"The future of the travel industry, the next generation of agents who will discover new places to go and new ways to connect with travelers. Here are Travel Agent’s top 30Under30 for 2017, which represents the 10th year of the program."
Story by David Moseder
FULL INTERVIEW - TRAVEL AGENT MAGAZINE
Hillary Harpster, 28
Zen Luxury Travel, an Independent Affiliate of Cadence
La Jolla, CA
Tells us about your current position, plus what you were doing prior to becoming a travel advisor. What's your elevator pitch to potential clients? Out of all the careers in the travel industry, what made you decide to become a travel agent?
In 2012, I walked into the American Express Travel office in Washington, DC. Resume in hand I asked to speak with a manager. I worked in the building across the street as a research analyst for a political consulting firm and had been daydreaming of working in travel after spending months walking past the giant posters of beaches and European cities in the office windows. They did not have any jobs advertised, but I knew this was my chance to dive into travel. The manager met me with skepticism, noting that I had no prior sales or GDS experience, and that the base pay would be far less than at my current job. Luckily I did have travel experience, having lived in Germany and Israel and visited over 35 countries at that time. My final plea was, “If it doesn’t work out, you can just fire me.” Six months later I completed their apprentice program in record time. I was a full-time Travel Consultant for the Platinum, Cruise and Tour departments. I achieved over $1 million in sales my first full year and I had found my passion. Fast-forward to 2016, when I launched Zen Luxury Travel in order to offer my valued clients more personalized service. Zen Luxury Travel is an independent affiliate of Cadence, a branch of Tzell and a member of Virtuoso. This gives us considerable buying power and outstanding support. My clients know with ZEN they get 24/7 support, valuable insider knowledge, and perks galore.
Where have you been lately, and how have you been pitching this destination to clients?
I love sharing Japan with my clients! It’s somewhere new for most clients and for those that have been I have a few “off the beaten path” gems to share as well. I was fortunate to spend three weeks exploring this amazing country, during cherry blossom season no less! Each experience I create is tailored to the individual client's tastes and needs, so having vast country knowledge is key. For this trip I spent time exploring bustling Tokyo, viewing Mt. Fuji and experiencing a tranquil onsen in Hakone, enjoying the charming coastal town of Kanazawa, soaking in historic, awe-inspiring Kyoto, dining my way through Osaka, finding peace among the cherry blossoms of Mt. Yoshino, and staying at a temple in Koyasan during their 1,200 year anniversary. I can easily say Japan has something for everyone! For accommodations there is everything from luxury hotels, to authentic Ryokan experiences, and even temples stays. Activities include visiting onsens for spa lovers, countless temples and museums for history buffs, boating for seafarers, shopping for fashionistas, karaoke and secret bars for nightlife lovers, and hiking for nature lovers. There are endless ways to experience this dynamic country. Foodies and spirit connoisseurs will be especially pleased with the extremely high level of service you can expect at any establishment. From the food mecca of Dotonbori in Osaka, to the sushi masters little known favorite town of Kanazawa, and hidden gems of Hafuu Honten in Kyoto and Sasagin in Tokyo again, you will not be disappointed!
What are some good, off-the-beaten path restaurants you can recommend that are popular with the locals?
If you need a break from Japanese fare, there is a very unique establishment in Kanazawa run by an Irishman and his Japanese wife. The duo cooks and entertains guests from behind the bar, making the experience very memorable. I had the brick-oven fennel pizza, with hard to find ingredients commissioned specifically to be served at Cottage. Stateside, in Buellton, CA of Sideways fame, you’ll want to dine at Industrial Eats for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Everything on the menu is incredible, but the Wilby is the best sandwich imaginable. Amazingly there is no corkage fee, or you can buy a glass of Ground Boots Pinot Noir and happily sip some of the best wine in the region, knowing that 100% of the profits help end the dog meat trade in Asia. Last but far from least are two hidden gems in Italy. Piz is the most fun you can have for dinner in Milan. Prosecco and a generous starter as you walk in the door, colorful vibrant decor, choose one of three pizzas from the small, but perfect menu, friendly servers with complimentary melon shots attend to your every need, devour your delicious pizza, and continue to enjoy the complimentary drinks as you pay your shockingly inexpensive bill upstairs. Inconspicuously perched on a hill in Montepulciano and fit for any foodie, try local favorite Le Logge del Vignola. Choose the tasting menu, every dish is better than the last with the homemade pastas and impeccable service the crown jewels.
What hotels have you visited recently and really liked?
Four Seasons Hotel Firenze is in a class all its own with impeccable service, a stunning modern restoration of historical buildings, and delightful dining and bar venues. Hotel Metropole Monte-Carlo is another personal favorite. Elegant, yet unpretentious the hotel feels like home after a long night at the casino or invigoration stroll around town.
Club Med Punta Cana recently updated their adults only Zen Oasis. The gorgeous modern rooms and enormous pool make this a great all-inclusive. The charming, art deco Prince de Galles in Paris offers guests a perfect location on George V and a perfect bar to start or end the evening.
Who do you consider your professional mentors and why?
First I’d like to thank my former manager, Habib Seraj, for taking a chance on hiring me in my first ever travel role and supporting my ambitions. Next, I have been incredibly fortunate to have had so many outstanding women to look up to as role models and mentors. I owe a great deal to Ellen Bettridge, current President and CEO of Uniworld, who created the travel training program I excelled in at American Express. She has been a professional role model for me as I set leadership goals and forged a career path. Working with Lynn Jafari and Robyn Foss, as my trainers in the beginning of my career was such a dream. Both 20 year industry veterans were able to not only teach me time saving GDS tricks, but also provide me with valuable insight into customer communication and consultative selling. Fellow agents Crystal Miller and Ana Caraballo were also instrumental in teaching me the ins and outs of the business, most importantly how to manage setbacks with grace.. Finally, I am so glad to be able to count Wendy Burk, the founder and CEO of Cadence, as a professional mentor and inspiration as well. An outstanding, compassionate female entrepreneur, Wendy challenges me to set my own goals even higher and provides the support to make them achievable.