What does it feel like to spend more than 40 years in a career you absolutely love? We got the inside story on exactly that from Ignacio Maza, who is departing his full-time role as Signature Travel Network’s EVP of luxury business development at the end of the year. Maza, who has been at Signature for two decades, is launching a consulting business and will be an advisor to Signature and other organizations starting in 2024.
We caught up with Maza to reflect back on a career thus far. His observations were filled with gratitude and thoughtfulness as he touched upon the evolution of luxury travel and what the future looks like for travel advisors.
“I love this business and look forward to contributing and learning for years to come. I am the most fortunate person in the industry,” Maza tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
Maza has a broad expanse of experience to share; he started working in the late '70s for National Airlines and Pan Am at Miami International Airport in operations, reservations and at the international rate desk. Four years later, he moved to New York, working in pricing and industry affairs for Pan Am and then TWA.
“I’m happy I started in entry-level positions within the airline industry,” he says. “It keeps you humble, grounded and provides the right perspective as you rise through your career.”
In 1988, he made the move to American Express, working in the business travel group. Four years later, he moved to Amex’s consumer vacation travel division, focussing on supplier relations, marketing and training. He became Virtuoso’s EVP of supplier relations in 1999 and on April 1, 2004, Maza joined Signature as an EVP, opening the first New York office for the network, which was making a concerted strategy to grow and focus on the luxury market.
He’s been there ever since and his role has evolved steadily over the years. If you know Ignacio Maza, however, you might guess that one of his most satisfying roles at Signature has been providing a high level of service to the network’s agency owners and front-line advisors. In his own words, “There is no higher calling than serving the member agencies, because until a travel counselor completes a sale, nothing else matters,” he says.
When he first joined the network, he launched Signature’s Hotel & Resort and Destination Specialist programs while supporting marketing, sales, training and member services, as well as the events teams. Over the past 20 years, Maza’s role has steadily evolved, with luxury always being front and center as he worked closely with his colleagues to drive sales and position Signature as a strong player in the affluent travel space.
The results speak for themselves. Today, under the leadership of president and CEO Alex Sharpe, Signature represents 279 member agencies worldwide, with 15,000 travel advisors that collectively generate over $11 billion in sales. Maza says he’s devoted so much energy and effort to developing Signature’s luxury business because that’s where the single biggest opportunity is right now. “Luxury is one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry, and where travel advisors can add the greatest value,” he says. “Travel is the number-one priority of affluent consumers, what they are thinking of most of the time.”
An Evolving Industry
He argues that the concept of luxury has changed more in the last few years than in previous hundred. Whereas years ago, luxury was about extravagance, opulence, and strictly defined. Luxury was elitist, ostentatious, and more formal, says Maza.
“I think back of the holiday catalogs of Neiman Marcus with over-the-top gifts like sending someone two camels for the holidays (true story, someone did exactly that!). Today, luxury is up to the individual. The consumer calls the shots. Luxury is much more democratic, diverse, and relaxed; It’s also about access and customization. Luxury these days is more socially responsible, about belonging, well-being, enrichment, and meaning.”
Maza loves Seabourn’s new ad campaign (“This is your moment”) showing a guest jumping off into the ocean.
“It’s all about being free, happy, and present with all your senses. That feeling is luxury now,” he says.
All of these factors mean there has never been a better time to be a travel advisor, says Maza. “In a world of infinite options, the recommendation of a trusted and expert counselor is priceless.
Other thoughts? “Luxury is evolving from exclusive to inclusive; from conspicuous to conscientious; from inaccessible to “always on;” from buying to being.
What has stayed the same is that despite the changes to the concept of luxury, there are constants: quality, lasting value, limited, and delivered with great service, he adds.
Dealing With Luxury Customers
That being said, how should travel advisors approach this new luxury customer? Maza offered the following tips:
- First, compassion and empathy. At every income level, we have all gone through a terrible pandemic that has upended our lives. Lead with patience and heart.
- Understand that there are no shortcuts. Every advisor has to do their homework: learn as much as possible, build your network of contacts, resources, and relationships, meet with travel partners and find out all you can about places, properties, experiences.
- Stay current and stay curious. Read consumer travel magazines, travel trade publications, travel sections of national newspapers. Attend travel industry conferences, showcases and seminars. Learn constantly.
- Know your (best) clients. Find out everything about your top customers, so you can exceed expectations, solve problems, anticipate issues.
- Travel. Carve out time every year to go away and see the world. Try to visit at least one new destination every year.
- Think like a financial planner. Instead of looking only at the itinerary you have in front of you, plan for the future with your top clients. Look into 2024/25/26, and beyond, the way a financial planner does.
- Find out the ‘why’ of every trip. This will help you plan unique experiences for your clients aligned with the motivation for their trip.
- Learn to say no. This is the hardest thing to learn, as we are in the service business, and we are wired to say ‘yes’. When something is not right for your client, have the courage to say no, and the reason why something else is a better choice.
- Go above and beyond. Service is still the superpower of every good advisor. In a world of long hold times, poor service, and lack of customer support everywhere, an advisor that can deliver great service is the ultimate asset for the well-traveled.
- Be a lighthouse. We are living in turbulent times, an age of great anxiety. Be the light your clients turn to for help, guidance, and support.
Maza also has advice for new advisors coming into the industry who are discovering that it’s a very good career choice that can be lucrative, if done right.
“I’m so happy that they are joining now when there is such tremendous demand for luxury,” he says.
Maza has picked up some insights on this next generation by working with new advisors through Signature’s Embark program, a fast-track immersion for new professionals coming into the industry that’s now delivered virtually. Aside from topic modules, newbies are assigned a mentor within the network who can coach them and open doors for them.
“Spending some time with an established advisor can be so valuable,” says Maza, who singles out Florence Brethome of TravelStore, who has her trainees sit right alongside her at their own desk, learning the business with a pro. Several of the advisors she has mentored have become “million-plus” advisors.
“There are different ways of [training new people], but as a person coming into the industry, look for mentors, look for coaches, look for people who can help you,” says Maza. “A great way for a new person to come into the business is to hitch their star to somebody who is already established.”
He also loves that new advisors tend to be fearless; for example, if they get a $50,000 inquiry for a very posh resort in Europe, they don’t blink, he says. “They’re also very tech savvy and social media savvy. They’re experts on using technology to craft an itinerary, to add components and to stay in touch with their clients,” he adds.
“They are also very willing to take risks. If there’s an opportunity to go on a training trip to, say, Greenland or somewhere, they’re off,” says Maza. “I love that spirit.”
He is happy to see that the practice of travel advisors having a backup team to help them fulfill basic requests, such as airport transfers at London’s Heathrow come back into vogue.
“If you look at many of the very successful advisors, they have a backup team of people that supports them, who fulfill and follow up because it isn’t a good use of their time for them to be on hold with United Airlines for an hour. They should be using that hour to move the ball forward and make a new sale or upgrade a customer. They should do what they do best, and let somebody else do the fulfillment,” says Maza.
Having navigated a successful four-decade-plus career in travel, Maza provided us with several insights on how to change jobs when the time is right, and how to move up within an organization. He said in some cases, changes in circumstances spurred him to change jobs, at other times, he felt a great urgency to make a change.
For example, he left his job at TWA in 1988, despite the fact that he had just been promoted and was managing a team for the first time. Why? Carl Icahn had taken over the company and decided to move the airline’s headquarters from Manhattan to Westchester County. That meant a two-hour commute for Maza, each way, which added up to 20 hours a week on a train.
He found his next job at American Express through an ad in a travel trade publication, working in consulting services. However, after four years, Maza felt he had maxed out in terms of what he could learn. He was able to make an internal move to the leisure side, managing cruise line and tour operator relationships.
Timing is Everything
“Knowing when to move, and knowing when to leave is a fine art, and change is hard because you are afraid of failing and you don’t want to make the wrong move,” says Maza.
What does he know now that he wishes he knew way back then?
“I think that the biggest lesson is that taking risks and making changes work themselves out in the end. You just have to trust yourself and you have to trust the universe, which is easier said than done, because at the moment, all you can think about is the anxiety and the fear of failure.”
He is happy to report that in the end, every single change he made pretty much worked out for him but he completely understands anybody who is agonizing about whether to make a job change or not. His advice? Make the switch. “If you are not happy where you are, then you need to have the courage to move because you are not doing yourself a service, and you’re not helping the company that you work for. You owe the company 100 percent of your spirit, and if you are not happy, then clearly you can’t do that. You know in your heart if you need to move forward.”
Bottom line on navigating your own journey? “Learn, grow and challenge yourself. Every now and then, you need to change, for your sake, and also for the sake of your career.
The People Factor
Working with good colleagues has also been key to Maza’s success and he offers these insights on the topic. “Try to find opportunities to work for people that you respect, that you admire, that you could learn from, that could be mentors,” he said. A tip for those starting out or moving into a new role within a company? Working from home is not the best option because it’s challenging to build connections with other people remotely.
“I think it will help you tremendously if you can be there in person, even if it’s not every day of the week, but maybe three days of the week. You need that time to connect with the culture of the company, with the mindset of the enterprise where you are. It’s really important,” he notes.
“If you attend meetings in person, then you understand the body language. What is the dynamic? What is okay to say, what is not okay to say? What is the approach? All these things, a lot of them are intangibles, but they really are important because they’re part and parcel of the culture of the company. And connecting to that culture and incorporating that culture into the way you work, matters.”
Traveling To Learn
It’s no surprise Maza is an avid traveler. He’s been just about everywhere and his favorite places are bountiful; they include Europe, South Africa, South America (especially Argentina, Chile, Peru, Brazil), the American West, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand, Morocco, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Japan, Bhutan, Turkey, and Thailand, to name just a few.
When he takes what he calls his educational trips, he always has a notebook in hand to record all he’s learned along the way with the Signature Travel Network; he’s also a prolific travel journalist with the ability to provide comprehensive information to readers, along with some great insider information.
“The notebook is used to jot down impressions after each day, because you are typically moving at a fairly good pace and you may not remember everything,” says Maza. The people connection is also important to growing his knowledge base of a destination, in fact, he believes that getting as much information from those on the ground in a locale is invaluable.
“I encourage advisors to spend a few minutes with as many people along the way as you can,” he says. “Hotel sales teams are very valuable fonts of information and so are concierges. I also love taking guides to lunch or dinner and just asking them questions. “What is an attraction that is overrated? How would you organize landmark visits differently? Where would you go on a Sunday? If my clients have already been to Rome and seen X and Y and Z, what else would you recommend, and how would you arrange it? What is a neighborhood in Rome that is off the beaten path and worth seeing? What is your favorite restaurant? If your mother was coming to Rome, where would you go to dinner?
“Just ask open-ended questions and listen to the resident professionals share valuable information with you,” he advises.
Maza also asks guides what they are hearing about hotels from their clients who are staying there. By tapping into that intelligence you might find out from a guide that a five-star hotel actually has horrible service or a terrible breakfast or terrible dining because the chef just got fired.
In short, the guide is your guru, says Maza, who actually prefers to have the same person throughout an entire trip if he can. He did that during his trip to Uzbekistan in the spring. “My guide Gulya was my teacher and my inspiration,” says Maza. “She shared so many insights with me that I would’ve never had if I had had a different person in every city. Granted, not everybody can afford that because it gets expensive. You have to pay for yourself and the guides’ transportation, food and beverage, train, travel, the whole bit. But as an experience, it was invaluable.”
He says he will do the same in the future for destinations that could prove challenging to get around, such as Ethiopia or Myanmar.
New Luxury Offerings
He’s astounded at the quality of the travel products that are coming out, particularly cruise ships.
“Today, the ships are just incredible. They have multiple restaurants and every kind of stateroom you can imagine. They have facilities and experiences, and things on board that we couldn’t even dream about 20 or 30 years ago,” he says.
Witnessing the growth of expedition cruising is also thrilling. “Here you are in the middle of Antarctica, and you have a choice of all of these creature comforts on board the ship,” says Maza. He recalls when he went to Antarctica 20 years ago on a tiny little Russian icebreaker. “The big deal was that we got cookies at 3:00 in the afternoon. That shut down the whole ship. Everything stopped for the cookies,” he recalls.
Hotels are also exciting, including in his own hometown of Manhattan. “I live in New York and am pretty familiar with all the luxury hotels, but then you go see the Aman on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street at the Crown Building and you can see how a classic Manhattan Tower can be repurposed as a luxury hotel, with features like a three-story spa with a 75-foot long pool. And this is all in the center of Manhattan.”
Everything in luxury travel is improving, he says. “The products have never been better, the destinations have never been more varied, and the options have never been greater. So. the luxury consumer today is in the catbird seat, they are spoiled for choice. The world is their oyster, and there have never been better ways to experience it and enjoy it,” says Maza.
“How exciting is that, that we are in a period of rising demand with fantastic products and more coming in? Every day, there are announcements about new hotels and resorts, new ships, new luxury rail service, new premium airline services and new experiences. It is phenomenal.”
As he prepares to bid his full-time post at Signature adieu, Maza is extremely grateful for his travel career.
“I feel the most fortunate person in the world to have had the opportunity to be in this industry for 40-plus-years, to have had the chance to travel the world, but most of all, to meet extraordinary people. At every single place I have ever visited, no matter how remote, there was always somebody amazing that you meet that surprises you, that you can learn from, that makes you laugh,” he says.
“For me, the people aspect of this job is the greatest reward of all. And this industry is not for the faint of heart. You have to get out there, you have to press the flesh, and you have to meet and connect with as many people as you can.”
With that comes a word of advice to those attached to their phones, particularly those who are shy about connecting with people. His advice is to overcome any anxiety or apprehension that you might have, and put your best foot forward.
“By all means, just connect with the world,” says Maza.
Grateful and Proud
And as for his time at Signature, he tells Luxury Travel Advisor this: “As I prepare to re-invent myself one more time, one word comes to mind: Gratitude. I am grateful to Michelle Morgan (Signature’s former president), who hired me in 2004 and gave me the opportunity to join Signature when the network was ready to take off. I really appreciate Alex Sharpe’s guidance, friendship and leadership over the past 10 years. I have had 17 bosses throughout my career. God saved the best for last. My Signature colleagues—a team of dedicated, smart and caring people—have been the best co-workers anyone could ask for. I also thank the network’s members, front-line advisors and travel partners for their great support, generosity and for educating me about the travel business. I could never have succeeded without everyone’s collective help, wisdom, kindness, and love."
Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network, Reflects on Working With Ignacio Maza
“In 2008, I moved from revenue management into sales at Regent Cruises and one of my first orders of business was to meet Ignacio Maza, whom I had heard so much about. I asked Mark Conroy, who was my boss, to introduce us while attending the Signature Conference. It didn’t take long to find Ignacio because he was busy working the registration desk alongside his coworkers. That immediately told me a lot about Signature and especially about Ignacio. Since that day and especially since joining Signature in 2011, I have been a huge fan.
“What has always struck me about Ignacio is his passion for the industry. Now, many people have passion for this incredible industry, but he has a combination of skills that allows him to not only be the most knowledgeable person I know on destinations and travel products, but also an innate ability to communicate in both the written word and as a presenter. This combination of skills, to me, makes him the most inspirational educator in travel, as well as a celebrity!
“It truly is a joy to watch Ignacio in action. He can describe a town square in Timbuktu or a lobby of a hotel in Seville as if he was standing there today, even if he hasn’t been there in decades. He looks at things in such a unique way that he often teaches seasoned salespeople of a product how they can better position themselves in the market.
“Ignacio has given Signature so much in his 20 years. Passion, creativity, content, credibility and, of course, inspiration. The thousands of advisors he has inspired and educated are better because of him as are his coworkers. We have all learned so much from him, not the least of which is to lead with our hearts, travel the world and share those experiences with everyone.”
Ignacio Maza’s Top Luxury Trends
As the world emerges from the ravages of COVID, four big trends continue to resonate, says Maza:
- Upgrading. Everyone is looking to improve their travels. If clients were happy with business class, they are now looking at first class and private jets.
- Togetherness. After being separated, families and friends want to spend time together on vacation.
- Wellness. At every income level, consumers are stressed and seeking to refresh, recharge and refocus their lives.
- The search for privacy and seclusion. The pace of requests for villas, bungalows, residences and larger suites continues to grow unabated.
"But I am also seeing 10 other notable trends," he says:
- A new concept of time. Consumers are asking for help with travel for this coming weekend, as well as a 2026 world cruise. Advisors have to be nimble to think short- and long-term, simultaneously.
- Solo travel. More and more travelers, especially women, are venturing forth on their own. This is an untapped market that no one is marketing to successfully. Did you know? About 50 percent of the households in Manhattan are made up of one person.
- The quest for meaningful connections. As part of their travels, consumers want to experience a deep immersion into the local culture, including indigenous experiences, living like a local, exploring off the beaten path neighborhoods and destinations.
- The power of nature. After being cooped up at home for one or more years, travelers yearn for the outdoors, safaris, nature and be close to wildlife.
- The "WOW" factor. Everyone wants to be blown away during their vacation, and advisors have to work harder and harder to exceed expectations.
- Set-Jetting. The Financial Times first reported on this trend, and it’s real. Many consumers are traveling to the locations of their favorite shows. Think Iceland (“Game of Thrones”), Sicily (“White Lotus”), Paris (“Emily in Paris”), etc.
- Coping with Peak Demand. This is one of our greatest challenges. How to deliver true luxury during high season in popular destinations like The Amalfi Coast, Paris, Santorini, Venice, The French Riviera, etc. We have our work cut out for ourselves.
- Offseason is the New Peak Season. There is tremendous demand for fall/winter travel to Italy, Spain, Portugal and many other popular destinations. This trend will gather strength going into 2024, due to the extremely high summer temperatures, overcrowding, and fires parts of Europe and North America experienced this past summer.
- New Horizons. Savvy travelers are always on the hunt for the new destinations, such as: Central Asia, Mongolia, Zambia, Northwest Argentina, Romania, Western Australia’s Kimberley Region, South Georgia, Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories, Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, and so many other places.
- The Biggest Trend? The power of travel advisors who know their customers, their products, and who deliver exceptional service again and again.