On a normal day, ARTA travel agents stationed in their Plano headquarters have their heads in the clouds. Every agent is busy. Posters for Paris and Rome paper the walls. Every desk is layered with brochures and phones ring off the hook. One agent coordinates a group trip of 100 in the Bahamas for the week. Another is doing background checks for an army of charter buses so that a local football team can get to Houston for an away game.
In a world where Kayak and Expedia have changed the way the average person shops for flights and hotels for spring break, common perception is that travel agents have got the way of dial-up and corded phones. But it’s 2018 and ARTA Travel is enjoying its most successful years in business. We met with COO Steve McSwain to find out why travel agencies are actually more necessary than ever before.
Tell me about ARTA Travel.
Steve: My mother in law started it in 1980. Back then, it was just her, a telephone and a big book, a directory of flights. In those days travel agents were your best option for shopping travel. Now, though, it’s a value proposition. If I can save you time and money, you’ll pay me to do it. For specialized needs, you need a consultant.
Today, we do corporate, leisure and group travel. We’re also a certified woman-owned business.
The CEO is your wife, Tammy McSwain?
Yes, she’s the majority shareholder. She’s CEO, I’m COO.
Tell me about the three branches of travel ARTA does.
Corporate is huge. You have 100 salespeople who have to travel for international meetings and trade shows–you don’t tell them to shop on Expedia and just get the best prices they can find. You don’t know if they’ll actually get the best deal. You can’t negotiate discounts.
Instead you call ARTA Travel to do it for you?
Exactly. If you get sued, you could defend yourself, but you’re probably going to hire a lawyer because it’s their profession. That’s similar to what we do.
Typically we work with people who have expensive or complicated needs. Let’s say we have a client based in Tel Aviv. They have a salesperson going through Southeast Asia with a 12-leg itinerary on a few different flag carriers that require two different VISAs and they may need car service at every airport. You can’t do all that yourself. We have agents, who all they do every day is international travel just like that.
If you’re going Dallas to Houston on Southwest you don’t need us. But when it’s expensive or complicated, you need us.
And leisure travel?
Steve: We deal with luxury leisure primarily. Usually trips for multiple people, a multi-generational family trip, grandkids to grandparents. We arrange it all, door to door. You’re picked up from your home, flown first class to private villas on the beach with butler service for a week. If someone is going to spend that much on vacation, they won’t want to arrange it all themselves. The risk is too high.
What about group travel?
Steve: These are usually incentive programs for employees, usually 100 or more passengers. Two weeks ago, we had four of these group trips to oversee in one week. We do logo developments, specialty gift items, a hospitality desk at the hotel during the trip for special excursions–we take care of all those details.
We know where the hotspots are and who has clean facilities and who can do the golf tournament and spa arrangements. We seldom lose a group client. We’re a proven commodity. Some of these clients we’ve had for 20 years.
We speak three different languages: party, family and business.
It always cracks me up when people say they didn’t know there were travel agents around anymore. As people want to go to more obscure places, our specialty becomes more necessary. If you want to go to Machu Picchu, you want to talk to Kara. You don’t just want to google “travel to Peru.” Travel can also be dangerous. There are places in Belfast, Ireland I’d never go again.
What are some up-and-coming destinations?
Iceland. It’s beautiful and it’s is only about three hours further than Boston.
Of everywhere you’ve gone, what’s your favorite?
Marlon Brando owned an island. He was really weird. He bought an island in Tahiti in the ‘60s called Tetiaroa and he envisioned a Bohemian resort there. He and a developer cobbled together a plan for opening a resort. It’s 35 buildings that are either one, two or three bedroom and started construction on it. Marlon Brando died but the estate continued it. It opened two years ago. It’s called The Brando. It’s on a private island. The staff to guest ratio is four-to-one. If you’re there as a couple, there are eight people looking after you. My wife and I were invited so we’d tell people about it. That’s the number one resort in the world. It was awesome.
We went to the main bar one day and I asked for coconut water. The bartender jumped over the bar, climbed a tree and cut two coconuts down, sliced them open, put in a straw in them and handed them over. I’d go back there in a heartbeat.
Arta Travel | 972.422.4000 | artatravel.com