Business Travel: VIP treatment from Mr Fix-it

Sean Shelley explains how he opens doors for his more demanding clients.
What exactly is Shelley Ashman International?

It's a business travel agency. We certainly don't do package holidays. It's a very personalised service. Our clients don't just want seats on aeroplanes, they also want mobile phones and Internet access when they arrive, or boats to charter.

How do you get someone a room in a hotel that's full ?

Hotels often say they're full when they're not. Usually they'll always have a few rooms free. The challenge for us is that the people we deal with are generally not talking about a single room - they want a suite or a group of rooms. It all comes down to knowing the right people and having the right contacts.

Do you have any famous clients?

Yes and I'm not telling you who they are. That's why they're with me - they trust me.

What's the most extravagant request you've had?

A lot of people arriving on private planes will get to their destination very early in the morning. Most hotels don't let you check in until the afternoon, so they always pay for the night before too so that they can go straight to bed. It may not sound that extravagant, but it's interesting just how many people do it.

Have you ever failed to fulfil a request?

We once had somebody who wanted to land their plane on an aircraft carrier but the operation would have involved one of the Eastern Bloc countries and we couldn't arrange it because of the political situation. But, in general, I'd say we have a 95 per cent success rate.

What qualities do you need in this kind of work?

Patience is the key. People often say to me, "My God, you're patient," and it is essential. Most of my clients like to deal with me directly and need to know they can get hold of me at any moment. That means working a seven-day week. My phone is always on - many of our clients are American and that means being available during their working hours too.

What do you love and loathe about your job?

I absolutely hate time-wasters. Having said that, we don't get too many of them since we don't advertise - most of our business comes directly from personal recommendation. I love the fact that every day is so different. This morning I had a call from 12 Canadians who wanted to play golf on the best course in Ireland but had been told it was booked. I had a word with the president of the club, who I know, and arranged it. Then, half an hour ago, I had a call from six people on their way to America who needed accommodation in a particular hotel. I'm likely to be fixing it right up until the last minute but I know I'll sort it out.

How did you get into this type of work?

I've been doing this for eight or nine years. I started off working for a company that chartered cargo planes to transport animals. The guy I was working for decided that it would make sense to buy a travel agency and I got into this side of the business through that.

Where was the last place you went to on holiday and did it live up to your expectations?

I go to the same place in the Caribbean every year. It's a part of Barbados where all my friends have been going for years. It always lives up to expectations.

Do you ever travel incognito to suss out a place for your clients?

My clients send me all over the place to check hotels. They usually want to see if I can get them 20 or 50 suites all on the same floor or to fix up a particular arrangement. I'm up-front about why I'm there. Recently I looked at a place and said to the management, "I'm about to rebuild your hotel." I got them to open doors that had been sealed, removed all the furniture from a couple of the rooms and made the combination of bedrooms and meeting rooms my clients had requested.

The party question: you're at a party and someone finds out what you do. What question do they always ask?

Someone did on Saturday. They said, "I understand you have a really exciting life." I said that I do. If you'd told me this morning who would have called me today, I'd never have believed you.

Sean Shelley is owner of Shelley Ashman International (0118-971 4714)

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