Rafael Checa was raised in the travel business. After serving in the US Army infantry for 10 years, he went to business school. Upon graduation in 1997, he joined Solar Tours, a family company, and has been there ever since. Rafael was the CFO until his parents retired from the business three years ago and he is now the CEO.
TRO: Tell me about the history of Solar Tours. I remember the company from my earliest days in the industry, mostly as a consolidator to Central and South America.
RC: My parents founded Solar in 1984 as a Latin America FIT wholesaler. The consolidator business started afterwards and it grew larger than the tour business quickly.
TRO: What is Solar Tours’ product line now?
RC: We have an air consolidation division and our FIT business is organized in divisions based on geography: Europe, Latin America, Asia and the South Pacific, Middle East and Africa and Beaches of Mexico, Caribbean and Hawaii.
TRO: With a history that long in the industry, Solar Tours has worked with many, many travel agents over the years. Tell us about your relationship with the travel agent community.
RC: We have a unique way of compensating agencies. Instead of assigning a straight commission we split the net revenue with the agency in a 60/40 ratio where 60% is for the agency. This allows us to not inflate product mark-ups in order to maintain the ability to offer a minimum percentage commission. There are too many products where mark-ups are limited before they become higher than what the traveler can find booking direct. It made more sense for us to keep prices competitive and still allow the agency community to earn and to keep the loyalty of their clients.
TRO: You have an impressive booking engine on the Solar Tours site. Do agents use the engine extensively or do they still pick up the phone and call?
RC: It’s a mix. We believe the booking engine is a powerful way for agencies to quote and build itineraries for their clients and to respond to client questions without having to consult our agents. But we also understand many travel agents would rather work with their preferred inside agents and we have very experienced agents on our staff.
TRO: It seems to me that US travel agents still do not have a solid grip on South America as a destination. Why do you think that is and what is the best way for an agent to begin to understand the countries of South America and how to present them to clients?
RC: Many of the best places in South America are hard to ‘understand’ because they have complex ways of getting to them and complex ways to connect attractions for a multi-destination itinerary. Properties are fewer and may include not only accommodation but also excursions in the area, transportation, etc. It’s not as easy as most of Europe where everything is close and conveniently reached via air, train or car with many affordable options for each type of transportation.
TRO: Peru seems to be high on many people’s “places I want to visit” list. Does Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail remain a strong draw?
RC: There is still very strong demand for Peru. The tourism board of Peru has done a good job of promoting the destination in the last few years and it has paid off.
TRO: What destinations in Central and South America would recommend for the first time visitor?
RC: Costa Rica in Central America because of its diversity of unique experiences and close distances between them allowing folks to see 3 different regions in a week. In South America, Peru remains a favorite for its culture, food and natural attractions.
TRO: What are the destinations that are receiving the most attention from North American travelers currently?
RC: Costa Rica, Belize and Brazil in Latin America . Multi-country itineraries to Europe have increased this year significantly. An increase in lift is making travel more convenient to Australia and New Zealand and demand has followed.
TRO: What are your own favorite spots?
RC: The cloud forest lodges of Costa Rica. Colonial cities like Antigua, Guatemala, Cuzco, Peru and Granada, Nicaragua.
Travel agents can visit the Solar Tours website at http://www.solartours.com/ or call their offices at 800-388-7652.