Worldly wisdom

Question: In your July 19 "On the Spot" column, you mentioned travel consultants. I did a Google search on travel consultants versus travel agents and there seemed to me no difference. Both titles were used interchangeably. Just what are travel consultants? Where does one find them?

Bill Bergfeldt, Hollywood

Answer: Let's say you're going to (fill in name of place) for the first time. You know how to book a flight, and you may even know of a good hotel. But after doing the obvious, what then? What if you get trapped spending a day (fill in the blank with something you hate) instead of a day (fill in the blank with something you love)? You've just wasted your own time.

If you're lucky, you may have a good friend who knows the place, so you either mine him or her for ideas or you take the friend along to avoid such travesties. And if you're even luckier, you hire a travel consultant or specialist, which isn't always synonymous with travel agent.

Travel consultants are like having a knowledgeable friend along, except that they generally don't continue to retell the story about how you made a complete fool of yourself at the Christmas party. These travel guns aim to make sure you have a deeper, richer experience tailored to your tastes and interests.

"Basically a consultant, in a nutshell, is really selling expertise on the area," said Sheri Doyle, a Seattle resident who owns Pacific Northwest Journeys and specializes in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Northern California.

A consultant can tell you where you'll find a tree-lined beach on Oahu with fabulous bodysurfing (Susan Tanzman, Hawaii specialist and owner of Martin's Travel & Tours in Los Angeles); can arrange a dinner on the rim of the Grand Canyon (Cory Lawrence, chief executive of Off the Beaten Path, which specializes in the Rockies, the Southwest and Alaska); where to take a cooking class in Istanbul (Holly Chase, owner of Holly Chase Middle Eastern Travel) or where to find a hotel that has a nearby practice room for a trumpet player (Doyle of Pacific Northwest). They've been to these destinations repeatedly (or have lived there in some cases), and they open the door to a place in a way that no guidebook ever could (no disrespect to guidebooks).

Many specialists use their depth and breadth of knowledge and create a detailed itinerary for you that becomes a playbook for your vacation. Lawrence, for instance, said his company recently finished a 5 1/2 -week itinerary for a client that was 170 pages.

Different specialists charge for their services in different ways; some wrap their fees into the overall cost of the trip (adding about 10% to 20% to the tab); others bill by the itinerary, depending on its length or complexity; others charge by the hour or even the minute.

None of the four I interviewed knew of an organization of these specialists, but a couple of them cited the Conde Nast Traveler specialist list as a good source:

But all specialists have this in common: Besides looking at the big and small pictures, they also focus on making sure you are changed when you return, a result, Tanzman says, of celebrating and relishing differences among people and places.

Adds Chase, "I feel very satisfied for having contributed to global harmony."

See there? A consultant really can make a world of difference.


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