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Out to see: Travel agents handle the tough gig of exploring exotic locales so you don't have to

A view of the Caribbean Sea from the Riviera Maya, a stretch of coastline on Mexico’s northeastern peninsula known for its numerous all-inclusive resorts, long beaches, yoga retreats and Mayan ruins. Detroit Lakes travel agent Heather Rosing snapped this pic during a work trip to conduct site inspections of resorts in the area. She said the views were "amazingly gorgeous." Submitted photo1 / 6
Heather Rosing, with a performer during a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico's Riviera Maya last October. Submitted photo2 / 6
Little surprises and details -- like the word "gracias" spelled out in chocolate on this dessert plate -- sweetened the travel experience for Heather Rosing on her work trip to the Riviera Maya. Submitted photo3 / 6
A view of Aruba, from a resort Katie Dillabough visited for her work with Travel Travel. Submitted photo4 / 6
Detroit Lakes Travel Travel agents Cheryl Chivers, Heather Rosing and Katie Dillabough, at the local Travel Travel office in the Washington Square Mall. Marie Johnson / Tribune5 / 6
Detroit Lakes Travel Travel agent Katie Dillabough posed for this picture during a recent site visit trip to Aruba. She's pictured with the other travel agents who were part of her group; she's in the middle of the "U." Submitted photo6 / 6

Traveling the globe to visit beautiful, exotic places; staying in luxurious oceanside resorts; and enjoying a bevy of fine food and drinks—it's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it.

Yes, being a travel agent has its perks. The most envy-worthy perk, of course, being travel.

Travel agents need to be sure they're not sending their clients to unsafe places or hole-in-the-wall hotels when they help them plan their vacations, and what better way to judge the quality of a place than by visiting it themselves?

That's why, once a year, the three travel consultants at Travel Travel in Detroit Lakes each take annual "fam" trips, or familiarization trips, to different locations around the world. The trips can last anywhere from a few days to a week-and-a-half, but the purpose is always the same—to learn as much as possible about a destination.

They conduct site inspections at multiple resorts, which include full tours of the properties (and every kind of room they offer); they meet with resort managers; they try the food; they visit local beaches and other popular tourist attractions; and they make valuable connections with workers in the local travel markets.

"We do a lot of networking," said Katie Dillabough, a travel consultant with Travel Travel. "You go with a high-end rep from a company, so you definitely make connections with them. You also make contacts with the transfer company and tour operators."

Dillabough's most recent fam trip was a 4-night stay in Aruba last May. Aruba is a small Dutch Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela. Dillabough toured the island and visited a number of resorts with a group of about 20 other travel agents.

Her takeaway? That it's "an up-and-coming destination" with a lot going for it. It's safe, English-speaking, and travelers can use U.S. dollars there.

That trip allowed Dillabough some free time of her own, but others keep tight schedules, with agents booked up day and night. Travel Travel Consultant Heather Rosing, for example, took a fam trip to the Riviera Maya in Mexico last October that required her to visit 14 resorts in two days. It was intensive, she said, but fun.

"They look forward to these trips every year, but it's hard work," said Travel Travel Manager Cheryl Chivers. "We want to make our clients happy, and with our knowledge of a destination we can make sure that they can have a great time on their trips. So our knowledge helps them."

The agents said there are "endless opportunities" for fam trips, with invitations pouring into their email inboxes every week. But as part of a top-producing agency, they're privy to a few more selective offers, and those are the trips they tend to choose from.

"Things change in this industry," Chivers said. "You have to keep up with the changes in the destinations and in the hotels. Katie can go to Sandals Lucia (Sandals Grande St. Lucian Spa & Beach Resort in St. Lucia) now, and in a year it could all be changed. We have to stay abreast of what's going on."

Dillabough is the unofficial 'Sandals specialist' at the local Travel Travel office. She attends an intensive training with the popular all-inclusive resort chain once a year to stay on top of any changes or special deals happening at the resorts.

All-inclusive packages are always top sellers at the agency, Chivers said, because they're budget-friendly and convenient. Detroit Lakes area travelers tend to prefer all-inclusive trips to tropical locales like Mexico and the Caribbean in the winter, to escape the cold, while Europe and Alaska are popular destinations in the warmer months.

Since those are the places their clients want to go, those are the places the agents try to visit, so they can make the best travel recommendations possible. They've never visited a 'bad' place, the agents said; rather, it's about learning which places will best suit the unique needs and preferences of their clients.

"Every place has its own little perks, it's own benefits," Dillabough said. "We've been to places we wouldn't prefer ourselves, but that clients would, so there's not really a place we wouldn't recommend. It just depends on who's asking."

In her 5-plus years as a travel agent, Dillabough's been to Jamaica, various parts of Mexico, Aruba and France. Rosing is the newest member of the team; she started about a year-and-a-half ago and has so far been to the Riviera Maya. This coming year, she'll be going to Maui, Hawaii. Chivers, with 35 years in travel under her belt, has been all over the world—throughout Mexico, Central and South America, the U.S., Italy and Belize, to name a few. Her next trip will be to Scotland and Ireland, this summer.

Chivers is semi-retired from the business now, working reduced hours but still enjoying her part-time gig.

"It's a fun job," she said.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 4-year-old son and toddler daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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