If you’ve ever stepped into Alexandre Chemla’s office, you’ve seen it. You could call it a symbol of his continued growth from small beginnings. But it’s just a long, wooden conference table — kind of.
“Everyone tells me how smart the idea to have a conference table here in my office is,” says Chemla, the president and owner of ALTOUR. “I try to explain to them that I was not smart at all. It was my dining room table. I didn’t have money to buy a desk so I brought it up.”
On June 15, 1991, that table moved into a 20-square-foot office at 4 Park Ave., when Chemla founded the luxury and midmarket travel agency. He had left his native France for the U.S. with a friend who was being moved to New York to run the North American operations for Club Med. Then Chemla, after about a decade working with his friend, branched out on his own.
His friend called him crazy for opening a business in the midst of the Gulf War and a recession.
“When I started my company, I did not have much to start a company on,” Chemla says in a still-thick accent. “But [I] wanted to accomplish one of my dreams, which was to put the best people together. … That’s what the company is built on — people and respect. It has been one thing I took from my previous job, which was to try to treat people well and grow it as a family.”
He’d seen that atmosphere at Club Med. When he went to Bangkok, for example, one of the Club Med employees would be waiting at the airport for him, even though he or she had never met him before.
So the table brings Chemla back to his roots. Because he maintained the same atmosphere ever since those first days and first few employees, he’s kept growing throughout the years — on average, 20 percent annually. ALTOUR opened a West Coast headquarters in Los Angeles in 1993. Last year, it doubled in size thanks to a joint agreement with American Express Travel, along with the acquisition of 12 of its offices.
Today, with its 75 offices and more than 1,000 employees, ALTOUR has a travel volume, which includes gross invoiced sales for all travel-related services, of more than $800 million — $205 million in L.A. alone.
“Dollars are very important and that’s what makes or breaks a company, but you will not earn the dollar if you don’t treat your people well and if you don’t respect them as much as you respect your clients — if not even more,” Chemla says. “There’s a lot of mistakes that one can do, but … building a company without creating some foundation to it, it’s like putting a building up without any foundation. Then, you know what, it could very easily collapse. Make sure that your foundation is strong … and then you can build whatever you want because you’re on the solid ground.”
Here’s how Chemla builds respect with employees and clients through an open-door environment.
Build teamwork with respect
The more ALTOUR grows, the more Chemla realizes how important teamwork is. He needs more employees to do more work, obviously, but needs to keep the connection between them strong so that work remains consistent.
“The biggest challenge I have faced as the company has grown is, in fact, to make sure that we keep what we have … that we keep this team spirit because that’s what brings a company together,” Chemla says. “That’s what creates an incredible foundation and the trust with each other and the respect of each other.”
Strong teamwork starts with mutual respect, and the leader has to be the one to instigate it.
“Respect your employees as much, if not more, than you’re respecting your clients,” Chemla says. “You earn their respect by respecting them.”
You build that respect simply by giving employees time and interest. Chemla has done that with an open-door policy that means more than just being available. To give employees fewer hoops to jump through before they get to him, he encourages walk-ins instead of appointments.
“There are no appointments within the company … so anyone can — as long as I am here and I am not on the phone — if someone wants to come up and sit down and talk to me, it’s not an issue,” Chemla says. “That is very well known in our company.”
Since the days that ALTOUR consisted of only a couple of employees, he has encouraged them to come in and talk to him, and now, his longtime managers feel comfortable chatting. They set the example for other, newer employees, showing them it’s OK to approach someone senior.
“My door is, in general, always open, and when people pass by and they see a manager sitting at my desk and talking to me, you know he didn’t ask for an appointment,” he says.
But really driving that open, available concept through the whole company means not everyone has to come to you.
“If sometimes they don’t want to come walk to my office because they maybe feel intimidated, they will have no problem to go to the manager of the office or to the CFO because we all have the same type of courtesy,” he says. “We all have the same type of spirit: being there for them when they need us.”
When you cascade that openness across the organization, you also must encourage the response — willingly helping those who ask for it.
“Anyone who needs anything at any time can always find someone else to help them, and it doesn’t have to be management, and that is teamwork,” Chemla says. “It could be the person next to you, and it could be a person who has nothing to do with your specialty. But if you have care, they will help you because they’re part of the company and they’re part of the team.”
Chemla has even eliminated certain negative responses from the company’s vocabulary.
“You will never hear, ‘This is not my job,’” he says. “This does not exist for us. And ‘impossibility’ is a word that … I try to take it out of our dictionary because we don’t believe in that.”
The key, though, is that you don’t talk about wanting an open-door policy too often, because hearing about it isn’t going to make employees believe it. They have to see it in action.
“I don’t have to tell them anything. … They just realize it themselves,” Chemla says. “They realize the kind of environment they’re in. They see how their colleagues have been treated, and they see how they have been treated. A lot of companies talk about it, but putting it in action, it’s a total different story.
“If we are available to them, we give them the time of the world, they know that they can reach us at any time for anything, I think this (goes a) very long way. You cannot fake that. You cannot say, ‘Yeah, we are family. We believe in team spirit,’ and then do nothing about it. You face reality when an employee comes to you and needs something and when it’s not a good time to do it and you’re still doing it because you want to help.”
That open-door attitude transcends beyond Chemla’s employees and applies to customers and the external marketplace, as well.
Fortunately, Chemla travels a lot. He gets to travel across his global ma
rketplace weekly — meaning he also gets to experience the services that his company provides. Maybe you can’t do that en route to a business meeting, but the point is that you do find a way to see things from your customers’ perspective.
“I could describe to you every seat of every airplane in any airline,” Chemla says. “We know very well which hotel is good, which hotel is not good. Because of our buying power and because of our reputation, we know the room number that our client should have when they walk in [any] hotel. We know which cabin they should have when they go to a cruise ship. So basically, it’s knowledge. That’s what makes you very different [than competitors] is to have the knowledge of what you’re providing your clients.”
Who knows, you may even encounter a business opportunity when you’re playing your customers’ role. For example, during a recent trip with one of his executive vice presidents, Chemla left the airport, got lost and landed in a new line of business.
“I got out of the airport and the driver did not know where he was going,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘If this was one of our clients, we would be the ones responsible for it.’”
So Chemla opened ALTOUR Limousine, providing reliable ground transportation for his clients after they get to their destinations.
In addition to taking on the perspective of a client, you should also learn the client’s preferences. Chemla tracks how his customers travel so he can keep offering them the most reasonable services.
“In general, we know where the clients have been before. We know what they like to do,” he says. “We know if they prefer land, if they prefer sea. We have their experience, we have their profile, we know what they like. And based on that, we make sure that we offer them the best possible package vacation.”
Then, he follows up to make sure that the experience was up to par. Although he does conduct some surveys on ALTOUR’s internal customer service, the key is that Chemla doesn’t wait for customers to bring feedback to him.
“When they come back from a trip, we call them to see how the trip was,” he says. “We ask questions and that’s when we know, in general, what really happened. No, we don’t wait for them to tell us.”
By staying actively in touch with customers throughout the process, you can also encounter other opportunities through their requests.
“We realized very quickly that our clients were using private jets a lot,” Chemla says. “Unfortunately, on private jets, very often you have multiple brokers. So you don’t really know the type of equipment you’re getting. You don’t really know the service you’re getting or know the airplane either.”
Because it was a service that complemented and expanded what ALTOUR already did, Chemla decided it made sense to step in and provide it. So two years ago, he started ALTOUR Air, the company’s own private jet line.
“This is on line with our business, but it is not our core business,” he says. “We [opened] that to make sure that our clients were getting the best possible service, and we wanted to make sure that the quality of the type of equipment they were using was at the top.
“[Those] businesses are not my core business, but they help me to provide to my client the service and the quality that they expect from us. When we feel that the service is not there and when we feel that the control is not in our hands and that we cannot get the proper service, then we decide we have to try and go alone. … So the measuring stick, if you wish, is experience with other vendors. When they cannot provide what we expect, then [we] provide.”
What it really boils down to is that you’re willing to consider any potential opportunity you find to improve the customer’s experience. Even if it doesn’t work for your company, it may lead to something else — even if that just means a better understanding of where opportunities are.
“When the train passes by, you have to jump [on],” Chemla says. “If you miss a train, [you can’t] be sure that it’s going to pass again. It’s not to miss any opportunity and to look at all of them. Keep the door open to any opportunity that’s not exactly in your line of business because these may lead you to something else.”
How to reach: ALTOUR, (800) 878-5847 or http://www.altour.com/