Joel Cohen

Joel Cohen, Vice President of New York City Vacation Packages
Don’t go to the Big Apple without talking to Joel! With 40 years in the industry, he knows all the best spots. He’s still finding new and exciting places.

Steve: I’m speaking with Joel Cohen, President of New York City Vacation Packages. How are you today, Joel?

Joel: I’m doing fine. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. One correction, I’m Vice President. I tried to use Emperor or King, but Vice President turned out just fine.

Steve (laughing): Alright, thank you!  First question is about you. What is your professional background?

Joel: I studied Accounting in college, I have a BBA (Bachelor of Business Administration). Then I went to law school. My background is that I have 40 years in the travel business. Actually, as of January 1 of this year, to the day, I celebrated my 40th anniversary in travel.

Steve: What inspired you to choose the travel industry?

Joel: Oh, for the glory! Certainly! (laughing) But I soon learned, I could travel all over the world, for free…but only vicariously through my clients. I think it was initially, I would be able to travel cheaply, and go see the world. Of course, that’s not the case. I do really enjoy the fact that I can in some ways, live vicariously through my clients. Through their stories and through planning their trip.

Steve: How did you begin your career?

Joel: I began as a retail travel agent. I got thrown right into the fire. My very first day on the job, I had a client that came in, wanted to go to Disney World. It was about the only destination in the world that I knew; I had been there several times. They wanted to stay at the Contemporary Hotel. I turned around to my manager, I said, “What do I do?

He said, “Here’s the name of the tour operator.” This goes back 40 years, at that time, there were only two tour operators in commissionable packages to the on-site hotels. So, I called Greyhound World Tours at the time, made the booking. A couple days later when my client came in to pay, my manager told me to call Greyhound World Tours back and confirm everything and send them the payment.

When I called them back, I realized that this first booking I ever made, instead of having called Greyhound World Tours, I called Greyhound Rental Car. I booked my client for a week, living in a Ford Fiesta.

Steve (gasp): Oh no.

Joel: That was my introduction into travel and my first mistake. Fortunately, I got it all squared away. It’s been somewhat even keel ever since.

Steve: How did you manage to resolve that one?

Joel (laughing): I don’t remember. I probably sat up in the middle of the night, at three o’clock in the morning. I think that’s when you know when you’re a travel agent. When you wake up, sit straight up in bed, at three o’clock in morning, scream some horrible epithet, and then realize you forgot to do ticketing, forgot to send a payment or you forgot to get back to a client. You realize at that time, you really are in the travel business.

Steve (laughing): Good to know!  Let’s talk about your company. How did you come to work at New York City Vacation Packages?

Joel: Barry Tenenbaum is the current president of the company. He and I founded the company in 1998. We really saw a need at that time, for a tour company that was dedicated to a destination that was overlooked, I think to the travel agency community. At the time, it was one of the top three most visited destinations in the U.S. and now, it’s the number one most visited destination in the U.S. If you can imagine, there was no tour company that was focused exclusively on FIT (free independent traveler) and group travel, to what is now the number one most visited destination in the U.S. We saw the need, and I think we did a great job fulfilling it.

Steve: How has your professional experiences changed your perspective on tourism?

Joel: I think I learned, over the years, how vital tourism is to the economy. It’s one of the top three industries in about every country in the world. I’m certain it’s in the top three, maybe even number one industry in the United States. That’s something that I have learned over the years, that really makes this entire industry stand up and deservedly, take a bow.

Steve: What are the benefits of working with a travel agent, that you would not get going alone?

Joel: Oh boy, I can go on and on about that. I think a travel agent is an angel on your shoulder. When the client has a travel agent they can contact - before, during or after. When they’re in need of anything at all, there’s someone to call. Someone will take care of the problem. Working with an agent saves time and money.

In fact, I just read online, I can’t recall the name of the publication, the average traveler pays more through an OTA (online travel agency) than they do going through a travel agent. They’re going to save money. They’re going to get experience and get advice. They’ll cut through all the promo bull that you read on a vendor’s hotel or sight-seeing company promo material. The travel agent has cut through that and says, “Look, here’s the real facts.” I think anybody who’s planning any kind of a vacation, anything that includes more than just airfare, going through a travel agent is the only way to go.

Steve: Now, here comes a hard ball. What are the most difficult decisions that you must make?

Joel: Personnel, that’s always difficult. I think it’s also anticipating what the market is going to be like. Anticipating what the year is going to hold and anticipating what’s going to happen in the next 18 to 24 months.

Steve: Let’s change gears to something positive. What has been your greatest accomplishment in your career?

Joel: I can’t say I’ve learned to make a three-point shot, or to get a home run. I think meeting and working with travel industry folks all over the U.S. and Canada. I’ve been making friends, cultivating relationships, and just being around some incredibly talented people. I’ve met people who have such great local experiences. That, to me, is my greatest achievement in 40 years.

Steve: We’re coming to the home stretch. What books, blogs, materials about the travel industry would you recommend?

Joel: I’m not much of a reader in terms of books. Certainly, travel publications – online and print. Facebook groups, Twitter, and travel related forums. That’s the best thing I can recommend.

Steve: What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career in travel?

Joel: Be patient. Be prepared for endless hours of planning, begging, arranging, rearranging. Followed by periods of anxiety, sleepless nights, and then ending with a great feeling of accomplishment. It’s an incredible industry, an incredible business with incredible people. I would say “go for it!” Go for it with all the gusto that you have.

Steve: What’s your favorite part of NYC?

Joel: That’s an interesting question. Someone recently asked me, what’s my favorite destination in all the years that I’ve traveled. I’d answer that question in the same way. Wherever I’m visiting next, that’s going to be my favorite. There’s so much happening: there might be a new Broadway Show, a different neighborhood I haven’t seen before, a new attraction, a new special event. Whatever I’m doing next, excites me the most.

Steve: What are some fun facts about yourself?

Joel: I have a daughter, who followed my education background. She’s now at a high level within financial reporting, at a large corporation. I’m proud of that. Even though, throughout all of her childhood, she wanted to be a travel agent; she took a different path.

Before I got into travel, I had a photography studio. I learned how to turn a fun hobby into a hated profession. I still love doing landscape photography, and travel photography. I won several national awards, including one from the foremost travel guides.