Do travel agents share their secret hideaways?

The ritual occurs every time I plan a holiday: I sit at a desk, opposite a travel agent, who tries hard to persuade me that this or that destination is my best possible choice.

I try to look sceptical. And I find myself wondering whether all this enthusiasm is genuine - or whether there's some secret list of holiday hideaways that travel agents keep to themselves.

Where do travel agents themselves go on holiday? Surely they don't take their holidays in the same places as the rest of us?

Well, it seems they do.

I've been asking travel agents this question for years. Among them are a few who I'd expect to share any little trade secrets. But one of these sums up the situation this way:

"There's nowhere left in the world that hasn't been discovered by intrepid travellers - no genuine secret gems survive, even if many places are promoted as such. Walk down a street in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso's capital, and you'll spot visitors. Not many, perhaps - but I'll guarantee there'll be some.

"Even in our own backyard, you'll meet tourists in Tuvalu or the remotest outposts of the Solomon Islands.

"No, where travel agents have an advantage over many - but not all - other travellers is in doing pre-trip homework: knowing when to visit, where to stay and what to do."

As Paulette Cherny, leisure team manager at Melbourne-based Voyager Travel Corporation, points out: "Name a place and it's generally where travel agents like to go because it gives us opportunities to explore - and pass on delights we discover to our clients."


Like many other Australians, travel agents are particularly partial to Indonesia's Bali. "One can visit many times and still have the most amazing experiences as every area gives a different dimension of a beautiful place with beautiful people," says Cherny.

Her favourite places on the holiday isle: Seminyak (which "has grown to be the place to go") and stylish Jimbaran Bay.

Cherny adds that Bali's appeal is enhanced by its wide range of accommodation choices - from ultra-basic cheap-and-cheerfuls to the highest levels of five-star opulence. What's more, families have "so many fabulous villas" to choose from.

Family-friendly lodgings are also a priority for David Goldman, principal of Sydney's Goldman Travel Corporation. But he cites Thailand and Hawaii as frontrunners in this context.

"With two young children, we like to visit places with fantastic kids' club facilities so that my wife and I can have a few moments together," he explains.

According to Goldman, many of his travel agent colleagues opt for adventurous holidays. Their top destinations at the moment are Croatia, France and Italy "as well as anywhere in Southeast Asia or South America".

Adventure is a particular plus for Jacqui Timmins, general manager of the Travelscene American Express group. She mentions she's "heli-hiked in Canada, jumped off a Swiss mountain, slept on a houseboat roof next to a herd of African hippos and been on a plane that landed on an Alaskan glacier".

The key for Timmins is that experiences should remain memorable.

While travel agents maintain they try to escape workaday stress on holiday, the reality is that they can't help looking for what's-hot-now experiences to pass on to clients, adds Timmins.

Travel agents' strengths include an ability to pass on valuable tips based on personal experiences, Timmins says. For example, they should know the best times "to make the most of sales" in the United States and so further boost the advantage of travelling while the Australian dollar is strong.

It's easier to build relationships with clients if a travel agent can say "been there, done that", maintains Adrienne Witteman, well-travelled managing director of Trendsetter Travel in Longueville, NSW.

Personal interests should definitely be a factor in influencing decisions about where to go, she says. "For instance, golf is a personal passion and I enjoy golfing whenever I travel - sometimes in countries clients may not automatically consider for golfing holidays.

"To date, my golfing experiences have included games in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Spain, Austria, Japan, Mexico, the USA and Britain."

All Asian countries promote golf tourism, she adds. Two examples are Thailand and South Korea.

Aside from sports, travel agents suggest other themes can also influence where to go. Volunteer tourism - where visitors become involved in building or other projects, often at village level - is top-of-mind for many travellers at the moment.

Lee-Anne Levett, principal of Hobart's The Travel Studio, recommends "experiences that support the local community". She considers this type of tourism "a wonderful travel experience to feel good about how we've contributed to the community. These holidays are designed so people can experience the real country and meet the real people".

A recent holiday in Thailand had Levett involved in helping care for a group of "15 beautiful orphan children". But, after the little angels were safely tucked in bed, Levett and her co-travellers went to dinner one evening at a 61st-floor restaurant where the twinkling lights of Bangkok were stretched out beneath them.

Think carefully about holidays and whether they'll provide truly memorable experiences, advises Leonie Spencer, director of Lifestyle Travel in Ballarat, Victoria. A personal highlight for her was the annual wildebeest migration - a stunning event in Kenya and Tanzania - when thousands of the animals thunder on cue in a stampede across the East African plains.

It's widely regarded as one of the world's greatest travel experiences.

Spencer shares this view. "I'd urge everyone to try to experience this at least once in their lifetime," she says.

Like other travel agents, she urges reading as much as possible about destinations before travelling, so as to derive the greatest enjoyment from a trip.