SmartFlyer has built a successful business on air ticketing and more.
Michael Holtz, the founder and CEO of SmartFlyer, has become “social media famous” in the travel industry for always posting his favorite airline seat: 2A.
I never knew why until now. “It’s my favorite because it is often the single seat in premium cabins on long-haul flights, as well as regional jets,” he explains.
But it’s not just a social media gimmick. Flying is his job and passion. Airline bookings is one big reason why SmartFlyer has grown to 175 worldwide travel advisors, plus five affiliate companies in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States/Canada, as well as stellar leisure travel business. It has won two prestigious awards from Virtuoso: top year-over-year revenue growth in 2017 and Most Hospitable Agency in 2018. When it comes to airline bookings, it does more than 80 percent high-yield front of plane ticketing (aka business and first class).
Holtz has elite status with American (Executive Platinum), Delta (Diamond), United (1K), and JetBlue (Mosaic), and he is constantly flying to learn about planes, to evaluate airline equipment and service, see new and popular hotels, and visit suppliers around the world. He’s also a member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council.
Here, he talks about why selling air is a lost art, his favorite business-class cabin, and the secrets to booking the ideal flight route.
How did SmartFlyer start?
SmartFlyer started in 1990, when Google and SeatGuru didn’t exist. I made it my business to travel and know the product. Now, it is imperative to understand both commercial and private aviation, which we do. In fact, I received an email from a new client today asking if we can accommodate them as their “one-stop shop” for commercial and private.
Why do you say “air is a lost art?”
A lot of newer agents are scared of air because it can be complicated, but it’s a necessity for any trip. You need one of the GDSs [global distribution systems] to learn routes, availability, pricing, and other intricacies of booking yourself. Sabre is the backbone or there is Galileo, owned by TravelPort. If an agent does not use the GDS, which is fine, they need resources with their agency, or call an air expert like us to assist them, as clients want it all. They’re expecting agents to give them a global solution—they don’t want to call an agent to book a hotel and then Amex Centurion to book air. If you’re not able to do everything, they’ll find someone to do it.
So do you work with smaller agencies on air?
We do. Sometimes we look at ourselves as an “air DMC.” A lot of the bigger agencies have their own air solutions.
What is most important when it comes to booking and selling air?
It’s all about relationships, volume, and knowledge. How does a travel advisor get the best deals and perks at a Four Seasons? It is relationships. Airlines have reps and negotiated fares—our volume is such that we can leverage the best air solution. Many of our agents have been on our air team for 20 years and although everything is changing every day, they have the experience. When something goes wrong, like a flight cancellation, there’s someone there to help.
The best price is not always the best deal. Look at something like CheapoAir. Are you switching three times on a 24-hour itinerary for somewhere that you could have flown direct in eight hours? That is not a great deal.
What are some “secret” flight tips that you use?
We try to create opportunities for clients and talk to them about what’s available. For example, Tradewind is the best way to get to St. Bart’s. But we suggest clients fly to Puerto Rico, where you have to switch anyways, and stay at the Condado Vanderbilt for a night. Hop on a 9 a.m. Tradewind flight to St. Bart’s the next day, and you get in at 10 a.m. instead of 10 p.m. You’re maximizing the $2,000-a-night room in St. Bart’s.
There are no nonstop flights from Thailand to the U.S. People think the solution is to connect to fly to Bangkok and use that as a starting point. But that’s not the answer. Choose an airline like Korean Air. Fly from NYC to Seoul, then fly from Seoul to Siem Riep, do Angkor Wat for three to four days, then fly to Bangkok and explore the city, fly to Phuket to see Thailand beaches, then direct to Seoul, and nonstop back to NYC. You’re not wasting your time overnighting at airport hotels, and you save two needless overnights in Bangkok. We want to help people get the most out of life.
Which airline has the best business class?
Qatar’s Qsuite is fantastic. There is a configuration that allows for four seats to come together to create a “little flying house” for a family of four.
The Airbus 350 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are changing luxury travel. They’re able to go nonstop to destinations that people couldn’t reach before, like Chengdu. New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco now fly to Chengdu. Five years ago, you had to make one or two connections.
Can you talk about flight shaming and the idea that we need to fly less to help combat climate change?
Sustainability is important. Air France just cut its short-haul capacity and partly blamed high-speed rail competition from trains like the TGV. More airlines may do this for environmental reasons. KLM launched a huge sustainability campaign. In the end, what the customer wants will incite change.
Are you ever scared of flying?
I love it. It’s the safest way of traveling. It’s good to fly on newer equipment.
Just for Fun
Where are you going next?
I’m currently in New York at the brand-new Equinox Hotel in Hudson Yards, an amazing futuristic spot. My next trip is to the Proper Hotel in Santa Monica and The Resort at Pelican Hill in Orange County, where I will see our SmartFlyer teams in California. I am very excited for both stays!