Overnight sensation Featured

8:00pm EDT August 29, 2005
It began with a timely idea and led to a sustainable business model. But before CEO Tammy Troilo-Krings could turn her company into a success, she had to put forth a little effort. After all, most $100 million companies don’t just happen by themselves, although Travel Solutions Inc. almost did just that.

Four years ago, in 2001, Troilo-Krings was running a successful travel consulting firm called Troilo & Associates, which had a division named Travel Solutions Inc. She had founded the business in 1995 after realizing that changes by the airlines in the commission structure created new opportunities for travel consultants. With no more commissions for travel agencies, agents needed to start charging clients a fee for a service that previously had been free, and travel consultants who could provide more than simply an itinerary and plane tickets had a sudden competitive advantage.

But as Troilo-Krings concentrated on establishing consulting projects with Fortune 500 companies, another side of her business — Travel Solutions Inc., which dealt with travel management — was picking up steam.

“In 2001, we looked at the books and realized that Travel Solutions Inc. was growing faster than Troilo & Associates,” she says. “And we weren’t putting any effort into it. We thought, ‘What would happen if we put effort into it?’”

What happened was that Troilo-Kring’s ability to identify trends in the marketplace and adapt her business to follow provided an unexpected growth spurt, and today she claims that TSi is the “world’s most innovative corporate travel management and meeting and event company.”

Last year, TSi raked in $107 million in revenue; from 2001 to 2005, it rose from being the 28th largest travel management company in the country to No. 7. And in an odd turn of events, Troilo & Associates is now a division of TSi, instead of the other way around.

Embrace technology
Troilo-Kings runs TSi with a philosophy of embracing technology rather than simply accepting it, viewing it as a key driver in her ability to adapt and grow the business. Her belief is that if it’s out there, buy it; if it’s not available, build it.

“Where we see gaps in the technology environment, we fill those gaps with our own technology,” she says.

The biggest focus of that technology is finding ways to save time for clients. To find ways to do that, TSi partnered with Travelocity.com and Expedia.com to survey travelers on why they used online travel booking services and never came back, or never used them at all.

“The No. 2 reason was time,” Troilo-Krings says. “So we built a product where people can request travel and they don’t have to shop. That’s the time-consuming piece.”

EZgo and EZplan, a customized online booking product and online travel request form, respectively, are two ways TSi uses technology to make life easier for its clients. It also offers EZsync (traveler profile info), EZwork (an online registration tool), EZtrak (a ticket tracking tool) and EZalert (instant ticket and travel info).

“In an average agent environment, an agent will issue 19 to 20 airline tickets per day,” she says. “With EZplan, they can do up to 125. A lot of times, when people come into our call center, they’re expecting a lot more people. We point to the technology.”

But that doesn’t mean Troilo-Krings eschews human capital in favor of technology. In her business, the human component is critical. So in February, TSi announced its Around-the-Clock service. Instead of dealing with an answering service after business hours, corporations now deal with TSi staff.

The technology — and process used with clients — varies based on each client’s size. With smaller companies, the relationship with TSi can begin as soon as they request services. Larger companies require a bid process that can last six to eight months, after which getting the relationship up and running can take months more.

Once everything is in place, clients don’t deal with an agent. Instead, they have a customer coach.

“We all have the term ‘leader’ or ‘coach’ at the end of whatever it is that we do,” says Troilo-Krings. “We don’t have (traditional) titles here. We have more of a coaching environment. I think that’s more my style.”

Be a visionary
Troilo-Krings considers herself the visionary of the company, good at coming up with ideas and delegating responsibilities. However, she realizes the importance of surrounding herself with people who are not afraid to bring good ideas to the table.

And it’s not uncommon for someone to walk into her office and say, “Ever thought about this?” or “I have an idea,” or even, “I had a dream.”

But there are times when Troilo-Krings becomes the benevolent dictator.

“That’s when I try to get people to think about it and pull them down the road with me,” she says. “It usually doesn’t take a lot of pulling. I explain things all the time. I think that’s part of our success. When we do something, everybody knows why. They know what their specific role is in making it happen.”

So far, Troilo-Krings’ philosophy is working. Her company has been recognized as one of Columbus’ top privately-held companies and a Top Diversity Owned Business in Ohio. In 2003, the American Society of Travel Agents and Hyatt Hotels and Resorts named TSi a winner of the ASTA-Hyatt Travel Agent Best Practices Study award in the operations category.

“I’m really humbled by that type of recognition,” she says.

But having TSi known as a woman-owned business is only so important for Troilo-Krings.

“It’s important in as much as corporations see the value of that,” she says. “In the beginning, it helped me get funding I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, minority funding. And some corporations are religious about supporting minority businesses. “But in the view of the general public, I don’t care. I see everybody here as being a huge contributor to the organization. I’m surprised every day people get out of bed and work for me.”

Having people work for her — and inspiring them to succeed — wasn’t part of Troilo-Krings’ original plan. In 1995, she was completing a project to help American Express integrate with the Thomas Cook Corp. when she began shopping her travel management model to companies. The model, unique at the time, allowed corporations to determine on a menu basis what they wanted to insource and outsource. American Express loved the idea, but it didn’t fit its business model. Troilo-Krings got similar responses from other companies — they liked it but couldn’t adapt it. Then someone suggested she start her own travel agency.

“Everybody said the travel agency was dead because the Internet was hot and heavy,” she says. “But I didn’t feel it was dying. I felt there was a place for it. I don’t think it took a lot of convincing because I didn’t really have a lot to lose (her bonus from American Express basically funded the start-up).

“The worst thing you can do is fail. That’s always been my mentality about business in general. If you don’t try, you don’t know.”

Build a sustainable model
Troilo-Kings began Troilo & Associates in April 1995 with three employees — herself, an agent and a receptionist. They had 800 square feet of space.

Troilo-Krings had three clients when TSi was added to the mix that June. And it didn’t take long for corporations to buy into her new business model.

“What drove my thought on this model was now that a corporate customer paid for services, they needed to define what they wanted,” says Troilo-Krings. “It’s difficult as a client to outline expectations when you’re asked to pay for it. Whether it’s achieved to the degree you wanted oftentimes is questionable.

“Plus, there were competing interests in business. The corporate client may want the agency to book a certain airline because it’s the preferred one for the company but the agency may have a different relationship. My goal was to help corporations sort all that out.”

Following Sept. 11, Troilo-Krings didn’t lay off a single employee. The business survived the downturn, and the real turning point came in the middle of 2002 when she began re-evaluating TSi’s future.

“That’s when we started bringing in fairly sizable clients,” she says. “It’s grown a lot, not only in revenue but also in cash flow. With consulting projects, there is a beginning and an end. You couldn’t bank on constant cash flow. Now, there’s a big difference in how we do business.”

As the business has thrived, TSi’s client list includes eight corporations with revenue in the billions of dollars, including a $36 billion leader in the telecommunications industry and a financial institution with revenue of $22 billion. And Troilo-Krings and her 80 employees are looking to move into a 12,000-square-foot space.

That’s what a little effort will do.

“The industry has changed in 10 years,” she says. “The defining moment of 1995 (change in commission structure) is long gone. The travel agency business, not just TSi, is very strong. The ones who survived that 10-year cycle came out stronger in the end, and I include TSi in that group. That’s because we adapt to the needs of our customers.

“Nothing about us is cookie cutter.”

How to reach: Travel Solutions Inc., (614) 901-4100 or http://www.ts24.com