Months ago I received a press release about Zicasso, a company that matches travelers who want custom vacations with travel agents who are specialists in specific countries and types of activities.
Interested in biking from village to village in the Swiss Alps? Would you like lunch in Hue, Vietnam, at the home of the daughter of the last princess of a Vietnamese dynasty and her historian husband? Is glacier hiking in Patagonia on your bucket list?
"Yes", you say, - but who can help you select a special vacation, if you don't want to go on a group trip but want someone else do all of the trip planning?
About the time I read the press release, my husband and I snagged flights to Croatia using accumulated miles. Next step: find a travel consultant or agent who knew the country well. I decided to test Zicasso - and I'm glad I did.
How Zicasso Planned Our Vacation in Croatia
Many good travel companies offer customized trips, but the Zicasso approach is unique. You put in a request on the Web site, and Zicasso comes back with two or three travel specialists that you can interview. Everything is done by humans behind the scenes, who look at your request and then choose travel agents who specialize in the location or type of activities you are requesting. According to Brian Tan, Zicasso's founder and CEO, it's a requirement that agents must have traveled extensively to the destination that he or she sells.
You start by filling out a request form, outlining where you want to go and what you want to do. In our case, I simply said we had flights to Croatia, wanted to visit Dubrovnik and few other cities, and wanted to include some adventurous activities.
Within two days, I received two replies via Zicasso, and a third from another source.
The first one via Zicasso was simply a return email outlining a "trip" that resembled the mass group tours I'd looked at online. The second travel agent called me, but when asked if she had been to Croatia, she said "no". We wanted someone who had been to the country. The third travel specialist via Zicasso, Maja Gudelj from the Select Italy agency, asked us to give her a bit more information via email, so she could learn more about what we really wanted to do in Croatia before talking to us.
She hooked us on the first phone conversation, by saying that a hotel we were looking at in Split was good, but a 25 minute drive from the walled city area - possibly longer in morning rush-hour traffic. (It turns out she was from Split. She was visiting her mother while we were there, and went along on the private tour she had arranged for us, and then spent the rest of the day showing us more of her city.)
After about three weeks, and a lot of back and forth, we had our trip arranged. It was the special activities that wowed us. We had a private 10-course gourmet dinner at Bibic Winery (mentioned in Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" TV program), after it was closed to the public. The meal was cooked by the winery owner's wife and a sommelier told us about each wine he matched with a course - as well as a lot about living in Croatia.
During other days of the trip we did such adventurous things as spend a morning getting down and dirty crawling through a cave using only miner's lamps on our helmets. It was a spelunker's dream, open to just a small number of people each year. Another day we visited monumental historic sites and megaliths, with a private guide who is an author, winemaker and cosmologist. Afterward, we spent hours over lunch with our guide and his wife, talking about the history of Croatia and what it was like to live in a small village within sight of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Fees for Zicasso Travel Specialists
Travelers do not pay a fee to use Zicasso. More than 90 percent of Zicasso's travel consultants do not charge a consulting fee, according to Tan. They make their money off commissions from hotels, car rental agencies and other activities they book for a client.
The only exception might be when a client keeps changing arrangements, in which case the travel specialist might ask for a "good faith" non-refundable deposit, according to Tan.
How Zicasso Came About
CEO Tan said he "started Zicasso to solve my own problem." He was employed at Internet networking companies but loved to travel. Having difficulty finding travel specialists online, he started Zicasso "to do the homework on behalf of clients".
Real Reviews by Travelers Keep Agents Performing
After returning home, travelers are asked to write a review about their trip and rate their travel specialists. "We use review and rating system as a quality control. The travel specialists must maintain a 4.5 out of 5 rating after receiving six reviews. So, travelers have the last word." Tan said.
For more information or to request travel specialists for vacation planning, visit Zicasso.
If you 're not sure if you want to purchase a travel package, plan your own trip, or choose the custumized vacation route, here are some tips to help you decide.