THIS TRAVEL AGENCY IS READY FOR TAKEOFF
Photographs by Warren Chang
SAY “TRAVEL AGENT” AND PEOPLE OF A CERTAIN AGE RECALL storefronts populating the busiest streets. Sun-bleached posters in the windows beckoned passersby inside to explore such exotic locales as Miami Beach with all bikini-clad beauties sipping umbrella drinks.
Inside one of these storefronts, you’d have likely found a Xerox machine the size of a Car2Go, a water cooler and a fax machine or two. Agents’ desks would’ve been covered with essential tools of the trade: calendars and brochures depicting Mayan ruins of the Mexican Riviera or Australian koalas and kangaroos, three-ring binders filled with airline and cruise ship schedules, and, most important, a multi-line telephone replete with a cushion on the handset allowing the multitasking agent to work the phones while typing reservations into a giant green-screened computer.
Enter the miracle of the interwebs and everything changed.
Sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz and Priceline arrived on the scene and offered those looking for vacation plans an international buffet of do-it-yourself options promising the best deals on the most exciting destinations. Best of all, you could research, compare prices and book a trip from the comfort of your own home, 24/7, all by yourself. Did this sea change in a consumer-focused industry render travel agencies unnecessary or, even worse, extinct?
“Oh no, definitely not,” says Keith Waldon, founder of Austin’s Departure Lounge, a decidedly modern upscale travel agency prominently located at the corner of West 5th and Guadalupe Streets. “But when the business changed, most just moved to the 34th floor of some bland office building so no one knew they still existed.”
The exact opposite is true with Waldon’s street level coffee-shop-cum-wine-bar travel boutique. Here, in a lounge setting instead of an office, yesteryear’s water cooler has been replaced by an Italian espresso machine and a bar serving wines from around the world. Large touch-screens adorn the walls and continually display inspiring images for every type of traveler, from adventure-seekers to spa enthusiasts.
In the sunlit open area, regulars and newcomers alike stop in for a morning latte, browsing travel magazines; in the evening they attend destination-themed events where conversations with like-minded globetrotters (and those in the making) are encouraged over wine and appetizers. A meeting room and two cozy booths tucked behind Moorish arches offer private spaces where clients can visit by appointment with a travel advisor.
Waldon began his hospitality career while a student at Southern Methodist University, talking his way into an internship with Dallas’ famed Rosewood Hotels, where he ultimately worked for 16 years. “I majored in public relations and statistics, so I love using both sides of my brain; it’s come in handy in this business. People talk about how innovative our concept is, but what you don’t see behind the curtain is just as innovative as what’s in front,” Waldon says.
Because it can be difficult for many people to describe what they really want in travel, Waldon created a proprietary tool to not only hone in on what a client is looking for, but also discover what their travel personality is (their “travel DNA”) as well as the level of compatibility among people traveling together.
“It’s a fairly simple visual quiz but it actually reveals serious data we use in initially matching the client with the right advisor and, later, in designing their experience,” Waldon says. “The client has a vision but may not be able to articulate it—it’s our job to understand that vision and then plan a trip that brings it to life. There’s a lot of psychology involved; trust and successful relationships are key to every aspect of what we do.”
As to who’s traveling and how his unusual concept has attracted untapped potential, Waldon explains it this way: “The older, luxury travelers never stopped using advisors and millennials love working with experts because they value knowledge. Both groups see what travel professionals provide at no extra charge—we’re paid commissions by our partners with whom we have deep, long-standing relationships.” And those relationships, he adds, get clients the best of coveted perks, upgrades and special requests.
Waldon notes that baby boomers, in contrast to other travelers, generally think they can get the best deals and most satisfying experiences by doing everything themselves. That’s rarely the case, he says, so they often ask for professional help only after learning what their kids or parents got without paying extra.
“Regardless of a traveler’s age, a piece was still missing,” Waldon says. “That Main Street presence does matter.” Travel agencies, he decided, needed to evolve in order to reclaim their visible place in people’s everyday routines. “When they see you, they’re reminded that you provide a valuable service, like so many other professionals they work with on a regular basis.”
With Departure Lounge, the evolution of a business some thought was on its way out has clearly arrived. Look for locations in Westlake and the Austin airport later this summer, and franchises to follow in other U.S. cities.
Read more from the Travel Issue | May 2017