|Maureen Conlin in the Metropolitan Suite of the St. Regis San Francisco. Her agency, Los Gatos Travel, generates $10 million in sales annually.|
Life in Silicon Valley is filled with opportunity. A combination of wildly successful start-ups and well-established high-tech firms generates a steady stream of affluent clientele to those providing services in the area. Los Gatos Travel, just outside of San Jose, gets its fair share of that business but its bread and butter is derived from the well-off families the agency has worked with for the nearly 35 years it’s been in business.
“We have multigenerational families, retired professionals, young urban professionals, executives from Silicon Valley companies and venture capitalists. There’s a great amount of new money here in the valley and it takes all shapes and forms,” says Maureen Conlin, founding partner of Los Gatos Travel, which garners $10 million in sales a year and is a top producer for Starwood’s luxury hotels, Fairmont and Raffles hotels, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, Crystal Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Classic Vacations, Swain Destinations, Journese, and other high-end suppliers.
Located on North Santa Cruz Avenue in charming Los Gatos, the agency’s storefront fits in perfectly with the quaint tone and architecture of the town itself, where a mixture of towering oak, eucalyptus and pine trees provide dappled sunlight all day long. It all gives the northern California enclave a pretty, lazy vibe. Friendly avenues are flanked by homey coffee shops and clothing boutiques; virtually every retailer has some sort of beautiful planting or folksy motif to draw visitors to its front door.
But don’t be fooled by simple appearances; Los Gatos is filled with a wealthy populace. In fact, right next door to Los Gatos Travel a wealth management office promises to “guide you and your family members along the path toward financial prosperity.”
In the agency’s early days, Conlin’s clients were land developers who played a key role in evolving the area from a cozy western community to one that is home to uber-rich residents and commercial establishments like eBay. Today, former landowners who reaped millions by selling off their parcels of land and their children who have had those riches passed on to them comprise much of the agency’s book of business.
Conlin and her team have served them from the same attractive location for over three decades (though it’s expanded in size since then and undergone several remodelings), and they’ve never stopped coming back.
“Thirty-five years later we’re doing something right if they’re still here with us. They’re very loyal and they’ve been very loyal for a long time,” she tells us.
It's About the Client
Some in the community are still learning how a good travel advisor can help them amplify their vacation experience tenfold by seeing to every detail and using close connections to make everything go super smoothly. Conlin says many of her clients had not traveled much until they made money selling off their property and so they needed the assistance of her agency to advise them on where and how to travel.
“I think we still have that happening,” she says, citing one new client who had been referred to her consistently for more than 10 years but never made an appointment to come in. When she finally did, she didn’t blink when Conlin quoted her nearly $170,000 for the trip they had crafted during her consultation.
“Everyday I get a phone call from someone who can’t believe the value that a travel agency brings to the table,” says Conlin.
Many of her clients could clearly afford the bling-bling vacations we all hear about, but Conlin insists that doesn’t comprise the core of her business. “We have people who have rented private jets, we’ve done private yachts and the special weddings,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “It’s important to know how to do the over-the-top trips and I appreciate that, but not everything is over the top, right?”
Rather, it’s ensuring the regular vacations her clients take are put together with precision and detail.
“In my case, it’s always been about taking care of our clients in the best way possible. It might be that I’ve done somebody’s honeymoon and I’m now doing their kid’s wedding. My philosophy has always been that it’s not about me. It’s about my clients. It’s about our vendors and me making sure that the client has the most amazing experience. After all, at the end of the day, they’re the ones writing the check,” she says.
|Partners in Travel: Kristy Sion, right, joined Los Gatos Travel as a partner in 1991. She is shown here with Maureen Conlin, left, at the St. Regis.|
Conlin is available 24/7. In fact, when we met with her in Los Gatos she had just spent a full Sunday aiding clients who had fallen ill during their trip to Turkey, assisting them in finding doctors and medicine, as well as completely revising their itinerary. “With the help of our ground operator we were heroes. When there are problems, getting the job done is the most important thing,” she says. “Clients expect it. If they are spending a great deal of money, they deserve it.”
In such cases, the finances of repairing such situations are discussed afterward; it’s the rescue that counts first. But in general, the agency charges a standard $500 planning fee that’s applied to the vacation. If the clients change their mind or cancel, it’s nonrefundable.
In fact, even though she has a clear financial strategy to ensure the agency is profitable, one could say that Conlin’s overall business plan is singularly to provide stellar customer service.
“If you do your job well, you’re going to make money, but if you don’t, it doesn’t make any difference because if they don’t come back to you, then you’re toast,” she says.
She’s tickled that her agency has received five stars on Yelp, with reviews generated by local clients who voluntarily sing her praises. “This company rocks! If I could give 10 stars I would,” says one review. “Maureen is by far the best travel agent I have ever worked with. She has more first-hand personal information about any destination in the world.” Another raves: “I used Los Gatos Travel for a trip to New York a few months ago and it came out flawlessly. Maureen helped us from start to finish, from finding us the best deal possible to keeping in touch with us after the trip to make sure everything was what we wanted.”
Yelp fans also praise Kristy Sion, who joined Los Gatos Travel as a partner in 1991 (“She was kind, helpful, and able to answer all of my questions,” says one review). Sion, who had worked at a nearby agency, became friends with Conlin years ago during a fam trip to Scandinavia. Their conversation about working together began then but Sion didn’t join up with Conlin for another five years. Her arrival in the office meant Conlin could focus on the business aspect of running the agency, which she loves. “I’m a numbers person, so balance sheets and income statements are very interesting to me. I like to make sure that I can see the return on investments and who’s doing what. Who are our good vendors? Who really costs us money? Who doesn’t? I couldn’t do that and manage the office at the same time. I decided that for me to make it work it would be better to have a partner.”
Together, Conlin and Sion create a congenial environment for the agency’s 12 advisors. “We’re a very diverse group, which gives us a very diverse clientele base, which I like a lot,” says Conlin. “Everybody bounces ideas off each other and that makes a big difference.”
The agency’s collective expertise covers virtually every destination around the world; Conlin estimates that together, the entire office has more than 200 years of combined experience. They all travel extensively; Southeast Asia, Japan, New Zealand, Africa, Russia and the United Arab Emirates are just some of the locales they’ve recently researched first hand.
To keep up to date on the newest offerings around the world, Conlin herself hits the road to review hotels within the Signature Travel Network (she is about to join the group’s hotel board) and other new hotels that will interest her clients. As a member of the Starwood Luxury board, she stayed at the two St. Regis hotels in Abu Dhabi. “That’s a place I had never been but it’s now one I can share with our clients,” she says.
The strong relationships with the suppliers the agency works with have been vital to its success; Conlin insists it’s imperative to let them know they’re all in this together so that client will benefit in the end. In a nutshell, the respect her agency gives them ensures the agency gets respect in return. “That’s the best way to do business,” she says.
She feels equally adamant about her partnership with the Signature Travel Network, which the agency has been a part of for more than 30 years, throughout its former iterations. On Michelle Morgan, the head of Signature who passed away last year, Conlin says: “She was a visionary and her loss was hard for all of us.” She lauds the new leadership of president and CEO, Alex Sharpe, and marvels that he crossed the country to visit many of Signature’s agency owners when he took on his new role. “Along with the Signature team, Alex is working to take us to the next level,” she says.
Conlin loves Signature’s technology, hotel program amenities and marketing tools. She says the agency couldn’t afford such undertakings on its own, nor would it have the time to invest in them.
An Early Start
The logistics of travel have always mesmerized Conlin, who was born in Poughkeepsie, NY and raised in the Los Gatos area after her parents moved the family west. In fact, the concept of literally “moving people” drew her to the business. When she was in high school a family friend handled large groups each year for ski trips and to sporting events. Conlin was invited on many of the excursions and was bitten. “I was fascinated with the arrangements to get everyone ‘to and from,’” she recalls. It was a no-brainer to enter a travel careers program at a local college, but the travel bug wasn’t done biting her yet. As she was earning her degree, a couple she met who had lived in Japan for nine years regaled her with their tales of exploring the exotic destination.
“Their stories of places they traveled and the things they collected through that travel sealed the deal for me. I was hooked,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. When she started working for a travel agency right out of school, her first fam trip was to Japan where Conlin ticked everything off the agenda her friends had prepped for her.
“When there are problems, getting the job done is the most important thing. Clients expect it. If they are spending a great deal of money, they deserve it.”
Conlin worked for two agencies before opening her own agency at the ripe age of 23, thanks to the help of a family friend, who was a land developer. He told her to craft a business proposal; when it met with his approval, he wrote her a check and simply said, “Good luck.” Independence was important to Conlin. “I always wanted to be able to take care of myself and knew if I were in charge I could. I wanted to manage my own future,” she says.
Recalling the initial days of Los Gatos Travel make Conlin smile. “For the first three days we had no furniture so we sat on the floor and answered the phone. I was mortified,” she says. Back then, Banff/Lake Louise was a big vacation spot for the area (“If you didn’t book a year in advance you weren’t going,” says Conlin). Hawaii and Mexico were also hotspots and cruising, in its nascent phase, was an attractive option; she and her husband would sail with large groups of their young friends. “Twenty-five to 30 of us would go. At that time, nobody at our age went on cruises. But the prices were so good and everything was included and it was such a value,” she recalls.
Her love of the business compelled her to speak at career days at local high schools and colleges to spread the word about the value of being a travel agent. “Since I was a little bit younger I felt people would understand that it was really a great business to be in,” she says.
Doing what she loved, she gradually grew Los Gatos to the size it is today, with her team now collectively generating $10 million in sales. That’s a number she intends to keep growing, and she forecasts that 2014 will be a good year, with future sales for the next two quarters looking very positive. “Of course, until the check is in the bank you never know, but we have very few cancellations,” she says. She cites current conflicts in international destinations and hopes they don’t impact future travel, but to Luxury Travel Advisor, it seems Conlin is as optimistic about the future of the business as she was nearly 35 years ago.
“One of my very good clients who writes books about her travel adventures calls me her ‘purveyor of dreams,’” says Conlin. “I want every client, no matter what the purpose of their travel is, to feel that way when we create our travel arrangements for them, whether their trip is big or small.”
Investing in technology and further cementing relationships with suppliers are on her roster, and so is bringing new blood into the business. Over the next five years, she’d like to add new advisors to the mix and so she’s working with a local sorority to expose them to the joy of being in the business. That’s a message she looks forward to conveying. “How do you tell people how fun this can be? I wouldn’t trade my last 36 years for anything. It’s really been a great experience,” she says.
Los Gatos Travel
Founding Partner: Maureen Conlin
Partner: Kristy Sion
Location: Los Gatos, CA
Number of agents: 14
Annual Sales Volume: $10 million
Affiliations: Signature Travel Network
Boards: Signature Travel Network Hotel Committee, Starwood Luxury Travel Board, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Advisory Board, Classic Vacations’ Presidents Advisory Board