Outrageous Travel Agent Requests

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So you'd like to fly upside down? No problem



Over The Top

Nancy and Jim Strong, mother and son owners of Strong Travel Services, in Dallas, Texas, said they've been asked to do some unusual things over the years. Once, they arranged for a client to fly upside down in a Royal Air Force jet; for another client, they've routinely ordered only "orange" rental cars. Other requests include a woman who regularly asks for her favorite mineral water to be delivered to the hotel for baths. For someone with extreme germ phobia, they only book cruises on maiden voyages, so the client is the first to use a pristine cabin. One client wanted to travel underneath the polar ice cap in a submarine. The agency was able to arrange it, but the client decided against it when he learned it would take several months. Mrs. Strong said her agency will handle almost all travel-related requests, but "nothing immoral or illegal."

Paul Metselaar, chairman and chief executive of Ovation Travel Group, whose clients include lawyers, investment bankers, corporate managers and members of the entertainment industry, was asked to fly a baby pig to appear as a trial exhibit for an antitrust case in farming. But due to delays, "that 'baby' became a huge sow. We had to cobble together three or four dog carriers to get the pig on the plane," Metselaar said. For another client, the agency arranged to keep a small Mexican airport open late, so a chartered jet could land in time for an evening meeting with the Mexican president. Celebrities, it's no surprise, can be fairly demanding and quirky. One Ovation client will only fly in private planes that bear even numbers on the tail; another requires 45 blueberries and 22 strawberries with his hotel breakfast.

Teenagers Can Have Unusual Demands, Too

What to do with perennially hard-to-please teenagers? Diana M. Hechler, president of D. Tours Travel in Larchmont, New York, said two girls earlier this summer wanted to ride the Trans-Siberian Railroad – on a modest budget – from Beijing, though Mongolia, to St. Petersburg. She found a 21-day trip called the Vodkatrain, using budget hotels along the way. "It was pretty exotic, but very low end," she said. The girls opted to add excursions, but "you could put on your PJs and take them off 10 days later," Hechler said. For another family, she arranged a pop culture tour of Japan, featuring anime, manga, game show tickets, lots of neon blinking lights and a stint trying on Ninja costumes.

Myths and Benefits

One common misconception, travel agents say, is that they cost more. But agents say they can save money, often finding better airfares, especially in business class, and obtain lower hotel rates. They can also arrange extra amenities that have real dollar value, like complimentary breakfasts, spa credits, transfers, and room upgrades (a deluxe room, a room with a view) or guaranteed early check-in. Hechler said today agents "must bring real value to the equation," offering advice, trust and saving time as well as money. Consumers, even savvy travelers, can get overwhelmed by too many choices, especially if they're busy, she said. "I'm a huge time saver. I solve their problems."

Access and Upgrades

"We have a lot of buying power and clout," said Barbara Nichuals, president of Bayside Travel and Gramatan Travel, in Westchester County, New York. She recounted how on Memorial Day weekend, clients had their hearts set on staying at the Parrot Cay, an exclusive hideaway in the Turks and Caicos Islands, but the hotel was almost entirely sold out, and the room category the clients wanted was sold out. "After contacting the hotel's general manager, I was able to convince him to charge the clients for the room they wanted -- and they were later upgraded on the property," she said. "When things are sold out, we get rooms."

Agents can't work magic, of course. Nichuals recalled that once a client requested that Mickey Mouse put her child to bed. "The client was willing to pay whatever was necessary, but Disney felt that if they fulfilled the request for one child, Mickey would never get to bed himself!" she said. The request was declined. Her company even helps clients analyze frequent flier programs. "It's a huge, huge question these days. It is not revenue-producing, but it facilitates a person's travel," she said. Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, based in New York, said, "Today's travel advisors know more than ever before. It's all about access. It's all about relationships." Travel consultants, she said, can often upgrade clients from coach to business, or business to first class more seamlessly than clients on their own, who might have to wake up in the middle of the night -- at least 24 hours before a flight departs -- to request upgrades. Travel agents don't have to do that, Wilson-Buttigieg said. "It's a better use of time. No one wants to wait."

The Marketplace is the Limit

"We are limited more by what's available in the marketplace than by what clients ask," Wilson-Buttigieg said. Her agency is among the few with agents accredited to sell trips to space on Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise. The agency said it's the world's first commercial passenger space liner. It is being tested now, but set to launch in 12 to 18 months. They are taking orders.

Hidden benefits

According to Metselaar, one of the most important reasons to use a travel agent is risk management -- extremely important after 9/11 or the recent earthquake in Haiti. "We know where all of our clients are," he said. And travel agents can sometimes even aid humanitarian causes. Members of the non-profit Butterfly Foundation traveled to Southeast Asia recently to provide free surgery to children with spinal deformities, Nichuals said. But beforehand, she arranged a private sightseeing tour of Angkor Wat. The wife of one of the local guides was suffering from a severe back problem, so the medical team flew her to the hospital for surgery, "through this connection of fate," Nichuals said. The woman, who had never flown before "recovered beautifully," she said.
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