By Charyn Pfeuffer
More than two decades ago, Sheri Doyle traded in a career as a corporate lawyer to found Pacific Northwest Journeys, a travel planning company geared to meet the needs of travelers to Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.
A Condé Nast Traveler Top Traveler Specialist, Doyle knows every ferry schedule, scenic inn, culinary must, and outdoorsy activity in the Pacific Northwest and will design a detailed 15- to 20-page itinerary that combines each item on your wish list with additional can't-miss activities you've never even heard of.
I caught up with Doyle for a few questions on how to get the most out of working with a travel planner.
What questions should a traveler ask to help determine whether a specific travel planner is a good fit?
Talk to the travel planner about your preferred style of travel, your budget and anything else that's important to you. A good travel planner will refer you elsewhere if you're not a good fit. For example, while I work with clients who have a wide range of budgets, I'm not going to be a good fit for a backpacker-style traveler.
How much notice do you typically need to plan a custom itinerary?
For a summer trip to the Pacific Northwest, a lead time of at least 3-6 months is best, as that will give you access to the widest range of accommodations. I can and have planned very last minute trips (sometimes with as little lead time as a week), but you'll be limited to what's available at the last minute. Right after the recession, it was fairly common to have availability at the last minute, even at the best and most popular lodgings, but for the last year or two, things are getting back to normal and I'm seeing some sold out dates already for July and August.
Everyone has a different travel style. How do you determine a traveler's preferences?
I have my clients complete a detailed planning questionnaire that gives me quite a bit of information. I ask about things like, what has made your previous trips memorable, what's your travel style, etc. Some clients fill it out with lots of detail, which is great, while others limit themselves to short, one or two word answers. So there's also follow-up by phone and email to ask questions and draw the clients out a bit.
How much time do your clients typically spend exploring the Pacific Northwest?
The average trip length is about 10 days. Some clients have 2-3 weeks, which is great, while others just have a week. My role is to help each client figure out what makes sense in terms of an itinerary given the amount of time they have. Often that means dropping a destination or two that was originally on their list. People from other parts of the world don't always realize how much time taking a ferry to the San Juan Islands or crossing the border to British Columbia can take, just to give a couple examples.
Do you get a lot of pre- and post-cruise clients?
Some, mostly for my hotel reservation service, as I offer preferred rates at my favorite hotels in Seattle and Vancouver, the two major cruise ports to Alaska.
Do they tend to stay close to the city or venture beyond?
Mostly close to the city - most of my pre and post cruise clients just stay for a day or two before or after their cruises.
If the latter, what are some of the most popular destinations?
From Vancouver, to Victoria and Whistler. From Seattle, to Victoria, the San Juan Islands and the Olympic Peninsula.
What is the most unusual request a client has made?
Most have to do with dietary or religious restrictions. I've worked with several observant Jewish families who had very strict dietary restrictions and who were unable to travel or really do anything on the Sabbath, so we had to make sure they were always in a good place for that on Friday evening and Saturday. I've also had clients who were interested in somewhat obscure things like leather-working and saddlery. It was pretty fun tracking down places for them to visit.
What is the most luxurious request a client has made?
Most have to do with having services available to them whenever they want them. So they might keep a car and driver on call all day, for example, and pay for that privilege, even if they don't use it.
Inconveniences are sometime unavoidable. What advice do you have travelers if something goes wrong?
Call your travel planner! If there's a problem, I can only try to fix it if I know about it while it's happening. Other than that, patience and flexibility are always good qualities for travelers to have.
When you travel for leisure, where do you like go?
Being a travel planner, few of my trips are completely leisure - I'm always checking out hotels, restaurants, activities, etc. to expand my knowledge base. So if I really want to relax, I go on a cruise. Out at sea, I can read a book or sit by the pool, and not feel guilty that I should be checking out another hotel, because there aren't any! Going to a destination spa is another great way for me to relax while I'm evaluating it as a place to send clients.