By Jerri Stroud, BBB Editor
Carolyn Sandgren-Kempf has been in the travel business since 1992, before the Internet became the dominant way consumers booked airline tickets, hotels and rental cars.
“My goal was that whatever challenge came, I would rally a team that could stay progressive and keep our long-term customers happy,” she said. “We are a multi-million-dollar company in a billion-dollar industry.”
Elite Travel’s main service area is within a 150-mile radius of Cape Girardeau, but through referrals, it has served customers in all 50 states, Sandgren-Kempf said.
Her strategy has been to focus on special trips, such as overseas vacation tours, destination weddings and honeymoons, as well as other “once-in-a-lifetime” trips.
Sandgren-Kempf says that despite the dominance of online travel shopping, about 70 percent of her customers come into her office, where three concierges meet clients and find out what they’re looking for. Each client is matched to an agent “that we think will jell with that type of client,” Sandgren-Kempf said.
“We’re great listeners,” she said. “We get lots of details, provide them with a ‘good-faith statement’ and inform them of our lack of a fee structure so our guests understand how our transactions work.” Most clients already have started their research. “We give them an improved product with reputable vendors at a comparable price,” she said.
“On big-ticket trips, we are the experts,” she said. Elite employees work with clients to find the best deals, often using travel companies her staff has checked out personally. Elite provides detailed information on what travelers can expect during their trip.
“We call every hotel before our clients get there. We call the front desk and make sure the reservation is in the system,” Sandgren-Kempf said. Because it knows lots of hotel managers and other personnel, Elite Travel sends a “VIP” letter to the hotel, introducing the customer as its client and asking for upgrades.
“We do the hard work at the very beginning to educate clients,” Sandgren-Kempf said. “We assume there will be a problem” and provide customers with a way to resolve the issues. Often the problem is beyond Elite Travel’s control, whether it’s personnel at a resort, food or the weather. The agency uses its contacts with vendors to try to get problems resolved, during the trip if possible. If it hears of significant problems after the trip, Elite helps customers fight for compensation.
Every client gets a call once they return from a trip, and Elite Travel sends a letter and an email asking for feedback. Any problem that can’t be resolved though her customer service team is put through to Sandgren-Kempf.
Sandgren-Kempf said most of her employees have been with her between five and seven years, though she added five new employees after two long-term employees moved away from Cape Girardeau last year.
The constant change in the travel industry means that training occurs almost every day. Vendors offer frequent webinars to educate her staff, and salespeople for some vendors also train her staff in person. Her staff also takes familiarization trips to popular destinations, which allows them to be more helpful to clients.
Sandgren-Kempf and her staff are frequent volunteers at a variety of charities in the Cape Girardeau area, and the company has made donations of trips and other prizes to help raise money for charities. Charities supported include Zonta, Safe House for Women, United Way, Lutheran Family Services, various churches and others. Elite also hosted a flu shot clinic in its office last fall.
The company also has a “random act of kindness” program in which employees go to fast food restaurants or other low-wage businesses and give out $20 to $100 in cash to someone who demonstrates great service.
Employees go through two or three interviews before they are hired. Sandgren-Kempf said she looks for honest, kind, compassionate and service-driven employees.
“I have a very high moral compass,” she said. “We all have high moral compasses here. We have a unique company, with no bickering or backstabbing. We are a well-organized group delivering ethics through our professional and personal lives.”
The company’s motto is, “Integrity matters: Make your vacation Elite.”
Profiles of BBB Accredited Businesses and BBB Accredited Charities are created as part of BBB’s TORCH Award process and are not intended as an endorsement. To register for this year’s TORCH Awards luncheon on Nov. 13, go to http://www.bbb.org/stlouis/events.