Matchmaker, Matchmaker

You might call me a Travel Agent, and actually, that is how I refer to myself, but often I feel more like a match maker. With the proliferation of dating shows I couldn’t help but see the similarities between how people choose a mate and how they choose a vacation and very often a hot tub is included in both scenarios.  In my reality show, I help potential travelers sort out their resort choices similar to the T.V. host who helps sort out potential suitors. Also, like the T.V. Host, I help my clients decide which destination gets a “first date” and if all goes well, whether it gets a “second date”. So let’s have our first contestant….

The  Love ‘em and Leave ‘em Traveler:  Travel can be fickle. One year a destination is in vogue, new and fresh and the latest and greatest.  These thrill seekers are unwilling to commit to a single destination.  They refuse to limit themselves to one style of travel.  Beach lounging, European bon vivant, grand adventures, why choose one when you can have them all? This type of traveler lives for the thrill of discovery and bragging rights and their approach is definitely more of a love ‘em and leave’em and move on to the next big challenge. From a Travel Agent’s perspective, you get to live vicariously through their experiences. These travelers will never settle down. They continue to “date” and each vacation is to a different destination. They don’t commit, because this type of traveler knows that there are so many different experiences to be had. Cruisers could fall under this heading but I consider them to be serial daters of the vacation universe. Unwilling to commit to just one island or one country, they choose itineraries that allow them to pack once and visit several destinations. They spend a few hours flirting with a new area before moving on to the next island. Multiple city or country tours via motor coach, the fancy word for bus, offer the same opportunity. This type of travel is actually great for people with limited time who wish to see as much as possible.

The Going Steady Traveler:  These travelers tend to fall in love with a resort or a place and they usually fall hard and fast. It starts out as a major crush. They swear that they’ve found “the one.” They remain loyal as they continue to visit the same location over and over. They introduce the destination to their friends and family, convinced that this will be a lasting relationship. But, travel trends are fickle. Hotels fade in and out of style. The traveler gets bored but remains faithful for a while until they eventually are tempted by something new, something, perhaps, completely different. Eventually, they decide to end the relationship. It’s not the destination, it’s them. They just need to see what else is out there in terms of vacation options.

The Committed Traveler: These travelers pledge their devotion to one particular destination: They revisit the same country, the same island, the same beach and sometimes, even the same hotel room over and over again. They are comfortable in a monogamous travel relationship knowing what’s waiting for them when they return year after year. They have their favorite restaurants and bars. They may have settled down with one particular resort where the manager and staff know their preferences, their favorite room, the type of view they prefer and a place where everybody knows their name.  When they want to shake things up they reserve a room with a different view. This type of traveler likes the predictability of knowing what to expect, confident in knowing they will get a great meal at their favorite restaurant. That’s sort of an “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?“ approach.  However, I guess that’s why time shares have become so popular.

Me, I’m kind of a love’ em and leave ‘em  traveler. I like to have a good time, take away some good memories and then move on to the next destination.  Since it’s impossible to see any one location completely thoroughly without pulling up roots and transplanting yourself for several months or years, the best any of us can hope for is a good overview. I’m not talking about the “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” type tours but it does require allocating more than a minimum 5 days to visit a new locale. Sounding a bit like a hypocrite, I also tell people that 5 days in Italy is better than never getting to Rome at all.  So, what are the pros of revisiting a location? Confidence tops the list. You’ve already been to say, Paris so you have a sense of familiarity that perhaps allows you to eschew the escorted tour this time and strike out on your own. You have more freedom, can move at a slower pace, linger a little longer at a restaurant or museum or sit in a local park. Since you’ve already seen the major tourist areas you can visit smaller lesser known towns and get a much better understanding of local life. I certainly have had my share of repeat visits. Some were based upon an invitation when a country was unveiling a new tourist concept that they were eager to share with the travel community. Some were based upon necessity, such as escorting a group of people on a trip to Walt Disney World or Caribbean Islands such as Jamaica. Are there countries that I would willingly go back and visit again without any purpose other than I really enjoyed my time there? Sure, absolutely. At the risk of being a kiss and tell Travel Agent, I loved England enough to visit several times and if the opportunity was presented I would happily consider another rendezvous with London. Between you and me, I feel the same way about Istanbul.11738021_10152914745781581_2751803219527928256_n So, how do you know when you’ve found the right “match?” Perhaps, it‘s true that when it’s really right, you just know.

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Fancy Meeting You Here!

We’ve all had it happen. You see someone who looks exactly like somebody you know. Sometimes they remind you of an old friend or a former neighbor. Sometimes it is a coincidence that a complete stranger will bear a striking resemblance to a previous acquaintance, when other times it turns out that you actually do know them. Now, let’s make it a bit more interesting; have you ever had that happen thousands of miles from home? Back when I first visited St. Lucia, it was an up and coming island. It had a decent tourism structure in place without being modernized or over-developed. In other words it wasn’t yet on the radar of the mass majority. The purpose of my trip was to see how “up” it had “come”. There was some effort required to make the visit as it lacked what the travel industry calls regular “airlift”. In other words, even though the flights were regularly scheduled instead of the sometimes unpredictable or rigid charter flights, a change of planes was required upon landing in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Fortunately, it was an easy transfer in a clean and fairly modern airport. Once on the ground, it turned out that we still had a bit of travelling to do before reaching our final destination near Castries. St. Lucia is volcanic in origin and the volcanoes lie at the foot of the rainforest which covers the center of the island. The two volcanoes are known locally as the Pitons and you have to get past them to head North towards the resorts. Fortunately, the volcanoes are no longer considered to be dangerous. The main volcano, locally known as Soufriere is commonly referred to as the drive–in volcano, because you can literally drive into the crater. I’ve never found the smell of sulfur to be particularly appealing but perhaps the novelty of sitting in a volcanic mud bath is more your style than it is mine. At least it’s supposedly good for your skin. Once you pass the volcanoes you start your journey heading through the rain forest, towards the North, where most of the resorts are located. In my office, we like to call this the complimentary ½ day island tour. We may joke about it but it actually is a lovely, albeit bumpy ride through the lush vegetation of banana and palm trees. I found myself hoping that the distance and length of travel time would prove to be worth it, both in beauty and seclusion. There was no doubt that this was definitely off the beaten path of common vacations. My first night was spent settling into the all-inclusive resort and getting familiar with the layout, which wasn’t difficult given the lack of size. The resort is one of the smaller, more intimate resorts on the island with a maximum of 300 guests. Part way through my stay and after an active day of touring I chose to take the night off and relax. When I noticed a couple in the whirlpool, drinks in hand, my first thought was to let them enjoy their privacy. I waved hello and quipped that the water looked fine and they graciously invited me in. We chatted for a while and as expected the topic turned towards our home turf. The conversation went something like this: so where are you from? Oh, we’re from New York”. Oh, me too. What part? “We’re sort of upstate in the Hudson Valley region”. Oh, me too. What part? “We’re about 90 minutes away from the city in Dutchess County”. (I bet you can already see where this is headed). Turns out that yes, they were from Hopewell Junction, but the real surprise here was that they had booked their trip through my Travel Agency. What are the odds? They had worked with another agent in the office which is why they weren’t familiar to me. Once we went through the informal introductions, (it is hard to be formal when you’re half naked, sitting in a tub of hot water holding a blue drink!) I realized that I recognized their names. This was definitely one of the odder coincidences I’d experienced. I tried to give them their space after our initial dip together because I assumed that since they chose a couples style resort, they probably wanted to be alone, as a couple. As unique as this chance encounter sounds it wasn’t the only time I’ve been part of that type of accidental meeting. When Vancouver, Canada was chosen as the site for the World’s Fair I decided to visit our neighbors to the North. Every World’s Fair has a theme and Expo ’86 was formally named the 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication. It isn’t exactly halfway around the world but it is at least a good 2,500 miles from New York. That kind of mileage usually serves to reduce the chances of meeting anyone from the East Coast without further decreasing the chances of meeting somebody that you actually know. As you might imagine, the fairgrounds were quite large, they were spread over an area of almost 175 acres. Over 50 different countries chose to participate and over 22 million visitors attended the 5 month long exposition. When the number of visitors was tallied, the final figure estimated that 22 million people had passed through one of a multitude of entry gates. So, I ask you, what are the odds of waiting in a very long line to gain admission only to have someone from Dutchess County NY recognize my travel companion and come over to say “hello”? I don’t know, but it sounds like “new” math might be involved to help answer that question. I’ve heard that there are no coincidences in life. I can’t honestly say that anything unique or extraordinary came out of these chance meetings. Nobody’s destiny was changed, that I know of, and the course of my life remained the same. But it does make me stop and think about those little mysteries, life’s unexplained wonders that make travelling so interesting.

Travel Agents in this Era

Normally, in this column, I like to share my travel adventures with you. It’s my version of sending you a Postcard describing my impressions and experiences, only in long form. However, I was asked a question that I’ve been asked on several ocassions and thought that I would share the response.  I was recently asked if I and my kind are extinct.  11834721_10152964885256581_2836804621064208474_o.jpgBy “my kind” they were referring to Travel Agents. Well, honestly I don’t know. How does extinct feel? I assume the user was referring to the competition from online booking websites that today’s traditional Travel Agent has to take into consideration. However, unless you’re booking directly with an airline, then chances are, you are booking with a Travel Agent. They just happen to be an Online Travel Agency, also known as OTAs, without an office for you to visit and without brochures for you to thumb through.  Travel Agents have evolved and adapted to new channels of retail distribution. Most have web sites, Many are engaged in Social Media. But if you really want to be social you can stop in and meet us face to face. Sit down, have a cup of coffee, maybe even a cookie. Planning travel is fun. Sharing that excitement with someone who enjoys traveling and plans travel professionally adds to the excitement and definitely adds a different dimension to the conversation. Some of us have traditional offices while some of us have decided that we wanted the more personal environment of inviting you into our home offices.  Unlike the average consumer, we in the industry eat, drink and breathe travel on a daily business while the average traveler increases their immersion usually only when preparing for a trip. Our idea of after work fun is meeting with the representative of a large cruise line or tour compnay to hear about their latest ship board products and promotions or new itineraries. I can almost hear you saying “boy, those Travel Agents really know how to party!”

Most Travel Agencies in Dutchess County have annual sales that would make other retail establishments envious. Yes, we talk about it and no, I don’t believe that we are falsely inflating our numbers in an attempt to flex our muscles at each other. We even consult with each other for special recommendations that we can trust and find that our working relationships are improved because of our interaction. It’s not unusual for a local Travel Agency to call me for a suggestion on Costa Rica because I’ve been there and they might not yet have had the chance. They will reciprocate when I want a professional suggestion for a client who plans on visiting a locale that hasn’t yet made it on to my itinerary. Let’s be real, if I simply travelled all the time, I would never be in my office to help others book their trips.

What exactly does a Travel Agent do? They stay current on developing trends and emerging destinations. They go from hotel to hotel in order to compare features and determine which would be best for their clients. Travel Agents also read trade papers and study and regularly attend travel conferences and product seminars on site to be able to say that they’ve been there and done that. Does it cost more to book through a traditional Travel Agent? That’s a question with several answers. I can attest that we are all price conscious. We want our clients to get the best value for their dollar. It is true that sometimes Online Travel Agencies will trade advertising space for a better product rate than available on the open market. However, you also trade selection to a limited inventory in return for that better price. I know because I’ve tried to recreate some of my own journeys on line and in many cases, couldn’t.

How do you find a “good” Travel Agent? Well, you can start by asking your friends for a good recommendation. You can check with organizations such as ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) who have strict guidelines of standards that Agencies must meet in order to be considered a member. Locally, there’s a group called Hudson Valley Travel Professionals of which I am also a member. This is a group of competing Travel Agencies who meet regularly, not to check out the competition, but to discuss emerging trends in travel, business challenges and how to be better at our trade. Along the way, we became friends and sometimes even travel together.  Many of us have taken our special interests and developed them into specialties. My agency, Embassy Travel, specializes in Vacations and Honeymoons. If you’ve read some of my previous columns you know that I, personally, have an affinity for travel that allows viewing animals in their natural habitat.  Speaking of viewing animals in their natural habitat, I invite you into my office or into the offices of any Dutchess County Travel Agent. Come see what we can do to make your next trip even better.  I’m sure that you’ll find that we “dinosaurs” are far from extinct and as a matter of fact, plan on being around into the next era.

Life’s a Beach!

20261_267863766580_4875039_nIf there were a popularity contest for vacations I bet beach vacations would win. If they didn’t take first place they would certainly be in the top 3. There are those who claim that a beach vacation lacks excitement, that they are boring. Perhaps that’s exactly the point. A beach begs you to relax, unwind and maybe even contemplate life for a while. So, boring? I say “bring it on.” Some of my happiest times and some of my saddest times have been spent with my toes in the sand. There are so many beaches out there that there’s bound to be one for every mood, every sport and every personality. Oh, the tedium of laying in the shade, reading a book, listening to the waves roll in and out, perhaps, with a drink in hand. Every now and then I like to challenge myself and my mission, should I choose to accept it (and why wouldn’t I?) will be to visit as many beaches as possible. Considering that 71 percent of the world is covered by ocean, I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I believe I’m up for the challenge.  If you’d like to join my quest, pack a bag, venture forth and consider these options. If you are in the mood for a party and want to socialize, head for an active populated beach. Any of the crowded beaches in New York City or Miami or even Rio de Janeiro would satisfy the urge for people watching, partying and then some.  If you crave the solitude of calming waves and sound of surf when you want to relax or reconnect with nature, you probably should seek a smaller, hard to reach or an out of season beach. I once visited Long Island in early March and took the opportunity to hit the sand, despite the cold weather. I’ve strolled many beaches but this visit remains a favorite, due to its stark winter beauty and the absence of the crowds that usually overwhelm the city shore. I’ve had some clients declare “If you’ve seen one beach, you’ve seen them all” and I definitely disagree.  Perhaps if you only visit East Coast or Caribbean shores you might swim away with that impression. The Caribbean is famous for its beaches with sand that ranges from deep tan to light white, and in the Atlantic, Bermuda is famous for its pink sand. If you venture further away you’ll find that Hawaii is home to black sand beaches and far less common, even olive green sand. You can actually find purple sand in Big Sur California!  How can you possibly call a purple beach boring?  If you prefer your beach with a bit of mystery, perhaps you’d like the thrill of an ancient curse. Hawaiian legend says that the goddess of volcanoes, Pele’, will cast a curse over any Haole (non Hawaiian) that dares to remove volcanic rock or sand from the island. Many chastened tourists have returned their booty to the island stating that misfortune had followed them home and they wished to rid themselves of Pele’s curse. Beaches can take thousands of years to form but the beginnings of most shorelines are not exactly romantic. In some cases, the origins are positively icky. Point in case; your average tan or white sand both originates and gets its color from disintegrating rock, shells and long dead sea creatures. To think that the sand beneath my feet was once alive is enough to give me the heebie jeebies.  Strands of black sand are most commonly associated with Hawaii but they can also be found in Iceland, Alaska and California and are a direct result of volcanic activity. You would probably be surprised at how soft the black sand can be. Other beaches are best enjoyed from the sidelines like the glass beaches of California and North Carolina. These beaches don’t form naturally. They are the result of human lifestyle that allows for glass objects, such as bottles, to enter the water where rocks break them into smaller pieces. Water, sand and erosion will soften the colors, smooth the edges and return them to shore, creating a stunning landscape of beauty. I don’t condone littering but crafty people will seek out beach glass for artistic purposes often fashioning it into jewelry. I prefer the walking beaches, those with long uninterrupted stretches of smooth sand that are ideal for a romantic stroll, an early morning jog or contemplative solitude. The peace and tranquility of a beach can help you center yourself, make tough decisions and sometimes help you heal. My favorite time of day to be on the beach is either early morning or at dusk. There’s something just perfect about the lighting in the morning before the sun gets so high in the sky that it becomes glaring. Sunset is a magnificent time to be on any beach. The change of colors when the sky turns from blue to dusky gray and the sun melts from yellow to orange and sometimes red, are reflected in the clouds creating a tie dye effect. I’m not exactly sure how many different beaches I have visited but a rough tally might be about over 100 and I’m still counting. I would like to double that number and it’s such a great goal I wonder why I didn’t think of it sooner. It’s got a great motivating factor and the best part is that it’s unlikely that I’ll ever achieve the goal. However, as with so many things in life it’s not the end result that matters but the search that keeps us going. To check out some unusual beaches visit: http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/worlds-strangest-beaches/17