When it comes to travel, few agents know more than Michael Holtz, founder and CEO of luxury travel agency SmartFlyer. A 20+ year veteran of the travel business, Michael has seen– and done– most every “bucket list” trip imaginable. So we decided to pick his brain about everything from the newest trends in luxury to the reason why first class really is the best way to travel. See our Pursuitist exclusive Q&A, below.
Many people think that with the internet, travel agents are no longer needed. But in fact, it seems like travel agent use, particularly among millennials, is on the rise. Why is that?
People think they can buy anything online, but the fact of the matter is that they can’t. If someone was sick 20 years ago, they went to the doctor – now they go to Web MD. But at the end of the day, people want professionals. You can file your taxes online, but people still use accountants. Having a travel agent, a real estate broker — it’s all about a personal experience.
The agent is the X Factor. The upgrades, the perks, the free breakfast — you can potentially get that with a credit card or with loyalty, but we’re curating the whole experience for them. We have 140 agents within SmartFlyer with different specialties. When a client wanted to do a big trip to Iceland, we referred them to someone who had just been on a similar trip. You can’t find that online.
How should people go about selecting an agent?
The client has to decide what travel resource is right for them. We have a great travel website, a great social media presence. For us, it’s always about Instagram. We have one person that joined our company who has over one million Instagram followers!
But this business is about relationships – at SmartFlyer, we have many hoteliers that are our friends. Think of it like this: everyone likes Seatguru. But there’s no similar website for hotel rooms. We not only know the hotel, we know the rooms. We’re the room guru, helping our clients not only get the best deals, but get the best room … or at least put them at the top of the upgrade list.
When selecting an agent, however, it’s really about what people want. If people want something that’s cutiing edge, we can do this. We can do traditional too.
What questions do you ask a new client? Can you help everyone?
We begin with the basics – Have you looked online? What do you have in mind? If the first thing they say is the Radisson in Aruba at $199 a night, we know that they might be looking more at price than at experience. At the end of the day, we can handle that, but we can’t do anything special. We can help you with the Ritz-Carlton, the Aman, the Four Seasons. When you’re booking luxury, that’s where our relationships really come into play.
Of course, we offer more than just the booking. We know our destinations inside and out. We had a client call earlier in the week that just wanted India … in August … during monsoon season. We tried to steer them elsewhere, for obvious reason. But it’s really about what property is compatible for the client. Some are corporate executives and they refuse to go to places without amazing WiFi or cell signal. We may not send them to Bhutan, but we’ll find a similar property if that’s the experience they want, say, Aman in China instead.
What are your most requested destinations?
Africa has been very popular this year. There’s very good air service here – nonstop from NYC and Atlanta. You can also get great connections via the middle east with the carriers like Ethiad, Qatar and Emirates. Emirates has a nonstop from Orlando to Dubai. That’s a big win for travelers!
We know SmartFlyer is all about a first class experience. Now tell me, is going “first class” really attainable only for the 1%?
First, a lot of people don’t realize, sometimes the fare to go business or first class and get a lie flat seat isn’t much more than a coach ticket. You can do London over Thanksgiving and Christmas for as low as $1,500 in Business Class. Why? Those airlines offer a lot of flights even over peak periods. SmartFlyer is always tracking airfares, we can help leisure travelers who want a deal but not sure when they want to go.
For example, Delta is now selling advance purchase fares as low as $50 above coach fares in certain markets. They get advance boarding, expedited screening, free checked bags. The value of these perks alone makes the upgrade worth it.
But it’s not just about the seat. If you’re in business, you never know who you’re going to rub elbows with. It’s just one other potential country club where you can meet a contact for a lifetime. Not to mention, you get treated like a superstar. You get a beverage before you leave. Also, everyone loves points and miles. Most airlines give a 50% bonus in the front cabin. It all goes to the bottom line towards your next free trip.