CTA Travel: Back to Better

The year 2021 won’t be without challenges for the luxury travel industry, but the executive…

The year 2021 won’t be without challenges for the luxury travel industry, but the executive team at CTA Travel in Cerritos, CA sees a clear path to recovery. “Now that we have all the COVID testing figured out, we as travel advisors have to figure out how we relay all the information to our clients about what having a vaccine will mean,” says Justin Dolan, director of sales for the agency, which brings in between $14 million and $15 million in annual revenue, in a non-COVID environment. 

He’s looking forward to responding to such questions as opposed to those he was answering eight months ago, which were whether clients could cancel their trips and get their money back. “It’s a new challenge to learn about this vaccine but I’m eager for our clients to get it and for myself to get it, and for us all to get back out on the road,” he says.

For her part, Cathie Fryer, president and owner of CTA Travel, is upbeat because she believes that clients post-COVID will want intimate, hosted luxury vacations. That’s exactly the type of travel the agency is already offering through their Wander List program.

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“Consumer trends are leaning toward more exclusive travel and they wish to go with a host. That goes hand in hand with our growth plan,” she says. “Exotic, expedition and small-ship cruising suppliers have all adjusted very well and the trend will definitely be towards this style of travel,” says Fryer. “Our adventure travel partners have adjusted to offer family and small group ‘bubble travel,’ which is a concept that our clients are very interested in,” she adds.

Travel will be back in full force by summer, she believes, and that’s not a moment too soon for the agency’s clients, who tend to come from repeat and referral business. That the agency is located in Los Angeles County, a few blocks away from the Orange County line, also provides a great feeder market.

Cathie Fryer sailing the Douro River from Porto, Portugal to Vega de Terron, Spain on AmaWaterways’ AmaVida.

The agency’s involvement in the community is one reason it’s stayed successful as a brick-and-mortar location, even when the trend is to go home-based. “Having our location has been important and showing the community that we’re here in the town,” says Dolan.

He and Fryer have grown their “little black books” of business in different ways.

“When I look at my strong luxury clientele, I find that they all tend to trace back to about five or six initial advocates that I have who are business leaders,” says Dolan. “I also have a contingency of clients who are professional athletes that came through referrals.” His executive corporate clients typically book their leisure travel through the agency, further fueling the repeat-and-referral engine.

Dolan, who joined the agency when he was 19 and has been there for 23 years, also taps into his social circles and has gotten a lot less shy about doing so. “Many are at the point in their careers where they’re starting to take more luxurious trips and they’re looking for a higher-end experience. They once thought that maybe the type of travel I plan was out of reach. That’s been an exciting market to grow and, certainly, one that we’ll be looking towards as the pandemic comes to a close,” he says. He also has a strong LGBTQ clientele from all over the country and international clients who either live part-time in the U.S. or part-time in Europe or South America. “Having that broad range is really helpful during tough times because one group may not be doing well but hopefully another group is and you’re able to rely on those clients who are still traveling until the others come back,” he says.

Fryer, meanwhile, is very involved in the local Catholic community and has provided travel for years for the many families throughout the school system’s network. She shares that vast amount of business with the agency team.

She’s also finding Millennials are enjoying the concept of booking through a travel advisor. Case in point: Her 32-year-old son has friends who travel on the high-end; she just did a trip to Antarctica for one of them. 

The agency’s policy is for advisors to handwrite a thank you note for every booking they close. One Millennial recently called the agency, excitedly reporting that this was the first time they’d gotten a postcard in their entire life.

“It’s been really fun to see us grow that group of Gen Y travelers and they are relying on us,” says Fryer. “They have money to spend and want to be taken care of. They don’t want to deal with it. We’re lucky to have that business.”

As for those hosted Wander List groups; that’s a concept they launched a few years back that’s been very successful. Three river cruises are on the books for 2021, as are South Africa, Ireland and Iceland. Some of these are carryovers from canceled 2020 trips. Fryer says the agency engaged with its clients throughout the pandemic and was able to move many of them into the future. 

That she or Dolan will be there to take care of things doesn’t hurt, either.

“I do think people are more comfortable booking something when they know we’re there with them,” she says.

Mexico has been a good mainstay for CTA Travel’s clients during the pandemic, particularly for those based in California. Fryer sees Europe at the top of the list when travel comes back for many; for others, it will be the Caribbean. “It’s far enough away and it’s exotic enough but it’s not too far,” she says.

Bhutan is one of Dolan’s lifelong wander list destinations. He is shown here after hiking with private Amankora guides to the legendary Tiger’s Nest.

Dolan agrees that there will be a flood of travelers to Europe once the borders open up. “What I don’t have a prediction on is how that travel is going to look,” he says. “Is it going to be city stays and will people feel comfortable in big cities? Is it going to be small group guided vacations? Will people feel comfortable traveling that way or will it be only private touring? Will people feel comfortable traveling in a vehicle with a guide?” says Dolan, who is looking forward to providing travel options that speak to these new client needs. 

Domestic U.S. travel will also remain strong throughout 2021 and into 2022, he forecasts, as will destinations that lend themselves to social distancing, such as Tahiti and Fiji.

Dolan, in fact, traveled to Tahiti right after it reopened to visitors last year to illustrate to his clients that travel was still possible. “You can’t get much more socially distanced than being in an over-water bungalow in Bora Bora,” he says. “I actually had a number of clients call me after my trip. I had a full run of Tahiti bookings based on my having traveled. I think going forward in 2021 and 2022, Tahiti will continue to do well.”

Qualifying Clients in 2021

The travel advisor’s role has expanded in this new era. Aside from ensuring the right client is matched with the right products, advisors now need to determine the client’s comfort level and mindset when venturing out again.  

“The new challenge for advisors will be to have conversations with our clients about what they would feel comfortable with on a trip and what they would feel uncomfortable with. We need to be sure that they’re really ready for what life is like on the ground,” says Dolan. Questions to ask will be: “Will you be comfortable if housekeeping comes in your room every day? Are you ready for that? If you’re doing outdoor dining at home will you feel comfortable doing outdoor dining on your trip, say, to Arizona?

“I think we have to put a lot of effort into making sure that when destinations are open, when people are inquiring about going, that we ask them the pointed questions to make sure they know that they’re ready to go so that we build a successful trip for them.”

During the pandemic there have been frequent starts and stops with trip planning, for his clients and for himself.

“I’ve done the same with planning my own trips, getting pretty much about ready to go, about ready to book, and then something changes in the news and it becomes, ‘No, we’re going to hold off.’ I think that that will ease as the vaccine becomes available, which we’re really looking forward to because then we can start closing some of the sales that we’ve been working on for so long.”

Fryer agrees that it’s imperative that luxury travelers ask their clients the right questions as they get back out in the world. 

“As Justin said, we’re working really hard to ask those questions and be conscientious and it’s a different qualifying that you’re doing now. You’ve got to adjust, you’ve got to evolve.”

Back to Better

Evolving has always been Fryer’s mantra and when the pandemic hit, she didn’t miss a beat to do just that, in fact she themed the agency’s recovery as “Back to Better.”

Although the team of employees has gone from nine to four (a number that will go back up as business dictates), CTA Travel moved ahead quickly to develop a “Stay Connected … Stay Inspired” program for its clients and its team, which also includes 12 independent contractors. The program was created with the idea that while you can’t control what is happening in the world, you can control 100 percent how you’re going to approach each day.

“We revamped our entire Client Touch & Marketing program to ensure we were on target with all messaging during this pandemic,” says Fryer. “While we want to be conscientious of what is happening in the world today, we want to encourage all to stay inspired.”

New initiatives included a “Monthly Client Touch” for clients affected by the pandemic. E-mails were sent by each travel advisor to create a travel memory album. “This engaged our clients and they look forward to receiving the next travel photo,” says Fryer.

Through a “Stay Inspired Series,” the team partnered with a travel supplier in a virtual gathering to “paint the picture” to keep clients engaged and inspired. Tactics included sharing personal advisor travel experiences and photos; the program helped grow the agency’s high-end business, reports Fryer.

In Durnstein, Austria: Fryer visits the Durnstein Castle, while sailing the Danube River from Budapest, Hungary to Vilshofen, Germany on AmaWaterways’ AmaViola. 

The “ReConnect – ReFresh – ReNew” program had the CTA Travel team make regular phone calls to all of its 2020 clients, then to its 2019 and 2018 clients to say, “We are thinking of you.” 

“This enabled the team to reconnect with all our guests and reminisce about their past travels and talk about the future and the opportunities when they are comfortable and able to travel again,” says Fryer.

CTA Travel also recrafted all of its messaging, including e-mail banners to be conscientious of what is happening with pandemic but to encourage everyone to keep living. “The main theme is that travel is like a book full of many chapters and this is just one chapter. We created several different banners and crafted custom messages. These continue to evolve as the pandemic continues and our industry evolves as well,” Fryer adds.

Other additions to the program included assigning team members a series of specific destinations they needed to be completely current on. Fryer wrote monthly handwritten cards to clients and she and Dolan spent many a morning calling their customers personally to check in. Perhaps the most fun part? Every time a team member successfully reconnected or made a new sale, they rang a bell to celebrate the success.

Signature Connections

CTA Travel has been a member of the Signature Travel Network for more than 27 years; Fryer served as a board member for 18 years and stepped down four years ago when she was planning her daughter’s wedding. She says she’s considering running again in 2021. 

“Michelle Morgan led Signature as a family, and, to this day, that is our greatest strength,” says Fryer, referring to the past leader of Signature who passed away in 2013. “As owners, we willingly share our best practices and truly care about every member. Signature’s core values in reference to technology, marketing and training have been a great reason our business continues to grow. Being a medium-sized business, we would not have the breath of marketing, relationships with our supplier partners and the training if it were not for Signature,” she says, noting that the destination specialist and hotel programs have been a great asset to the agency’s growth in the luxury market as it helps them ensure a high-touch experience for its guests.

On an emotional level, Fryer is even more connected to Signature as she was the fourth recipient of the Michelle Morgan Leadership Award, which was established as a way of honoring Morgan’s memory and work, while recognizing other travel industry professionals “who embody the qualities that made her successful in both her professional and personal life,” according to the program.

“This is an honor that I hold very dear to my heart,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor

A Balanced Relationship

Fryer and Dolan are both self-described “type A” personalities; both are actively engaged managers in selling and working with the CTA Travel team.  

In addition to overseeing travel for local business leaders and professional athletes, Dolan coordinates the agency’s concierge luxury travel business and partners with the team to service clients. He personally supervises the travel planning for corporate executives and CEOs and engages with the agency’s international clientele as well.

Fryer handles the day-to-day management of the agency and coordinates its incentive travel and hosted travel programs. “With this pandemic, I have been working to be sure to partner with a team member for every guest that I am working with,” she says. “I continue to be engaged with our clients and work to bring in my team, as well.”

Dolan walked into CTA Travel in 1997 at the young age of 19, looking for a job that would allow him to travel the world; he’d already taken several international trips and wanted more. Just a few years older than Fryer’s daughter, he immediately impressed his future employer. 

An African specialist, Dolan travels to the region regularly. One of the greatest thrills of a safari is connecting with elephants like these at Singita Sabi Sands.

“I thought, ‘This guy has got it. He’s willing to learn,’” says Fryer. “It’s been a blessing for me; it’s been fun to watch Justin grow and he has challenged me to evolve and I’ve challenged him to evolve. We’re both go-getters. We both play off each other. We balance out and provide checks and balances for each other very well.”

For years, Dolan was one of the youngest members of the travel agency community before the “youth wave” of the past decade kicked in. Early on, he was on the steering committee for ASTA’s Young Professional Society, which helped him forge lifelong relationships. (“We’re not all the young advisors anymore,” he says with a laugh.) He also worked with Signature to develop its Embark campaign for young and new advisors making career changes.

Travel was always in Dolan’s DNA. A family friend owned a travel agency and took him to Europe when he was 13. Dolan was hooked and even subscribed to Travel Agent magazine when he was still in high school. “I remember ordering cruise brochures just so I could look at the ship diagrams and itinerary maps,” he recalls.

He worked his way through various jobs at travel agencies; since securing his position as director of sales at CTA Travel 23 years ago, he’s visited 100 countries (Denmark was the 100th) and he continues to explore international as well as domestic destinations as often as possible. “While many jobs bring financial enrichment, this industry has afforded me a lifetime of travel,” says Dolan.

Fryer was also immersed in the world of travel early on. In college, she worked as a local tour guide in Southern California; within her first year, she was promoted to assistant director of operations, where she coordinated the actual operations of the travel program, from hotel rooms, to ground logistics, to meetings, to sightseeing tours. “I hired and trained the tour guides and I continued to travel with some of our longer summer guided vacations,” she recalls.   

In 1978, she took a leave during her junior year of college to go on the “World Campus Afloat” program and sailed around the world on a student ship.  

“After being away for four months, my love for travel was cemented,” she says.

She moved into the travel agency industry in 1981 and purchased the agency she worked for in 1984. “And here I am today,” she says.

Her mantra throughout all these years is based on the belief that she is a businessperson first and foremost. “We are a business in the industry of travel and we are not a travel agency in business,” she says firmly. Through all the ups and downs of the industry over the years, Fryer has remained proud of her agency, which garners between $14 million and $15 million a year (prior to COVID).

She recalls a major hurdle was evolving after the airlines cut travel agency commissions in 1995, a move that changed the industry forever. 

“It was the beginning of my truly evaluating the business and where I wanted to take my company,” says Fryer. “As a small, independent travel company, it was important to be proactive to ensure the stability and growth of my business.” Bernie Howroyd joined the company as one of her partners at that time; he was also a mentor. Howroyd passed away in 2020. “His guidance assisted with my reorganization plan for our future,” says Fryer.

When Dolan joined CTA Travel two years later, they further evolved the agency’s business model. Travel agents became travel advisors who focused on high-end sales. They re-interviewed their team and of the eight in-house employees, only three made the cut; Fryer and Dolan were two of the three. Together, they grew the team to create the powerhouse CTA Travel is today.

Fryer firmly believes that CTA Travel will land on its feet as the pandemic ebbs. “Today, I see us coming out of this, having renewed how we work and connect with our guests,” she says. “Our personal client touches will be even more important than ever before.”

She has more plans for the future, she says. “We will be fine-tuning and expanding on our CTA Travel hosted journeys and high-touch travel. Within five year’s time, our deluxe and luxury business should be our greatest growth, and we’ll have moved other team members into the luxury market to work alongside Justin.”

Dolan, meanwhile, says he is very optimistic and eager to see what the future holds for the travel advisor industry post-COVID. 

In France: Fryer, shown here in Epernay, tours through the Champagne region.

“There is likely to be historic pent-up demand,” he says, “But how will travel advisors have adapted to this new environment? I know that trends such as authentic experiences, memories over objects, and the ‘social media share culture’ will return. Learning about new people, places and how to bring those two things together is what makes me excited to wake up each morning.”

Fryer says now more than ever the care, concern, careful travel planning, and partnering with clients, from the first call to “begin the journey” will be high on everyone’s list in the new travel landscape. “I have always said we travel advisors are all about the value we bring to our guests’ experiences. We need to ensure that we build on and magnify that value. Luxury travel is where that value is most appreciated.”

She recently became a grandmother for the first time in October, which also makes her excited to wake up in the morning. She firmly believes that living life while you can is of paramount importance. For that reason, she and her team traveled responsibly during the pandemic to prove witness to clients that the world is still waiting for them when they are ready to go back out.

“We want to help them move forward and open those doors and be there to guide them along the way,” she says.

She and Dolan have firm beliefs that are leading them through this challenging era.

“I’m looking forward to thinking back on this time knowing that I and the CTA Travel team did a good job for our clients through a very difficult situation,” says Dolan. “I want to look back and know that we took care of our clients and delivered on our promises when all the odds were stacked against us.”

For Fryer, it’s all about one acronym, and that’s TAP. “Not a beer tap,” she says with a laugh. “I taught my kids this when they were little. When you work as a Team, and you have the right Attitude, and you have Passion for what you do, you’re going to be successful and you’re going to make it through any adverse time. Those three small things will make or break you.”

In Chile, Dolan reaches “The Base of the Towers” in Torres Del Paine National Park, while traveling with Tierra Patagonia.

CTA Travel

Headquarters: Cerritos, CA
Top Executives: Cathie Lentz Fryer, President; Justin Dolan, Director of Sales
Number of advisors: Current with the pandemic: five employees and 12 active ICs 
Annual volume of business: Prior to pandemic – $14 million to $15 million
Affiliations: Signature Travel Network, ASTA Premium Member, CLIA
Advisory board positions: Cathie Fryer: Signature Travel Network Marketing Committee, Past Signature Travel Network Board Member for 18 years; Justin Dolan: Signature Travel Network Hotel Committee, Signature Young Advisors Committee past member, ASTA Young Professionals Committee past member.
Agency website: www.ctatravel.com

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