Jody Bear lives by a mantra for her travel business: “If you don’t go, you don’t know.” She insists on personally vetting all new destinations and experiences before she sends clients. Her approach works. She and her husband have run a successful agency, Bear & Bear Travel, for more than 36 years.
When we spoke, Bear’s focus on “perennial” travelers stood out to me. Once I got the image of perennial plants out of my mind, I was able to understand what Bear was talking about. Perennial travelers are “curious travelers who will travel for a long time,” she says. They vary in age, background, and interests. They inspire others with bold ideas and vision. They explore new destinations and return to old favorites.
Bear & Bear prioritizes private access experiences that are not generic. We talked about these types of experiences, hotels that always get it right, and why diversification in its business is so important.
Let’s talk about some memorable experiences you have planned.
I have vetted all of these before I sent clients. For an adventurous family, I arranged for a stay at a luxury eco-lodge, Pacuare River Lodge, in Costa Rica. It is possible to reach by helicopter or land, but most guests arrive by raft. They have one restaurant, and the only way to go there is to zipline in and rappel out. On the same trip, I arranged for a helicopter tour of a national park, a trip through jungle waterways accessible only by canoe, and wildlife viewing with a naturalist.
In Israel, I arranged Jeep tours of the Golan Heights led by a member of the intelligence community. They drive off-road to the demilitarized zone along the Syrian border, viewing hidden Israeli army bunkers while learning about the geopolitical situation in the north of Israel. You can’t get out of the Jeep, because you see the Syrian border and military with their guns.
I do a lot of around-the-world trips. A family went to Kenya for three months, immersing themselves in conservation and watching local Maasai warriors train to become safari guides. They watched orphan elephants be released back into the wild. That’s really good for families with kids.
Guides can make or break a trip. I’m constantly traveling the globe to discover new destinations and guides. You would think Miami is so predictable—people go to the beach or to party. But I met this amazing marine biologist, and we went orchid hunting in the swamps of the Big Cypress National Reserve near the Everglades. It was phenomenal. I also now book clients on a graffiti tour, but not just a regular one. You rent a wall in the Wynwood section of Miami with a famous graffiti artist, put on whites, and you’re taught how to paint the wall. Again, I go and vet these experiences.
Which hotels always get it right?
Different hotels work for different people. I have personal favorites, which may not work for everyone.
As a boutique brand, I think Firmdale has a successful formula. They’re whimsical, but have their own sense of design and style. They’re sophisticated but not stuffy; fashionable yet functional; user friendly and not boring. They have in-house movie theaters, which they use for screenings and celebrity film discussions.
In Africa, Singita is committed to a 100-year purpose to conserve and save large areas of the African wilderness. They invest in sustainable design and behind-the-scenes operations. They are nearly flawless, beautiful, and take care of every guest.
I love Cheval Blanc St-Barth Ile de France. By the time you leave, you feel like a million bucks, whether you have it or not. The atmosphere is dripping in glamour and sophistication, with beautiful and successful people. You really do feel a part of that crowd.
One of my all-time favorites is Palazzo Margherita near Puglia, a Francis Ford Coppola hotel. Like he says—it’s not just business, it’s personal. He personally curates every detail. For Palazzo Margherita, he searched for a palazzo in the village where his grandfather was raised, and spent many years restoring it. It’s a beautiful, very special hotel.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career?
When the stock market crashed in 2008, it was an unfortunate set of circumstances. It affected my business greatly. Prior to the crash, I was handling all of the major fashion companies, from A to Z, Armani to Zegna. I had a great run. But in October 2008, the fashion industry literally stopped traveling for quite some time. We lost over half our business.
It occurred to me that I might have to do something else, but I saw it as another challenge. I took steps to reinvent myself and we cultivated new clients. With every challenge is a valuable lesson. We now have a more diverse and eclectic clientele. Diversification is something I learned the hard way.
What is the travel industry doing right? What is it doing wrong?
FInally, after all these years, the industry is now paying attention to the environment. Two years ago, it didn’t seem like anyone was putting environmental efforts at the forefront. Now, hotels, cruises, and airports are stigmatized if they don’t have some sort of carbon neutral initiative. Clients are appreciative.
Culinary and wellness options are getting better and better for travelers. I remember when you couldn’t even get a banana at the airport.
What I think they get totally wrong is transparency in pricing, whether it’s resort fees or low prices on online travel agencies. Hotels have an inability to get a handle on their pricing strategies. It causes confusion for clients and advisors. It undervalues the product.
I also see operators doubling or tripling in size, and it’s resulting in poor or generic client experiences. I don’t work with them anymore. I find my way with niche DMCs and tour operators.