Four years after Elaine Osgood launched her corporate travel agency, Atlas Travel, in 1997, the industry experienced a seismic shift. Sites such as Expedia, Orbitz, and others debuted with a splash, promising ease of use and big savings.
"Online, DIY booking became the shiny new thing," Osgood says. "A lot of our corporate clients had a mandate to at least try it, in an effort to save money. After all, travel is often a company's third-largest expense."
Rather than panic, Osgood relied on a core tenet of her success to date: listening very closely to what customers wanted. In an ironic twist, technology turned out to be Osgood's ally, not her enemy. Corporate clients soon found that when you're jetting off to close an important deal and an erupting volcano or a massive blizzard disrupts those plans, having instant access to an agent who can sort it all out matters a lot more than saving $20 on a ticket.
But the private companies, government agencies, and educational institutions that make up Osgood's client base still wanted to save money. Osgood credits her education (she earned a graduate degree in psychology) and her previous work experience (she was a schoolteacher and a child-welfare investigator) for giving her a keen ability to listen, and it came in handy as she spoke to customers during this period.
She realized they were frustrated with the typical business travel data available to them. Things such as which airlines they flew the most, which routes they flew most often, and average ticket prices didn't help them manage their budgets effectively, because those metrics looked only backward. What customers wanted were tools that would answer questions such as which airlines flew the same route and how much might be saved by consolidating all travel with one of them, or how much could a customer save by consistently booking 14 days in advance rather than seven?
Osgood saw an opportunity and began to create new analytics tools. Initially, Atlas planned to provide this richer data solely to its own customers, as a way to differentiate itself from the competition. But as she and her team thought harder about how to build the best possible benchmarking service, they realized that the key was to capture a critical mass of data.
So Osgood spoke to her competitors about pooling their data. They were intrigued, but had, ahem, reservations. To assuage their fears that Atlas would gain an unfair advantage as the aggregator of this data, Osgood created a separate company, Prime Numbers Technology, which sells an expanding array of benchmarking data to other travel agencies and directly to corporate travel managers.
Last year, Osgood united Atlas Travel and Prime Numbers Technology under a single corporate umbrella, Atlas Travel & Technology Group. Among its recent innovations: new self-service technology that provides consolidated access to all Atlas services. Sometimes you can beat 'em and join 'em.
Headquarters: Milford, Mass.
2013 Revenue: $250 million (Includes revenue passed through to airlines, hotels, and other travel vendors)