We’re at dinner in Benalla. Over the course of the evening Frank and Fiona Stephens have got wind of my travel plans. I am heading to Spain for food-writing work. Normally I do everything online by myself. But I tell them my flights and my connections. The husband and wife team, co-owners of Benalla Travel, look at each other and then burst into a stream of airline and city codes between themselves. Within a minute they have mentally reconfigured my clumsily assembled online click and wish itinerary. In its place is a bespoke series of flights where I get better seats, shorter stopovers and reach my Spanish destination with less chance of jetlag and for the same price as I was able to achieve blindly shopping around online offers.
These Benalla-based travel professionals live and breath getting people from around Australia across the globe. Their aim is to get their clients to their destination on the best flights, in the best seats and into the best locations that suit their needs, on budget, every time.
The loveable duo are so adept at looking after people in their global and local travels that they have garnered a remarkable number of high-profile frequent travellers as regular clients, among them respected food journalists and high-profile chefs. It’s a high-flying clientele who want to spend more time on the ground soaking up exotic culture and less time waiting for the next flight, waiting for baggage or being caught in the bureaucracy of international travel. ‘Leave it to us,’ say Frank and Fiona.
So how did a small team working in regional Victoria become one of the nation’s go-to travel agents for the rich and famous? ‘Good people have good friends,’ says Frank over a glass of Cava Fiona made last year with friends in Penedes, the home of Spain’s sparkling wine region, west of Barcelona. ‘We have always aimed at giving our customers what we would want,’ says Fiona. ‘Good service, advice, experience and actually listening to what people want as opposed to selling them a product.’
It started when a leading light of the food industry, in town to visit friends, stumbled across their unique HQ stabled away in a mid-20th century arcade in Benalla’s main street. ‘It doesn’t matter who they are,’ says Fiona. ‘We looked after them. They had a ball. They were not used to that level of care. What happened next was an explosion of word of mouth. They told their friends … et cetera, et cetera.’
The team at Benalla Travel already had a good relationship with regional and Melbourne metropolitan businesses working on corporate travel needs. They found corporate customers would return to ask Frank and Fiona to make their holidays run as smoothly as the conventions and business trips. ‘People consider us part of a new breed of travel professionals as we can work just about anywhere, choosing to integrate new technologies into the business. We view our client’s travel plans differently to other agencies – perhaps through our own travel and business experience,’ says Fiona. ‘We are on the ground around the world throughout the year checking out new hotels and new destinations. We know what we are talking about and know how to match a client to a certain product.’
‘It’s something you learn and have a gut feel for,’ says Frank. ‘It’s the human connection.’
Destination South Africa
‘There is a vibe in Cape Town that is so positive.’ says Fiona, who recently visited there. ‘Like Melbourne and Sydney it is a historic colonial port city but with layer upon layer of different cultures and races. The food is sensational and they combine fine wine with contemporary art.’
Cape Town’s award-winning restaurant The Test Kitchen has an amazing off-shoot, the more casual Pot Luck Club restaurant in what is essentially a glass box perched on the top floor of a silo.
‘It has perfect views to match the modern, yet wonderfully experimental food that flies out the kitchen; it’s a great experience,’ says Fiona. ‘The Gallery at Grande Provence wine estate in Franschhoek exhibits the best from South Africa and emerging artists. You can stay on-site in the luxurious Owner’s Cottage, which comes complete with private lounge, conservatory, pool and garden. It’s a gem!
47-49 Bridge Street, Benalla, Victoria
Tel 03 5762 3187