Anastasia Mann has never been one to follow a path laid by others.
As a child actress in 71 movies, she was always more interested in helping the director create a great performance than in the actual acting.
At her first job in the hotel industry as a corporate sales director for Hilton, she created an incentive program that rewarded loyal customers with special corporate rates. The program was a first for the industry and is still in effect today.
When she moved to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, she was a groundbreaker once again, serving as the first female director of sales and marketing at any major hotel in the country.
Leadership was clearly in Mann’s DNA; when she shifted to the travel industry side of the business it was as the U.S. president of a London-based travel management firm. Her hotel and airline friends, however, who knew her independent mindset, kept encouraging her to put out a shingle of her own and she did that by opening Corniche Travel in a key West Hollywood locale on Sunset Boulevard. As for those encouraging buddies? They donned overalls and laid carpeting and painted the walls to help her make it feel more like home.
That was a fortuitous start and in her first four months alone, Mann generated $5 million in revenue. Corniche Travel was on its way and growing at a rapid pace as her former corporate accounts — including Getty Oil, ARCO, MGM and CBS — came on board. Her book of business was also fueled with many, many celebrity clients, entertainers, politicians and writers. Getting the Los Angeles Dodgers’ travel account was a major coup and the first time in history the team used a travel management firm.
That was 33 years ago and what is still ever-present is Mann’s uncanny ability to envision what people need from a trip. It’s her innate attention to the details to bring her clients’ visions to life that has been the key to her success. So has the fact that her knowledge of the world is vast; after almost 50 years in the travel industry, Mann has visited 147 countries.
An affair with Africa: So great is Mann’s love for the destination, she launched Anastasia’s Africa, which operates separately from the travel division with its own dedicated team of Africa experts. Here, she is seen at the Great Plains Conservation, Okavango Delta in Botswana, Southern Africa.
Today, Corniche Group is a $35 million enterprise comprising three divisions: Corniche Travel (leisure and corporate), Corniche Entertainment (handling meetings, incentives, conferences, and entertainment services for them), and her personal favorite, Anastasia’s Africa. As always, though, Mann’s vision for her business is a bit different from the norm. Her biggest concern these days, she says, is the proliferation of so-called “luxury” brands; her pet peeve is the misuse of the word “bespoke,” a British term traditionally reserved for custom-made suits.
Her mantra is that what is luxury for one person is not necessarily luxury for someone else. The value of travel is not about the cost of a trip, she believes, but rather what the experience brings to the customer. “Luxury in Iceland or in Bhutan is going to be very different from luxury in New York or Paris,” she says.
At Corniche, Mann’s focus is on detailed crafted itineraries to destinations where the crowds do not follow. She believes clients should visit the iconic sites in the world but is careful to balance those places with visits to less-traveled locales, as well. Last summer, for example, when a friend said she wanted to revisit Venice, Mann advised her to go to Capri instead. Mann believes the biggest threat to a meaningful travel experience is overtourism; she prefers sending clients to remote spots in Spain and Portugal, in shoulder and off-season, wherever possible. And, of course, to Africa. (More on that later.)
Corniche is a big player in the luxury travel arena; however, Mann firmly believes she and her team should do whatever is possible to realistically work within a client’s budget so they have the best possible experience. Every client should be given her team’s full attention, no matter the size of his or her budget. Though she has hobnobbed with Cary Grant and enjoyed her first-ever martini with President George H.W. Bush, she feels that no piece of business is unimportant, and every client is worth your time and best effort.
In fact, from the very beginning, Mann built her business by treating all customers equally, be they stars or their assistants seeking to book a weekend in Hawaii. “I never tell someone I’m not going to take their business,” she says. “Everybody deserves a great vacation, and I want to give them the most luxurious experience they can afford. And I know that 25-year-old assistant taking her first trip can one day become my biggest corporate client or plan a three-generation safari worth $100,000.”
Redefining “Travel Agent”
Mann from the very beginning brought a unique and forward-thinking approach to the role of the travel advisor. Thirty years ago, the industry thought of travel “agents” as order-takers who simply delivered whatever the customer asked for. And indeed, she recalls the night at the Beverly Wilshire when a buffet for 1,000 really did run out of shrimp in 20 minutes as the travel agents in attendance wrapped them up in napkins and put them in their pockets to take home.
But even then, she envisioned the kind of travel advisor we see today, knowledgeable and skilled, offering that true special service that comes from listening to what a customer hopes to achieve on their vacation, and offering professional — and honest — advice.
To that end, she has represented travel advisors on commissions and boards in California and around the world. She was a founding member of the California Travel and Tourism Commission and chaired the international board of directors of the Travel & Tourism Research Association. She’s been the president of the California chapter of HSMAI; a founding member of MPI and a PATA board member. She is the founding chairman of the West Hollywood Visitors and Convention Bureau and participated in a Trade Mission to the Soviet Union. She was also named as a representative to the historic White House Conference on Tourism, and, for the past 30 years, has served on the Board of Governors of the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism.
Mann at the Real Alcázar in Seville.
These days, though, Mann leaves much of the advisory board roles to her executives and employees and focuses more on training and mentoring her own advisors and others in the industry. Corniche now has 25 full-time travel advisors and 10 independent contractors. As she hired each one, she emphasized that Corniche is a business, and that their role is to advise and guide and provide great service to their clients. Beginning with that great mix of corporate and leisure business from day one, Mann has always strived to have her corporate clients become leisure clients and vice versa.
“It’s about being able to create experiences that are memorable and life-enhancing, where the client will be in awe,” she says. “You have to talk to people and understand their expectations and guide them into an experience you are confident will make them happy. And you have to be honest; I’ll say, ‘On the budget you have, you really are not ready to go to Africa. You will have to wait.’”
Today, Corniche Travel’s business is about 80 percent corporate and 20 percent leisure; the Africa division is about 90 percent leisure. The corporate clients bring volume and an upper echelon of C-level executives who fly first class and stay in luxury properties; these customers frequently book their personal vacations through Corniche, as well.
Congressman Adam Schiff (above) of California presenting Mann with the District Woman of the Year honor in 2018.
Mann advises that while a good business itinerary is built around proximity to the meeting place, a great leisure vacation begins with a great hotel, no matter where in the city it is located.
“The hotel is your centerpiece, where you wake up in the morning and go to bed at night; it’s your home away from home,” she says. “If you have to spend 10 minutes extra to get somewhere, that doesn’t matter; it’s the hotel that is critically important to your experience.” Her takeaway? “Be sure to invest in a really fabulous hotel, where you are the center of their attention.”
Another key part of the Corniche Group is Corniche Entertainment, which works with corporate event planners and travel companies to provide full planning services. Corniche Entertainment also provides top artists for live performances as well as produces concerts; it even oversees and directs artists’ careers. Its roster of entertainers includes the Latin jazz/R&B bandleader, singer, composer, master percussionist Louie Cruz Beltran; blues artist Betty Bryant; and singer Carol Welsman; as well as the acclaimed comedian Mike Marino.
A Special Love
Mann has been enamored with Africa since her first visit there in 1980, and she speaks of her visits, and of the Anastasia’s Africa division, with real love. She recalls walking down the airline steps onto a dirt taxiway at dawn on that first trip and watching a huge dustball in the distance transform itself into a giraffe as it got nearer and nearer. As the giraffe ran past she stood there agape — and she was smitten.
“It was chilling and exciting. I was frozen on the spot and in awe; I was transfixed,” she says. “Apart from my late husband, for whom I had the same reaction, Africa is the love of my life. I’ve tried to talk everybody into going there, and all my advisors into selling it.”
So great is her love for the destination, she launched Anastasia’s Africa, which operates completely separately from the travel division with its own dedicated team of Africa experts who share her passion and knowledge of the destination. The company, which provides highly customized experiences, works with outside travel businesses and pays travel advisors a 15 percent commission.
“I truly want every person on this planet to give themselves the gift of seeing Africa for themselves,” she says. Success stems from passion; Anastasia’s Africa sold approximately $12 million worth of trips in 2019.
In addition to leisure trips and larger groups — including one three-generation family that spent $350,000 last year — Anastasia’s Africa organizes corporate trips and events. Several years ago, it ran a corporate safari for 100, using small luxury lodges and negotiating traversing rights throughout the Sabi Sands, a rare opportunity indeed.
The Business of Travel
Moving into 2020, Mann’s focus is on taking care of existing clients to enhance their travel opportunities. New business tends to come through referrals, brought in by those who know Corniche’s strong attention to detail. Customer satisfaction is of paramount importance to Mann. Case in point: A top executive at Corniche, Jonathan Cowley, has the title of “vice president of sales and client services.”
At this point in her career, with so many satisfied clients and many team members who have been with Corniche for almost 40 years, Mann’s priority for 2020 is to take care of what she has.
“I’ve never been motivated by money,” Mann says. “Sure, I’d love a Gulfstream. But that’s really not the way I look at this business. Once you get to a certain place in life, you can be comfortable making enough income to just maintain everything you have.”
With rents and wages on the rise in Los Angeles, and other expenses going up, as well (especially in an agency that pays 100 percent of its employees’ health insurance), she examined each expense line for potential savings. In the end, she also re-evaluated and increased client fees for the first time in years.
Globetrotter: Here seen in Seville, Spain, Mann has a great knowledge about the world, having visited 147 countries.
Her marketing efforts last year and into 2020 include a dedicated focus on the Corniche Club, a beautiful color magazine she sends out to 12,000 top clients, and posts online, three times a year. It’s also distributed to about 500 travel advisors at other agencies who have requested it. These advisors, who have heard Mann speak at industry conferences and met her at local events see Mann as a mentor, and that falls right in with her key values. “It’s important that all of us share information and knowledge, so that we all support our industry in an educated manner,” she says.
Still, there are many things she hopes to do and see in 2020. She would like to try a Ponant cruise and is looking forward to the new Pendry Hotel scheduled to open on the Sunset Strip in a few months.
Looking further down the road, even after 50 years in the business, she really doesn’t have an exit plan. “My business consists of my employees, who are truly my family, and our clients, whom I love. They are my first consideration when I think about the future,” she says. “I know at some point I have to be decisive. I would only hope for a match with a person who shares our ethics and values.”
Her tips for other travel advisors? “Travel is a wonderful, but extremely low-margin business. Making a living at it requires a focus on the numbers,” she says. “You can’t just expect to get into the business to travel for free. You have to really know your stuff and be able to connect with partners, to build the relationships that you can carry with you. It takes a service mentality, experience and knowledge, good taste and honesty.”
Another key tenet at Corniche? “Equally important, always treat your suppliers with respect.” At her two offices, she mandates that everyone come out when a supplier comes to call. “They are taking time from their own busy days to come by and meet you, and the day will come when you need a favor and that face-to-face relationship pays off,” says Mann.
That indeed played into her own experience: There was that day when President Bush called to say he and Barbara wanted to sail for just one leg of a cruise itinerary, not for the entire voyage. Mann knew who to go to to make that happen; she called an old friend who was the head of a cruise line and got the approval for the Bushes to board at one port and get off at the next. To top it all off, she had martinis delivered to their suite in memory of that very first martini he had shared with her in 1974.
It’s clear there’s a lot of glamour and history to Mann’s travel career but carrying through to this very day are the core beliefs she’s had since the very beginning.
“I was very into the details way back then and I still am today,” she says. “At Corniche we’re still all about taking care of our clients, and I am still all about taking care of my Corniche team.”
More Glory: Mann has also been honored by ASTA’s prestigious Diamond Award.
Chairman & CEO: Anastasia Mann
Headquarters: West Hollywood, CA
Annual Sales Volume: $35 million
Divisions: Corniche Travel, Corniche Entertainment, Anastasia’s Africa
Number of Advisors: 25 plus 10 ICs
Affiliations: Signature Travel Network, ARC, ASTA, SKAL, TTMA, TTRA, CLIA, Four Seasons Preferred Partners, Marriott STARS, Marriott Luminous, Langham Couture, PROST, West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, NARA, Visit California, Cal Travel, Los Angeles Vendors