Father-daughter duo Bill Fischer and Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal are redefining what a luxury travel agency is all about. With a unique take on a profession that a decade ago looked as if it was going to be replaced by the internet, Fischer-Rosenthal is reinvigorating what her legendary father invented a generation before—and they do it all with mutual admiration and nary a crossword. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan paid a visit to the Fischer Travel headquarters in midtown Manhattan where he chatted with Bill, Stacy and top agent Dee Branciforte. The conversation ranged from hotel design to amazing vacations, as well as the company’s interesting transition and continued growth in spite of the recession.
ET: How has the recession affected your business?
Bill Fischer: Our business is actually up. Our clients are traveling the same way. If they were traveling by private jet before, they are still traveling by private jet.
ET: Tell us about some of the changes Fischer Travel is making.
Bill Fischer: Our business is totally changing, and Stacy is driving it.
Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal: We’re differentiating ourselves as a lifestyle company. We just had a client whose father living in a retirement home was turning 80. His father was a successful boxer in his youth, so we actually arranged for Don King to come to the birthday party. This was all in the space of a couple of days: First I had to track down Don King, then I had to negotiate his appearance, then we had to coordinate. Then afterward our client and his father had to travel to Houston, and when they got to their hotel in Houston we already had pictures from the birthday party in their hotel room. In another case, we had a client who needed a butler, and as I was talking to her I found out that she needed an exterminator, so I arranged that. Then she needed a cleaning crew, and since this was a new house she was moving into, I even ended up arranging for somebody to come in and water her plants.
Bill Fischer: Sometimes we are their therapists, but it has really evolved into anything they want and anything they need—and of course we charge, and they are happy to pay because we get what they want done.
ET: Ten years ago, one major airline CEO said travel agents are “dinosaurs.”
Bill Fischer: Well there aren’t very many airline CEOs who have figured out how to make money. We make money, and in fact, the current fee to join is $100,000—that’s just to start with us.
ET: You started charging fees before any other travel agents.
Bill Fischer: When I started charging fees in the early ’80s, I realized I was able to provide service and access other travel agents couldn’t. People said customers would walk across the street, and I started with $5,000 and then it went to $10,000. But if you wanted a certain suite or villa during a certain period I was the only one who could get it. So you could walk across the street but if you had to have that specific suite, I was the only one who could get it. It wasn’t about let’s try to get you an upgrade. It was you tell me what you want and I’ll get it.
ET: What’s your secret?
Bill Fischer: We don’t give up. Years ago I had a customer who wanted to get into a specific ski resort in Europe during Christmas week. The first time I called, the reservations manager told me that there were more than 30 people on the waiting list in front of me. So very nicely, everyday for two months, I called her twice a day. She finally told me that she talked to me more than her husband. The next day I got a confirmation for my customer. People like to deal with us because they know we care about our customers and they know our customers are willing to pay. A couple years ago, the vice president of a luxury hotel group called me up because he couldn’t get a VIP into one of their own hotels on a holiday. He told me, and I called the hotel and I got his VIP in. When he asked the hotel how his VIP got in they said, “we always take care of Mr. Fischer.” So we persevere. We cultivate relationships. We deliver a lot of business to these hotels and we pay for what we want, so when you want something we can get it. That’s why we can charge.
ET: It sounds like you are becoming a concierge service.
Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal: The concierge services don’t really do what we do. We do anything and we do it well. We had somebody who was telling us they wanted to get their brother a Breitling watch for his birthday. Well it turned out the brother was in Manchester, England. So we got someone to get the watch in London when the store opened the next day and then deliver it to him in Manchester.
ET: So are you typically dealing directly with your clients or through their executive assistants?
Bill Fischer: It depends on the client—sometimes the assistant is extremely efficient; other times the assistant appreciates that we can take everything off their plate and assume the responsibility. The key is that the better we know the customer and what he or she wants, the better service we can provide.
ET: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?
Bill Fischer: In all our years, we have had two bad staffers. Those two were the mistakes, but if you look at most of our team they have been with us 15 to 20 years, so of course we have all sorts of confidentiality and no-compete agreements for the staff, but for the first three or four years you really don’t know what we do. We’re like the Secret Service.
ET: And how are your agents different from other agents?
Bill Fischer: As an example, we once hired the top Platinum agent from American Express. She told us it took her nine months until she could get to our level.
Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal: It’s all about service. We are on-call for our clients all the time, and there is always somebody to take care of anything. It takes someone who really cares to take their Blackberry home with them and sleep with it, but everyone here really cares. We realize that we deal with incredibly wealthy and powerful people, and we make sure as best we can that when they need something we get it for them.
ET: It sounds grueling!
Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal: Well during the volcano, we were all basically collapsing. We were working 24 hours straight then right back at it trying to find creative ways to help our clients, but everyone who is here loves what they do, so that is incredibly energizing. Everyday we have a different creative challenge and a timeline to get it done, so the idea is to come up with something that is incredible.
ET: So tell us about one of your most interesting creations.
Dee Branciforte: We had a 50th birthday party for a client who was a wine aficionado. It was a surprise party so we were working with his wife. We came up with an amazing three-day trip to Napa. They lived here in New York and there were about 30 people who were going to the party. He thought it was just a regular trip with his wife, but when he showed up at the FBO, we had chartered a Boeing Business Jet and his friends were all there to travel with him. When he got on the plane we had his favorite music playing and his favorite movies loaded on the video screens. We had the wine theme, so the invitations to all the guests came in wine boxes—but instead of a bottle of wine, there was a wine blending kit [inside]. When we got to Napa we had all the guests blending their own wines and designing their own labels. People brought pictures of their families and summer houses for the labels, so it was incredibly fun—and since these were all ultra-competitive people, there was a lot of testosterone. Then we had visits to wineries that are closed to the public and private tastings with the owners and winemakers. There was a golf tournament on a private golf course where all the guests arrived by helicopter, and so after the first two days, everyone was worried there was going to be a letdown.
Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal: The final dinner was in a private winery and we got Thomas Keller to close French Laundry for the night and he and his team personally cooked the meal in the winery. And then the surprise is we had, with his wife, taken some of his favorite wines from his personal wine cellar back home and that is what was served. He couldn’t believe we had taken these wines and he hadn’t noticed, and he was so happy because these were the wines he had wanted to drink at his birthday but he assumed they were still back in New York.
Bill Fischer: So it’s the big touches and the little touches. Frankly, anyone can charter a jet or take over a hotel.
ET: So that trip must have cost millions. Is that unusual?
Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal: The big events don’t happen all the time, but we always have clients traveling, and we just had a client who took her children on a three-week trip to Europe and she spent as much. One of the hotels was $40,000 per night, and she didn’t want to worry about the details. The only thing we had to say was, “can you make sure you are at the airport by 9am so the pilots don’t lose their slot?” Other than that, there was nothing she had to worry or think about. Everything was taken care of.
Bill Fischer: It’s constant checking in. We are always busy. During holiday periods everybody may have 20 or 30 open files [clients traveling]. It is organized chaos.
ET: Do you also do the two-day business trip to London?
Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal: Of course. But for our clients it means arranging VIP escorts, dinner reservations, the décor in their rooms. In fact, we have one customer who goes to London so much that when the hotel was renovating, they asked for his input on “his” room.
ET: I heard that you once redesigned a hotel.
Bill Fischer: With the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, they didn’t have enough connecting rooms. I was in a meeting with [Chairman] Isadore Sharpe and they had only 11 connecting rooms, so I showed him which of my clients—the CEO of this company, and the CEO of that company—weren’t going to be able to have connecting rooms. And he picked up the phone and called his president, and ordered 38 more connecting rooms.
ET: Greg Norman designs golf courses. Have you ever thought about hotels designed by Bill Fischer?
Bill Fischer: I should. The designers only think about aesthetics. Some of the stuff is so impractical. But the problem is that the hotel is designed, and then the construction starts, and by the time they put a general manager in place a year before the hotel opens, to make any changes can cost millions of dollars.
ET: Have any other hotels made changes to their infrastructure based on your feedback?
Bill Fischer: Parrot Cay in Turks & Caicos. I went and wasn’t impressed so I put it on our “do not book” list. Then a new general manager came in and I went back down, and the service and the food were terrific, but the pool wasn’t heated and it was too cold in January. So I told the general manager and he told the owner, and the owner didn’t want to heat the pool as it is very expensive. I said to the owner, “you swim in it” and he did—and to his credit, he made it into a heated pool and now we send a lot of business there. But the best time to talk to us is before you start. Jim Manley opened The Ranch at Rock Creek. He took us out there way before he opened, he listened and he is going to do very well. We have a lot of knowledge.
ET: How is it working with your daughter?
Bill Fischer: She listens to everything I say so it’s easy [laughs].
Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal: I have so much respect for what my father created. Of course there was trepidation when I first started, as the boss’ daughter. So I knew I had to work twice as hard, but he is such an inspiration, and he has let me add to our success.
Dee Branciforte: The atmosphere here is incredible. Everyone respects each other, no one yells, and it all starts with Bill and Stacy.
Bill Fischer: We are like a family here. We share each other’s happiness and we help each other when there is a problem.
ET: Will there be a third generation in Fischer Travel?
Bill Fischer: Max [Stacy’s 16 year old son] wants to play for the Knicks.
Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal: I would love for Max to work here. He certainly knows how to travel well.
ET: So your father is famous for not publishing his phone number. Are you moving things forward?
Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal: Actually, no. We know our clients. They find us. And we don’t have a web site. For our clients, it’s totally irrelevant. And when you’re our client, you have our cell phone.
ET: Bill, are you planning to retire?
Bill Fischer: In 20 or 25 years.