Moving to the U.S. from Portugal with her parents as a 2-year-old and growing up in Elizabeth, Cristina Candelino, owner of Prestige Travel in Atlantic Highlands, always enjoyed traveling.
“My parents loved to travel and I remember being in travel agencies with my parents and playing with the brochures,” said Candelino, who fondly recalls trips to Europe, South America and her father’s native Brazil as a young girl. “I was so fortunate to have those experiences,” said the Highlands resident.
After graduating from Seton Hall University, Candelino worked for Exxon as a corporate manager in Florham Park for the next eight years and continued to travel personally — until a serendipitous series of events led her to a new career doing what she loved most.
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“During the oil crunch of the 1980s, Exxon began offering attractive exit packages and I took one,” said Candelino, by then married to husband Ben. “At the same time, a friend of ours who owned several travel agencies invited us to get into the business with him. Though we had no experience operating a travel agency, I knew I could take the bull by the horns and run with it.”
In 1986, she and Ben purchased Vista Travel in Hazlet in partnership with their friend and Candelino went on to become a certified travel consultant and secure numerous other travel-related certifications over the years. She and Ben have since run the agency for 34 years, ultimately buying out their partner and changing the venture’s name to Prestige Travel in 2008.
As a full-service travel agency and consultant, “we specialize in designing tailor-made and custom trips for leisure/vacation travelers — from luxury cruises, escorted tours, private excursions, pre- and post-stays, and more — both domestically and internationally,” Candelino said.
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“Customized trips are very involved, with many components that require research and use of ‘insider information’ that we have, and this helps us to create a personalized dream vacation,” Candelino said “We ultimately get to know and develop strong bonds with our clients and incorporate what they’re looking for in a vacation, which has led to our high client repeat rate of over 90%.
“We were an American Express Travel Representative up until about four years ago, but are now part of the Signature Travel Network, an exclusive network that provides our clients with amazing upgrades, amenities and opportunities,” Candelino said. “Our job has always been to get the best package and value for our clients and this new affiliation has enabled us to do that on a whole new level.”
Another development in Prestige Travel’s evolution was its recent move from its longtime home in Hazlet. Earlier this year, “we landed on a great space in Atlantic Highlands and officially relocated there this summer,” she said of moving the business to its new 1,200-square-foot location on July 1, during the heart of the pandemic.
Postcards from the pandemic
As the coronavirus bore down on New Jersey and New York in March and travel restrictions ensued, “my two other full-time agents, four outside agents, bookkeeper and I remained busy handling a huge load of cancellations and refunds,” Candelino said, ironically pointing out that this is one of the benefits of using a travel adviser. “We save our clients so much time and aggravation in these situations thanks to our connections, preferred suppliers and understanding of the process.”
In an industry that’s been especially hard-hit by the pandemic, Candelino confirmed that her business has experienced its share of challenges as trip after trip was canceled or rebooked for 2021.
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“We’d done all the work to design, plan and book so many amazing trips in 2020 and then lost all of the commissions, which was very hard on us and the whole industry,“ said Candelino, who had to furlough Prestige Travel’s in-house agents as business dwindled through the spring and early summer. “People either rebooked or have future tour and cruise credits that they can hopefully redeem/rebook in the coming months.”
Despite the unexpected upending of the industry and her business, however, Candelino remains optimistic.
“We have a lot of people wanting to rebook and there’s a great deal of pent-up demand,” she said. “In fact, this month we’ve had quite a few clients coming in and booking and it’s been wonderful to have that personal contact with them again.”
She noted that the Caribbean and Mexico are among the top destinations customers are booking now based on their comfort with the safety precautions upscale resorts and hotels in those areas have taken. But with only essential travel currently allowed to many other countries, she said, “there’s a ‘pause’ button on now and it’s about when this current situation will clear.”
“I’m concerned,” she conceded, “but while it’s a slow process, I feel that the travel industry will come back and won’t be permanently scarred. We’ve dealt with 9/11, commission cuts in the 1990s, SARS and many other crises over the years and we came through them all.”
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She also believes that Americans’ love of travel — “it’s in their DNA,” she said — along with hoped-for assistance from the government will help the travel industry emerge from the current crisis.
“It’s a wait-and-see until border restrictions are lifted and a vaccine hopefully comes into play,” Candelino said.
Making travel dreams a reality
In the meantime, “our focus has always been on helping our clients and we still regularly connect with our clients to let them know what’s open and available, which they truly appreciate,” she said. “People love and want to get away and we’ll be here to make that happen when they feel ready to do so.”
For her part, Candelino couldn’t imagine a life without the joys of travel.
“I love being taken away from my environment and experiencing different cultures, cuisines, and languages,” said Candelino, who speaks Portuguese, Spanish and Italian and noted that tourism dollars also help so many in need around the world.
“Travel connects us all and, for that reason, I truly enjoy designing and planning custom trips with clients and love the bond I have with them,” Candelino said. “So many of our clients checked in with us during the pandemic and can’t wait to see our new space; we plan to have a grand opening event when the time is right.”
Ultimately, Candelino said, it’s important for consumers to be knowledgeable travelers, recognize the exceptional value that travel advisors provide, and keep the faith.
“We just hope that people will hold onto their love of travel through the pandemic,” she said. “As we emerge from this difficult time, we’ll be there to take care of them, create magical moments and memorable experiences, and make their dreams come true.”
Location: 68 First Ave., Suite K, Atlantic Highlands
Owners: Cristina (Cris) and Ben Candelino
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Prestige Travel is on the move, and ready to handle pent-up travel demand for 2021