GUEST: Maryles Casto On The Lengths An Agent Goes To

Maryles Casto's upcoming book—"A Hole in the Clouds"—recounts her journey from Philippines Airlines flight attendant to U.S. immigrant and founder of Silicon Valley travel agency Casto Travel. Her book is set for release on Nov. 11 from Silicon Valley Press. Flight Centre Travel Group in 2019 acquired Casto Travel's U.S. operations, though Casto retains Casto Travel Philippines. She also is founder and chairwoman of MVC Solutions, a travel industry IT services firm. Below is an excerpt from Casto's book recalling a few run-ins with the tech elite and how they informed her service ethos.

At Casto Travel, we did everything we could to make our customers happy, even when their requests didn't immediately—or ever—make sense. Serving Silicon Valley's notoriously eccentric population, we had more than our fair share of quirky customers on our client list. One of my favorites among them was Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak. In the hard-charging tech world, he stood apart: kind, open, caring, guileless almost to the point of being naïve. He didn't have a mean bone in his body. Forty years later, his success hasn't changed him one bit.

One of Casto's first tasks for Steve was to help him renew his passport. We prepared his papers, and he came to our office to review them. Everything went smoothly until we took the documents up to San Francisco, handed them over to the official at the passport office, and she handed them right back, pointing to Steve's signature and announcing, "This won't do. It has to be his full name."

That's when we noticed how he had signed his name: "Woz."

Now, most clients, when informed of such an issue, would simply redo the documents with a full signature. Not Woz. His response: "Well, Woz is my name." Rather than acquiesce to bureaucracy, he researched passport regulations. Lo and behold, he discovered a rule that said his signature was valid, no matter what he called himself, as long as it was witnessed. With the regulation in hand, we went back to the passport office, and, reluctantly, they agreed that Woz was right. I would venture a guess that his passport still bears the signature "Woz" today.

For all of his gentleness, when Steve believed something should be so, he was relentless until it was so. It was the same with his interests: If he needed to see or know or do something, he became obsessed with it until he had an answer—and as time went on, he had the money and the reputation to do just that. So, when he had an impulse to see the new Legoland in Copenhagen, he dropped everything and booked a trip for his family. In pursuit of his obsessions, be they big or small, Steve would become as excited as a little boy. It was charming, and it kept us on our toes—when Woz called, you never knew what he'd be up to.

On one occasion, he called me and said, "I need to go to London." I replied, "Okay, for how long?"

"Just for the flight," he said.

I was taken aback. "So, you're flying for twelve hours and then just turning around and flying back."

"Yes. I want to test my new cell phone."

So that's what he did: boarded the flight, landed at Heathrow, made a phone call, and headed back to California. It was crazy, fun, and the stuff of legend all at the same time. Casto Travel kept Steve as a client—business and personal—because he knew we'd keep rising to the occasion, joyfully, no matter how unusual that occasion might be.

In Search Of Mr. Peters  

Tom Peters co-authored perhaps the most successful business book in history, In Search of Excellence, which sold more than five million copies. It was perfectly timed, offering a note of optimism to a nation that was enduring both a deep recession and the depredations of Japanese industrial competition. After it came out in 1982, you were hard-pressed to find a desk in Silicon Valley that didn't display a copy of the book. In the midst of that explosion of interest, Tom hired us to handle his overwhelming travel calendar. He was, it seemed, always on the go. For weeks at a time, he'd travel from city to city, often staying only the day, or at most one night, before heading on to the next.

In order to accommodate the frenetic pace of his speaking tours, Tom wouldn't buy just one plane ticket to his destination, but one ticket for every flight to that destination on his travel day. Apparently, he was concerned that unforeseen circumstances—a speaking engagement that ran long, traffic on the way to the airport, or a canceled flight—would keep him stuck in one city when he was supposed to be delivering a speech in the next. So, if he needed to go from San Francisco to Boston, and there were seven flights that day from SFO to Logan, we bought him tickets for all of them. If that wasn't enough, on each of those flights, Tom asked us to book two seats, not because he'd have a companion with him but because he valued his alone time. Once he confirmed which flight he was getting on, Janice, who worked at our VIP desk, would cancel the rest.

Does this sound extreme? Consider that, in a matter of weeks, Tom's speaking fee jumped from $10,000 to $100,000 (which would be $250,000 today). Any cancellation fees were a rounding error for a man delivering hundreds of speeches each year.

As you might imagine, all of this frenzied travel took its toll. One day, Tom called Janice and said, "I just got off a plane, and I don't know where I am."

"What do you mean?" she asked.

He said, "I'm in an airport, but I don't know what city I'm in or where I am supposed to go next."

Janice could hear in his voice that he was delirious from lack of sleep. She said, "Stop where you are, Tom." She looked up his travel calendar and told him, "You're in Philadelphia." Then, as all Casto agents learned to do, she went beyond answering the question Tom had asked, and imagined what else he might need: a helping hand.

"Do you have your briefcase, Mr. Peters?" she asked. Thankfully, even in his delirium, he had remembered to take it off the plane. "What do you see around you?"

"I'm near Gate Nine," he said.

"Okay, great," she noted. "I'm going to send someone to find you. Now tell me, what are you wearing?"

Later, Janice told me the whole story: While Tom held on the line, she called airport security, and, like a mother who got separated from her child in a department store, she described our lost client, asking security to locate him and guide him to the airline's club lounge so he could rest. With that arranged, Janice got back on the line with Tom and told him the plan: wait for security, follow their lead, take a nap, then call back for your revised schedule. Once he was revived and back on track with his new itinerary, she asked him to call her upon arrival at his next destination so she could help him get to his hotel.

Lesson: When you encounter a problem, take ownership of it, and see it through to its full resolution.

When people ask, "What makes Casto Travel's service so special?" I think of moments like this—Janice owning the problem, coming up with a creative solution, and supporting the client as she would a beloved family member or friend. That was the essence of Casto hospitality, and it brings to mind something else I loved about my work: there was never a dull moment. When the phone rang, you never knew what awaited you on the other end.

A Lost Passport 

After his success at Silicon Graphics, which he had founded, Jim Clark took some of his new fortune and moved up the road from Milpitas to Mountain View, to found Netscape, the company that brought the internet to the masses. I had the Netscape account, and I devoted much of my time to handling Jim's increasingly expensive life—including planning and managing activities at the various destinations Jim traveled to via his private planes.

From one of these excursions, I got a desperate call from Jim. Somehow, on a flight home from an international trip, he had misplaced his passport. Now he was phoning from the plane, en route to the airport in Houston, asking me to furnish a passport before he landed. Immediately, I made an emergency call to the State Department, found the right person, explained who Jim Clark was, and described his real-time predicament. By the time Jim landed, a temporary passport was waiting for him, and he was allowed to reenter the United States.

How did I manage this? Like Silicon Valley, the travel industry is both enormous and, in some ways, a small community. Once you gain the right kind of notoriety, people recognize you and open doors for you. More importantly, if you invest in relationships—show genuine kindness and interest in people—they have a tendency to help you out when you ask, even when your ask seems near impossible. A direct legacy of my mother, kindness is how I operate in the world, which means I created warm relationships not just with people in power but with every gate agent, clerk, administrative assistant—everyone I encountered. The entire Casto Team operated this way. As a result, when clients were stuck in a jam, we had a whole army of people ready to help us get them out.

Lesson: Cultivate your relationships with care. Your success depends upon them.

NOTE: This excerpt from "A Hole in the Clouds" is copyrighted, all rights reserved to Maryles Casto.