Adapting to constant change is the key to success for the owners of Uniglobe Premiere Travel Group, the travel franchise company’s largest corporate agency in Eastern Canada.
NAME: Zulkifle “Zul” Shaikhali, Cyrus Rustamji, Gordon Miller – owners
AGENCY: UNIGLOBE Premiere Travel Group
LOCATIONS: Ottawa, Toronto (2)
AFFILIATION: UNIGLOBE Eastern Canada
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 33
AGENCY: UNIGLOBE Premiere Travel Group
LOCATIONS: Ottawa, Toronto (2)
AFFILIATION: UNIGLOBE Eastern Canada
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 33
There are always storm clouds on the horizon for the travel industry, but it’s how you deal with them that is the difference between success and failure, observes Cyrus Rustamji, co-owner of UNIGLOBE Premiere Travel Group.
Rusamji, along with Zul Shaikhali – both with backgrounds in travel in their respective homelands, India and Pakistan – partnered with franchise founder Gordon Miller 25 years ago and, utilizing the strengths of each – Miller, finance and technology; Rusamji, sales; and Shaikhali, operations – embarked on a journey that continues today, with the original Ottawa location (started 33 years ago), and two more in Toronto.
From sustainable expansion and diversification to embracing technology, the ability to adapt to anything the industry – and world – has thrown at them has been critical.
“That’s why we’re still in business today and we’ve been growing consistently for the last 20 years,” says Shaikhali, of the company, which has about 45 staff and 50-60 agents on contract.
Staying within their means has been equally important, says Rusamji. “A big ship takes a long time to change direction, a smaller one takes less time, a really small ship gets swallowed over by the waves. It’s about being at the right size.”
CT sat down with Shaikhali (ZS) and Rustamji (CR) in Toronto recently to suss out just what makes their corporate agency click.
IN THE BEGINNING
ZS: The interesting part of the story is that we (Miller, Rustamji and Shaikhali) already recognized each other’s strengths and realized that we can do well bringing our own unique talent to the business. 1995 was when we opened up in Toronto. Cyrus came to Toronto to look after the Toronto business and Gordon and I remained in Ottawa.
CR: We don’t operate as separate offices, we operate as one, just in different locations.
Many of our Toronto clients are handled by agents in Ottawa (and vice versa). It doesn’t matter where the agents are located. Most of our corporate agents are working from home.
ZS: A few years ago we were 99 per cent corporate…
CR: …but we acquired leisure agencies (Premiere now has a 80-20 corporate-leisure split). Where we’ve had the growth is by acquiring leisure agencies and marketing to their clients and focus on that sort of business. Corporate is still growing; it is a solid business. I just think the opportunities are a little different to what they were a few years back. We have, for example Concur, which is the online booking tool and is used by a lot of large and small corporate accounts, so we’ve seen a higher adoption rate of that. So, there’s still a lot of positives in the corporate market… We have a whole slew of people who do corporate, and a whole slew of people who do leisure, so we do both. Not at the expense of each one; we want to do both.
ZS: We are technically a travel management company (TMC). That’s what we’re called in the trade. To a layman, we’re a travel agency. Because we don’t just sell a ticket. Management services come into play – pre-trip audits, post-trip budgets, credit tracking, policy compliance, etc.
CR: The key is, the client will do what they want to do and we’ve got to give them the option to do it their way.
ZS: Diversification is something we’ve always looked forward to but never had the (opportunity) to do it in the past, only because we were doing really well in the corporate side of the business – we were growing like crazy and we just did not have the time to focus on anything else; then, like anything else, you reach a plateau and then search to find what else can we do. So, we started an ethnic division in Ottawa to cater to the south Asian market; we have a convention planning division that does all kinds of incentive groups right here in Toronto; we have an east Europe ethnic division that deals mainly with the east European market; we have negotiated airfares and things like that. Our outside agent market is growing; a lot of independent contractors are joining us.
CR: People are closing down their own offices and joining us and working under our own umbrella. That’s a trend that’s certainly happening in the industry as a whole and we’ve taken advantage of that by having programs in place that make it attractive for people to come to us.
ZS: And we’ve set up a division for big conventions. We can take a 5,000-person conference and manage it in and out, from reservations to helping you with keynote speakers.
ZS: Things are changing since the late ‘90s; everything is changing. You start with commissions: they were 60 bucks, then 30 bucks, then zero. Consumers now have to pay for our services that were free in the past – that took some time for them to get used to it. We are today not only competing with other agencies, we are competing with our suppliers. They are going after the same business we are; British Airways, WestJet, they are all promoting their own websites, marketing; ‘We are here to sell you a ticket – oh, you can call your travel agency, but we are here to sell you a ticket.’ The point is, every online presence of every supplier for us obviously becomes competition; whereas a leisure counsellor today can offer you five different options, but you as a consumer only get one option for every site that you visit. We now need to differentiate ourselves all the time, and we’ve been doing it for the last 15 to 20 years. Every year, things change and we have to change with the times.
CR: As a company, I think we’re doing better today than we were 25 years ago, even in the same volume of business; it is not the same, even if you take it proportionally. I think the trends have been good; there’s still a lot of positive business that we can work to try to get and hold on to. Technology has to keep pace with changes – we have to offer the technology to our clients and to our staff, and we’ve tried hard to be at the leading edge of that… it’s not always easy.
ZS: We have to evolve our business on how the market conditions are and what the trends in the industry are. If we cannot change, we are dead.
CR: And we better keep our cost structure in place so that we can compete with both the large and small…
CR: The biggest plus is that corporate travel still requires a level of management, whether it’s by the customer or by a DMC, and sophisticated accounts recognize that; many people have tried that do-it-yourself approach and sometimes found that doesn’t always work – especially if you’re doing a large volume. Perhaps if somebody is travelling once a year, they don’t need it; but if they are travelling once a week and have multiple people doing it, they do.
ZS: And technology plays the biggest role in the corporate side of our business and we have invested heavily into technology. We have technology in place presently to compete with anyone: We have a full online booking management system. All of our bookings and PNRs are automated, quality controlled, centrally ticketed – a lot of efficiencies are in place. We have the infrastructure to be a strong, successful travel management company.
CR: The need for good corporate agents still continues and for a trip from Toronto to Ottawa, you don’t need it, but if you’re going to Africa, to Asia, to different points in Europe, certainly a good agent can add real value. Go to Hong Kong first, go to Shanghai second, here’s why… you’ll save time, save money; that’s where the expertise comes in.
ZS: I think the millennial concept comes into play in the corporate market. Obviously, they’re graduating, they’re joining the working force, they’re tech savvy – a three-year-old can pick up your iPad and go into Expedia and make a booking. We evolve with where the trends are going, we look at it as, what do we require? What does the company require, what services can we provide to the company? We’re getting more and more into the technology business than the travel business. The travel is secondary, the technology is primary.
CR: It’s the convenience of use, the apps, etc.
ZS: It’s not the leisure that’s really affected by the millennials in our opinion – it is the corporate market. They’re the ones that are going to be in the workforce, they may not require leisure services because when they go on vacation, they will probably go online and book something.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
CR: One of the secrets to our success has been the people, who have been with us for a long time. Not only do they work well, they work well as a team. They’ve been here for awhile, so we don’t have a constant upheaval of training new people and bringing them up to speed. So that’s been a big plus.
ZS: We have agents that have been here over 25 years...
CR: And they’re still producing well!
ZS: Understanding travel is very important to us. We train our staff into the philosophies of our company – one of the things we’ve stuck to is that we will never over promise and under deliver; to make sure that if we make a promise, we can go through with it. Basic things like, customer always comes first and things like that. Service is critical because we are supposed to be a service organization. We take a third-party product and sell it to you; it’s not our product. If we cannot do that job right, we’ll be nowhere. I mean, what is service? There’s not a single travel company anywhere that will say, ‘We give bad service.’ Everybody says they give the best service possible, so the benchmark has to come from the client. What is the client’s benchmark of good service? What are their expectations? Who in the travel business is going to go to a client and say, ‘We give mediocre service?’
(Based in Vancouver, UNIGLOBE Travel has close to 800 franchises in 60 countries)
CR: We have options to leave every so many years, but we’ve stayed; we’ve found them to be supportive. There’s a lot of stuff we as an individual agency would find very expensive; as a group, it’s a lot better. We like some of the synergies we get working with other agency owners and UNIGLOBE has been very good to us.
ZS: That’s because it’s all individually owned and operated. We have a very good relationship with every UNIGLOBE franchisee, so we never ever compete with each other or go after each other’s business. And that is very unique in this world. A lot of the strength we find now is international presence…
CR: …being able to network an account on a global basis.
ZS: We negotiate our own contracts with (Canadian) airlines, because everything is based on volume. UNIGLOBE negotiates on an international level, with U.S. airlines, etc., that we couldn’t get ourselves. Those are the advantage for small-and medium-sized agencies who would never get negotiated rates themselves. The franchisees of UNIGLOBE have an advantage, at that level. On our side, because we deal with accounts of a global nature (and) if I need a service in London, I just pick up the phone and call the local agency, because I know the guy, he knows me, we meet once a year at the (global) meeting. Just our word is good enough…
CR: And, likewise, with service accounts in other parts of the world, we handle their Canadian operations. In the corporate world, global account management is a bigger and bigger issue. It wasn’t such a big thing a few years back and we’ve got a very good presence in that thanks to UNIGLOBE.
CR: There are always storm clouds gathering (laughs).
ZS: But with all the storms and the clouds, we always see a silver lining. There has to be. We use basic analogies like, you have to wash your clothes at home, but you still have dry cleaners in business. It’s convenience, it’s a time saver, you know it’s going to be cleaned right – and those who don’t want to do that and do it at home do that too. I’m not saying they do it right or wrong, I’m just saying. The need for travel management is always going to be there for a corporation, if they’re serious about cutting costs out of their travel.
CR: I guess one the biggest changes that is going to happen is not coming from us or coming from our clients, but is coming from the airlines, and we’ll see what they do and that is something our industry always has to be on the lookout for. There’s a few things the airline and IATA are working on in terms of distribution, we’ll see… Airbnb! Hotels should be afraid of that…
ZS: Corporations are asking us about that (Airbnb), give us reports on that; obviously at this time we can book that, but it’s of interest. Companies have started to use Uber for their employees. So, things are changing, business is changing, and it’s been doing that ever since the ‘90s. Working from home, the bricks and mortar concept – almost 98 per cent of my staff work from home… Nothing stays the same!
L-R, Miller, Shaikhali and Rustamji