Aimee Leon, founder of Avant-Garde Travel in San Diego // © 2018 Virtuoso
Feature image (above): When it comes to luxury travel, clients are increasingly seeking human connection through exclusive, unique and local experiences. // © 2018 Getty Images
If you’re looking for expertise on the travel agent business — and travel in general — Aimee Leon is the person you want showing you the ropes. She has 30 countries under her belt, along with more than 14 years in the travel industry, where she has worked with top cruise lines, tour operators and luxury hotels in positions ranging from customer service, office management and marketing to IC recruitment, agent training and handling VIP leisure referrals.
Of course, Leon is too savvy to ever stop learning — especially in a dynamic business such as travel. In fact, it’s why she started her own agency, San Diego-based Avant-Garde Travel, a boutique luxury travel company and member of Virtuoso that specializes in group travel, custom vacation planning, escorted tours, river and ocean cruising and luxury hotels.
Here, we pick her brain on the latest luxury trends and ask her to divulge how she stays avant-garde in an ever-changing industry.
Tell me a little about your agency’s philosophy and why you started your own company.
Avant-Garde Travel is a collective of advisors who each have a different niche and book of business but work together and collaborate as needed based on individual experience levels. We have seasoned agents who have been advisors for more than 30 years, as well as those who are new to the industry who are learning and being mentored.
Before starting Avant-Garde Travel, I worked at a small agency that, in 10 years, grew into a large one. The direction of the company quickly changed from valuing the quality of our service, product and relationships to being purely numbers-focused. When I looked at other opportunities in my area, there were no agencies I felt had a place for me to do what I wanted — and they say if you can’t find the perfect job, create one. I wanted to create an environment where agents feel supported and welcome no matter where they are in their business stage.
What are some trends in luxury travel that you’re seeing?
Clients are looking for a unique experience, and they’re also looking for human connection — they not only want to visit a country; they also want to meet the locals and have a real conversation.
Experiential luxury is still a growing market. Luxury clients care less about things and more about experiences. Today, it isn’t just about how many stars a property is rated; it’s about involvement, engagement and experiencing a place and its history, people and culture.
Luxury clients are learning from digital channels, and they’ll ask about things they saw someone post. We as agents need to keep up with global luxury trends and tastes so we can help sort through all the information out there and be their trusted advisor on what’s best for them.
What is one of the most luxurious travel experiences you’ve ever booked for a client?
The most luxurious trip I have ever booked so far was a Four Seasons around-the-world adventure via private jet. And right now, I’m working with a client who is retiring this year and wants to spend the first three years of his retirement cruising extensively around each continent, with pre- and post-extensions to see all his bucket-list destinations.
How do you and your agency stay relevant in an always-changing industry?
You must be open and willing to change and not get stuck in a routine of how things “used to be done.” It’s not just the luxury segment that is ever-changing — the world is, too — so you need to be reading industry publications to be informed on trends; really listen to your clients’ requests; and constantly communicate with your fellow advisors about the type of trips they are booking, what vendors they use that deliver great service and what isn’t a great product.
How does social media factor into how you run your business?
Even though I am not a social media person in my personal life, if I want to be relevant, I have to participate. A new client or referral is going to Google you and see if you are on Facebook or Instagram. It adds validity to who you are and what you do — especially if you have clients who are engaging with you, responding to posts and leaving you reviews. Some of our younger agents who are new to the business get most of their clients from their Facebook or Instagram pages, so it’s a proven source of great referrals if used properly.
What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve run into since becoming a travel professional?
Everyone thinks they can do my job. Just because you can look up hotels on TripAdvisor or use Google Flights doesn’t mean you can craft and execute a perfectly planned multicountry itinerary that hits a client’s every wish and desire.
To know all the intricate details about a destination or product — and which partners to work with, all over the world, for different types of clients and group sizes — is an art, and something I’m still learning every day.
Additionally, this is a very hard industry to work your way up in and earn respect from your peers. I am surrounded by industry veterans who have been everywhere in the world and developed amazing businesses, so it’s hard to not always feel like a newbie, even after 14 years.