“There are absolutely wonderful things about everywhere we’ve been,” Jill Romano says, diplomatically. “But there are places that touch you beyond just the destination, beyond the beautiful setting, and those are where you are able to have authentic interactions with the people that live there. Like Bali, with the nicest, kindest, gentlest people that you could ever find, where kids walk down the streets on their own safely because the whole community watches out for them. Or places where you can be out in nature, in the silence and completely focused on what’s around you – like some of the safaris that we’ve done.”
“The most recent trips tend to be the most top of mind,” she continues. “And because we have cultivated these wonderful relationships, there are one-of-a-kind experiences of getting into the Cairo Museum or seeing King Tut’s tomb when they’re closed to the public.”
Romano seems to stop herself long before she’s reached the bottom of the list in her head. While the Mill Valley couple are certainly serious travel connoisseurs, they’re much more than that: Jill Romano co-owns the agency Dimensions in Travel, which is a preferred travel agency for Backroads, the Berkeley-based active vacation company, and books travel for organizations like Guide Dogs for the Blind and Hospice By The Bay.
Robert Romano, meanwhile, sits on the travel agent advisory boards of Abercrombie & Kent and Starwood Hotels and Resorts and is a partner at Fugazi Travel. He designs luxury, adventure and resort travel for clients of the agency, which has been around since 1869, when most of its bookings were for domestic train trips and transatlantic trips on steam ships.
The pair are leaders in an industry that some thought might actually go the way of the steam ship. The travel business has been disrupted over the past 15-plus years by the Internet, putting information and tools at customers’ fingertips – and putting many travel agencies out of business. But that tide is turning a bit, Robert Romano says.
“There’s definitely a lot that people can do for themselves, transactional things,” he adds. “But you can’t do anything super special on the web – it needs contacts and relationships and a human touch. And it’s actually come full circle in many ways, in that a lot of people who were booking travel and experiences on their own have been taken advantage of by the internet and they’re coming back to us. They realize we can enhance and add a lot value to what they want and we’re happy to work with them again.”
The flip side of the tech-driven disruption of the travel business is a level of freedom in which travel doesn’t disrupt the work. “With so many technological tools available nowadays, you can operate a travel business from anywhere you wish,” Jill Romano says. “We work from all over the world when we need to.”
Robert Romano grew up in Kent Woodlands in a family that ran a wine marketing & importing business, and got to travel to Europe on his parents’ business trips, as well with his “wonderful grandparents who loved to go on trips and take my brother and I with them,” he says.
He worked in the family business for a while after college, but when his father decided to retire, he needed a job, so he turned to the agency that had been booking his family’s trips for years: Fugazi. “I was lucky,” he says. “Fugazi’s like the federal government – no one ever leaves. But someone was leaving and another was out for a hip operation, so they brought me on.”
The couple met at a travel industry conference in San Antonio, Texas 18 years ago – “Jill stood out because she spoke intelligently and was close to my age,” Robert Romano says. He “purchased my engagement ring, a Tahitian black pearl, on a Paul Gauguin cruise a few years later,” Jill says.
The Romanos’ respective agencies have some overlap between them and some distinctions.
“On the luxury side of things, we are good at knocking it out of the ballpark,” Robert Romano adds. “The value proposition compared to those that book their own hotels, for instance, is huge. Our clients can expect the kind of complimentary breakfasts and room upgrades that come with an agency that has great, long-standing relationships.”
The couple also co-hosts trips occasionally, including an ocean sailing trip and a river trip this fall.
As with any service-based industry, they both have plenty of stories to share, from the family that wanted the bungalows with the best views of a nearby mountain and needed the plunge pools drained and covered so their young children wouldn’t fall in – despite their being other bungalows without the pools – to the client who started booking a trip with Jill, who then realized that the client was also booking the trip with Bob. “We decided to invite him over to figure it out over a glass of wine,” Jill says with a laugh.
When the conversation shifts to the one place that they haven’t been yet and are dying to visit, the replies are brief.
“Antarctica,” Robert says.
“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” Jill adds.