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2020 Travel Advisor Choice Awards

Voting has now closed. Click play below to watch the show that aired live on December 9th.



If you are a Travel Advisor and not already registered with us, you can do so here.


Grand Prize Winners

1st Place: Feeding Families - Mark Elie, K & E Travel
Along with helping literally thousands of clients get rebooked, canceled, refunded and more. Working 90 hours a week until we got all our clients home that were out of the country. Like so many other agents around the world. What I chose to do in addition to what we had to do, is to support my community. I did this in a number of ways, not the least of which has been every single week for the past 27 weeks is help feed over 1000 families with a weeks worth of food that was provided by a consortia of companies and charities. We worked through the heat of South Florida loading up cars with fresh vegetables, bananas, apples, frozen chicken, fish, pork, salads, milk, eggs, dried fruit and so much more every single week.

I also started a Facebook Page for local restaurants piggy backing off another person's site, we now have over 19 sites across the country and over 50,000 people on it. The site is called Socially Distanced Supper Club. It allowed local restaurants to target market people looking to see what was open, their menu's, everything was initially pick up and now is also dine in. We supported only locally owned restaurants and many said without us they would have closed. What we did was different, we did something like a Flash Mob for the restaurants, we had a few restaurants of the day and promoted them like crazy, then other restaurants also got to publish ads.

We did this with 100% volunteers, no one including us working crazy hours made a dime. This is continuing today, although it has changed slightly now that we are more open. It has been humbling and fulfilling to help not only families in need, but also other local businesses in our area. So for me it was more of giving back and helping, even though my income went to basically -0-
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2nd Place: The Australian South Sea Pearl - Beth Hill, Mangata Travel
It started with a voicemail message from an unknown caller earlier this year. 'This is Ed and I want to take my wife on a dream trip to Australia next month. Call me please.'

I returned Ed's call and was told exactly that: design a dream trip for Paula and Ed as if it's the last trip they'll ever take with no budget limitations. Definitely the trip that every agent dreams of getting.

Ed, Paula and I became fast friends. They were in their mid 60s, loved their pets, childless, hilarious and full of fun. We began daily calls creating a trip with all of Paula's desires. Paula loves jewelry and shopping and her #1 wish: purchase highly revered Australian South Sea pearl. Available at licensed locations it involved connections and relationship management but we pulled it off.

During our hours and hours of itinerary planning, we only had 1 conflict. Paula wanted to do dot painting classes in Alice Springs. Ed didn't want to go to Alice Springs period due to a past experience many years prior. Ed won this decision - no Alice Springs.

Throughout the planning I had hints and glimpses that perhaps Ed wasn't well. I didn't pry but did ensure that Ed and Paula had full travel insurance coverage.

A week into the trip I received a frantic call from Paula at 3am. Ed was being rushed via air ambulance from their private camp in the Outback to, of all places, a hospital in Alice Springs. Such irony.

Ed was very ill with pneumonia and what I learned to be complications from an existing illness. Paula was distraught and with no friends nor siblings we became very close. Due to the time differences we spoke twice daily at 3am and then 4pm. For 3 weeks we spoke daily for hours on end, me providing a shoulder and person to provide support. I also was a conduit with AIG Travel Guard (wonderful throughout!) and coordinated paperwork, faxes, hospital signatures, and the list goes on. Our goal was to get Ed stable enough to return home via air ambulance which was approved by insurance.

After several weeks of Paula and Ed becoming much of my life, I received a 9pm call one Friday evening from Paula, very strange as it wasn't during our designated times. Ed had died. The mission had changed.

I then worked with Paula on post-life travel issues. Cremation versus body transfer costs, death certificate processes, Paula's return flight, and again a shoulder to lean on. Ultimately Paula returned 5 days later, leaving Ed's remains behind which was very painful for us. Ed arrived a month later and they were united again.

After 2 months of communicating with Paula regularly we decided to meet personally. She is in Arizona while I'm in Oklahoma so it took some planning. We were thrilled to embrace and it felt like we had been friends forever. And the sweetest client gift I've ever received? A pair of beautiful Australian South Sea pearl earrings that I now wear with pride and joy.
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3rd Place: Bucket List Travel Spreads Positivity - Susan Green, Susan’s Travel Services
During this really tough time, Susan has reinvented herself. She stayed positive in the midst of all the cancelling and rebooking. She started 'Bucket List Travel' zoom presentations. She invited guest speakers/presenters from tourism boards and resorts. Always informative and fun. Her excitement wore off not only on agents who participated, but her clients who she invited. This happened two days a week for months and really helped me get excited about the future when there were times I wasn't sure I wanted to continue in this career. She also started a podcast, Backstage Travel Podcast, with a tour operator BDM. Just for fun.

She probably doesn't know how much she helped me get motivated and not give up. But she is the reason I stuck with it and found the light at the end of the tunnel. When I was feeling down, I could text her or facetime with her. We had met at a conference in March 2019, and were acquaintances, but became friends during this pandemic. I am thankful for her upbeat attitude and drive to always move forward! She even invited me to her home to enjoy the sunshine and her backyard pool, when I was feeling down with the cold and rain in the Pacific Northwest. I am grateful for her friendship, mentoring and just her upbeat, go get 'em attitude in general.
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Runners-Up


The Return from Switzerland
- Tanya Bryant, TravelStore
On Wednesday the day the Pandemic was officially announced, President Trump had a press conference announcing that Americans abroad should come home from Europe by Friday or they may be quarantined. I was in the car on our commute home with another agent listening to the conference. At that time I had a family in Switzerland it was 2am for them and I texted the son and told him I needed to get them home. He immediately texted back and told me to do what was necessary.

Unfortunately the clients parents didn't book with me, I had his 6 yr old on a revenue ticket and he was on a mileage ticket, all were business class. By the time I got home the family was in a panic that space would be lost. We jumped into action. I had my client send me his parents confirmations and passport copies. I held space on flights for Friday and we got on 2 cell phones, one for the mileage and the other for the 3 revenue tickets, yes even though I didn't issue them. The 6 year old was crying and my clients parents were in a frenzy. I told everyone to go back to bed, calm the little one and I would take care of it.

I started my calls at 7pm, at midnight we had the 3 revenue tickets reissued and I was still on hold with mileage. At 1am mileage answered, I told the agent what I needed and we were disconnected! I was shattered. I got online and tried 5 times to change the mileage ticket, finally I bought him a new mileage ticket in COACH. The most important people, his older parents and young daughter were taken care of and he was accommodated, not the way he wanted but he was coming home. By the time I got to the office the next morning he said he had 2 mileage tickets. So we jumped on with United and the mileage agent that I had been disconnected from changed his flights but didn't ticket! We were so happy.

Two more hours and everyone had business class tickets home and my client sent me a picture of him and his daughter skiing with the Matterhorn behind them. The other agent said, 'They got that experience because they had you to take the burden off of them, they knew they were in good hands.' This remains my favorite story. They got back before it got really tough. They are so grateful!
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Living Like a Local - Caitlyn Gambino, AUM Journeys
My apartment in Palermo Sicily was all set for me to live in for 3 months starting at the end of March. My goal was to live like a local and become fluent in Italian. I had been planning this little foray for about a year, since I had flown there the year prior and met my extended family that lives in Sicily and only speaks Italian for the first time. Despite the language barrier and overuse of the Google Translate app during that first trip, I absolutely fell in love with the island and the heartwarming hospitality of the people who had taken me in like I was their own without ever having met me before.

Two weeks before I was set to hop on a plane - after I had already turned off the insurance on my car, chosen a foreign language school in the Palermo city center, and made arrangements for a dog-sitter for a three month stay - Italy announced that there was no travel allowed that was not deemed essential. I was crushed. I connected with a tour operator that was based in Sicily and decided to partner with her to host a virtual cooking class for my clients.

I knew clients wouldn't be traveling anytime soon, but I wanted to inspire them for the future - and I think I needed it as much as they did. I gathered the ingredients for handmade pasta, lemon cookies, and Sicilian DOC wine and hand-delivered it to my top clients. We had an afternoon full of laughs, cooking fails and triumphs, and finally felt like we weren't prisoners in our own homes for the first time in months.

I rescheduled my Sicily stay for September which also never ended up happening. I then redirected my energy to other things and tried to focus on connecting with my clients in creative ways. I'm determined to make 'living like a local' happen, but for now I've been indulging in living like a local at home, which - ironically - I had never done before.

Moral of the story - sometimes you just gotta eat pasta and drink wine and be okay with it. My clients loved the virtual Sicilian cooking class, and I'm now planning other virtual events like a virtual overwater bungalow tour in the Maldives and a virtual Croatian wine tasting event. We will find a way to connect with each other regardless of what the world throws at us - it's human nature!
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Travel Agent Covid-Mambo Number 19 - Becky Litzinger, Santas Travel
January and February 2020, were going quite well, And then came March, and it all went to hell. Borders were closed, as a virus took hold,
Dangerous and deadly it stopped travel cold.

Mid-March had us all scrambling to understand,
What was this that was happening all over the land?

Flight cancellations, with ruined vacations too,
It seemed we would not get ahead of it, but we did what we had to do.

Right into April and beyond into May,
It seemed as if I was working 24 hours each day.

And not for a commission on anything new,
All we saw happening was a major loss of revenue.

Of course, travel agents are superhero’s and we bravely march on,
Even if the world is imploding, our word is our bond.

We help our clients no matter good or bad tone,
For without a travel agent you are truly on your own.

My clients are grateful that I have their back,
To figure out what they can do when travel is back on track.

And now that most of 2020 is but dust in the wind,
slowly but surely, we are coming back for the win.

Domestic travel for US citizens, is first in the brave new travel world,
But a few international destinations have started to unfurl.

There are a few Caribbean islands or Tahiti for a vacation with a beach,
Even a safari in Kenya is well within your reach.

Of course, there are multiple protocols for travel moving ahead,
Instead of doing it on your own, let me watch out for you instead.

I am the travel agent to help you, haven’t you heard?
To quote double OH 7, travel is only shaken- not stirred.
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We Can Still Dream - Joanne MacDonald, Jomac Travel
As time progressed, and the lockdown continued, I realized that people needed something to keep their hopes up and their dreams alive. I started a weekly Zoom session called 'We Can Still Dream' in May. Suppliers were more than happy to work with me on this project - and clients were thrilled to escape from reality for an hourish once/week and learn about somewhere new. I also invited other travel agents to invite their clients if they wished - with the absolute assurance that I would NEVER steal their clients!

Some agents have joined me on these calls, and some have shared the information with their clients to join me. I also try to keep them unique - not just a BDM talking about their dozens of properties... A local talking about the area; a tour guide giving a virtual tour; an individual resort as opposed to the chain; someone on staff of a river cruise talking about what really goes on during a day; a DMC talking about the area and their tours - as well as the 'regular' presenters/suppliers. These have been very well received, and I have speakers booked into March already! Canada still has a very strict travel ban on, so it is important to keep people's dreams alive!!
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Spreading Hope Through Social Media - Melissa Mackey, Travel Chicks
After the first few months of covid hitting, and the amount of refunds that were being processed, I felt my energy low with the travel industry. I began engaging inside travel agent facebook groups and saw the feeling was mutual across a lot of boards. Furthermore, I saw TA's forming groups that all they focused on was the doom & gloom. Sept 3rd I spoke on Travel Market Report's platform sharing with over 1300 agents the top 3 apps to use for social media. After the webinar training, many agents were reaching out to me and calling me to ask specific questions about social media and using apps. I felt so inspired to give back to the agent community and within 2.5 weeks, put a 5 day social media challenge together specifically for travel agents. This challenge would equip agents with the right tools, strategy and plan when it comes to social media because the truth is, many agents have been busy running their business and not using technology.

This challenge just completed on Monday this week and the experience has been nothing short of miraculous. Lives have been changed. Confidence has risen. The agent's WHY has been ignited; their story that has the power to transform their clients.Technology is being used (for the first time in some cases) as the agent's friend and most of all I've instilled HOPE in an industry that so many fell in love with from the beginning. I believe I qualify for an award because I, as an agent, dedicated everything I could to help rebuild the agent's confidence amidst this crisis, and taught them how we don't need to see our fellow travel professionals as competition but rather our collaborator and colleagues. We are in this together so why not build community around those who LOVE what they do and teach them skills that can be used for future marketing. We can go further faster, together.
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A Growing Business - Julie Rodgers, Memory Makers Travel
My name is Julie and I am the owner of The Memory Makers Travel in Odessa, Fl. After spending over 25 years in the corporate world and working my way up the ladder I found myself longing for more out of life. I never really felt like I had found my purpose, and truly regretted not having enough time at home with my children. I made the decision to open my Travel Agency while sitting on a beach in the Bahamas on a quick vaca. It was the most peaceful I had ever been when I made that decision, I found my purpose. Traveling myself and doing something I love while helping others make memories! I quit my job, opened my business and 2 months later... COVID hit us all like a ton of bricks.

All of the sudden, I was out of 100% income as were so many others in the industry. After a few days of beating myself up for starting this venture at the worst possible time, and stressing myself into panic over how I was going to feed my family, I decided this was not gonna keep me down. I will not fail! I took advantage of the world stopping by immersing myself in as much training as I could possibly take in, educated myself on the business and industry, destinations etc. I completed a years worth of marketing for my company and began to think outside the box. I have always taught my kids that it is more of a blessing to give than receive, and if I trusted in myself enough, I would find a way. When people were losing everything, I started doing my part by promoting local small businesses on our page, offering discounts and specials for nurses and Doctors and front line workers and turned the opportunity into one where I felt like I could make even a small difference for someone else.

And slowly but surely, my business has begun to take off. My sister has now joined me as an agent, we have grown our little business to 500 follows and climbing and bookings are starting to roll in! Having a positive mindset is so impactful and lending a hand to someone else, even when you need a hand yourself, can really be a blessing. I don't have some amazing story, I haven't been in the business or had the experience others have, but taking any negative and finding beauty and opportunity in it is something I have learned along my journey!
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The Nurse Practitioner Travel Advisor - Janet Semenova, Boutique Travel Advisors
During the pandemic, our boutique travel agency firm was a voice to the community, both nationally, locally and for our clients. Janet is not only the co-founder of Boutique Travel Advisors, she is also a nurse practitioner holding an advanced degree from Penn and has a decade of experience in nursing. Janet became a spokesperson for our industry on television, in print and online, and was quoted numerous times on the importance of traveling carefully, safely and respectfully during the pandemic. She also has invested time and effort towards recognizing nurses and doctors for their courageous efforts. Janet's husband is an ER doctor so her family knows firsthand the commitment and risks our medical professionals are providing on a daily basis....read more

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