How do you build a successful travel agency? The foundation never changes: The best agencies provide top-notch service, build strong relationships, and rely on word-of-mouth marketing. But in an ever-evolving industry, agencies also need to be able to adapt. To me, the definition of a great agency comes down to this: I’d go where they tell me to go, and I’d do what they tell me to do.
Joan Roca founded Essentialist in 2017 and is based in Mallorca, Spain, and New York City.
Joan Roca’s background is in online travel agencies (OTAs) and booking engines, focusing on big volume and big transactions. But he felt like the magic of travel was lost.
“It was a commodity,” Roca said. “It’s not about how quickly you can book, but the process of choosing where to go, which hotel, restaurants, experiences, and really structuring the trip to be what you want it to be.”
He founded Essentialist with former editor in chief of Travel + Leisure, Nancy Novogrod, with a membership-based model: An annual fee covers all bookings—flights, hotels, restaurants, experiences—plus unlimited time with a travel designer, who taps into a global network of travel editors and writers to help plan the trip.
What differentiates Essentialist from other agencies?
We decided to do something different.We put a real focus on travel editors and the people that know each destination. We’re editorially driven rather than commercially driven.
We offer the value of a point of view, trust, and being bold about what we recommend. It’s completely different than an anonymous booking on a website.
We operate a little more like a magazine than a travel agency. This is fueled by the membership model, with a very loyal customer base. And we believe in technology as an enabler, to match customers with destinations and trips.
How do you use technology?
Our technology platform was created internally. We couldn’t find anything that did what we wanted to do, which was two pieces: manage content that we keep constantly updated and provide strong CRM [customer relationship management] that records everything a customer does and wants.
Tell me more about working with travel editors and writers to create content.
Working with travel editors is one of our greatest assets. Our team knows the customers, but the intel is coming from the editors. Today’s traveler knows a lot, and in order to beat their knowledge and surprise them, we need to tap into people who really, really know. It is not enough to have superficial knowledge about a destination from a trip a couple of years ago. Editors deliver value on every trip, and we need them.
Can you think of a moment where you thought “It is ridiculous to own a travel agency and I want to stop”?
When we launched, we were lucky to have several press features at the same time. We grew from 0 to 100 in no time, and we wouldn’t say no to new members, so we had more, more, more growth. We had to triple the size of our team. We wouldn’t have survived without a super-committed team. I’ve done that kind of growth once, and I probably wouldn’t do it again. We want to grow consistently. It was a challenge.
What do you think are some hot trends and destinations right now?
Japan beyond Kyoto and Tokyo is huge. No one comes back from Japan without having been transformed. Ecuador continues to grow in popularity. In Africa, I would say Madagascar and Rwanda, and in Europe, Slovenia is a great destination for nature exploration, plus a few places in Portugal like Porto. Bhutan is an incredible destination with a very interesting approach to tourism.
What hotels do you think always get it right?
There are so many hotels! There are the classics like Le Sirenuse in Positano, where it is all about la dolce vita. The Rosewood Hôtel de Crillon in Paris is incredible. The Amangiri has become a newer classic and so has the Jaffa in Tel Aviv. And I love Quinta da Comporta, a new hotel in Portugal, 90 minutes from Lisbon.
Travel today is all about experiences on the trip. Tell me about a few that you have planned that stand out for you.
We start from a blank canvas and build the trip item by item for the customers. Every single trip we do is completely different.
We planned a trip to London for one family where the teenage son was starting to collect sneakers. We coupled him with one of London’s biggest sneaker collectors, who is also a fashion entrepreneur and an activist in East London. He took him to a few stores, showed him his private collection, and it was the hit of the trip. For this family and this kid, it meant the world.
We connected one of our clients, an important chef in San Francisco who was going to Budapest, with a local chef and pop-up entrepreneur who took her on a private visit to the Jewish quarter, where she learned about some of the traditional sweets and desserts. This was a very special moment for the client, who has roots in this region and it was something she didn’t know much about.
There is a lavender farm near Madrid where we sent a family. The person who used to be a note [scent] tester for L’Oreal’s perfume creates a magical program on how to smell different layers, and then she connects it to wine because she also loves wine.
It is all about connecting the right person with the right experience. And we want to move the tourism experience to a local, real story. If you’re into art, we would rather introduce you to an up-and-coming artist in Palma than a professional art guide.
We are also planning a lot of trips involving walking or hiking, which is manageable and depending on the place, much more interesting than being driven from one point to another.
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