Elevations Travel: Thriving By Connecting in Person

Michelle and Belinda Crews launched Elevations Travel in 2019. Both had been working at an Atlanta agency for many years; Belinda as the office manager and Michelle as a top-producing luxury travel advisor. Throughout their tenure, the two had the vision that with their combined skills they could create an independent, profitable, boutique-size business together.

The topic had come up more than once over the years; the two had married in 2017 (following a commitment ceremony in 2009) and so both fully knew how the other felt about starting their own travel enterprise.

“We pretty much figured that she’s really good at what she does, managing and running the whole agency, and I was a top producer, and that we could do this. Everybody loves Belinda; she’s great with the advisors,” said Michelle.

Their strategy was a clear one: They wanted a physical office where advisors could work together and collaborate, while enjoying each other’s company. They wanted less automation and more human interaction.

And so their plan to launch Elevations Travel required one key component, and that was a comfortable office space in the Atlanta area, not just for advisors to call home, but for clients to come in to plan their trips. They also wanted a place for suppliers to visit.

“The sad part is these days, all the vendors have to host advisor events now because everyone’s working from home,” said Belinda. “They have to take advisors out for cocktails or dinner. We have a beautiful space and they all love it. We have all the latest and greatest because I wanted to do it right,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “We pride ourselves on treating our partners with respect, gratitude, and appreciation. We couldn’t do what we do without our valued partners and friends in the industry, and we hope it shows in our interactions with them daily.”

They also opted to join the Signature Travel Network on the recommendation of a partner supplier. With their “smaller is better” mindset, they moved quickly to apply, knowing it was vital to have a strong consortium behind them as they launched Elevations. They admired the direction Signature was taking with luxury travel and even though the agency didn’t have a track record yet, it was accepted into the network.

Belinda and Michelle Crews chat with Christian Sierralta of Silversea at Ultra
Belinda and Michelle Crews chat with Christian Sierralta of Silversea at Luxury Travel Advisor's Ultra Summit 2022. (ULTRA Summit)

The stage was set. Elevations Travel had a state-of the-art travel agency in a beautiful office building in Sandy Springs, an “inner ring suburb” of Atlanta. The upscale area is also known as North Buckhead, or the “New Buckhead.” The office measures 4,600 square feet and has a bright and spacious vibe, designed to host advisors, clients and suppliers alike in a pristine environment. And it has welcomed many advisors and independent contractors who followed the Crews from their previous agency.

It was December 2019 and times were good. Elevations had 12 luxury travel advisors in its fold, with many of them choosing to come into the office for the camaraderie and collegial environment. Most had known each other for many years.

“We were rocking and rolling in January and February 2020, until March 12 and the world shut down,” said Belinda.

She and Michelle, like many in the travel industry, assumed by the end of summer the pandemic would be over. Then it was a few months, then a few years. To say they had no idea it would be that bad is an understatement.

“But we made it. We made it through. We never closed our doors,” said Michelle.

With Georgia being one of the first states to reopen, Belinda came to the office every day that she could.

“I would come down here for at least four hours a day. Just in case that phone rang, I was here,” she said.

During that time, there was fear from the advisors, who were canceling trips instead of booking them, and making no commission. Clients were scared. However, at Elevations Travel there was a feeling of support on all sides.

“We had Zoom meetings and cocktails together in the afternoon,” said Belinda. “And we tried to stay in touch with each other. It’s just incredible how tight this group is; we’ve worked together, most of us, for more than 15 years.”

Most of the advisors came back into the office as soon as they could, if only for a few hours. Everyone wore masks. And if a vendor happened to call to say they were in town, they had an open invitation to visit. “We’d say, ‘Come on in,’” said Belinda.

The truth is, even during COVID, the Crews were keen on showing off their office space to suppliers. It has a large kitchen and a large conference room, “two of the most important components for a travel agency,” says Belinda with a laugh. It was designed for advisors to meet with vendors in a pleasant environment.

“The office is very sleek,” said Belinda. “This building is an older building, but they had redone this entire floor, so everything was brand new, the carpets and the paint, of course. And it looked fabulous. So we wanted people, when they walked in the office, to have a wow moment, and they do.”

Michelle concurs. “A lot of people say it’s so cheery and bright in here. We just wanted that good feeling, you know? When you come in, you feel like you’re welcomed and you’re home. It’s a place to be proud to bring your clients, too.”

Because Elevations Travel caters to a high-end clientele, it’s important its advisors “walk the talk.”

Being in Atlanta’s affluent North Buckhead area affords the agency access to a unique, high-end clientele. One advisor is a golfer who belongs to a local club, which puts her in the midst of those who travel to great places, all in the name of their sport.

Michelle Crews
Michelle Crews meets with the team from Corinthia Hotels at Luxury Travel Advisor’s Ultra conference in July. (ULTRA Summit)

On a broader scope, Elevations Travel handles travel for celebrities that Belinda acquired as clients over 25 years as an advisor. Many came through referrals, beginning with a friend way back when who had a few rock stars as friends. Those rock stars referred other rock stars and Belinda’s little black book of business grew and grew. The high-profile clients don’t generate constant business for the agency, but it’s enough to keep things interesting. “Every once in a while, they’ll call us and say, ‘Can you do this?’ and I say, ‘Of course we can,’” says Belinda.

That’s right. Aside from being able to run an agency, Belinda Crews was a successful travel advisor for many years. She will still take on booking the air portion of an itinerary for her advisors who don’t feel comfortable doing it and she recently took up booking cruises again. She reports that she is still hearing from clients from years past who want to travel again post pandemic.

In other cases, the agency handles the children and grandchildren of clients they’ve serviced for more than 20 years. Multigenerational trips are not uncommon at Elevations Travel.

We asked Michelle and Belinda for their “over-the-top” trips that they’ve booked and Michelle had an interesting response.

“I used to think many trips were over the top but now it’s hard to say what actually is. Over-the-top has become almost normal” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

For example, she recently had clients in the office, two couples, who are planning an Australia and New Zealand trip using Southern Crossings.

“It’s super high-end and high-level, with helicopters throughout, and all the special things,” says Michelle. When she reviewed the final itinerary, she thought it was incredible but she did pause when she saw the high cost. Nevertheless, she showed it to her clients who didn’t even blink at the price.

Another of Michelle’s clients has been flying private lately. A lot. She is planning a trip to Italy.

“She chartered a plane to go from New York to Venice and then to Naples, and then back home. And she wanted it large enough so she wouldn’t have to stop for fuel,” reports Michelle, who priced out the cost. The final tally? $300,000. 

The client’s response? “Okay!”

For her part, Belinda has a client staying at Villa Cora, the 19th-century villa hotel in Florence for 15 nights. She says that clients don’t seem to be wavering at the cost of things these days, even with the extremely high price for hotel stays. 

Michelle says that trend is occurring across the board in the office.

“Everybody’s clients are coming out of the woodwork and they’re paying top dollar for what they want and they don’t care about the price,” she said.

Part of Elevations Travel’s secret to success is that Michelle and Belinda traveled throughout COVID to show the world that it was possible. In September 2020, they ventured to Mexico for two weeks, taking photos for Facebook and Instagram to show their clients.

In 2021, when the COVID vaccines were rolled out, they said their clients felt comfortable going to the islands or taking a small trip. It wasn’t a full green light, however. “Clients started traveling until they realized that, ‘If I go too far, I might get stuck because of the requirements to come back into the country,’” said Michelle.

When rules for re-entry into the United States were lifted earlier this year, the floodgates opened up with client requests, she said. And it was a bit much.

“We’ve gotten phone call after phone call, and people we haven’t heard from in a long time are calling us. Which is good, but I think we were all, in this industry, a little overwhelmed with the volume that came in at the same time,” Michelle added.

Michelle Crews
Secret to Success: Michelle and Belinda traveled throughout COVID to show that it was possible.  (Elevations Travel)

A major challenge was that many of the agency’s go-to DMCs were not taking new requests for the summer, particularly in Italy and France. In other cases, the agency wasn’t getting timely answers from previously dependable travel partners, who were also snowed under by demand.

Securing private cars and drivers was often another obstacle in Europe. All of this was a huge challenge, particularly when clients had already committed to the trip and booked their air. “[Partners on the ground] are just overwhelmed, which is hard on us because we can’t service our clients like we’re used to,” said Michelle.

Add to that the fact that some luxury hotels are charging top dollar but not providing the basics, like turn-down service at night. That bottle of wine that used to be waiting in for clients in the room is not always there now.

“We just tell them, unfortunately, [the hotels] can’t get help. So you have to be a little bit patient. Americans aren’t known for that, but we just try to be honest,” said Belinda.

Case in point: She and Michelle traveled to London a few months back and their car transfer never showed. When they realized they had to go with the flow in this new travel landscape, off they went to find a taxi.  

Because they know of the logistical challenges that can occur firsthand, Belinda and Michelle are there for their travel advisors to help out when needed.

“Everyone has our cell phone numbers and we look at our emails 24/7,” said Belinda. “If a text goes off in the middle of the night, we are answering and helping. And that’s what the advisors love. I’m online in the middle of the night if I have to be and we’re making it happen.”

Now with 19 independent contractors working with them, the Crews are seeking new advisors to join Elevations Travel.

“We have some of the best advisors in the entire world,” said Belinda. “They have traveled, they know places, they know the restaurants down the street and around the corner. With all of our knowledge put together, it’s just amazing.” She says anyone they bring in could have tremendous mentorship opportunities.

Michelle said she learned the ropes of being a travel advisor as mentee. 

“I wouldn’t have learned anything without sitting next to someone, listening to them talk to their clients and seeing how to interact with our partners,” she said.

For that reason, she wants to give back to those who want to learn the luxury travel business. Belinda feels the same way, noting that sometimes seasoned advisors don’t realize how much knowledge and wisdom they have. That knowledge needs to be passed along to the next generation.

“People can make a great living at this job,” she said. “It’s incredible what you can do.”

She recalls when Expedia first launched, advisors were concerned about their jobs, but Belinda’s view was always that travel advisors had an advantage, because they take personal care of their clients. 

“At this agency, we hand-hold our clients. We make sure they are happy, and we do that with our advisors, also. Because if they’re not happy, as they say, then it’s going to go downhill really quickly.”

And, so, as the world unfolds and new luxury products are launched, Elevations Travel has a new opportunity to shape the boutique-style agency it launched in December 2019. The pandemic didn’t disrupt its design to be a nurturing environment for its advisors and clients. If anything, it cemented the Crews’ credo to always be there to support them whenever it’s needed.

The best part is that Michelle and Belinda Crews know how to acknowledge the good moments, too. They celebrate wins in the office all the time. There are lots of bottles of bubbly in the refrigerator that come out whenever the occasion calls for it.

Michelle recalls the first time an Elevations Travel advisor made a new booking after the pandemic. “It was a booking instead of a cancelation. We got the champagne out of the fridge and we all partook. It was the middle of the day and we didn’t care.”

“I think we posted that on Instagram, too,” said Belinda.

“We did,” said Michelle. “But we celebrate birthdays, too. We celebrate every day.”

“Every chance we get,” said Belinda.

Post-pandemic, Elevations Travel is getting about 10 visits from suppliers a month and they’re seeing new luxury travel companies they didn’t even know about before, which they are pleased about. They’re happy to invite vendors in to use the huge TV screen in the conference room to learn about their exciting new offerings. 

The Crewses love being in a brick-and-mortar environment where they can connect with people in real life and be a part of the community, and so do their advisors.

“We’re kind of like the store on the corner. We’re the little guy,” said Belinda. “We want to be special.”

All Praises for Tara Hudgens 

Tara Hudgens
Tara Hudgens (Elevations Travel)

Belinda and Michelle Crews of Elevations Travel want to give a special shout-out to their office manager, Tara Hudgens. 

“She and Belinda together keep the office running,” said Michelle. “She does ‘commission chasing’ for our advisors, and offers all sorts of accounting and ticketing support, just to name a few things. Tara is in the office daily and available at any time for a pop-in or a call if anyone needs help or support on the back end. She is also in charge of scheduling our vendor visits, arranging lunches and wine-and-cheese afternoons, etc. We are very appreciative of her help and support.”

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