Interview

Interview with Bespoke Travel Inc.’s owner and travel extraordinaire Barb Rowe

In the past I have had the pleasure of working with some truly amazing travel agents. They have more knowledge and talent than I could probably ever hope to have! One that I worked rather closely with, and have gotten to know rather well, and became terrific friends with is Barb Rowe. I cannot say enough good things about her. She is always so bubbly and positive, not to mention she’s like a walking travel encyclopedia! She can tell you about a destination, the history of it, fun facts, among other various talents. It is Barb that I turn to when I have questions about travel, because I trust her advice and her expertise.

bespoke3

As of August Barb has followed her dream and started her own agency in Naples, FL which she has aptly named Bespoke Travel, Inc. Barb specializes in leisure travel, with an emphasis on the luxury market. But if you are in the market for a terrific agent, she has also done business travel as well as basically any other travel you can think of.

I took advantage of Barb’s expertise (and sense of humor) to interview her and get an inside look at the workings of a travel agents thoughts and feelings. If you have any questions that I didn’t list, I know Barb would be more than happy to answer them! You can reach out to her on Facebook or on her website.

1. How long have you been a travel agent?

11 years.

2. How did you get your start as a travel agent?

I had been working part time at our HOA office, spending a day or two per week helping my recently widowed Grandmother with her gardening and shopping. Then one day a homeowner came in for something and we started talking. She and her best friend had 20+ years in the travel business and were opening up their own agency. She asked if I would like to learn the business and the rest is history! They were too busy to take on many new clients and so for the 3 years I was with them and I doubled my income each year. After that we moved to Florida in January 2001. I went into a long standing agency in Naples for just under 2 years. After that I decided to take a break from the travel industry for 11 years. Missing the business, I went back to it January 2011 for a luxury agency in Naples.

3. You have recently started your own agency, Bespoke Travel Inc., why did you decide to go independent?

I had been working 50-60 hours a week and had no life outside of work to speak of. I was beginning to have health issues that I knew were directly related to a very busy office and high stress. However, leisure is my forte and I love booking luxury travel! I met an agent at an event who was an Independent agent and had been for several years. She was joyful and healthy, appeared to be making really good money while living a leisurely life. So the wheels started turning as I looked into this. It took an act of God to finally get me to take the leap of faith but it is going really well! I am determined to give more time to my clients and to handle business my way. I love treating clients as a good friend or family. Some of course, are all business and that is okay but not my personal style. The trips I book most are very long often a month or more and not always in one place. So there are lots of “I”s to dot and “T”s to cross! I wanted to be able to focus on the details without working 14 hours a day.

4. What is behind the name of your agency?

The word “bespoke” is used quite often, mostly in the luxury travel world. It comes from an old word not used much anywhere else but in the world of luxury goods and services. Websters definition: “Custom made” or “dealing in or producing custom made articles.” THAT is exactly what I want to do for my clients. And they do not have to have a huge budget to still have a custom made itinerary.

5. What is your hope/goal for your business?

“We are committed to finding that custom fit vacation to suit your personal needs and desires!”

Whether you desire a relaxing time island hopping on a luxurious ship, an excitement-filled land adventure, or tour the great historical cities of the world; Our goal is to tailor a vacation experience designed especially for you.

Here at Bespoke Travel, Inc. it is our pleasure to share our passion for travel with all who will allow us the privilege. Assisting you in designing family/multi-generation vacations or celebrations, cruises, honeymoons, weekend getaways, golf groups, safari, individual and escorted tours, arranging small group tours, private estate home or villa rentals to any destination you can imagine. We love to share in the excitement as you make your way through your “bucket list.” You will enjoy having one on one customer service with someone who will listen to your dreams and make them a reality!

Our passion for travel, love of people, and attention to detail allows our clients to experience the very best a destination has to offer within their taste and style of the journey. We enjoy planning vacation experiences for our clients, so they feel their time away has gone above and beyond their dreams. And we have the incredible privilege of being a part of this for you!

You DREAM. EXPLORE. DISCOVER. Leave the rest to us!

6. What has been your most memorable trip that you have taken?

Well, our most recent trip for sure. My husband and I spent 3 weeks this summer in Australia and the North Island of New Zealand. There are hardly words to describe the adventure we were on! We saw just about everything that we wanted to see, but then found out there was so much more than we wanted to see and do! It is definitely a destination that deserves more than one trip. Our trip over took extra long due to a strong headwind and the flight was about 19 hours. We kept going after arrival and got to bed about 9 or 10 pm, surprisingly we did not have any jet lag at all! We also had read a tip somewhere that was a lifesaver, a doctor said she wore support hose and was the only one of her group not to suffer from jet lag. So we did the same with success! I hope to have a full synopsis on the trip as it was way too amazing to write about here in detail.

I will say, that I am not one to let grass grow under my feet on a trip. I have taken a few trips here and there that are more about rest and relaxation, but most trips we want to explore! We love it all! I love to find the “not to miss”, special places, and make sure that I note them for the next client who wants to go to that spot.

7. What is the most memorable trip that you have ever planned for a client?

Wow. That is hard, as I have had the privilege of making many amazing dreams a reality!

There was a special occasion trip for a family of 10 plus over the holidays and the Mrs. had very specific ideas. She had wanted an estate home with a private chef, housekeeper, and in the islands. We looked at her first destinations and nothing was really cutting the grade for her. I asked if she would be open to looking at another destination that had several luxury properties that I had visited on vacation the summer before. One in particular was a “best of both worlds” scenario. A private island off Antigua called “Jumby Bay” it has a luxury 5-star villa resort on it managed by Rosewood. They also manage all the private estate homes on the island. They had access to all the resorts fine dining and activities PLUS a private chef and housekeeper. They decided to add a private jet charter for them all to go together. This trip totaled $350,000. This is memorable for a couple of reasons: I was able to sell them the perfect property, even though they did not know about this or have it on their radar. And making special memories for families is such a blessing to be a part of! This adventure had 2 very momentous occasions, over both Christmas/New Years, AND the entire family was together.

Another favorite was a honeymoon for a professional basketball player for 4 nights with a private car and driver to Napa Valley (including special dinners at all the best restaurants in Napa, private bicycle wine tour, and hot air balloon ride) and then on to Bali for a week in an over-water bungalow at the Four Seasons.

There was one couple who spent about 2-3 months away each year in Europe. Sometimes they incorporated a multi-generation trip for 10 days to 2 weeks in there as well! I have planned so many countries for them I can’t list them all now.

A new favorite of mine is Costa Rica so lush and beautiful, the landscapes, seashores, volcanoes, waterfalls, and the birds! Oh, and let’s not forget the great spa properties with geothermal springs! One is more amazing than the next! The people of Costa Rica are some of the best anywhere in the World. All of your guides in C.R. must have attended a 2 year tourism and guide school so your tours are exceptional in Costa Rica. But I think the Aussie and Kiwis rival them!

I had a client that hated to fly but wanted to go to Europe. They live in SW Florida. I arranged a cruise out of Florida to South Hampton with several stops on the way. Then a train from  London and Paris with touring in each, private drivers to meet them at each arrival and departure, and then sail back to NYC from England. They spent a few days in NYC and then took an Amtrak train back to Fort Lauderdale. It was a dream trip and their 40th wedding anniversary and 2 years later they still call me to tell me how much they have enjoyed reliving all the memories I helped them make.

Similarly I have done several other multi-generational journeys to some amazing places: South Africa, Paris with a private river cruise, Antarctica, Peru and Ecuador to see the Galapagos, Machu Picchu, Peruvian Amazon, an escorted Tauck tour to Cowboy Country, the list goes on and on. None of these trips were cookie cutter, but these are the types of trips that separate the good travel agents from the great travel agents! All were specifically designed for these families down to the smallest of details.

8. What lessons have you learned the hard way when traveling?

Planning ahead is best with a little leisure time to add something or switch something where possible. It is so much more enjoyable to have a private driver or small group tour guide picking you up at the airport and getting you settled into the city and your hotel. Rather than get into a strange place and wonder how am I going to find a cab will they rip me off or get me to my hotel. I find when we don’t plan ahead time is lost and we are don’t get to see as much than if we plan ahead. Plus often you are disappointment if you wait till you are in a destination and it is booked solid and has been for months.

9. What is the most exotic food you have ever eaten, and how was it/would you eat it again?

I am not too risky when it comes to foods. But I guess it would have to be Kangaroo sliders on one of our favorite tours in Sydney. Oh, and in New Zealand we tried Whitebait which were truly like a tiny bait fish and a favorite of Kiwis. They have to be done just right and I understand that commonly they are made into fritters. We did not have them the traditional way but did order them for appetizers in two places one which was awesome in Wellington called “WhiteBait.” The other was like eating overcooked clams and a huge plate of them… If that had been my first taste it would have been my last! Kudos to “WhiteBait” it was an all around best for us for an independent dining experience on our trip. The food overall in New Zealand and Australia was outstanding even at McDonalds! No mystery meat here at McDs it is more like a pastry cafe and a Starbucks! Both countries like eggs and beets on their burgers but they make them traditionally as well. Eggs are so fresh and from well fed hens, they are bright orange yokes! Food never tasted so good and fresh! We visited Byron Bay Australia, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Kangagroo Island. In New Zealand we self drove between places but let someone else do the tour driving except in Rotorua, we visited; Auckland, a stop at the Glowworm caves, Rotorua, Hawkes Bay (The Lodge at Cape Kidnappers), and Wellington. The people are lovely in both countries!

whitebait

Whitebait. Photo courtesy eatingcoventgarden.wordpress.com

10. What is next on your bucket list (or your dream trip) and why?

The world has so much to offer and we have places we want to go back to, to see what we missed. But the top one in the running is Vietnam. We have never been to any of the Asian countries and we have heard such great things about it from others we have sent. And we met a young lady on one of our tours that was living there from another country. She could not say enough good things about it and told us all the places not to miss on the ride back from the Phillip Island tour we took from Melbourne. We had talked about it being our next big trip and then she sealed the deal! We want to do an escorted land/cruise tour with AmaWaterways or Uniworld.

vietnam-collage

Travel in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of http://www.mattwhittingham.com

11. What destination is really “hot” right now? 

It is hard to pick just one! Things are ever evolving, and as far as international destinations go frankly travel is still up in Europe despite terrorist issues. Top destinations in Europe are: Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Dalmatian Coast (Croatia), English countrysides, French wine country, Ireland, and Scotland.

River cruises are quite in high demand selling out 18 months in advance quite often. Iceland is another up and coming destination and a great stop over on the way to Europe with Icelandair.

Many South American countries are great this year, Galapagos, Machu Picchu, Peruvian Amazon, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Then don’t forget the African hot spots; South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya.

As for U.S. destinations, this year is the 100th birthday of the National Parks so make a point to go visit a new one or more! Hawaii is always wildly popular and the Big Island is producing some once in a lifetime opportunities. Like visiting Volcano National Park and tracking the making of new land with fresh hot lava flowing into the sea. This island needs about 7-10 days to do it justice. You can do the highlights in about 5 nights.

California is a beautiful state to visit from one end to the other, inland mountains to the seashores. Home to Yosemite National Park, and the lesser known little sister Hetch Hetchy which is threatened by the Corp of Engineers to break the dam and flood this amazing sight. The amazing redwood forests, Monterey Bay, Carmel and Big Sur, San Francisco, Wine Country, Coastal State Reserves all along Highway 1. Two favorites of mine are Point Lobos in Carmel area and Point Reyes just North of San Francisco. There are so many I have not seen yet.

12. Why do you think travel is important? 

I think personally it broadens horizons, literally, and figuratively. Relaxation, discovering new things, people, and places. And this fave quote we have used on our website sums it up well. By Author Pat Conroy,

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”

13. What advice would you give to someone who has never traveled before? 

Plan ahead for the best experience. Using a travel agent is your best decision. You are saving time, money, and will maximize your experience for doing so. We have tons of experience between our own and all the travel partners we have across the world to make your dreams a reality!

The world is your oyster! The places, faces, foods, history, landscapes, adventures are what it is all about. They are all awaiting you whether in a new state, city, or country! It has been said that, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”  -Anonymous.

This makes it all worthwhile.

A big thank you to Barb for taking time out of her very busy life to answer some questions for a friend! I know I appreciate it, and I hope my readers enjoyed it. As always comments and questions are encouraged, either here or on Facebook. Until next time fellow seekers, maluhia hele (safe travels)!

Categories: Adventure, Becoming a Travel Agent, Career, Interview, Learning, Naples, Tips, Travel, Tricks | Leave a comment

Interview with a “Regular Joe” About Asia

For a lot of people, myself included, Asia is kind of formidable when it comes to travelling there. Going to the beach, a cruise, these are all fairly easy choices. Asia, China, Japan, all seem so complex! I personally don’t speak or read anything other than English. And I am pretty adventurous in what I will try in regards to food, but they really know how to push the limits! For some, this is why they choose the go to Asia, for the diversity and the challenge. But for the people I know, this is why they wouldn’t dream of going there. I think this could be a mistake. It is my belief that differences do not make things good, bad, or “weird”,  they are just not what we are accustomed to. But this friends is WHY we travel in the first place! If we didn’t want to get out in the world, then we would just stay at home perpetually. So to help ease some of this anxiety, I have asked a fellow coworker of mine for a personal interview via email. He has asked to go by the name Ned, just for personal comfort and in case someone from his previous employer should happen to recognize him. He is a “regular Joe” like you or I, who has been there and experienced Asia firsthand. I will quote his words for his responses to my questions, so that you may all get a feel for who Ned is and why I asked him for this interview.

I started the interview off with Ned’s age and hometown.

Ned- ” I am a super old 30. I am from our lovely town of Springfield.”

“Places you have traveled and how long at each?”

Ned- “Colima, Mexico – 3 different trips, each 1 week
Hawaii – about 12 days there
China – 3 years total, spent most of my time traveling throughout the southern part, also made trips to the major tourist cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Hong Kong, Lijiang, Kunming, Guilin to name a few) but I lived in a “small” city in the south
Thailand – 3 weeks
Vietnam – 2 weeks
Russia – 2 weeks
France, England, Wales, Ireland – it was a month total for all, the exact dates I don’t remember all that well.”

Map of China

Map of China

So from this information, I could gather that Ned has a good eye for travel. But I really wanted to zoom in on his extensive time in Asia. So I continued with “What kind of travel did you do when you were in Asia?”

Ned- “I traveled a LOT for work, and I also traveled on holidays and also traveled all around the country to be the loud American tourist.”

“Can you tell about the work you did there, you don’t have to mention the company or anything that could be linked to them. But maybe some specifics like: were you paid by the company, if so in US currency or local currency? Was it ever dangerous? Did you come across many Americans that were also there for work, if so what was a common occupation for Americans in Asia?”

Ned- “As for my actual job, let’s just say I was quite unofficial in most everything I did. In this unofficial capacity I did a lot of village mapping. My job was to travel all around and find villages, ask them questions about their village like how many people were there, what kind of religions they had, quality of life questions, things like that. I guess you could say I was part of a census team trying to gather information to see what kind of projects would most benefit the village (farming education, water sanitation, livestock raising education, etc.). At that point my co-workers and I were in the very beginning stages of work, and I personally was laying a foundation for any who would come after me. My preferred mode of transportation for this was motorcycle. It was cheap, easy, convenient, and quite necessary at times as some of the mountain road couldn’t support anything wider than a motorcycle. We would also rent out vans (particularly a type called a 面包车 or “bread van” because it is shaped like a loaf of bread) if we had a group to tote around. If we were going on long trips we would take public buses, which are also incredibly cheap but not as convenient as the motorcycle. Was it ever dangerous? Depends on your definition. Likely the answer is yes, it was incredibly dangerous, considering the manner in which rural Chinese people drive, but we never had any incidents, so perhaps there was a method to their madness that went unseen by foreign eyes.

I also worked as an English teacher for a time. This is likely the occupation most often held by foreigners in China. If you are a native English speaker, most schools won’t require any kind of formal education. The teaching jobs will almost always pay in Chinese money (called yuan or sometimes RMB).”

“And what would you say are some common misconceptions about travelling throughout Asia?”

Ned- “I suppose a rather common assumption is that English can get you anywhere. This is not so much true. Larger cities do traditionally have a larger percentage of English speakers (Hong Kong probably has 95% English speakers), but one should remember it’s usually only the rather highly educated that can speak other languages. Taxi drivers traditionally do not meet this criteria. However, hotel desk staff almost always speak some English, so one may find it useful to plan your day before hand and get hotel staff to write down locations you want to go. That way, when you get into the cab, you can point to the writing and the cab driver hopefully will be able to read (though some can’t) and know the place (this also happens on occasion). Airport staff are all adequately trained in English so language barriers are never a problem there. Train stations are hit and miss; sometimes they speak English, sometimes not.”

“Can you tell us what some of your favorite/least favorite differences were about Asia in comparison to the US?”

Ned- “Before getting into cultural differences, I always like to preface my comments with the statement that different cultures are just that, different. Different doesn’t mean bad, nor does it necessarily mean good, just different. Least and favorite things come down simply to preference. With that said, differences abound between China and America, most of which are more humorous than anything else.

For one, like most of Asia and the Middle East, lines do not exist. So when at the train station if you see a mass of people gathered around a booth like a bunch of 5 year old children playing soccer, just realize you will have to be assertive and kind of push your way through the crowd in order to get anywhere.

Haggling

Haggling.

When shopping, you MUST haggle, unless you want to pay twice what something is worth. Almost always when they see a foreigner they will start the bidding, so to speak, at around double the price. Hold firm at your lower price and don’t be afraid to use the walk away tactic to get them to come down in price.

Tipping is a very western notion, one that has not yet made it to China. Some of the larger cities might be more accustomed to it, but if you travel to a rural area and try to tip the bell boy, they won’t know what you are doing and will be quite uncomfortable as they don’t know why you are trying to give them money. Same thing applies to restaurants. Exact amounts only when paying the bill, anything more they will just return to you assuming you have overpaid.

Speaking of giving things, in most Asian cultures I know, if you want to give someone a gift, you will have to offer it several times in order to actually give it. It is customary to refuse a gift twice before accepting it, so you must be persistent when trying to give a gift, and you should also remember to refuse something twice before accepting it.

Now, China is not known for being clean (and is likely the most polluted country in existence, perhaps rivaled only by India). People will spit, litter, and children are allowed to urinate and defecate on the sidewalks (so watch you step). This one takes a little getting to.

However, to offset that bit of unpleasantness, Chinese people are some of the warmest and kindest people I have ever met. Foreigners are treated like rock stars. People will CONSTANTLY try to take pictures of you, with you, and you may even get a request for an autograph or two. You will receive continuous greetings of “hello!” from school children eager to use the one word in English they know. And the older you are, the better. A gray head of hair will get you instant VIP status anywhere you go. If you are traveling in the villages you will have numerous requests to join someone for a meal. As far as I know it is not rude to accept this offer, but do be aware that if they are entertaining a guest they will pull out all the stops and try and spoil you, which might be very costly to them, so use discretion on this.

Perhaps my least favorite thing about China is the noise. I’m a personal fan of peace and quiet, so the noise pollution of Asia in general was always a struggle for me. Horns on cars are not offensive, merely a way of communicating one of a hundred different messages, and every retail store lining the street will have the music cracked to 11 trying to draw in customers. Most hotel windows do a decent job of filtering out the sound, but on the street it can be rough if noise bothers you.

“San Zhi Er” aka Three Screams Mice

“San Zhi Er” aka Three Screams Mice

But any negative aspect of the culture pales in comparison to perhaps the absolute best quality China has to offer: food. Chinese food, the real kind, is beyond spectacular if you know what to order. They have strange dishes that are tailored to a more unique crowd (I’m looking at you, blood tofu), and if someone offers you “three scream mice” you might want to politely excuse yourself from the table, but for the most part, the food is beyond comparison. For the first two decades of my life I hated to eat vegetables, and then I met authentic Chinese cuisine. The Chinese can seemingly prepare any vegetable in a way that will make it so very desirable you will ask for seconds and thirds. And for my fellow carnivores, the meat dishes are sublime. You will have the urge to turn your nose up to “fish scent pork.” Resist that urge (seriously, it’s quite good). For all of their culinary prowess, the Chinese have yet to master the sweets. Desserts are something best left to McDonald’s or KFC sundaes, or Oreos from the grocery store.”

Squatty Potty

Squatty Potty

For my final question with Ned I wanted to discuss something rather humorous, but necessary. “Something I have personally watched on a travel show through China was that while there were most modern amenities, in some places toilets were merely holes in the ground with no toilet paper. Is this fairly common throughout Asia or only in poorer locations? And how did you handle these kinds of situations?”

Ned- “The toilet topic always comes up. First, like all things, the quality of the “facilities” depended on where you went. If you are in Beijing, you will likely be able to find the Western style toilets you are used to if you really want to. But most Asians have what we affectionately call a “squatty potty.” These are not so much holes in the ground as toilets you stand on. Most often they are just like our porcelain toilets, only someone decided to put them directly in the ground instead of elevated a few feet in the air like we are used to in the West. However, if you travel out of the cities and into the villages, it’s a completely different story. Consider rural China much like early 20th century America. People get around on bicycle, use ox to plow fields, and have the Asian equivalent of outhouses to do their “business.” These basically are holes in the ground, but hey, whatever works.

And the toilet paper! I totally forgot about that. Overlying rule for all of China: always carry some form of “tissue” for doing what the Chinese call the “big job.” You will NEVER find a bathroom that supplies TP. I have no idea why, but this is true everywhere. In the stores you will come across these little packets of paper that look like 10 packs of napkins…well, they’re not napkins. They are for when you are out in public and nature calls. This is just what everyone does. Always, ALWAYS have paper with you, as the sudden change in diet will make these callings of nature quite frequent (there are so many good poop stories to share, and so little time.)”

This concluded my interview with Ned, who I want to personally thank for taking the time to help enlighten us with his experiences. I know I learned a lot from him and about Asia! I hope this shed some of the anxiety about Asian travel, so that no corner of this Earth goes untouched by your wandering feet my fellow travelers! As always, if you have any questions or comments, you are encouraged to leave them for either myself or for Ned. 这是更好地出行万英里比读万卷书. (It is better to travel ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books.)–Chinese Proverb.

Categories: Activities, Adventure, Asia, China, Haggling, Interview, Learning, Travel, vacation | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.