Signature partners. The same goes if a client wants to book a cruise that Keene Luxury Travel isn’t all that keen on. They’re not afraid of losing clients by referring them away from business.
“They have already come back,” Keene tells us of a family that recently booked a cruise with another agency. “I don’t fear [losing clients].” Keene Luxury Travel is a case in point that if you do something well, clients will keep returning. They have no desire to be something that they aren’t and have no issue refusing clients who want to book travel outside of their areas of expertise.
“When somebody calls us and they want to book a cruise … we know the ships inside and out — I mean almost down to each specific cabin,” Keene says. “If somebody is calling to book the [Seven Seas] Navigator, we know exactly where the vibration issue starts, and which door makes noise when the staff’s traveling around, so we can really advise them as far as where to be on the ship.”
It’s a level of intimacy with the ship that only the most active cruisers attain. Keene and his advisors all travel often to stay sharp. Recently, he sailed aboard a hosted Silver Spirit cruise from Venice to Rome with a stop at the Blue Grotto in Capri.
“We had some new cruising guests with us and had perfect weather, so that was great,” he says. “What is always a delight is meeting clients that you have been working with for some time and have not actually met before. For me, the highlight of hosting a cruise is the people in the group, building those personal relationships and seeing them have a wonderful time.”
In addition to the advice they can give clients before they travel, there’s also the level of care that’s offered by the agency to the clients during their trip.
Earlier this year, Hutyra hosted back-to-back safaris that could have proven to be hellish for a less-seasoned advisor. The first group intended to stay at La Residence in Cape Town — except that the strongest storm in 35 years caused the property to lose its power. Having a great knowledge of South Africa, and a better relationship with its suppliers, Hutyra was able to get everyone a room at the brand-new Silo Hotel. What could have resulted in a disaster turned out to be only a minor hiccup.
Hosting guided safaris has been at the core of what Ngaire Keene Hutyra does, accompanying groups of 16 and taking over entire camps.
For the next trip, Hutyra was taking her group to Lion Sands Game Reserve in Kruger National Park when at 6:30 in the morning she received a phone call. “We got bad news,” said a voice on the other side. “Your lodge burned down last night.” Her immediate thought was to just find her group of 16 anywhere to spend the night, even if that meant splitting them up. She started working the phones, Hutyra tells us, and, in the end, she was able to keep everyone together, albeit just for a night or two at each lodge. All of the guests ended up having a great time.
“Two groups in a row with a really traumatic situation, but you know what? The next thing you know, it makes you look good,” she says. “We can just solve problems.”
The Future of the Business
Earlier this year, Keene hired a new advisor, which is big news for the agency as that’s something he and his mother are more or less averse to. Keene’s number-one priority for his agency is to exceed expectations in customer service. Do this, he believes, and the sales will come. A smaller, specialized and well-trained staff gives Keene the best chance at achieving this goal.
“We are more focused on simply growing the client base and adding new people as needed than expanding into new markets [by adding specialized advisors],” Keene tells us.
Keene Luxury Travel has already changed offices once and Keene has no immediate plans to grow so large employee-wise that they would have to move again.
However, there comes a time when you simply need to expand, and Keene felt that the time had come to add an advisor. Almost 100 percent of the agency’s clients come from referrals, and with the growing number, Keene felt each advisor was nearing the point where they couldn’t offer the level of service he wants and expects.
“We’re selling a luxury product here; I think it should be expected [of us] to have that same kind of service,” he says.
Keene’s newest employee — like everyone that he has hired in his six years with Keene Luxury Travel — had zero experience in the travel industry. “I’m looking for someone who has the ability to sell and the ability to give exceptional customer service.” Keene requires all of his new hires to complete a two-week course with Signature in addition to the agency’s own cruise line training.
It’s not hard to see why Keene Luxury Travel is having such a large influx of clients. But it’s one thing to get a new client, it’s another to keep them, and Keene Luxury Travel offers its clients something unique that keeps them connected and coming back — they invite all of them to Texas, to one of their houses, where Keene, Hutyra and the company will cook food and simply hang out with everyone. They will also try to experience local Dallas life, such as a trip to the Dallas Cowboys World Headquarters, which is located down the street, or to Billy Bob’s Bull Riding Events.
The idea stemmed from the events that Keene Luxury Travel’s cruise line partners would host — but the purpose of those would be to explicitly sell travel. “I hate that stuff,” Hutyra says. “I don’t want to sell anybody anything, I don’t believe in selling anybody anything — let them buy.”
So instead of hosting an event to sell cruises or safaris, Hutyra invites her clients to enjoy a home-cooked meal and enjoy the company of the other clients. When they announce their event each year, spots usually fill up within a couple hours. Around 100 people usually attend — all at their own expense — simply to spend time with the agency. “It’s almost like a family atmosphere,” Keene tells us. Many of the clients travel together to the gathering and this affords them the chance to spend additional time with their co-travelers-turned-friends.
Oftentimes people are surprised by the turnout, especially considering how many clients are from out of state, but as Hutyra explains, some of their clients pay thousands to go on a cruise with their friends so spending $1,000 to travel to Dallas to see everyone is a no-brainer. It works well for everyone: the clients get to catch up, and Keene Luxury Travel estimates it usually generates around $1 million in sales because of the event. “The things are darn successful,” Hutyra says.
Direct Marketing and Hosting Forums
While these gatherings may be unofficial marketing events, Keene Luxury Travel does have several direct marketing programs in place. One is that any client who refers a friend to the agency will have their name put into a drawing. Prizes included a $10,000 future cruise with Silversea and Regent and an $8,000 cruise with Oceania.
Hutyra, shown here on the Regent Explorer, doesn’t believe in the “hard sell;” rather, she nurtures a family vibe for her clients.
The agency also hosts luxurycruisetalk.com, a forum where anyone can go on and talk about travel. At the time of printing, there were 41,311 registered users who had access to 40 or so chat forums, some with 70,000-plus comments. Forum topics include different cruise brands, airlines, hotels and Keene Luxury Travel’s hosted tours, among others. As recently as three years ago, the forum and Keene Luxury Travel were essentially unaffiliated, but then they decided to put the agency name on the site and use it as a space to plan the hosted tours and refer travelers back to their site.
Looking forward, Keene is very encouraged by the decreasing age in luxury cruisers. While he doesn’t necessarily mean Millennials are now the average cruiser, he is seeing the age group book more, shorter cruises and to more adventurous destinations such as Alaska. “Millennials, to me, are still looking for things that are extra special,” he says. “They want to go do something [exceptional] like swimming with whales, or anything that’s just above and beyond, that they can post on their Facebook account and tweet about.”
The increase in the number of cruisers (not explicitly Millennials) can be correlated to the increase of luxury product available. Keene says he is excited for all of Regent, Silversea, Seabourn and Crystal’s new ships. Cruise ships also offer the appearance of safety, according to Hutyra, which is a big selling point, considering the effect that terrorism has had on travel in recent years. And as a result of terrorism, Hutyra is expecting Australia and New Zealand to boom in the coming years. She recently also took a group to China for the first time; a hosted trip to the South Pacific may not be too far off.
Overall, both mother and son find it an exciting time to be in the industry, and Keene is thankful for every minute. Even though travel is part of the job description, his role still comes with plenty of time behind a desk, something he says he would have refused when he was younger.
“Now? It’s great,” he says. “I love it.”
Keene Luxury Travel
Headquarters: Frisco, TX
Owner/President: Ngaire Keene Hutyra
Owner/Executive Vice President of Operations and Sales: Clay Keene
Number of Agents: Six
Annual Volume of Business: $15 million
Affiliations: Signature Travel Network, CLIA, ASTA, IATAN
Agency Website: www.keeneluxurytravel.com