Sara Ryan Duffy is president of SRD International, in Los Angeles, a travel concierge company with two full-time staff and five or more seasonal employees (www.srdinternational.com). She has been in the travel industry for 17 years. Previous to launching SRD International in 1995, Duffy booked studio and corporate travel for Paramount Pictures. A reality show on Bravo, First Class All the Way, captured her company’s services.
Q: Who are your clients and what type of travel do you book for them? A: I do offer more traditional travel, booking trips for clients. But I realized that there was a need in the travel market that bridged concierge work and a travel agency, so I started doing high-end concierge travel where either I would travel with clients or send people with them.
It would not make sense to do just the concierge work. For the concierge side, April to November is the busiest time, and with standard leisure travel, major holidays are busier. I needed to have a balance.
For the concierge work, my clients are Hollywood producers, company CEOs, and billionaires. They are looking for something different and come to me for a one-of-a-kind experience.
Q: How do you go about setting up these exclusive experiences for clients?
A: I’ve been lucky in my personal life. I’ve met interesting and influential people and can take those relationships and turn them into unique experiences for my clients. When it comes to people like this who are exceptional at what they do, they want to be around people who appreciate the artistry of their work. Some people think that if you throw enough money everyone will cave in. But people who are true artisans are careful about the people they allow in.
I spend four to nine months per year traveling, for two reasons. One, there is nothing like face-to-face conversations to cement relationships. Two, you see trends and view properties in person. I know what my clients like, so I look at it through their eyes. Traveling is 50% travel and 50% psychology. You do not take a type-A personality and put them on an island where it will take an hour to get a cocktail. Some clients come to me and say, “I was told I should go here,” and I will say, “No, you won’t like that destination.” You have to stand up [for yourself] if you know you are right about something.
Q: Do you generally travel with clients on the trips you have arranged for them?
A: A certain percentage of my clients request or require that either myself or one of my concierges travel with them. That happens when they are traveling abroad or with a large entourage of people that needs someone to track the logistics.
Q: How do you and your staff maintain a business relationship with clients?
A: I get invited all the time to stay for dinner. I never say yes. The minute you cross that line, you can
’t go back. As much as you like the client or they think you have become their friend, if something goes wrong, they revert to “You work for me.”
You can’t switch back and forth. This may not be as uncomfortable for the client as it is for you. I instruct my other concierges, if they are asked to stay for dinner, that they stay as a translator and sit at another table.
With training for my staff, I have sent people into the field without qualifying them and then found out what they did and have been mortified. Usually I like to be with them on the first trip start to finish. It takes a certain type of person because it is not a 9-to-5 job. Clients could call you at 2 a.m. with a request, and if it’s gettable, you have to do it.
Q: What percentage of your work comes from referrals?
A: Ninety percent is word of mouth. I have never advertised. I like to work with people who I cho
ose. Most clients are with me for a long time. When your personalities mesh, you will work together more effectively. I can tell within two minutes of the call if we will work well together. It’s naïve to think you can be all things to all people. To know that is half the battle. If you do, then you stretch yourself too thin, and the minute you are stretched too thin is when you make mistakes.
Q: Do you think the travel industry has been affected by new media?
A: One of the best things about this generation is fast access to information, but it is not always complete or accurate. The press tends to show the most beautiful suite in a hotel, which is not always what a client will get, so they go in with unreasonable expectations. You have to clarify what they are getting so they are not surprised.