Byline: BONNIE ESTRIDGE
ANYONE who has tried to book a holiday with a travel agent who appears to know nothing about his or her proposed destination will realise it can be a frustrating experience.
The problem, says Natasha Gubbay, is that many sales consultants have barely travelled themselves. "You have to know your stuff," she says. "You can't leave customers on hold endlessly while you ask someone else or, because you don't actually understand what they want, confuse them by offering too many choices."
Gubbay, 37, senior sales manager for upmarket tour operator Cox & Kings, has always practised what she preaches and happily admits that much as she loves her job, she always has itchy feet for the next trip abroad, whether it's to visit local agents in Africa, attend a conference in India or go on an educational trip to Peru.
She holds her scientist father responsible for giving her the travel bug - something she suspects she will never shake off. "Dad went off for 18 months to Afghanistan just after he'd met my mother, so that gave her a taste of things to come. Later they went on all kinds of exciting holidays - including the Himalayas, the Galapagos islands and Australia. Dad took cine films everywhere he went and they gave me the taste for all those faraway countries."
While studying management sciences at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, Gubbay made use of the long holiday breaks by going on some interesting trips. She worked on a kibbutz in Israel, as a soccer coach at Camp America and went Inter-Railing through Europe.
"When I left university in 1989, I went travelling for a year, doing the typical backpacker's journey, flying to Los Angeles, then to Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, South-East Asia and overland around India. By the time I came home I knew I wanted to work in the travel industry."
She found a job as a sales consultant at the backpacker's favourite travel agency, Trailfinders, then in Earls Court Road, where she had bought her own trip.
"Most employees were graduates, but the key criteria to get in were travel experience and proof that I was capable of selling around-the-world tickets with complex itineraries. The training was good - they wouldn't let you loose on the phones until you had been through an intensive week's course."
Gubbay's time at Trailfinders taught her to ask all the right questions and fix up complicated trips. The rewards were good, too. "Instead of a cash bonus that would be taxed, we could win trips abroad or have a 'travel fund' for holidays. Just some of my trips were travelling overland to Africa where I saw the mountain gorillas, and visiting Namibia, Botswana and South America."
She left Trailfinders in 1995, feeling she needed more of a challenge. "I wanted to be more creative, not just do itineraries and sales. When a job came up at Cox & Kings, I knew I had to go for it as it's the longest-established tour agency in the UK, offering incredibly diverse, luxury trips often tailormade for the client."
Taking a salary drop, Gubbay accepted an admin job issuing tickets and checking documentation. Within a few months, she had been made product executive, responsible for creating trips by visiting different destinations to look at new hotels and resorts, liaising with local agents, working out profit margins, sorting out problems and checking out competitors.
"At the time, the company was only operating in India, Latin America and the Middle East. I suggested Africa, which they were happy to do, and my project became going there to work out the itineraries. …