Tania Swasbrook grew up in the travel industry — her mother, Francis Contreras, a native of Mexico, has owned Travelworld of Coronado in southern California since 1978. Even back then, Contreras was selling luxury travel in an area of the country that was rich in the number of second homes owned by affluent Mexicans.
Swasbrook and her brother, Fabian Lebrija, both started at the agency when they were two years old; her first role was organizing the brochures on the shelf. By the time she was 14 years old, Swasbrook was attending travel showcases and learning about the travel agency business firsthand. The family was a tight-knit clan, running a company that today generates $7 million in revenue.
But the world was calling out to Swasbrook and she headed east after getting her BA in International Relations and Business at the University of San Diego. Virtuoso, the luxury travel agency network, offered her a position in New York to help with the expansion of its Latin America market. Moving to New York City was a dream of hers since she was young, and so the decision to transplant was an easy one.
“New York has it all and reflects the way the world is,” Swasbrook says. “It’s a melting pot of cultures and demographics, and a wonderful place to raise children as it exposes them to the world, locally.”
During her time with Virtuoso, Swasbrook earned her Masters certificate from New York University. When she became engaged, the couple moved to London for her fiance’s job in finance, where she earned her Masters in marketing from the University of Westminster.
The couple eventually moved back to New York, and around that time, the travel industry began calling Swasbrook back home. One evening at a dinner party, her husband’s client began discussing a trip with Swasbrook. As soon as she started sharing her vacation-planning expertise, her passion came shining through. Travel advising was most definitely still in her blood.
“When he asked ‘will you help?’ it was a no-brainer,” she recalls.
That “aha!” moment brought Swasbrook back to the family business, working again with her mother and brother from her New York base. Her brother subsequently moved to Mexico City to expand the Latin America market for the agency. Today, the two siblings each hold the title of vice president / luxury travel designer.
The family dynamic has worked well for the luxury travel agency, which is a member of the Virtuoso network. It’s been with the consortia for over 25 years and was one of the initial 200 agencies invited to join. Swasbrook currently holds a role on Virtuoso’s innovation team as well.
Working out of three different cities also has its benefits. For example, it helps the agency reach new clients, most of who come by word of mouth.
And for those clients, it’s all about producing magical experiences.
For example, while we were meeting with Swasbrook, a client called, requesting a last-minute trip to Miraval Resort in Tucson, AZ for some R&R. “I need to get away next week,” the client said. “Send me somewhere I can detox and unwind.”
Miraval Resort told Swasbrook it didn’t have any space available on such short notice, but her client was persistent that she needed to get away. Swasbrook assured the client she would build a new villa herself if she needed to. When we reached out to her the following week to follow up, we learned that she’d been able to secure the space, and booked a litany of wellness treatments to boot (think guided water meditation). The resort even brought in therapists on their days off for the client.
In another instance, a high-end client wanted to have dinner with a geisha while on a cultural trip to Japan. Swasbrook’s answer? “Sure, of course!” What Swasbrook soon learned was most geisha dinners are in big groups, and that the “geishas” aren’t the real deal; they’re more of a geisha-in-training.
“I didn’t realize how difficult a lot of these things [arranging cultural meetings in Japan] are,” she said.
Through her hard work, Swasbrook found a way to get her client a private dinner with a real geisha (a professor even came along for the dinner, which was served in a private home). Another challenge? The client wanted to avoid popular points of interest, and so she had to create a unique itinerary for him. It all came off without a hitch.
The good news is planning this vacation taught Swasbrook a lot about Japanese society — and if anyone would like to dine with a true, authentic geisha in a private setting, she has you covered.
That’s the mindset you must have in order to survive and succeed as a luxury travel agency — never say no; figure out how to make it work later.
Today, Swasbrook, with her New York base, has an ever-growing role in Travelworld. She, her mother and her brother have their own clients and continue to sell travel. Operationally, however, Swasbrook focuses on marketing, operations, human resources and bookkeeping while her brother works on sales and business development. According to Swasbrook, her mother has been more than happy to pass on the back-of-house work to her children.
Additionally, all three of them make it a priority to meet with suppliers. Being in the industry for nearly 40 years, Contreras has a strong relationship with everyone (to the point where she says they’re almost family) and continues to meet with her vendors in Coronado. Swasbrook and Lebrija maintain their own contacts as well.
“The power of relationships is key,” she says.
Swasbrook says her family can at times be tenacious while dealing with vendors but never rude. “We see suppliers as an extension of our agency,” she notes. “Not above or below.” In the end, the more suppliers and better the relationship with them that Travelworld has, the better they can fit the needs of its clients.
Swasbrook and her family have seen some key changes in the business lately. “We saw 2016 as a turning point in the world of travel,” Swasbrook explains. “Many of the year’s key events took place in the travel arena, shining a light not only on travel itself but on the necessity of having a travel professional in times of global uncertainty. The media called it a ‘comeback’ for travel agents, although we had never really gone anywhere.”
Safety while vacationing remains a priority when traveling abroad, especially amidst a time of changing political climate. This is when an advisor, and their relationship with suppliers, comes most in handy. While potential travelers could certainly book their own hotel rooms, Swasbrook explained how easy it could be to get lost in all of the travel tools and gadgets available online; it’s become information overload. The job of advisors has shifted from strictly selling destinations and getting the client there to, now, sifting through all of the information, finding out what is important to the clients, curating an itinerary specific to them, and making sure they are taken care of throughout their journey.
“The key is to build a rapport with clients,” Swasbrook says. “At the end of the day, it is about empathy.
“The true ‘comeback’ we have seen has been the need for humanity in travel,” Swasbrook observes. “Travelers want to connect with humans before, during and after they travel. They want to know someone who understands their needs and plans accordingly — that someone is there for them in an hour of need or insecurity when they are traveling. They want to meet local people where they travel.”
While Travelworld’s clients come from all over, most are from the U.S. and Latin America — specifically Mexico. These “ultra luxury travelers” are looking for experiential travel — and often on very short notice. Two trends in particular that Swasbrook has observed is the desire for health and wellness travel and the “live like a local” concept. While she has embraced the health and wellness travel her brother has taken over the latter.
Travelworld of Coronado’s close-knit relationship has been the recipe for this family business’ success. Last year it won Virtuoso’s “Most Engaged Agency” award for its involvement in its education program.
Those trends may change with time, but the one demographic that has always been there for Travelworld is family / multigenerational travel. What else did you expect?
Swasbrook explains that those clients her mother worked with in the early years of the agency are now grandparents, and that she and her brother are now catering to their kids and grandkids. It helps that Swasbrook had the experience of family travel as a child and again as a parent, meaning she can better cater to what a family needs / wants while traveling. She and her husband have a five-year-old daughter named Danika, who the mother hopes will become a third-generation Travelworld advisor.
“She is a phenomenal traveler and knows there is a world and cultures outside of her surrounding area,” Swasbrook says of her daughter. “That’s the best education any kid could have.”
Of late, the family has been traveling to numerous family-friendly luxury resorts in the Caribbean.
“Traveling for us [as an agency] is very important,” she says. “It’s a credibility factor, but I think it’s also an educational factor. We tend to go places where we’ve been selling or [where] our client base is mostly requesting.”
When the time comes, Swasbrook and her husband will let their daughter pick her own career path but she’s hopeful Danika sticks with travel. For the time being, they’re enjoying their world explorations together.
Other locations that Swasbrook has visited lately include London, Paris, the south of France, Spain, and a food tour through the Basque Country. Next on her list is Mongolia, where she wants to go trekking, with Iceland and Panama to follow.
Catering very heavily to both American and Mexican clients, Swasbrook has great insight on the reaction of each demographic to the potential political strains and relationship between the nations.
In the case of U.S. travelers, they are taking advantage of the exchange rate and are continuing to travel to Mexico. On the other hand, many of Travelworld’s Mexican clientele are thinking twice about travel in the U.S., Swasbrook reports. She has, therefore, been booking significantly more European vacations for travelers from Mexico.
And for travelers who need to get even further away, Travelworld offers, perhaps, the furthest possible destination from any sort of civilization: space.
Yes, outer space.
Travelworld through Virtuoso has been partnering with Virgin Galactic since it started in 2009. Contreras was handpicked by Virgin to participate, after an in-depth vetting process, which included a series of interviews and multiple rounds of narrowing down advisors. In the end, Contreras was selected and began selling tickets. She is one of fewer than 200 agents worldwide who is an Accredited Space Agent.
Once that program is good to go, Contreras will be among the first few civilians to enter space. In fact, she would be the first female Mexican to ever go into space.
“I think it’s very appropriate that it’s her,” Swasbrook says. It’s for reasons like this that Travelworld has rejected offers to be bought out. Contreras built a leading agency from the ground up and has never needed to rely on much more than her family. If they ever were to sell, they feel Travelworld would lose that fine touch.
Travelworld’s close-knit relationship has helped this family business thrive. So if this trio feels that any new member must be more than just a good agent — that they must feel like family — can you blame them?
While Contreras may never entirely leave the travel industry, Swasbrook and her brother have slowly began the process of taking over the family business, and setting it up for even more future success. If Contreras had it her way, Travelworld would likely remain a family-only business. However, the agency’s success in the luxury market, coupled with its ever-expanding virtual client list has made it difficult to remain that way. This has forced Swasbrook and Lebrija to realize that if they want to grow financially, their agency-family might need to expand; currently they’re bringing in more clients than they can keep up with.
In their informal five-year plan, Swasbrook says her family would like to see the agency double in terms of new advisors — two full-time and two independent contractors. These talks have already been in the works for two to three years, but for an agency that’s comfortable being a family business, looking outside to expand is a change that doesn’t come easily or quickly. Swasbrook is hopeful, however, that this might actually get going as soon as next year.
“I feel sorry for them,” she joked about the agency’s potential new advisors. “It’ll be quite a vetting process.”
Travelworld of Coronado
Headquarters: Coronado, CA
Owner/President: Francis Contreras
Vice President/Marketing Director:
Vice President/Sales Director: Fabian Lebrija
Number of Agents: 3 agents
Annual Volume of Business: $7 million
Agency Website: www.travelworld.travel