At the time, it was just another corporate account for the company, but a year later, Brown was asked by the PGA to help work out some travel problems pertaining to the Ryder Cup golf tournament.
These opportunities sparked an idea selling trips based around golf. Brown and his team began marketing domestic and international golf trips for both individuals and groups, and today, the golf portion of the company accounts for 10 percent of total business.
Recognizing an opportunity and then capitalizing on it has been part of Brown’s success as founder and CEO of the company as he constantly looks and listens for ways to change and improve. Being open to suggestions is what has allowed Brown to grow Travel Inc. from its founding in 1979 to the 290-person operation it is today, with 2005 revenue of $436 million.
Listening and communicating
For Brown, everything in business comes back to listening. A man of few words, he believes in the skill so much that he gave employees T-shirts that say “Listening for opportunities” across the front. “It’s just a reminder that we’re always listening for opportunities listening for opportunities to grow the business and listening for opportunities to do things better,” Brown says.
But anybody can say they listen. The age-old issue is how to actually do so. Brown has to listen to both the client companies as entities and the individual travelers within those businesses, as well as to his own employees. Doing so entails maintaining a high level of honesty and integrity with all parties. “You have to try to determine what is important to your associates, what’s important to your customers, and act accordingly,” Brown says.
It doesn’t take any special prompting. If you are listening, the other party will speak up and tell you what matters.
When a company decides to do business with Travel Inc., Brown likes to communicate with its people initially to get both his employees and the new customer on the same page.
“We don’t take a client on and say, ‘OK, start calling us, or start using our online booking product,” Brown says. “We have numerous implementation meetings with the client.”
Brown assigns internal staff members to the new customer, and they discuss the client’s needs and what Travel Inc. can do to make its processes as smooth as possible for the client. Establishing the client’s needs, goals and parameters helps Brown and his team when working with individual travelers.
For instance, often a traveler will request an upgrade, but he or she may work for a company that has said it won’t pay for upgrades and that its employees should take the lowest-priced seats. Without communicating with the company about this, Brown would end up irritating the business and possibly losing it as a client.
In contrast, because Brown knows this, he can go back to that traveler and say he isn’t able to do that because it doesn’t align with the company’s parameters. While it may upset one traveler, it communicates integrity to the company as a whole by showing that he’s not looking to just make another buck behind its back.
One potential client was frustrated that it had more than $100,000 in unused airline tickets floating around with its travel manager. Brown was able to communicate to the client how his company tracks unused tickets and ensures that clients do use them, so he can save it money.
Listening also helps him get new ideas to help grow the business because he can find the company’s strengths and weaknesses best by hearing them straight from the client’s mouth.
“We bring our clients in and we interview our clients what would you like to see that you’re not seeing?” Brown says. “We’ll demonstrate some of the new technology that we’re working on and actively search for input from customers.”
Travel Inc. also sends its account managers out of the office to visit clients, which helps them find new ideas and opportunities to improve the company and the relationship with individual clients. “They come back and say, ‘Here is an issue that a particular client has how can we help the client?’” Brown says.
When the account managers return with these ideas, he and his team will throw ideas around and discuss the possibilities, implementing the ones that show the most promise.
“The greatest skill a salesperson can have is the ability to listen to what’s being said,” Brown says. “Verbalization is not all that important. It’s the listening skill and trying to solve the problem the potential client may have.”
Listening doesn’t stop with customers, either. Brown says it’s important to actively listen to employees, as well, and virtually every good idea in his company even the most basic ones has been brought to him by employees. When they said the chairs felt uncomfortable, he replaced them with better ones. Some people wanted more user-friendly keyboards, so he got those, too. “We listen, and we act where it’s reasonable on what our associates not only need but want,” Brown says. “We want to have a happy, friendly workplace. When a customer walks through and they see smiling, happy people, they would prefer to do business with a smiling work force than with a sour work force. It’s as simple as that.”
Changing and empowering
Travel Inc. used to have couriers in different markets around the country to deliver tickets to clients, but Brown no longer needs their services, as e-tickets have replaced paper tickets.
He also used to have a quality control department of 20 people to ensure that clients got the seats they wanted and that the airfare was the lowest possible, but now technology can do all that, too.
As a result, Brown has had to lay off about 70 people, and while it wasn’t easy, he knew he had to do it to keep up with changing times and remain competitive.
“Doing something the way it’s always been done has never been a good reason to continue doing it,” Brown says. “You look for better ways to do everything. Even great golfers change their golf swing periodically.”
Brown has been able to foresee and plan for some of these changes by keeping his finger on the pulse of the market.
“We were able to project where it was going, and we were able to project that not because we’re so bright but because we have very close ties to our partners in the airline industry,” Brown says. While change can induce panic in an organization, Brown’s employees embrace change because he empowers them to create it themselves.
“If there are ways to do things that they want to try, we’ll let them try it,” Brown says. “That’s empowerment. If someone comes to you with another business idea, we’ll take a risk, and some of those things fail. We will try things. We’ll measure the risk before we try it, but where we see it as an opportunity, we’ll go ahead and take those risks and empower the manager to go with it.”
In fact, the idea of developing the PGA account into an entire golf business came from an employee and it worked out well, but leaders have to create an environment that encourages and rewards employees for having the courage to come forward and suggest ways to improve the business.
Brown recognizes that not every employee will look for those kinds of ideas, so to reward and encourage those who do, Travel Inc. awards “Ink spots” to employees for making suggestions, or even if a client sends in a letter commending an employee. Each award comes with a reward, and those prizes get larger depending on how many awards the employee has previously received. Someone with multiple awards may receive a free airline ticket, for instance.
When employees submit suggestions to their supervisors, if it’s something the supervisor can easily implement, he or she moves ahead with it, and Brown trusts their judgment and gives them the authority to do so. If it’s an idea that’s more large-scale and requires a more significant financial investment, then Brown and his management team will discuss the idea and weigh the issues surrounding its implementation.
To help keep the ideas flowing, Brown creates true ownership in the organization with a profit-sharing plan that kicks in after six months of employment.
“If we can show that those goals will mean additional profits for the company, then it will also mean additional profit for the individual,” Brown says. “Money is a big motivator.”
When employees feel they have a stake in the company and are valued by management, they work harder.
Travel Inc. grew by about 27 percent last year, and it all comes back to listening and maintaining a focus on customers and employees.
“If it’s good for the company and good for our customer and good for our employees that’s just the way we do things,” Brown says. “That’s just basic. If it’s good for the customer and not good for us, and vice versa if it was good for us and not for the customer then we wouldn’t keep that customer, so it has to be good for all parties involved.”
HOW TO REACH: Travel Inc., www.travelinc.com or (770) 291-4100