Traveling light Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

When opportunity knocks, Alexandre Chemla isn’t afraid to open the door.

And the founder, president and CEO of Altour International recognized that familiar knock when a veteran of the travel industry called looking for a job. Chemla saw great potential in her, but there was a hitch.

“She said, ‘I’d like to manage an agency, but I don’t think we can work together because you don’t have an agency in New Jersey,’” Chemla says. “And I said, ‘Now I have one.’”

If you have a chance to land great people, you can always find a way to fit them in to your plans, Chemla says, as he did by opening a new office to accommodate his potential superstar.

His strategy has helped the travel company generate worldwide 2007 revenue of $535 million — $214 million of that from its six California offices.

Smart Business spoke with Chemla about how to maintain the flexibility of a start-up, even when you have offices all over the world.

Start small, dream big. When I started my business, I had been working for Club Med for 10 years. I learned one thing at Club Med.

The people who were working there, the kind of relationships they have created — I learned that nothing was stronger than a team of people put together. I left with this idea of trying to put together the most professional and the best people that I could find.

It was difficult to start, because I had to go slowly. I had to create a foundation if I wanted my building to stand and stand strong a long time.

Creating the foundation was really trying to analyze what the company was made out of, which for me was very easy because I came out of one major corporation. I wanted to make sure we had our own human resources, our own legal department. I wanted to have the complete panel of a corporation, but, of course, when you do that, you have to start very small.

Find the right fit. Basically, it was for me to find where I would need to have a person, then try to find the person to fit the need that I have.

For example, I try to hire people from the airlines themselves to help me negotiate with the carriers. They will help me understand better than anyone else the airline problems and their willingness to do business.

If you want to be successful, make sure you hire someone who is going to do the job he likes to do. There is nothing worse than someone you put in a business whose job is really not what he or she wants to do, likes to do or feels comfortable doing.

So when we hire people, my first question is, ‘What do you like to do?’ Then, it’s more like trying to find the position based on the person in front of me. So try to find a position to match what the person would like to do instead of the reverse — all along knowing what we need.

Find the opportunity when you find the person. Then when you find the person and you know what this person is looking for, customize around the wishes of this individual.

Stay flexible. Accept that you may change the way you have decided to go and even change direction in midstream. It doesn’t matter what direction you have set, you should be flexible enough, regardless of the size of the company, to change the route at any time.

Stay flexible by dividing the company into multiple, smaller companies and also by having management of the companies handled by people you trust to let them run it the way they want.

By doing that, you are creating flexibility. In general, the flexibility of a company is taken away when the company becomes too big and too bureaucratic. If you can take that away by breaking it up into small offices, then you have the result of the flexibility you are looking for: managing a small corporation but being a big corporation.

Don’t settle for less than the best. We’re looking for perfection. We try not to rely on any third party. It was impossible for us to have a reservation center 365 days a year. It would take a lot of money, lot of people.

So just like every other travel management company, we used a third party, but the problem was the third party didn’t care much. We tried nearly every service that existed.

So we were working extremely hard to provide fantastic service to our clients — and then there would come a time when one of our clients would be stuck in a snowstorm on a Sunday or somewhere in Hong Kong, having a problem. They will call, and the telephone will ring for an hour, and no one will pick up the phone.

That was the best service you could find, and it didn’t get better since then. So I instructed my team to create our own 24-hour center. In the past year, we have received hundreds of compliments. Before, I didn’t even have one of them.

It does cost us about four times the price. But we’re in the business of service. If we don’t know how to provide service to our clients, we should be doing something else. We should go deep-sea fishing, but we should definitely not be in the business of service.

The bigger price we would have had to pay was losing a client.

HOW TO REACH: Altour International, (310) 571-6000 or www.altour.com