The CEO of one of the country's largest corporate travel management companies reflects on several serious setbacks and how his business overcame them.
Business travel wasn't always my niche. Nearly 30 years ago, I put my budding law career on hold to help my father jumpstart his struggling travel business. Today, that company, Ovation Travel Group, is the fifth largest corporate travel management company in the U.S., according to Business Travel News. Ovation has also appeared on the Inc. 5000 for the last five years.
With Ovation's 30th anniversary approaching, I've been reflecting on some of the setbacks we've experienced during the past three decades. Many of them stemmed from situations beyond our control. For instance, after the first Gulf War broke out in 1990, rising oil prices led companies to cut back on business travel. As a result, our business shrank by about 40 percent. When the airlines eliminated commissions for travel companies in 1995, we were forced to charge clients for our services for the first time. And, as a growing travel company based in lower Manhattan, the September 11 attacks nearly destroyed us. Business travel came to a screeching halt and our revenue dried up. Key employees lost loved ones, which became our focus as we struggled to rebound. By staying in constant communication, we built a sense of loyalty and dedication even as our employees worked at reduced pay. When the travel industry rebounded, we emerged as a stronger company. Here's a look at some other successful strategies we've employed during times of crisis:
Put All Hands on Deck Treat the departments within your organization like SWAT teams. Encourage teams to work together and share ideas, deploy continuity plans, and overcome obstacles. Empower them to solve problems on the fly and report back to home base frequently.
Avoid Knee-jerk Spending Cuts There’s a knee-jerk reaction to cut sales and marketing in times of crisis, but that approach might not fit into your overarching business strategy. After the September 11 attacks, instead of cutting sales and marketing while our business slumped, we shaved non-strategic spending, including costs related to accounting and IT, to avoid further layoffs, pay cuts, and furloughs.
Emphasize Communication During times of crisis, everyone in your business needs to be informed of the latest company news, success stories, and failures, along with the overall picture of how the company is doing. The more people know, the more involved they feel, and the more likely they are to become part of the solution.
Know Your Worth When airlines cut our commissions, Ovation had to make up for the loss of our primary source of revenue. We began charging for services that had previously been free, but with some smart marketing and strategic communications, we proved our value to our clients. By articulating your value, you give your clients confidence in the services you’re providing.
Exude Confidence to Your Customers During a crisis, it’s important to stay calm and let your clients know that you’re capable of handling it. When the SARS epidemic of 2002 effectively paralyzed international travel, we made an effort to communicate calmly and confidently to our clients, letting them know that we would book safe travel options for them and monitor their plans closely.
Think Outside the Ash Cloud Thinking outside the box isn’t always enough. The eruption of the volcano in Iceland in 2010 created an enormous ash cloud that halted Trans-Atlantic travel for a very long week. We got creative and lined up the Queen Mary cruise ship to transport travelers back to the United States from Europe. A little creativity made all the difference to our clients.
With the uncertainty surrounding possible U.S. military action in Syria, which could seriously curtail international travel (again), we may be facing another crisis. Instead of panicking, we’re preparing by updating our business continuity plan and maintaining open lines of communication with our clients.
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Last updated: Oct 4, 2013
PAUL METSELAAR founded what is now Ovation Travel Group in 1984, filling a void in the corporate travel market by providing specialized service to law firms. Today, Ovation is one of the largest corporate travel management companies in the U.S., serving more than 700 companies in a variety of industries, including law, financial services, and entertainment.