Colleen Gillette entered the travel business in 1979 at a time of dramatic change in the industry, shortly after the federal government deregulated the airlines. But that was only the beginning of the significant shifts in the way travel bookings would be handled in the nearly four decades to follow. Technology and social media would eventually have just as big an impact.
And Gillette was in on the beginnings of that. Hired by a travel agency in New Paltz to answer the phones and write out airline tickets by hand — the only way it was done at the time — she advocated for computerized efficiency in the office and soon found herself assigned the task of booking airline tickets through the brand new PARS system. “We still double-checked everything through the OAG (Official Airline Guide) issued every week to make sure the flight numbers and times were correct and I still had to hand-write tickets, but after we upgraded to United Airline’s Apollo system we had a ticket printer.”
Five computerized reservations systems later, Gillette runs her own travel agency — New Paltz Travel — and airline tickets are no longer the focus of her business. “The difference in the industry today is tremendous,” she says. “It’s much more customer-centric now. It’s really all about putting together the right package for someone.”
And doing it yourself on those online booking sites? “You’re going to get whatever the booking engine you’re on wants you to get,” she says. “You’ll see only what they want you to see.”
A travel agent is a salesperson, a researcher, an advocate and even a bit of counselor and advisor, says Gillette. “You have to elicit from your customer what it is they really need,” she says, “which is not necessarily what they start off saying they want. Everyone has a budget, but I look for the value. There are certain things that I think are way too expensive for the value they bring, and other things that bring a lot of value for the cost. It’s not necessarily the least expensive thing — and generally it isn’t — but people want to be comfortable. They may think they want the cheapest trip, but they really don’t. Online booking engines are all about ‘the cheapest,’ but I’m looking to get people the best value for what they spend.”
Gillette recently moved her business to 43 North Chestnut Street in May. She had an office on Plattekill Avenue prior to this move, preceded by 26 years in the Cherry Hill Plaza. The new office is convenient for those who wish to discuss their travel plans in person, but most of Gillette’s customer contact these days is through telephone and e-mail, she says. Many of her customers are longtime repeat clients, and new customers tend to be referrals.
Her corporate division operates virtually, offering 24/7 service, private label booking engines and a corporate hotel program along with travel data consolidation and other reports a business account might need. And she serves as consultant to a number of freelance travel agents who operate out of their homes. “I now have several independent contractors affiliated with my agency and I support their efforts by being a resource for them,” says Gillette. “I can consult with them and assist in the booking and fulfillment process.”
The Gardiner native has been married to her husband, Robert Gillette, for 32 years. After a decade or so living in New Paltz in the 1980s, the couple built a house in Gardiner where they reside today.
Recently New Paltz Times sat down with Colleen Gillette to ask her a bit more about what a day’s work is like for a travel agent.
How did you get into this line of work?
I was looking for a job and a friend of a friend mentioned a job opening at a local travel agency that she thought would be a good fit for me.
What do you like the most about your work?
I enjoy interacting with my customers. I like being able to find the right vacation for them, and I like to help companies in my corporate division save some money by supplying the tools they need to do that. And I like doing something different every day. I’m usually working on multiple projects and they’re varied. It is challenging, but it isn’t boring!
What is the hardest thing about your line of work?
I don’t know if there’s anything I’d say that’s “the hardest,” but talking to some of the airlines and [tour package] suppliers can be difficult! The most challenging thing is to make sure you’ve done right by the customer. You have to do the best you can to make that happen, and I work hard at it.
Have you traveled a lot?
I have, but not enough… I’m too busy working! I have been to India, Egypt and Australia.
What would you be doing for a living if not this?
I had a teaching degree in English, so I guess that’s what I would have done.
What makes for a really good day?
When someone comes back and says that they had a great trip and everything went well. That’s a great day.
And a bad day?
I try not to have any. When I can’t help a customer resolve an issue, I feel that it wasn’t a good day.
What personal attributes are necessary to do your work?
You have to like talking to people, and you have to like the one-one-one. And I do like that; I think I’m better at that than with big groups. And you have to be detail oriented.
Do you see yourself at the same job ten years from now?
It’s something that I could do if I wanted to, yes. Or I could change my business focus and decide I only want to do certain kinds of things. One thing I’ve been doing a nice amount of lately that I enjoy is European river cruises; they’re different than an ocean cruise. For the most part, the old historic towns in Europe were built along the rivers, so you’re already in the place where you’re going to be [taking excursions].
What advice would you give someone planning to go into your field?
They need to get themselves educated. They really need to know something about the products they’re going to sell before they get out there and sell them. I read a lot about the types of travel I sell and the suppliers I use. I have various supplier certifications. I am also a member of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and I’m a past president for five years of the Hudson Valley chapter of ASTA. I served on various committees over the years and I serve on the advisory board of an online trade publication called Travel Market Report and on the agency advisory board of Passport Online, a technology company for the leisure travel industry. I try very hard to stay current with the technology and current events in my industry; I learn something new every single day.
More info is available at (845) 255-7706 or newpaltztravel.com.