Playing by Heart

Ledson Winery is just one of the lovely vineyards in Alyse Cori’s “backyard” in Sonoma County, CA.

Alyse Cori’s career is sprinkled with “Aha” moments that spurred her to launch her own business as a travel advisor and to focus on selling her passion: meaningful luxury trips.

One “Aha” came when she was working for a travel agency and her employer told her she couldn’t come in to work early, nor could she stay late, because “the insurance wouldn’t cover that.”

The year was 2006, and Cori, now the owner of Travelwize in Sonoma, CA, knew it was time to break out and launch her own business. “I couldn’t get things done properly,” she says of the rigid work schedule that was being forced upon her.

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That last straw was serendipitous for Cori, an entrepreneur at heart. For the last nine years, she’s been running her own show at Travelwize, pulling in about $2 million in revenue a year.

“I’d always wanted to be independent,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

A crowning glory of meeting that goal was having the agency accepted in to Virtuoso last October. She had wanted to join the luxury travel agency network years earlier, but at that time it wasn’t accepting home-based agencies, she says. She persisted because she was impressed with their marketing. “It’s working, I’m definitely enjoying them,” she reports.

The move has already helped her business; Cori has been keen to grow a network of independent advisors, and once aligned with Virtuoso, she had two sign up with her immediately. She now has 12 independent contractors across the country; the plan is for them to meet up at Virtuoso’s Travel Week in August. “It’s important to meet them and to ask, ‘what can I do to make it better? What do you want? What direction do you want to go? How can you get there?’” she says.

Having a larger team will allow her to travel, an activity that’s been all but a luxury to her as she’s grown Travelwize. Most recently, she took a Caribbean cruise, which enabled her to visit some islands she hadn’t seen, and to enjoy scuba diving in Dominica and in Grenada, at the new Sandals resort.

Scuba is an activity Cori adores, but the reality is, she’s an all around passionate active traveler. Next up on her bucket list are the Galapagos, Bhutan and Nepal.

“The more adventure the better. When I go to a destination, I don’t like to do the touristy things,” says Cori. “I like to meet the local people and see how they live. When we went to Fiji two or three years ago, we hiked to a village and met the local people; we even met the head of the village, which was great. That’s how you go on vacation.”

Many of her affluent clients have the same taste, traveling with Backroads or taking cruises whose excursions put them into zodiac boats so they can get up close with a destination. They also tend to book with Four Seasons, a hotel company she’s a fan of, and enjoy complex FIT itineraries that span Paris, Venice, Florence, Bangkok and Koh Samui, Thailand.

“It’s fun sharing the same passion,” says Cori, who is extremely laid back in her approach to selling travel. She says as she’s crafting vacations, she puts herself in the clients’ shoes, empathizing with them on how they would want an itinerary to go.

“I look at each trip as if it’s my own,” she says. “I’ll be thinking, ‘You need to take an extra day here. You shouldn’t rush this.’ I’ll be thinking that if I were doing this I wouldn’t want to have to pack and unpack, or, how would I feel about being out in the Amazon? How hot is it going to be? What is the experience going to be like?”

Consider this: Cori had a client who was afraid of heights and wanted, more than anything, to zipline when she vacationed in Costa Rica. “She had always talked how she thought it would be a peak experience in her lifetime. When the day came for the zipline, she was not only encouraged by her fellow travelers and the leaders of the group, I arranged for a shaman to come and talk to her to help her overcome her fears. He stayed with her before, during and after her miraculous zipline. I guess you could really call that an over-the-top experience!” she says.

She showed that same type of empathy with a client/songwriter with a case of writer’s block he couldn’t get past.

Cori arranged for him to vacation in Hawaii for a few weeks at the Grand Wailea, which she had toured in the past and so knew a thing or two about the rooms there. “I was able to get him upgraded to the Napua Wing to a suite that had a Grand Piano in the living room and a stereo system to boot. Knowing the right hotel and the room types offered is very important,” she advises.

Cori’s clients hail from all over the world, primarily from word-of-mouth referrals. She’s met only about five percent of them, but has developed close relationships with many and that helps her plot their trips.

“I know all about their marriages, divorces, their children, their grandchildren, everything. Most of my clients feel like old high school friends,” she says.

And while she’s been living in California since 1988, and in Sonoma for the past five years, Cori is originally from Queens, New York, which helps her connect easily with East Coasters. “As soon as we talk, there’s a bond,” she says.

Racquetball, Music and Travel

Cori has been on the track to success since her early days as a New York native. One of her first passions was racquetball, a sport she still excels in (she’s sponsored by Ektelon, the American manufacturer of racquetball equipment); competing to this day in regional and national tournaments around the country. “You could play it in the rain, in the snow, it doesn’t matter,” she says, noting why she took it up. “You get a great workout. It’s a very fast game and I love the thrill. I’m a native New Yorker on the court.” You can find Cori on the court three or four times a week for up to two hours a session. “That’s my stress relief; you can hit the ball as hard as you want and think of it as the person who cut you off on the freeway. You don’t get charged for assault and you feel good afterwards. It’s therapy.”

Music was another early passion; Cori, a classically trained pianist, has the innate quality to play music by ear, and, in fact, performed solo on stage at Carnegie Hall at the age of 11.

“Music has always been my peace,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. What she likes best? “Music is like questions and answers,” she says. Case in point: When she was a child, her mother had the record player going one day and to her amazement, Cori sat at the piano and played the song she was listening to entirely by ear.

“From that day forward, I found the real enjoyment of music by playing boogie woogie, jazz, blues and rock,” she says. Cori actually played in a local New York rock band until she became pregnant with her son and decided the smoky venues were not a good place to be around.

“I don’t play too much now,” she tells us. “However, I can still sit down and play the music that’s in my head by ear. The strangest connection is my son is now a drummer and a percussionist!”

Travel, of course, was another early passion; Cori vacationed in her teens with her parents on cruises, and to far flung places such as Hawaii. “I felt that I learned so much more when I traveled. You can learn the history of something in school, but when you actually see it and you understand what happened there, it’s different,” she says.

She earned a degree in education and thought of teaching physical education or music, but the time wasn’t right. “When I started to go to school, they were firing teachers, and it was like, ‘You don’t want to be in that field,’” recalls Cori.

Grasping at straws, she considered being a flight attendant, but it wasn’t a good time for the airlines, either, many were going out of business. It was 1982 and she saw a posting to be a travel agent in Manhattan. She took the job, hand writing airline tickets. Her career was launched and she learned the business, taking a special liking to corporate travel. “I still love corporate, I could do it with my eyes closed,” she tells us.

Grand Wailea on Maui served as the ideal venue for a songwriter with writer’s block.
Cori had him upgraded to a suite with a piano and a great stereo system.

But it became even more enjoyable; Cori started booking travel for rock bands on tour, such as the Grateful Dead, Art Garfunkel and the Cranberries.

“The best part about booking the bands was to be able to relate to the musicians themselves in a musical sense,” she says.

She eventually evolved into selling customized luxury trips as her overall customer base began to evolve as well. “My clientele has shifted more to adventure, health, spa and wellness,” says Cori.

“It seems like my travel directions follow my passions. I am starting to create travel that gives back to organizations I feel passionate about, helping others to improve the quality of their lifestyle through health and wellness and determined to feel good about the footprint I leave. To me, it’s all about the journey, not the destination!” she adds.

Besides, booking musicians had become a bit of an “on-demand” lifestyle. She recalls a day when she was just about to play in a racquetball tournament and her phone rang.

“A musician was calling me to complain about the weather and that the hotel didn’t have any more of the brand of vodka they wanted and it was taking too long to replace,” she says. It was another “Aha” moment, telling her she had “been there, done that” in terms of booking bands.

“I decided then that this era was ending and it was time to start another chapter in my travel career,” she says.

Grabbing the Next Rung

As Cori moves ahead with growing Travelwize, her local market, which sits in the heart of posh California Wine Country, holds great potential for her. She’s working to tap into that by joining the Chamber of Commerce.

She’s also just connected with a chef in a winery and they’re planning a “wine and chef” cruise with 45 locals and a radio station.

Pulling the event together took some doing, but that’s what Cori is all about. Just as she did with Virtuoso, she challenges herself to get to the other side and doesn’t get discouraged in the interim.

“You can knock on 100 doors, and you might get ‘no’s.’ But I’m so tenacious; you can never give up. You just have to look at it as, ‘Well, it wasn’t the right time, and move on to something else,’” Cori says.

That mellow outlook has helped win her business.

“If people say, ‘Call me in six months,’ I call them in six months. I think people relate to me because I’m not a pushy sales person. I just tell them, ‘Here’s what you can get, and if it doesn’t work, just keep me in mind.’”

Candor is another trait that wins her business and client loyalty. She’s not afraid to say a travel experience isn’t right for someone, that it might be too challenging, or that it might not be challenging enough.

That could mean turning away business, says Cori. “But it’s more important that they have a great experience than to put people on the wrong trip and then have them say, ‘Why did you do that?’ It’s like sending a person with asthma to China and not realizing the air quality isn’t good. You can’t do that. I’m not going to send someone who can hardly walk on a zodiac or on a hiking trip. You don’t do that even if it’s where they want to go. You have to figure out something else.”

Figuring it out is what Cori is all about, and that’s where her interpretation of luxury kicks in. “I don’t rate luxury hotels by the hotel itself. I categorize a luxury hotel by the service of its staff to help create an unforgettable experience. These days, I find my clients wanting something unique that no one has asked for or done before. They are less concerned with who’s stayed there,” she says.

The Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island exemplifies this for her because the team there always takes care of her customers.

“My client, a famous musician, wanted to stay there for about a month in a two-bedroom oceanfront unit, which I was happy to arrange,” reports Cori. “He also wanted to find the best dive operator to dive with daily one on one.” Cori called around and did research for several days until she found someone who came highly recommended. “I arranged the diving directly without advising my client. I had the dive operator send up a note attached to a fin stating ‘Your travel agent has volunteered me to be your guide, whatever days and whenever you want to dive and the first day is your gift from her.’ Needless to say, it was a great surprise and a memory that lasted forever,” says Cori.

With all of her passions, her tenacity and creativity, the future is full of promise for Alyse Cori and there’s no doubt she’s going to keep pushing forward to meet her goals.

“You know what? You have to put yourself in the place you want to be in, even if you’re stretching to make it to the next level. If you want to reach for that next rung on the ladder, even though it’s a little far, you should just reach out and pull yourself up. If you can do that, you can always get to another level,” says Cori.


Owner: Alyse Cori

Headquarters: Sonoma, CA

Annual revenue: $1.5 million to $2 million

Affiliation: Virtuoso

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A World of Music and Travel:  Cori is shown here with mementos from the years  she spent booking travel for rock musicians.
A World of Music and Travel: Cori is shown here with mementos from the years she spent
booking travel for rock musicians.

Giving Back

Alyse Cori of Travelwize has made it a habit to make a difference, whether she’s at home or globetrekking. A lover of animals, she donates to the Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo County, CA. “Every time a person from their organization books a trip, I donate back to the society,” she says, noting she donates back to the A&K Foundation Fund and to a non-profit college foundation as well. 

Sometimes it gets more personal. When she was in Fiji two years ago, Cori walked to a local village on Beqa Lagoon where she came across a woman who was competing in a national track event. The only catch was, she was training barefoot since she didn’t own any sneakers. Cori immediately donated those running shoes she had with her and then sent some new pairs to the school after she got home. In that same village she discovered that the locals fish at night using torches.

“We sent them some waterproof flashlights, the kind we use in diving,” she says. “To me, it’s all about making a difference. It might be small, but small is better than nothing.”

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