How do luxury travel agents balance the need to please upscale clients seeking a taste of street culture and local flavor in exotic destinations while also ensuring safety and a high level of service?

The answer is research, global connections, and experience.

Many North American travelers who in the past have turned to travel agents for luxurious trips marked by spas and Michelin-starred restaurants are now frequently asking for more local experiences in the far-off destinations they visit, according to travel agents and research reports.

While the concept of high-low travel isn’t entirely new, customers are increasingly requesting unique travel experiences that give them a feel for what life is really like in places around the world, according to Terry Bahri, founder of Los Angeles-based Terry B Luxury Travel, a five-person agency focusing on high-end customized itineraries and concierge-style services.

Vetting Experiences is Key

“Everybody wants something local, but it’s something that has been vetted and experienced,” Bahri said. “We don’t just take them on a whim somewhere.”

The key to making sure that Americans with stomachs unaccustomed to exotic foods can still enjoy the local fare is making arraignments far ahead of time.

Bahri recently put together a trip for a client to experience a Vespa tour in Vietnam that made multiple stops for the famed street cuisine along the way.

“It was all street food but you can’t have a client get sick,” she said. “Although we do food tours and street food, these are restaurants and stalls that are known to handle food in a very hygienic way.”

Bahri’s clients often pay tens of thousands of dollars for a trip and the difficulty of balancing luxury, comfort and safety is a difficult one when clients request the lowbrow elements.

“If somebody is going to pay $50,000, $60,000 or $80,000 for a trip, you need to make sure you know where you are taking them,” she said.

Working With Destination Management Companies

Bahri works with overseas destination management companies, which typically have drivers and English-speaking guides with them.

“If you go to Fiji and go to the village and you sit with the chief and have dinner with him, it’s not a luxury type of 5-star dining experience, but it’s the luxury of having the connections of having somebody locally hosted,” she said.

Other agents such as Ed Postal, owner of Luxe Travel in Laguna Woods, Calif., prefer a more hands-on method when luxury clients ask for a more local experience.
Postal, a home-based agent with no employees, regularly travels to the areas he specializes in, including Italy, South Africa and France and tries to find off-the-beaten-path restaurants and experiences that he can try for himself.

“I personally love a little hole-in-the-wall,” Postal said. “I specifically look at how long they have been there. A place that’s been in the same location for 40 years has to be doing something right. That’s something you look at.”

Postal, who has been working as a travel agent for 27 years, estimates he has personally visited more than 250 restaurants around the world that he recommends for his clients.

Five-Star People

“‘Most of my clients are five-star type people, but I like to find places average Americans don’t know about, whether it’s a city, restaurant or hotel, and give suggestions like that,” he said.

While appreciating his guidance, Postal said some clients also want to keep a sense of discovery and adventure in their travels. He’s careful to honor this.

“Some people love to experiment on their own,” he said. “They like to search out their own little places and sometimes you don’t want to give them too much information because they feel like you have an ulterior motive.”

The key to keeping clients safe while engaged in local culture is vetting, whether through first-hand connections or trusted TripAdvisor reviewers, according to Bahri.

“When you go to countries where everything is different, you really need to work with someone you trust, who offers great service and takes care of your clients,” she said.

Photo Credit: The Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City as seen on December 21, 2014. Travelers are increasingly asking to experience the local feel of the destinations they visit. Ben Oh / flicker