April 23, 2021

athens-Travel

For splendid leisure

Glass Half Full | Luxury Travel Advisor

15 min read

The majority of the advisors at Preferred Travel of Naples have received their second COVID vaccinations and are currently working to keep up with an influx of client requests for travel in 2021 and beyond. They’re social distancing in their two new offices. (Last year, the agency closed down its headquarters in Naples, FL and moved to two smaller locations, one in Naples and another five or so miles away in Bonita Springs.) The offices have been open since last May, when Florida allowed businesses to reopen and clients have been welcome to drop in to see their advisors for the last few months.

These clients are the ultra-affluent denizens of Naples, FL as well as seasonal residents who come to the wealthy Florida enclave from all over the world. They don’t hesitate to refer friends and family to Preferred Travel’s advisors, who have a reputation for delivering exceptional services.

Here’s an example of what’s possible at Preferred Travel of Naples:

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In 2019, the team planned a 65th wedding anniversary for a high-end family of 40 in Paris. The anniversary couple invited their family members to celebrate. Families were arriving from different cities, all had different pre- and post-arrangements, including a celebration cruise out of Barcelona. The Preferred team worked together, planning every detail and then actually accompanied the family in Europe.

Olga Placeres, here, took some time to explore Nantucket in November.

“It was like choreographing a complicated dance to make all the arrangements with so many moving parts,” recalls Olga Placeres, the CFO and owner of Preferred Travel of Naples. “The most challenging day was arrival day — Bastille Day in Paris! Fortunately, it all went smoothly.”

Placeres purchased the agency from Wilma Boyd in 2019; Boyd had owned the business for 35 years at that point. Placeres, who had been with the agency as CFO since 1988, had become a partner in 2001 and was mentored by Boyd to take on the reins of the $34 million business.

Placeres then named her daughter, Kristina Gear, managing director and her niece, Jennifer Pierce, operations manager. They were already quite familiar with the business and had traveled with Placeres all over the world as youngsters.

“We were always the coolest kids in the class when we talked about our summer vacations to Peru, Alaska and the many cruises we experienced,” Kristina and Jenni tell Luxury Travel Advisor.

Placeres says the two young women will be well-positioned to take over the business several years from now. “They have been an integral part of the decision-making process during this crisis. The crash course in crisis management, along with my experience surviving 9/11, SARS, the economic downturn and other world events will prove invaluable to them,” she says, noting that Gear and Pierce have already begun incorporating the latest technology into the agency and bring an environment of fresh new perspective and ideas to Preferred Travel.

Case in Point: In January 2020, they convinced Placeres they needed to change to an IP phone system at the agency.

That was a challenging proposition since January is the height of the booking season; however, the change was successfully implemented over a weekend and every advisor was trained on the new system, which really required a change in work flow. Weeks later in March, when it became apparent that COVID would force everyone to leave the office and work from home, the advisors were able to unplug their phones and simply plug them in at their houses.

“It was our first big decision, and, boy, did that save us big time,” says Gear.

Preferred’s executive and marketing teams at their annual team brainstorming session in 2019, themed “Making Waves”.

At the time, says Placeres, she was bowing to her two young executives in gratitude. “Having these two young ladies come in and be in charge during this pandemic and make all the changes that we’ve made has prepared our foundation for our future. It has been an incredible learning experience for them and something that will be incredibly valuable going forth into future,” she adds.

It is indeed a family business but Placeres would argue that the family extends well beyond her daughter and niece to the entire Preferred Travel of Naples team.

For example, because many of Preferred’s advisors are single, Placeres is in some ways their “significant other,” in that she is always on hand to help them out, taking them to important doctor’s visits when they might need another set of ears to get medical feedback. Some even list her as a personal contact should anything happen to them.

Placeres says she learned her management style from her mentor, Wilma Boyd. “She allowed me to come up with the way that we wanted our teams to feel. I had worked for a very large company before I came to small companies and I never wanted our people, our staff, to feel that way. And so our motto is always ‘family first.’ Business can wait, someone else can always take that call, but if you’re worried about your family you’re not fully engaged in work. If you’re worried about something with yourself or your family’s health, you deliver that to people.”

Karen Pickrum, the agency’s director of marketing, who has been there for 10 years, backs this up. “Olga and Wilma have been very good at assessing personalities and bringing them into the organization, and making sure that they would fit into the family. And if they didn’t, then they didn’t end up staying that long. So everybody pretty much gets along and works as a family and wants to see everybody be successful and help each other out.”

Preferred Travel of Naples has 55 advisors; 35 are independent and 20 are employees; they are backed up by eight support staff. Even with the pandemic, 90 percent of the team was kept in place. “This is a commitment that at the very beginning I made to my team. My commitment is to our people. The physical location changed, which we did because we had to tighten our belts. And we may have had to tighten our belts on many other things, but our people will remain in place,” says Placeres, adding that some advisors did retire, while others moved to independent status.

Prior to the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Preferred Travel was set to have its best year ever. As a full-service agency focusing on luxury travel, its 2019 revenue was $37.5 million. That number dropped to $7 million in 2020, but is still higher than many agencies that saw their profits completely dry up.

“While it may take a few years to recover, we have every expectation to succeed,” Placeres tells Luxury Travel Advisor. What’s keeping her optimistic? By the third week of January, clients were calling full force to plan their vacations. Europe FITs have been topping the request list and so have cruises.

“Cruises have been taken away for so long that people just want them back,” says Gear, noting that the agency is being careful to book far enough out in case travel restrictions take awhile to ease up.

“We’re trying to be realistic with the timeframe and not have to rebook,” she says.

Still, with the vaccine rollout in Florida moving out steadily for their older clientele, the agency has a lot to be hopeful for. Preferred Travel’s staff has even gone so far as to get their clients vaccine appointments online.

The 2020 Team Brainstorming Session was held virtually. Kristina and Jenni hand-delivered embroidered masks to the local advisors.

Giving Back

The agency is very much a part of the affluent Naples community and makes it a point to contribute to local causes. Just before the pandemic took a stranglehold on the industry, it was able to host its 13th annual travel show on February 17, 2020 at a local country club. It was their largest show ever, with more than 425 clients and 50 travel partners in attendance. The event, which is low key (think open bar and heavy hors d’oeuvres) and meant to be informational and inspirational (no giveaways or raffles), takes a full year to plan and in 2020, raised $32,500 for The Guadalupe Center, which services the children in a local farming community. Clients paid a tax deductible $75 each to attend and 100 percent of the proceeds went to the center.

Pre-pandemic, Preferred Travel focused on luxury cruising, customized FITs and luxury tours. During the pandemic, management encouraged its advisors to diversify that product knowledge and to become even more proficient in their existing specialties.

Moving to two office locations has helped the advisors to practice social distancing more easily and it’s also more convenient for clients, says Placeres. She and her team travel between the two offices to meet with customers, many who tend to prefer in-person interaction rather than Zoom calls. In fact, the agency still has a receptionist who directs all calls to the appropriate advisors and greets clients when they arrive in person. A 24/7 emergency line is also answered by a live person, in line with consistently providing that human touch.

Virtual meetings, however, have also become the norm; in fact, advisors sometimes meet with several clients at once when planning a group trip; a travel partner might also be invited in to join the conversation.

Many travel partners have shown flexibility during these trying times by adjusting  required deposits, final payment due dates and cancellation policies. “Since everything is unknown and changes daily, it’s hard to keep the original policies,” says Placeres. “This flexibility has gone a long way to encourage clients to book with confidence,” she says. One caveat? “Post-pandemic, we will be taking a hard look at the companies that were not supportive or flexible,” she notes.

Olga, here, at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi. 

Placeres is often the first point of contact with potential clients. “I want to inspire and interest them in travel. I then personally match them to an advisor that I feel will work well with them. The advisor will handle all the details and manage the bookings,” she says, noting that creating and maintaining client relationships are extremely important and a pillar of the agency’s success. “Our clients know that I am always available to assist if issues arise.”

During typical times, advisors are encouraged to travel to learn the difference among the many hotels and cruise lines available. Back home, they share their new intel with colleagues and will often confer with fellow advisors and their clients. “This comes back to the company culture that we foster; we are a family and we are a team that works together,” says Placeres.

Preferred Travel advisors have access to fam trips through their travel partners or through Signature Educational Journeys. Each year, Placeres asks for each advisor’s travel wish list. “I keep a spreadsheet and as fam trips are offered, I look at the list,” she says.

The agency is also keen on bringing new advisors into the business. “We are continually looking at ways to bring younger generations into Preferred Travel,” says Placeres. “During the summer of 2019, we brought on an intern to help in support. She became interested after we went to her high school to talk about working in travel. After her internship, she joined the company full time until she left for college. She has just rejoined us on a continuing part-time basis. We recently added another intern to assist with data entry and reception. We enjoy introducing young adults to the world of travel as a career option.”

Keeping Clients Close

Preferred has been with Signature for 12 years; Placeres says the network feels like an intimate group where it is encouraged to share ideas without fear of competition. “Members feel like they are part of a family where you are supported during the good times and bad,” says Placeres, who likes that Signature’s technology is continually improving and evolving. She also likes the group’s training resources, as well as its Virtual Connections program that ran in the fall. It consisted of two to four webinars a week with Signature staff and travel partners and covered topics ranging from COVID policies to new Signature partners. “They covered any information that was deemed critical to keep everyone informed on the current state of travel. It was so popular and helpful; they are continuing that into 2021,” says Placeres. The agency participates in Signature’s direct mail and email marketing programs that provide outreach to clients. “This way we can stay in touch and remind them we are here when they are ready to travel or have questions on what they can do now,” she notes.

Signature has also been setting up virtual consumer events in which the agency participates. “Clients want to know what is happening in travel and we want to be the ones to tell them,” says Placeres. “These presentations have helped keep travel dreams alive for clients and maintained our visibility and interaction with clients.” 

When it comes to working with suppliers, Preferred Travel supports the Signature partners, working closely with those who suit their clients’ needs.

Kristina and Olga, right, dressed in traditional “salwar kameez” in India. 

“We have especially close relationships with the partners that have a responsive, proactive sales representative to support us,” says Placeres. “The Preferred Travel staff delivers a high level of customer service to their clients, and they expect that in their sales rep in return. When you have a great travel product and a supportive rep, it translates to a winning situation.”

Pre-pandemic, Preferred Travel’s office was always inviting reps in for staff training and updates, and many have become part of the family, she says. Those relationships are cemented at Preferred Travel’s annual Halloween luncheon that includes a costume contest. “We invite our reps to join us for lunch and be impartial judges for the contest. We heard from quite a few how much they missed it this year,” she adds.

Full Circle

Olga Placeres got into the travel business completely by accident. She had always been in the accounting business and took a temporary job at UniGlobe Travel at one point, and here she is today, 34 years later. “I never dreamed I could combine accounting with travel,” she says. “And because I did, I have been able to travel the world and have incredible experiences.”

That she was able to bring her family with her on many of these trips has fueled the future of the agency. Kristina and Jenni are very much the future of Preferred Travel of Naples and Placeres feels that the experience of going through the pandemic will make the agency’s foundation for the future that much stronger.

“We all hoped it would last just a few months and we would all move on,” she says. “As each month and forecast passed, we learned to pivot and reinvent ourselves. Now a year later, we have adapted well and have a solid foundation to be able to withstand the global situation. This will allow for future growth as the world of travel reopens.”

That Placeres is able to combine her love of numbers and travel make it easy for her to face each new day.

“My favorite day is Monday! I am one of those people who love to say, ‘Happy Monday’ and mean it. Every week we have the opportunity for a fresh start. I believe that travel is going to have its own ‘Monday’ very soon and we will all be back to making dreams come true,” she says, adding that the way the Preferred family works together and helps each other through all the daily challenges motivates her. “Like a family, we like spending time together. So many are good friends with each other and like to socialize. It was heartwarming seeing them all checking in with each other [during the pandemic], so no one was left out.”

She is also happy for the future her clients have in front of them. “This unique pause in life has given them time to reflect on what is important to them. They will want to travel in a way they have dreamed about for the last year and look to make it a reality,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

Olga and Kristina visit the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage during their recent trip to Africa.

To the Future!

Olga Placeres, owner of Preferred Travel of Naples, says her daughter and niece are well positioned to take over the business in several years and that they’re already making their mark on the company.

Kristina Placeres Gear is the managing director of Preferred Travel of Naples, Inc. and the daughter of the agency’s owner, Olga Placeres. She grew up traveling the world with her mom and travel was always her passion. While she was still in school she worked as a medical receptionist but after experiencing the high stress levels and few travel opportunities, she quickly realized a travel career was for her.

As managing director of Preferred Travel, Gear’s primary role is to coordinate the agency’s IC team, assist with accounting and represent the Preferred Travel at community events. “We joke that there isn’t a defined job description for the executive team because we do whatever needs to get done,” she says.

The past year has been a crash course in crisis management for Gear and she says she’s been blessed to work alongside her mom, Olga, who has experience in this type of situation. “One thing I have learned is that our advisors, their experience and years of knowledge are most valuable and the hardest to replace. If we can all afford to suffer together for a period of time, then we can all get through it together. At the end of the day, we need the advisors for the agency to be successful and they count on us for their livelihoods. It’s an investment, not an expense,” Gear says.

She’s counting on a bright future for the industry because Preferred Travel’s clients are making plans for the end of 2021 and 2022 and are less concerned about the price tag of a trip and more focused about the safety and level of experience to make up for lost time.

Gear has already traveled the world, but top of mind is the Micato African Safari she took in 2019 with her mom. “We made invaluable memories together and I will forever cherish that experience.” 

Jenni Pierce is the operations manager of Preferred Travel of Naples and Placeres’ niece. Her day-to-day responsibilities change constantly. “I can go from managing our Pelican Bay office, assisting with accounting, problem-solving any issues that arise or answering the phones if need be. We have a great team and we work together to help each other out and pitch in where we can,” she notes.

Kristina Placeres Gear and Jenni Pierce. // Photo by Janda Concepcion Artographer

Pierce says her passion for travel became real “ever since I was really able to understand life. We traveled as a family growing up so there wasn’t really a specific moment when I knew but more of a multitude of memories, trips and the passion for travel that Olga exuded throughout my childhood that made me excited to choose the same path she did.”

Her lesson learned from the pandemic is “how truly blessed we are and have been in this industry. The meaning, ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone’ really came to light in 2020,” says Pierce. “This pandemic has shown us how lucky we have been in the business and in our personal lives. Olga has done a remarkable job teaching us how important our Preferred Travel family is. The pandemic will become part of our history while the lessons we’ve learned will stick with us as a reference guide for the future.”

Pierce sees only great things for the future of luxury travel. “People are eager, excited, yet cautious to get back out there,” she says. “I think clients will take the necessary precautions to travel safely, which will spur a high demand for luxury brands due to the need for private and small group travel which is the key to our COVID recovery.”

She also has an abundance of travel experiences to choose from but the Viking River Cruise she took with her good friend and colleague, Esther Alvarez, from Amsterdam to Basel in 2019 stands out.

“It was my first time sailing on a river cruise and it was more than I expected. The destinations we visited were breathtaking and Viking’s service was par none in my opinion,” says Pierce.

Preferred Travel of Naples, Inc.

Headquarters in Naples, FL and a new location in Bonita Springs FL
Top executives: President/CFO: Olga Placeres; Managing Director: Kristina Gear; Operations Manager: Jennifer Pierce
Number of advisors: 55 advisors, 35 independent and 20 employees; eight support staff
Annual volume of business: 2019: $37.5 million; 2020: $7 million
Affiliations: Signature Travel Network
Advisory board positions: Signature Board of Directors (9 years) (formerly Secretary and currently Vice Chair), Tauck Advisory Board, Lindblad Expeditions Advisory Board, Travel + Leisure Advisory Board, Pelican Bay Founders Fund Board
Website: www.preferrednaples.com

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