Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Five-star service for the wealthy

Winnipeg's Magellan Vacations books luxury rooms for ultra-rich

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Next time you need to book the $20,000-a-night presidential suite at the Pierre Hotel in New York City, chances are you'll get the best rate by contacting Magellan Vacations.

You know the company -- Dianna Davidson's family business, which occupies the low-slung, nondescript building at Taylor Avenue and Stafford Street.

Well maybe you haven't heard of them, but there are about 300,000 affluent, well-travelled folks around the world who count on Magellan as their go-to luxury-hotel online booking service for whenever they have a need for fancy $3,000-a-night digs.

The little-known firm celebrating its 10th anniversary in business has conquered the market in online luxury hotel booking in the United States. Senior executives from the properties they represent regularly make the trip to Winnipeg to wine and dine and brief Magellan's staff on the latest amenities and features at their properties.

While it may not be well-known to the discount resort travel set, Magellan is a hero to the sales managers of the likes of the Pierre, the Trump International, the Peninsula Beverley Hills and four- and five-star hotels throughout the United States that covet the well-heeled traveller.

"I am a huge fan of Dianna and her team at Magellan," said Aloma Dawson, director of corporate sales at the five-star Trump International Hotel in New York. "In my 15 years in the business, this is the most professional and knowledgeable operation I have come into contact with."

The old adage about building a better mouse trap and having people beat a path to your door was never so true.

In the Internet age, when even the least savvy traveller has probably booked a hotel room on Expedia, Travelocity or one of the other many online booking engines, Magellan has focused exclusively on luxury hotels and only in select U.S. cities -- New York City, South Beach in Miami, Chicago, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Santa Monica, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas.

Using tireless marketing and trial and error, the 70-person company -- which has doubled its staff this year -- has hit on a formula that puts it on a level where its only real competition is none other than American Express.

Whereas Expedia and the other online booking engines quote prices, users of Magellan must call a toll-free number answered by an agent with encyclopedic knowledge of the approximately 120-150 properties the company represents.

Magellan staff can guide the customer to the hotel with the best view of Central Park, the luxury Las Vegas location with the right spa for that customer or the Chicago hotel most convenient for a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, and it may be the best place to book a suite in Hollywood for the awards season.

Davidson, Magellan's CEO and co-founder with her brother, Dan, is a former customer service agent with Great-West Life who got her start in the hospitality business during a six-year stint in the Cayman Islands after she left the insurance business. Dan is a former CF-18 fighter pilot and former United Airlines pilot who's just returned to live in Winnipeg after about 12 years in California. Their mother, Eileen Davidson, is group sales manager.

"We only do luxury hotels, period. Nothing else," Dianna said. "You find that not only do those people continue to travel through economic downturns, but they are also looking for help. They are looking for someone to do it for them who knows the properties well."

Amy Deve, director of travel industry sales for Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces (its properties includes the Pierre in New York), is another raving fan of Magellan. She'll fly to Winnipeg from her office in Miami later this month for what is now an annual pilgrimage to one of her company's best sources of bookings.

"Magellan is a fantastic combination of cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned great customer service," she said.

Deve said Magellan first came on her radar screen when she was viewing specialized industry data that show where bookings originate for groups of similarly priced hotels. Magellan regularly ranks second to only American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts.

"Many of us have had this 'Aha!' moment when we first heard of Magellan," Deve said. "We all scratch our head and figure who is this Magellan Vacations from Winnipeg and how can we work with them."

The old-fashioned service she talks about is aided by some impressive proprietary technology.

"We have four full-time programmers and we are constantly updating our data," said Dan Davidson, who Dianna calls a visionary.

Deve said Magellan's 40 agents with cross-referenced information at their fingertips have more detailed knowledge about the hotels than she has.

Not only that, Magellan's proprietary marketing technology will turn online advertising on and off depending on how busy Magellan's sales agents are and send tasteful personal messages to clients, inquiring how their stay was.

"If something goes wrong (on a client's stay), we are all over it," Dan said. "One way or the other, if there is problem, it gets fixed."

That happens partly because of the personal relationships with the likes of Dawson and Deve and partly because Magellan's toll-free phone lines are staffed 24/7, 365 days a year.

Magellan earns its revenue entirely through commissions from the hotels it represents. While the company books only luxury five-, four- and three-and-a-half star hotels, it offers lower rates than the customers might get if they called the hotels directly.

Dianna said the company regularly receives entreaties from hoteliers in cities where the firm doesn't yet have a presence, begging Magellan to expand to its reach, but because of the database that needs to be compiled and the level of staff training required, it takes Magellan six to nine months to add a city. It is just about to bring Boston to its portfolio. San Diego and Toronto might be next.

But if there are not enough $3,000-a-night hotel rooms in your town, it's just not a Magellan Vacations kind of place.

Sorry, but that's just the way the Davidson family of Winnipeg rolls.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

 

Catering to the rich and famous

 

The company's big-name, big-bucks clients include:

 

Kanye West, Hillary Clinton, Gisele Bundchen, Kim Kardashian, Drake, Martin Scorsese, Shaquille O'Neal, Paul Coffey and Jack Nicklaus.

 

The five-star hotels Magellan represents include:

 

The Pierre, Trump International Hotel, The Plaza, Trump SoHo New York, St. Regis Hotel New York and The Ritz-Carlton, Central Park, in New York; The Beverly Hills Hotel and Peninsula Beverly Hills in Beverley Hills; The Redbury, W Hollywood, and Sunset Tower in Hollywood; Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica; St. Regis Washington, Hay-Adams Hotel, Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C., and Ritz-Carlton, Georgetown, in Washington; W South Beach and ONE Bal Harbour Resort & Spa in South Beach Miami; the Elysian and Trump International Chicago in Chicago; and Mandarin Oriental San Francisco, St. Regis Hotel San Francisco, The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, and Four Seasons San Francisco in San Francisco.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2011 B4

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