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Q & A with The Santa Fe Traveler

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Q & A with The Santa Fe Traveler

Santa Fe Experts Billie Frank & Steve CollinsTalk about their Business and Lives

Billie Frank and Steve Collins combined to become The Santa Fe Traveler, which provides trip planning and destination management services to independent travelers and groups visiting Santa Fe and northern New Mexico. They draw on incredibly wide-ranging experience when helping travelers.

Billie Frank worked as concierge at two Four-Diamond properties in Santa Fe and formerly wrote about Santa Fe travel for Examiner.com. Both Billie and Steve are among the foremost experts on what to do in Santa Fe and the surrounding area.

Steve Collins performed concierge services at a Relaix and Chateux hotel in Santa Fe, a former Conde Nast Traveler Gold List winner and one of its "100 Best New Hotels in the World."

A former executive chef who loves southwestern food, Steve has written several cookbooks, including “Grilling and Smoking with The Home Chef,” winner of a National Barbecue Association Award of Excellence. He writes a monthly grilling column for National Barbecue News.

I met Billie and Steve on Twitter and immediately bonded. During a regional food tour of New Mexico, I got to meet them in person. That was a wonderful experience.

Above: Pasquel's just off the Santa Fe Plaza, which Billie, Steve, and I love.

Q & A with Billie Frank and Steve Collins

Billie Frank and Steve Collins of the Santa Fe TravelerDon: When we met, you demonstrated so much affection for each other. How do work together in a business in a way that does not interfere with your personal relationship?

Billie: Like any couple we have our ups and down and we both have red-head tempers (yes Santa was a red-head). We try to respect each other’s boundaries and when we don’t . . ..

Steve: Thank you for noticing that we have affection for each other. We are both strongly committed to our relationship.

We get along just fine as long as I remember Billie is the boss. LOL! Seriously, we do function from two completely different perspectives. The most important thing is to remember that when things work best we each maintain our sense of who we are. We share many passions, including a love of music, good food and travel.

Above: Photo provided by Billie Frank and Steve Collins

Don: How did you meet? Were you traveling?

Billie: This is a blog post in itself. The short story is we met at a house that my former boyfriend shared with a friend of Steve’s. We remet months later by sheer kismet.

Steve: Yes, we met at the home of her ex-boyfriend. They were no longer an item but I guess he didn’t believe she was serious because thereafter he treated me like I stole her. All I can say is she ended up with the better man.

At the time, I would spend my time between New York (City, Hudson Valley and Catskills) and west coast (British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California) and between (including Mexico). For me travel has been a way to experience new things, exotic cultures and just generally keep things fresh. Billie prefers luxe travel (never camps).

Don: What brought you both to Santa Fe? What keeps you there, instead of for example along the California coast, which I know you love?

Billie: We spontaneously decided one day in the mid-80’s we wanted to live in the Southwest. Took us 20 years to get there and another eight to get here. I was sitting on top of Puye Cliffs one day and felt like I’d come home. I've written about this experience on our blog. I have earthquake issues, so California is not an option.

Steve: I first came to Santa Fe when I was 12. My father is buried in the National Cemetery. I was intrigued by the exotic character of the city and continued to be from then on.

We each have our own answers about what keeps us here. For me, the intermingling of the cultures and histories of the people who have lived here, along with the geology and archaeology are strong interests that continue to resonate. In addition, the cultural stimulation of galleries and museums with all of the different genres is fabulous. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there are excellent restaurants to enjoy.

We love the entire coast of California, coastal Oregon, and Washington State but more as places to visit.

Wall at Chef Fernando's Epazote, Santa Fe

Above: Dining room wall at Epazote in Santa Fe, where Billie, Steve, and I dined upon their recommendation. Chef Fernando and his family provided one of the top dining experiences of my life, absolutely exquisite food and service. Sadly, it has closed. 

Epazote, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Above: At Epazote you could sample various moles and then choose the most appropriate fish or meat to accompany your choice.

Don: What brings so many excellent chefs to Santa Fe? Surely, they would be making a lot more money in a big city. Why does New Mexico as a whole attract so many serious foodies?

Steve: I can only speculate about why Santa Fe has so many excellent chefs.

Because Santa Fe is such a desirable place to live, many like to be here. I don’t know what the median salaries are for chefs in Santa Fe or how they compare to San Francisco, LA, New York, Chicago, etc., but good chefs are appreciated here and there is good access to quality ingredients (especially fresh and local) and besides money those are two motivating factors.

New Mexico attracts serious foodies because there continues to be strong interest in food that has a strong regional character and identity. Although the process of homogenization impacts us here just as in the rest of the U.S., northern New Mexico continues to follow old culinary traditions. Also there are heirloom varieties of fruits, vegetables, and livestock that can still be found here.

There is also the interest in foods of the peoples who were here before Europeans. All of these factors come together to make it interesting to foodies.

Don: Usually, towns with an influx of wealthy new residents profoundly change, but Santa Fe retains its special character. What could Santa Fe teach other cities about preserving their identity?

Billie: Natives and long-term locals would not agree. Until the mid-80s Santa Fe had normal stores downtown that served the local population. Today, it is all tourist-oriented shops, galleries and restaurants.

What has kept the character is the strict zoning. We have a historical board and any change to a building or piece of land within the designated historic area has to be approved. And, buildings in outlying areas have to meet certain zoning standards. We are one of the few cities in the U.S. with an adobe McDonalds.

Don: Yet when I travel to Santa Barbara I love that a myriad of strict zoning laws keep it essentially looking the same, but do not find the almost primal respect for the founding cultures that exists in Santa Fe. In your city, the newcomers almost seem to have become the old in the way they go about their lives.

Billie: I can only speak for myself, but I find the culture very compelling and that includes the traditional art. There is a definite energy here that I don't find in many other places. I think New Mexican food is something that we newcomers eat occasionally, but that the people of Hispanic descent still eat as a way of life. We do enjoy the bounty of local foods and love chiles, which are probably the New Mexico state vegetable. I know biscochittos are the New Mexico State cookie.

I think the vibe of the first people remains; they lived on the land and a lot of them are still here, spirit-wise and their descendants are here. This is really a difficult question to answer, as there is a lot of conjecture involved.

Steve: It’s paradoxical that Santa Fe retains its special character in the midst of centuries of change. Santa Fe has drawn artists for many years. This is a core of Santa Fe’s appeal.

I think people are drawn to the aura of creative energy that surrounds a vibrant art community. The special character of Santa Fe is the mingling of cultures and histories along with the community of artists.

Don: Explain what you do, how you help travelers.

Billie: The short answer is, we do anything they need to make their trip memorable. From booking the best lodging for them, to recommending the dining spots that meet their criteria, to planning day trips, to securing concert tickets, even grocery shopping and dropping clothes at the cleaners.

If you need it we do it. We have just added guided tours to our services. Steve, our guide, is a member of the Santa Fe Guides Association.

Steve: We love to make personal connections and learning what interests visitors so that we can work with them to create a customized experience, so that they can cut to the chase and get to the things that they love.

Don: How does being destination concierges differ from when you helped travelers staying at hotels?

Steve: There are many similarities to what I did as a concierge for a luxury destination hotel. The best differences we offer as private concierges have to do with being able to plan more detailed and specialized itineraries.

Billie: We do more for our clients than anyone can reasonably expect from a busy hotel concierge. We are our client’s advocates before and during their trip. We take the time to discover what they really want for their trip.

As we are not dealing with a hotel full of guests needing assistance, we have the luxury to create really individualized itineraries. We also spend a lot of time visiting sites in the area so we know exactly where we’re sending folks and what their experience is apt to be once they get there.

Don: What ethical standards are critical to your profession? I know you care deeply about this.

Billie: We work on walking our talk. If you haven’t figured it out, I’m a very demanding customer. That works well for our clients as I strive to provide the service that I expect as the client.

Steve: The most important ethical standards in this profession have to do with accurately representing your expertise, disclosing instances of complimentary meals, lodging or activities. Whenever one is offering travel services, guests must always feel that their interests are the first priority. Anything that compromises this is detrimental to all, whether it’s a babysitter recommendation, restaurant review or recommended activity.

Roques on the plaza, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Above: Roques Carnitas cart on the Santa Fe Plaza, a beloved Santa Fe institution. In Santa Fe, even food carts garner national reviews.

Don: What are some of the most unusual requests you have received? What were some of the most difficult to fulfill?

Billie: The most difficult in a way was a woman who wanted to find the person she bought a handcrafted switch-plate from about 10 years before. She thought that the person was in Albuquerque. I found them and not on the Internet. That’s the great thing about cultivating a network.

The most challenging was choreographing transportation for a business group from Europe who wanted to go to the Lightening Fields. Because of really crazy logistics, it was like military maneuver. The woman at the Lightening Fields, a non-profit art installation, did not think I’d pull it off.

Don: Concierge conjures up images of helping celebrities and other wealthy people book last-minute tables at the French Laundry and tickets to sold-out Yankee games. How accessible are your services to people who have less money?

Billie: We are accessible to all and no Yankees and French Laundries to worry about. We get some great pricing and pass the benefits on to our clients. If you book our basic service and do a lot of stuff, we can pay for ourselves.

Steve: We offer a basic service that is accessible to any budget. The key is having enough advance notice. We try to honor any request no matter how difficult.

Opening night opera tickets can be quite difficult but not impossible. We make it clear in advance if the request is difficult. It’s important to maintain good relationships with concierges, service providers, etc. so that we can provide the best service to all.

Don: How are you paid?

Billie: We are paid by our clients. There is a perception out there that concierges, travel agents and other travel pros refer to places that give them commissions. I wanted to remove that perception from the equation. We do not receive commissions from any of the businesses we book our clients with.

Don: How can people best use your services? What should travelers think about before contacting you?

Billie: We are great for everything from finding a great place for the client to stay, a place that meets their specific needs, to matching them with restaurants and activities that work for them. A hotel can be fabulous, but not for you. We have to listen and sometimes read between the lines. We’re both good at doing that.

If they want a unique trip that goes smoothly, they want to use our services.
Sometimes guidebooks are not up-to-date and people who make recommendations to friends do it based on what they did, not necessarily on what’s out there and may interest the individual more.

Don: Steve, I am very impressed by your knowledge of New Mexico history. What triggered your interest in this? What would you and Billie recommend visitors read or watch about New Mexico before their trips?

Steve: History and culture have always resonated with me. Santa Fe is a treasure trove of information that interweaves those threads. A couple of books that would be great to help people get a feel of this area are Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, a fictional account of Archbishop Lamy who came to Santa Fe in the late 1850’s to create the new diocese.

Another excellent book is Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides. This is a fascinating book because it goes into detail about Kit Carson. Because of who he was and the time in history it gives a great sense of the part the New Mexico played in settling the Western U.S.--Polk, Fremont, manifest destiny--essentially the creation of a coast-to-coast nation.

Books by Frank Waters offer excellent, easily accessible info about Pueblo Indian culture.

On a lighter note there have been some excellent pieces on the Travel Channel--Samantha Brown for example, and Food Network has done pieces on Santa Fe restaurants.

Billie: Read our blog, SantaFeTravelers.com. It’s an ever-growing guide to the area.

Don: I love the plaza in Santa Fe, but discovered Cathedral Park on my last visit, which I enjoyed even more. What other little gems do you both recommend, which many visitors miss?

Steve: There are some great little gems. Nedra Mattucci’s gallery (Paseo de Peralta at Acequia Madre) has an amazing sculpture garden; exploring the Acequia Madre neighborhood, and Cross of the Martyrs for fabulous sunsets to name a few.

Billie: Cross of the Martyrs, San Miguel Mission, the oldest house--the list goes on and on. The three walking tours on the blog can help with this. Also, if they like depression-era art, there are some WPA murals around town.

Don: At the minimum, how much time should someone plan for a first-time visit?

Billie: Four full days would be great.

Steve: If possible, a first visit should be at least four days, ideally a week or more. People frequently say that they wish they had known that they needed more time. Besides things to do in Santa Fe, there are fabulous day trips.

Don: What are some of those absolute must-see destinations in New Mexico and southern Colorado that take a day or longer from Santa Fe, which are often overlooked by visitors?

Steve: The Four Corners region is absolutely a must see. It’s too far to do as day trip from Santa Fe, but to really understand the Native American presence in New Mexico, visit Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde and the remains of all their outlying settlements.

Ojo Caliente Hot Springs shouldn’t be missed--it’s easily under two hours north of Santa Fe. Visitors could include a stay. The accommodations are nice and some were recently renovated.

Taos is well known as a destination and worthy of several days in its own right, especially for those interested in the historic Taos and Taos Modern art scenes and to explore Taos Pueblo (one of two, with Acoma, which continue the Pueblo traditions.)

Don: I love taking the "High Road" from Santa Fe to Taos.

Billie: Puye Cliffs on the Santa Clara Pueblo, Bandelier National Monument, Fort Union northeast of Santa Fe off I-25.

We love Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. Also Great Sand Dunes National Monument in the San Luis Valley in Colorado and we love the picturesque town of Salida. We almost bought a house there when we first came west, but that’s another story.

Don: How should travelers contact you when they want to arrange their visits?

Billie: They can reach us through the contact form on TheSantaFeTraveler.com or or call us at 1-505-474-4155.

Don: Thank you so much!

Note: Although we are great friends, neither I nor BidOnTravel has a business connection with Billie Frank or Steve Collins.

More from Billie Frank and Steve Collins of The Santa Fe Traveler:

Comments

santafetraveler
September 5, 2011

Thanks for doing this fabulous Q & A with and about us. We love spreading the word about what we do and you really asked thorough questions.

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Don Nadeau
September 5, 2011

You are most welcome. I very much appreciate the chance to talk with you. Thank you again.

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Abby
September 5, 2011

Don, it’s no longer fair that I’ve met you and not Billie and Steve. I’ve just started to plan a weekend in Santa Fe — and I’m not kidding! This was such a great interview. It was so sweet, and I just loved reading about your guys’ story and travel background. Plus, it was so informative and really captured New Mexico. I have the hardest time explaining to people the charm of ordering green chiles on pizzas and at McDonald’s… Tradition doesn’t just fall by the wayside in the 505. I just love it. I’ll be in touch about a June or July weekend jaunt to Santa Fe!

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Jeremy B
September 5, 2011

What a great interview with Billie and Steve. I learned so much about them and what they do that I didn’t know. This was great!

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Don Nadeau
September 5, 2011

Hi Abby, thank you so much. It was really fun to interact with them.

Billie and Steve are wonderful people to meet. It’s great that you plan to pay them a visit. It had been quite a long time since I’d been in Santa Fe, and I really questioned my priorities once there.

I love New Mexico and it’s great to have friends like them and you who know it so well. You were so lucky to have grown up there.

I didn’t know that about McDonald’s in New Mexico. Guess too busy at the Frontier, Bobcat Bite, and all!

Don

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santafetraveler
September 5, 2011

We’re ready for you, Abby. Just let us know when you’ll be here..

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Steve Collins
September 5, 2011

Thanks for the great article, Don, and the wonderful reminder of our fabulous time together last summer!

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Don Nadeau
September 5, 2011

Steve, absolutely my pleasure. What wonderful, interesting lives you lead.

All the best.

Don

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TravelDesigned
September 5, 2011

Don, you are so lucky to have met them in person and hear their story. I speak regularly with Billie on the phone and occasionally with Steve, reading this I could hear their voices. One of these days I hope to meet them in person, maybe in Mexico :)

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Don Nadeau
September 5, 2011

@ Jeremy B Thank you!

@ TravelDesigned Thanks Stephanie. Time for a trip to Santa Fe!

Don

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Billie Frank
September 5, 2011

So Stephanie- are we meeting here or Mexico?
Don- up late writing about Santa Fe Food carts and the link to this while Googling Roque’s. We are on page 3- need better placement!

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Don Nadeau
September 5, 2011

@ Billie Frank

Part of the Google placement problem with http://www.thesantafetraveler.com/ may be that Google spiders cannot read your lead text in a graphic. On the interior pages, you certainly have the type of original material that Google likes so much. Consider moving the regular text you have on the homepage higher.

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