St. Armands Travel, an agency specializing in luxury excursions, proves how personal relationships with clients and attention to detail can beat the behemoth competition: the Internet, now found in the pockets of 125.9 million smartphone-wielding Americans.
“We create travel opportunities you cannot Google,” said Steve Lawson, who owns the company with his wife, Carol. “Our clients aren’t buying commodities; they’re buying experiences.”
St. Armands Travel, at 415 St. Armands Circle, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, a longevity achieved by offering intricacies for the discriminating traveler, Lawson said.
“Sure, you can click on an online special for a flight and a hotel room, but then you’re at the mercy of the deal and can’t be sure you’ll get exactly what you want,” he said. The Lawsons’ customers, on the other hand, don’t have to make compromises to accommodate blackout dates or room availability. Their restaurant and tour recommendations are personally vetted, so they can experience their destination like a local. They also receive VIP treatment, such as an escort who carries their bag through the customs line or a flower arrangement waiting in their hotel room.
The company’s fifth owners, the Lawsons, purchased St. Armands Travel in 1997, following a four-year stint at a budget agency in Orlando. While visiting Carol Lawson’s mother in Bradenton, they came across a classified ad for a travel agency.
“We were beside ourselves,” Steve Lawson said. “St. Armands Circle? It doesn’t get better than that,” he said of the business’s proximity to affluent customers in Sarasota and Longboat Key who would appreciate travel agents willing to go the extra mile.
The company wasn’t lucrative when the Lawsons acquired it — it had slipped from the No. 1 agency on Florida’s west coast in the 1980s to doing less than $1 million in annual sales — but, within 12 years, it increased sales by 400% and earned a membership with Virtuoso, an invitation-only organization for elite travel that includes only approximately 300 agencies worldwide.
The Lawsons hosted afternoon teas with thousands of innkeepers, cruise directors, airline representatives, maître d’s and concierges at annual conventions to establish trustworthy allies around the globe.
“It’s about fulfilling hopes, wishes and dreams,” Steve Lawson said, remembering a couple who wanted to explore Istanbul a few days before embarking on a cruise from there. The dates corresponded with the World Cup, which meant no hotel vacancies. A do-it-yourself traveler booking online would have given up, but, thanks to the Lawsons’ connections, the couple stayed in the personal home of a Turkish Virtuoso member. “It’s been years, and they still say it was their best experience abroad.”
A Storied Half Century
From a filling station to a former art studio, St. Armands Travel has had several homes. Throughout its many moves and new sets of leaders, it’s prevailed as a source for luxury voyagers. Here’s a brief timeline.
• Early 1962: Sarasota businessman Robert Haynes coins four travel agency names: Longboat Key Travel, Southgate Travel, Venice Travel and St. Armands Travel.
• Late 1962: Haynes’s employee, Mary Lyons, purchases St. Armands Travel and opens it in a filling station next to the Elbow Room on St. Armands Key.
• Late 1960s: Lyons moves the agency from the filling station to front office of Markman Realty on St. Armands Circle.
• 1970: Lyons moves the agency to Klauck’s Five and Ten store, near the present location of Armel Jewelers.
• 1972: Lyons sells the agency to Gail Billings.
• 1978: Joyce Allen and Nancy Blee purchase St. Armands Travel, move it to the second floor near the corner of Madison and Boulevard of the Presidents. They build the company up to the No. 1 luxury travel agent on Florida’s west coast. Among the thrills they arrange for their clients: a ride on the Concorde.
• 1992: The Andersons purchase the agency.
• 1997: Steve and Carol Lawson buy St. Armands Travel and increase sales 400%; move into John Dineen’s art gallery.
St. Armands travel agent shares favorite expeditions
Steve Lawson, who owns St. Armands Travel with his wife, Carol, has visited 49 states (all except Idaho) and dozens of countries on almost every continent. “I treat personal travel as a research project,” he said. “I’m there to experience it like a local would, so I can plan truly authentic trips for my clients.”
He also specializes in finding luxurious touches “you could never get with a Google search,” he said. Case in point: for a client who loves to bake, he arranged a private lesson with the pastry chef at The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., twice named “the best restaurant in the world” by Restaurant magazine.
Though he’s been “almost everywhere,” Lawson has his favorite spots. As the official tourism advisor for Australia, Tahiti, New Zealand and Fiji, it’s no surprise that most of his recommendations fall in the South Pacific.
Here are his top five travel experiences:
1. Vacation in an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora.
2. Stay in a luxury tent overlooking Ayers Rock in Australia. With the touch a remote control, screens and curtains lift to reveal panoramic views of the giant sandstone formation that “looks just killer” at sunrise and sunset, Lawson said.
3. Do a self-guided drive along the south island of New Zealand. “The topography changes from plains to beaches and mountains,” Lawson said. “You need time to savor it slowly and to talk to people at stops along the way.”
4. Snorkel or dive in Fiji. “It’s the soft coral capital of the world,” Lawson said. “Get in the water and see it.”
5. Visit India. Book a 1,100-square foot Bedouin tent with your own butler. Go on a tiger safari. “Go crazy” with the naan, Lawson said.