The airlines have slashed travel agent commissions; we’re supposedly in recession. ‘Tough times for travel agents? Not if they’re with Uniglobe Travel.
You may recognize the name of U. Gary Charlwood, Chairman of the massively successful Century 21 Canada. The business philosophy of Mr. Charlwood (as everyone calls him), in a nutshell, and as his entrepreneurial history suggests, is ‘Sell, Sell, Sell, Service, Service, Service and Be Very Very Well-Organized.’ He also believes that, once you articulate your vision and give your staff the tools with which to carry it out, you should leave everyone alone to do their jobs.
After building his real estate operation into the force that it is, Mr. Charlwood knew that his philosophy, coupled with his co-operative consumer marketing methods, could be applied to other service industries; and he believed that an internationally-recognized consumer travel organization could succeed through strength in numbers of locations, and high sales volume. In 1980, he founded Uniglobe Travel International.
Today, Uniglobe is the world’s largest travel franchise company, with 1997 sales of $2.7 billion. It employs 6,000 people at 1,000 offices in 20 countries, with head office in Vancouver. It owns Uniglobe CruiseShip Centres and San Diego-based convention organizer Uniglobe Main Events. It was the only travel company recommended as a franchise buy by The Wall Street Journal’s 1998 National Business Employment Weekly Annual Listing and, in the travel industry, only American Express has higher unaided brand identification. Its first Middle East markets opened last year; it will next expand into Central and South America, the Far East, and Africa.
The reasons for Uniglobe’s success are varied, but basic.
First, it filled a niche. Any travel agency, of any size, is built on a core base of business accounts, and it used to be that only large corporations had access to the complete range of travel perks and services. Uniglobe specialized in providing big company services to small and mid-sized businesses (with 5-50 travelers). It now holds 100,000 corporate accounts; 70% of its business is corporate, but its goal is to increase its leisure business and bring the mix to 50-50.
Next, Uniglobe offers a superior franchisee support system. To be successful in this ultra-competitive field, travel agents need strong brand identification, technological support, access to professional training and development, back-office management controls, effective marketing plans, solid relationship with preferred suppliers and access to promotional initiatives. Uniglobe delivers it all, right down to free office automation. The high brand awareness is a big draw for potential franchisees, and Uniglobe spends $20 million annually on international brand identity, advertising, promotions, public relations and direct sales programs.
Another key to Uniglobe’s success is its commitment to a high level of customer service. Its research shows that consumers expect a professional agency to address four service categories: Cost Containment & Control, Experience & Expertise, Accessibility & Advanced Communications, and Reliability & Responsiveness. So Uniglobe gives people what they want. It guarantees the best possible value in all fares and constantly evaluates cost-management strategies, savings opportunities and spending patterns. Experience & Expertise are handled by Uniglobe’s franchise recruitment and selection process.
“We’re so well-known as a leader in both travel and franchising, that people looking at franchising automatically come across Uniglobe,” says Laurie Radloff, President of Uniglobe Travel Western Canada. “And when we’re looking at new markets, we’re careful in our recruitment. A lot of people today are dissatisfied with what they’re doing. We know that there’s great personal satisfaction in owning your own business, and we know that Uniglobe agents love what they do, so we do print and radio campaigns with the theme ‘Do What You Love’. We talk to the banks and chambers of commerce to see who’s successful in their areas; we look at existing agencies to see if there are people who we feel can represent our name. We never place a franchise for the sake of having an outlet—we want to make sure that our name and brand are handled properly and that we have the right cultural fit. There’s a very high level of trust among those using our name, so we have to have the right people.”
Who have to have money. “They do have to be properly capitalized, although we don’t cause them to buy any products,” continues Radloff. “They pay Uniglobe a royalty, starting at 10% for every dollar they earn in commission. As sales rise, that percentage declines. That royalty could be a little high, but that’s because Mr. Charlwood knows what level of support franchisees require. We often hear about franchisees of other companies who are unhappy with the level of support they’re getting from their franchisor but that’s because, financially, the franchisor can’t do more.”
Uniglobe provides professional training in sales, customer service, marketing and operations, as well as on-going support in business administration, sales development, financial controls, market research, strategic planning and supplier relations. All of this translates into better customer service, and the level of experience and expertise that customers want.
Consumers want accessibility? No problem. The Uniglobe Customer Commitments promise that phone calls will be answered by the third ring, that callers never hold longer than 30 seconds, and that every call is returned within the hour. You find yourself trying to tell the customs officer/janitor in Novosibirsk that you’re supposed to be in Newark? Uniglobe has a 140-language interpretation service. ‘Course, that shouldn’t happen anyway, because Uniglobe guarantees error-free reservations and 100% accuracy in documentation. There is a Lost Luggage Control System, a 24-hour Rescue Line and the promise that service complaints will be resolved within 48 hours, supplier complaints within 15 business days.
Technology is another important component at Uniglobe, which has its own software: Travel Manager, and Software for Agency Management. Also, Uniglobe Net News, an extensive agent Intranet, piggy-backs Uniglobe Travel On-Line, an Internet booking and information system which was launched three years ago.
With Uniglobe Travel On-Line, consumers can book car rentals, hotels and flights, choose seat assignments, order special meals, obtain street maps, book cruises and tours, research destinations and find restaurants, currency information, last-minute promotions and weather reports.
“The Internet travel segment is growing very quickly,” says Radloff. “Booking travel this way is a big leap of faith at first, and there’s no question that a well-trained travel consultant is the best value. But if a client’s on a plane at 2:00 a.m., and wants to make a reservation on his laptop for a 10:00 a.m. connecting flight, we have to be able to provide that service.”
Uniglobe is careful to see that this system does not exclude its agents. An income-splitting formula pays franchisees a referral fee, 10% of online revenue is distributed through a group fund, and another 10% goes into an advertising fund.
“The site is good for our agents too,” continues Radloff. “At 2:00 a.m., that client’s only other option is to call the airline to book that flight. This way, the agency gets a little commission and gets the data on the booking and can follow up with the client. The site gives clients 24-hour access; it gives agents a 24-hour office. Plus, you don’t have to be an existing Uniglobe client to use the online service, so agents gain access to new clients.”
Uniglobe Travel On-Line is a separate public company and its stock hasn’t done that well, but the site is coming along, with a booking-to-looking ratio of 1:74 and sales of $5 million to November 1998, as opposed to $1 million for all of 1997. And it’s a great system. But so is Microsoft’s Expedia, one of the web’s most popular travel sites. So, in November, Uniglobe entered into a joint-marketing agreement with Expedia. This accomplished two things—a tough competitor is now a partner, and Uniglobe has access to Expedia’s three million customers and is closer to attaining the aforementioned goal of a 50-50 leisure-business mix. (In the travel business today, leisure is the hot market—no matter how tight the economy is, seniors and Boomers will keep traveling.)
Cyber-competition is only one challenge facing travel agents. There are also increasingly complex bulk-purchasing and fare packages, frequent flyer programs and the ubiquitous fly-by-night operations which muddy the waters for reputable companies. Consumers now have so many choices that a successful travel agency has to give customers special reasons to come to it, and stay with it. Those reasons have to be brand loyalty and value-added products and services. Which have to be communicated through marketing, advertising and public relations.
The Uniglobe marketing plan is written following consultation with franchisees. Preferred supplier recommendations are then collected, and listened to. All travel agencies have preferred-supplier relationships; Radloff says that Uniglobe takes its relationships more seriously than does its competition. And these relationships are crucial to stretching the Uniglobe advertising budget. Uniglobe spends $1 million annually on straight advertising, but that budget is extended by as much as 40%, due to the fact that 75% of advertising is co-op (and most visuals are provided by suppliers).
The plan includes four main marketing pushes per year; one or more could be on cruises, one could be the Caribbean in January, another on Europe in June—it depends on supplier input and on what key interest areas have been identified among travelers. The international quarterly campaigns come out of California; they are supplemented with regional, then local, campaigns. Most advertising is print; outdoor and telemarketing are not used. There are six to eight weeks of television each year, radio use is rising and direct mail is a constant, with 100,000 pieces mailed quarterly.
The non-Canadian markets handle their own advertising. Radloff says that, in Canada, the advertising focus is on offering holidays at destinations where the Canadian dollar will go the farthest.
“We sell on value, not on price. For example, people frequently say they want an inexpensive holiday and that they don’t care about their hotel, but that hotel becomes important when they get there. We can provide a nice hotel at a price they can afford because we use our clout and buying power to deliver quality products in a cost-effective manner. We also provide products like Rescue Line, Travel Manager and a preferred-rate hotel program called Key Cities—this is all extra value at no extra cost to the consumer.”
Uniglobe’s strategy for 1999 is to position itself as ‘The Navigator of Options’, with the goal of convincing consumers that Uniglobe agencies can best help them wade through the sea of travel options. Uniglobe’s corporate marketing uses the Uniglobe Travel Plan, a travel purchasing system which incorporates Uniglobe Travel On-Line and the Uniglobe Cruise Program. From the client’s perspective, it is a travel management and purchasing system; from the agent’s point of view, it is a sales kit with corporate proposal templates and a PowerPoint presentation.
“Our corporate marketing is mostly face-to-face,” says Radloff. “We have a professional, well-trained sales force and our salespeople are out knocking on doors, calling on clients, making presentations. No one at Uniglobe waits for the phone to ring—they’re out closing sales and getting the business.”
One very important aspect of Uniglobe’s communications activities is positioning. Not positioning as in ‘We’re A Really Good Travel Service,’ but as in ‘We’re A Really Good Travel Service and We’re On Your Side!’.
“Since its inception, our focus has been on building the Uniglobe name into the most widely-recognized name in travel—to be to travel what Campbell’s is to soup,” explains Radloff. “So while the competition advertises price, we talk about other things. People like to spend their money locally, so we talk about the fact that Uniglobe’s agencies are local but have global clout. But, to take that name recognition further, and to inspire confidence, we’ve positioned ourselves as problem-solvers and as the advocate for the traveling consumer.”
Two years ago, when Canadian Airlines had its near-death experience, Uniglobe was the only travel company that leapt into the fray, with Radloff appearing on Canada AM and various radio programs to talk about how having only one Canadian airline would not be in the best interest of consumers because of the negative impact on service, pricing and availability. While we assume that there’s no point in going to Hawaii because of the exchange rate, Uniglobe is out telling the media that the Asian market for Hawaii has withered, hoteliers are under tremendous pressure, air space has tripled and fares are down from $600 to $99. Every time a travel scam pops up, so does someone from Uniglobe, educating consumers about what to watch for. And, thought his may be stretching things a bit, after the recent Carnival Cruises on-board fire, Uniglobe became the exclusive dealer of Evacuate, a smoke-hood-in-a-can which provides 20 minutes of clean air.
All of this is advocacy, it is brand-building, it is confidence-inspiring PR. And PR is a huge component of marketing at Uniglobe, where every message sent to the public is, quite literally, identical. This is achieved through the Agency News Media Program, a PR-Program-In-A-Box created by Uniglobe’s PR firm, Vancouver’s Verus Group.
“Uniglobe is one of the more enlightened corporations I’ve worked with, in that Mr. Charlwood has always instinctively understood that marketing and PR should be inextricably linked,” says Verus Group president Wayne Hartrick. “In some organizations, the PR and marketing functions are clearly delineated, which is a shame because there should be a coordinated strategy between them so that every dollar and every employee hour spent is leveraging their combined impact.”
To that end, Uniglobe’s four annual marketing pushes are supported by PR pushes on the same subjects. If the company is marketing cruises, Verus writes releases on cruises. It then sends the releases to national publications, then to all franchisees, who send them to their local papers. If a local paper asks a franchisee to write an article, it’s ready to go—Verus has already written it; the franchisee just changes the by-line. Promotion may be the intention, but it doesn’t carry the aroma of advertorial; publications passing it on to their readers do so because it’s useful, helpful information.
“This method has helped our agents become known in their communities as experts in their field,” says Radloff. “It is an extremely cost-effective way of achieving our marketing objectives, because it’s exposure that brings with it a credibility that you won’t get if people know you’ve paid for it.”
As mentioned, Uniglobe’s Agency News Media Program is literally in a box. It is a kit which includes articles and news releases on the subjects determined by the marketing plan, plus a 30-minute video, and a workbook that teaches franchisees how to deal with journalists and earn credibility in their communities. New franchisees come to Vancouver for PR training, then Verus Group staffers coach agency owners over the phone, encouraging them to work the program, and motivating them to build their profiles in their locations. If that sounds like a pain for both sides, it evidently was, initially.
“The program takes patience and commitment,” says Hartrick. “It’s a challenge to get everyone to do PR because people are busy and there’s always another priority. And they get discouraged—we’ll issue a release, the franchisee can’t find an interested reporter and gives up. We encourage them to try other things, show them how they can become regular columnists and how to make presentations to corporate and community groups. This program of encouragement is crucial. Eight years ago, we just distributed the kits and had a 10% implementation rate. Now, with daily contact, we have a 62% implementation rate, and it’s climbing.
“This is all about credibility. If you’re writing in the local paper, or being quoted by your local media, your other marketing activities are met with less resistance. Uniglobe’s combined programs are generating 400,000 impressions per day from print alone, and these impressions carry the extra impact of having grass-roots credibility.
“Our research shows that most consumers see travel as a problematic experience,” concludes Hartrick. “We make sure that Uniglobe gets its name in the media for the right reasons—because it’s solving problems for people and providing useful information as well as quality, high-value products. The whole principal behind this, after all, is to do something well and get credit for it.”
Blitz Magazine, January 1999