Terry Suero of Toca Travel: “Be passionate about your clients”

… Sounding a little cliché-ish, don’t do unto others as you do not want to be done to you. The perks in the Travel Industry are generous, so make sure you do not abuse them. Do not ask for freebies from hotels or providers you do not intend to evaluate or utilize — it costs them money […]

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… Sounding a little cliché-ish, don’t do unto others as you do not want to be done to you. The perks in the Travel Industry are generous, so make sure you do not abuse them. Do not ask for freebies from hotels or providers you do not intend to evaluate or utilize — it costs them money and time to host you; value their time and resources, and want don’t do to them what many of us have experienced when sometimes a potentially new client uses our time and expertise and then ends up booking directly.

As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Terry Suero of Travel COVID Safe and Toca Travel.

Terry Suero is a member of the Travelers Century Club and has visited well over the 100 country threshold. Coming from an Engineering and Business background, Terry has focused on integrating engineering systems, human psychology, and healthcare within the travel industry. With the understanding that Travel has certain therapeutic benefits, Terry has dedicated the last 15 years to understanding how travel design can be leveraged to create more impactful experiences. After many years of working directly and indirectly with Alzheimer’s patients, Terry was able to repurpose the research and findings and apply it to travel. The TAP (Travel Awareness Psychology) research group was opened in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (one of the leading Centers of Excellence for Social Services and Science). Since 2010 he has also been part of an experiential travel design company that integrates predictive psychology in itinerary design. Terry has also been a speaker for experiential travel design. Nationally, he was involved with the American Health Care Association (AHCA) as national master quality and systems reviewer. His two true passions are travel and psychology, which he opts to integrate with Engineering know-how and Alzheimer’s research. The final outcome is Travel Design with a Purpose that leverages the destinations, local experiences, travel benefits, and the human psyche to deliver truly predictably transformational itineraries. He is a firm believer in leveraging travel and its impact on creating positive transformational changes in individuals, families, and groups.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Since being a child, I have always loved to travel, and I thrived on trying to decipher new tastes, smells, and behaviors. But it was the disease of Alzheimer’s that was the real catalyst in launching my career into travel. Ida was a Nursing home resident in South Florida that had her own name-tag identifying her as Resident Volunteer. She was full of life and wisdom (that she freely shared with those who cared to listen to her). Within a few months, I became Ida’s boyfriend (platonic, of course). My visits went from irregular to every couple of weeks — I knew Ida really appreciated and looked forward to the visits. But I found myself looking forward to the visits too — I loved her zest for life and her stories always intermingled with the wisdom that only comes from age. I had adopted her as my grandmother — as mine had passed away when I was a young child.

Ida was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. With her memory quickly deteriorating, we were still able to keep our dates every two weeks. At times she would not recognize me anymore or thought I was her belated uncle, but the visits and conversations continued. And every time I came to visit, the Nursing Home staff told me I brightened her day, and she would be happy several days after. Time passed… Ida’s disease progressed, and I received a job offer that relocated to New York State. I did not hear or see Ida for several years until I decided to come down to Florida and have my mandatory visit with my “girlfriend” Resident Volunteer. When I got to the Nursing Home, Ida was no longer there. Her disease had taken her, but her zest for life was still alive in me. Ida Yaeger changed me; she taught me that everyone mattered and that life was beautiful.

Time passed, and Ida’s imprint was so deep that I ended up changing careers, leaving Engineering for Long Term Care. I worked for the next 8 years in the long-term care industry while always gravitating towards the memory care population and the respective therapies designed for Alzheimer’s residents. One of the care therapies involved creating a care plan by finding activities that mimic “work” from the past, which then help refocus the resident perspective and give them a feeling of being needed and being of purpose.

It was while working in Long-term care that I realized, as an adult and after her death, that my “crazy” world-roaming grandmother actually had been living with undiagnosed Alzheimer’s; and that she found solace by traveling. My grandmother’s memory, combined with Alzheimer’s care planning, helped create the leap into utilizing psychology in travel design.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

We received a referral from a luxury travel agent in the Czech Republic with a unique set of requests. The clients wanted to 1) visit a rain forest; 2) visit a coffee plantation; 3) have intercourse with his wife, whom he had not been intimate with for 10 months. When we received the referral, we boldly told the agent that we would guarantee the three. As the agent pushed back by challenging the impossibility of our guarantee, specifically the third request, I re-affirmed our guarantee. We agreed that if her clients did not have intercourse in the trip, we would give her, as then booking agent, any profit we would have made under one condition — that she then finds a way to use that money as a gift for her clients. Until then, everything was relatively “normally” strange.

Four days into the client’s trip is when things took a turn for the weirder. We received a call from the travel agent in Prague tellings us that we were magicians. Her client had called her to inform her that the trip had started perfect — adding that he had already had sex with his wife twice! And if you want to know more, I sent them to Belize and, well, the rest, I guess, would be the secrets in design that TAP is all about.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we began using Travel Awareness Psychology (TAP), we had no idea how powerful it was. One of my first clients was a family of three. When I met with them, the mother and son were very open and informative, while the dad/husband was very reserved and did not share much. My stance was, “well, if he doesn’t want to participate, then I will plan around the needs of the two others.” What a mistake that was!

I sent them to Costa Rica in an itinerary that combined barefoot luxury with raw nature as seen in the Osa Peninsula.

When the family came back, the mother called our office and stated that she wanted to come to our office and talk with me. I immediately checked her file and did not find anything that signaled issues or problems, which was even more worrisome. The last thing one wants is to find an issue via the client rather than via the local operators. Two days later, she was in our office, and upon entering my office, she asked if we could close the door. She began by stating, “Terry, you promised me this trip would be family bonding.” Right after saying that, I would tell she was getting emotionally agitated. I replied by acknowledging that it was one of the main objectives when I designed their itinerary. I apologized if it did not work out that way and told her I would find a way to make it up. She started with a, “You simply just don’t understand.” She continued, now with tears forming in her eyes, “my son and I used to be the very close, by far the closest between the any of our friends… and well after this trip, something changed, now he is my best friend.” She felt guilty that it took someone else, a complete stranger, to elevate her relationship with her son to another level. I reassured her that she should not feel bad, that we are trained to do that. She went on and on about how amazing the trip had been. How it had transformed her and her relationship with her son. How it had changed her.

At that point, I sighed in relief as I thought she was coming for something negative. My relief was short-lived as it ended with her next statement. “And thanks to you guys, I realize I need to leave my husband.” Plop!

What had happened is that I had inquired deep to find out that the dad/husband had a bad hip, which meant he could not participate in most of the Osa jungle experiences. Instead, she found herself discovering a new world and sharing these transformational experiences with her son. And every time she made it back home, she would find her husband sitting on a chair, reading a book.

The lesson learned was obvious, travel design with TAP is quite powerful and needs an adequate amount of due diligence.

PS — they never got divorced!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?

Some of the tips I would give are:

Love your Product — try to sell the Travel you personally love — the clients are entrusting you with their most valuable asset, their time.

Be passionate about your clients — recognize the trust a client is entrusting you with and realize that you have the potential to greatly affect not just their life, but potentially also their life.

Be equally passionate about your vendors — As a travel professional, one should realize that most of us belong to this “Travel Tribe” that values travel as a necessary part of life. We must never forget that customer advocacy does not mean that vendors and a potential vendor mistake are adversarial. Expand the Travel Tribe circle to be all-inclusive of vendors and clients.

And sounding a little cliché-ish, don’t do unto others as you do not want to be done to you. The perks in the Travel Industry are generous, so make sure you do not abuse them. Do not ask for freebies from hotels or providers you do not intend to evaluate or utilize — it costs them money and time to host you; value their time and resources, and want don’t do to them what many of us have experienced when sometimes a potentially new client uses our time and expertise and then ends up booking directly.

We noticed that to love your Product, you have to live it. We make it a point to have all our employees participate in conferences and FAMs. But we take it a step further, since our job requires a lot of traveling, we also promote our staff to bring spouses along in some of the trips, so they buy into the benefits that they get in lieu of not having their spouse some weeks a year.

So my advice is Travel, live your Product and sell what you know. Sell the Experience of Travel instead of treating it as a product that is simply resold. And whenever one feels a little down or over-worked, reread some of those “Thank You” letters that remind you of the impact one is making.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Two people helped me get to where I am in the travel industry. My grandmother with undiagnosed Alzheimer’s taught me how therapeutic and uplifting travel can be in most of life’s circumstances. Travel has the innate ability to refocus, re-align, and simply be more open to change. And when planned correctly, travel can also help develop empathy, both in adults and children.

When Bonnie Cywinski joined our team, we showed us how to apply the researched and documented psychology into travel itinerary design. This was transcendental as it validated many of the pathways we had been developing and highlighted the importance of maximizing experiences by coordinating their order. The order was discovered to be even more important than the destination.

Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

With the current COVID-19 pandemic greatly affecting the travel industry worldwide, I was asked to join the board of Travel COVID Safe. Travel COVID Safe is a travel advocacy accreditation company that identifies companies that are taking COVID traveler safety seriously. In an industry where many are saying they are doing the right things, Travel COVID Safe looked to identify those who are actually doing the right things. Then propose if to identify safe travel pathways for those who want to travel but want to ensure their itineraries are built around minimizing COVID infection points. Travel COVID Safe follows the accepted CDC guidelines and is explicitly designed for the USA traveler looking for international destinations.

The other innovation is promoting psychology in travel design or “travel with a purpose” as many have coined it. Travel Awareness Psychology takes transformational trip design to another level.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?

With the travel and tourism industry attempting to adapt to the unprecedented COVID-19, we see the industry struggling to develop a unified set of standards and, even more so, a certification process that is not biased and/or basic. This lack of unified recognized and highly trustable set of standards leaves the traveler with doubt about which hotel, country, or operator is abiding by CDC guidelines.

Why does the travel industry need Travel COVID Safe?

The travel and tourism industry was forced into the healthcare world almost overnight to address the new COVID-19 concerns. While some of the big operators/hotel chains have the means to assemble internal healthcare teams, most independent hotels and operators do not have that luxury. Travel COVID Safe helps the industry regain consumer confidence by introducing non-biased rigorous third-party accreditation that is stringent yet helpful. Yet I think the biggest value-add, which is usually noticed until after accreditation, is that of allowing the travel company to concentrate on what they do best while relying on TCS to help them manage and keep informed of the changing standards for COVID.

TCS is working with multiple countries to create Safe Travel Pathways that will allow for a network of certified safe operators that have been audited and take clients’ safety seriously.

How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

This will allow us to gain travelers’ confidence by making it easy for them to understand the risk factors and identify those hotels and providers taking their health risks seriously.

As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?

COVID-19 made us all realize we were not globally prepared for a virus. Travel is one of the leading causes a virus can spread — it is obvious our industry has changed because of this. We believe hospitality companies will need an entity like Travel COVID Safe to stay informed on new guidelines regarding health and safety …

You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

I believe that the perfect vacation experience combines four things: 1) Self-growth by connecting with the culture and environment; 2) Self-indulgence by providing non-judgmental access to the pleasures on likes; 3) Felling Safe and Secure based on your own tolerance factors, of course; and 4) Responsible travel in which we feel we left the visited place unscared by our visit or if even possible, feeling that ones visit made a positive impact on the areas visited.

Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I think our jobs are consistently bringing goodness to the world by promoting an empathetic view of the world as one.

I do have a beautiful story to share that is perfect for the times. A year ago, we had sent a father and his son and daughter to Peru. Their trip included a two-night stay at a local Inca community in the Sacred Valley. From a design perspective, we like to do this so that the travelers can get familiarized and connected to the local culture before heading to the more touristed areas, such as Machu Picchu — this changes their perspective and can better identify the western culture influences of commercialism that are not always that pretty.

After the family stayed in the villages and continued to Machu Picchu, they returned to the Sacred Valley and stayed at the Sol y Luna hotel, owned by Petit. In conjunction with the luxury hotel, Petit also runs a school of the same name that focuses on the local communities and also education for children with any sort of handicap. The 15-year old son that had been traveling with his father and sister was really taken by Petit’s school and started a GoFund campaign to raise supplies and money for the school. After a three month campaign, he was able to raise a total of almost 5K dollars, which he sent to the school in the Sacred Valley. This was right during the start of the COVID pandemic. Petit herself called the boy to thank him and tell him how Godsend the money had been, specially now that tourism had come to a halt. The call from Petit resonated so much with the boy that we decided to renew his efforts. After applying for some grants and asking for local support, he was able to get over 50K dollars for the school — but he now wanted to asked to have that money be used primarily for the handicapped children specifically. When his father asked him, why only the handicap children, the child responded with:

“Dad, we visited those Inca villages, I noticed that nobody was playing with the two handicapped children that I saw. When the rest of the villagers were working or socializing, these handicapped children were left by themselves, marginalized by village life. When we went to Petit’s school, I realized how special of a place it was. Not only were the kids of all ages, races, and money backgrounds, she believes in the school so much that her two children are students in it. But what really impressed me was how all the kids were playing together, even the handicapped children. They were a group of happy, playful children. That means that when school is over, and the handicapped children go back to their villages, they will have already created friends and would not be ignored.

As the travel designer that helped design that initial trip, I find no better example of how travel can be a catalyst for empathy and social responsibility. Not only had it changed this child but it had most probably had an impact on his family and their circle of friends.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to share and see the concept of travel design replace the notion of reselling or matching clients with products, as evidenced by many travel agents. Elevate our jobs to be more than merely booking agents and instead agents of change. When done correctly and with the proper training, we can change lives and unite the world — few industries can boast of having that ability.

How can our readers follow you on social media?


This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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