When Melissa Biggs Bradley, a magazine travel editor, started the travel website Indagare (Latin for "to discover") in 2007, she wanted to stick to what she knew--shaping advice from experts into destination guides. Within three months, she learned that what her members really wanted was a service that planned and booked trips as well. At a time when DIY travel is the industry standard, the New York City-based Indagare is flourishing thanks to an emphasis on teamwork.
Understand your customers' quirks
Bradley knew that her employees would need a thick skin for the company to prosper, considering Indagare's high-net-worth clients and the demands they make. In 2010, she started building a training process that eventually included a "whole curriculum" about providing exemplary service and "dealing with difficult situations of all kinds," she says. New employees are required to read such books as Danny Meyer's Setting the Table and Adam Grant's Give and Take to learn about service and meeting the needs of hard-to-please clients. They also apprentice under established Indagare employees, Bradley says, "so they're working with someone who has a regular group of clients. They're exposed to all of the expectations." To continue the staff's education, Bradley brings in professors and business coaches--like Meredith Haberfeld, who has consulted for Goldman Sachs and SoulCycle--to host seminars on customer relations practices. Indagare also has weekly meetings in which employees share "teachable moments" from recent client and vendor interactions.
Takeaway--Training your team to deal with demanding clients reduces employee stress and yields higher-profit customers.
Find the brand-building shortcuts
To persuade customers to pay an annual fee--memberships start at $325--Bradley had to offer perks they couldn't get from free online booking sites, such as complimentary meals, room upgrades, spa credits, and airport transfers. But hotels and travel service companies don't hand those perks to just anyone who asks. They are earned on the basis of the size and reputation of the agency--but bargaining power helps too. So she joined Virtuoso, a travel agency network that negotiates deals on behalf of its 380 member agencies. Indagare was able to get a leg up at hundreds of hotels around the world as a result. The affiliation, which Bradley kept for just under a year, gave Indagare access to perks that helped her further grow her existing clientele of fee-paying, high-end travelers. Her critical mass of big-spender clients also qualified the company for the invitation-only, preferred-agency programs with luxury properties like the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton. The Four Seasons was particularly tough to earn. "That took us a couple of years," Bradley says. In 2012, Indagare was invited to become a member of Altour, one of the world's biggest travel agency networks.
Takeaway--Industry groups can help you gain bargaining power and build your brand.
Don't just break old models; make new ones
The problem Bradley had with traditional travel agencies was that most are structured like real estate firms, with independent contractors working off commissions. As a result, agents often keep information from their co-workers. Bradley wanted her customers to get the collective knowledge of her 50-person staff, so she made them all full-time employees. But rather than just assume they'd start working cooperatively, she built systems that encouraged it. She organizes her "booking specialists" into teams of three to six who work together on planning client trips. Staffers returning from research travel (paid in full by Indagare) hold a "teach-in" to share what they've learned. "They'll do a slide show and a lecture, highlight different properties, explain how to get there and who it's right for," Bradley says. The employee is also required to create a document with all of the destination's essential information, which is saved on Indagare's servers and is accessible to all. It's paid off: Indagare's 2015 gross revenue was nearly $17 million.
Takeaway--If you want a team approach, don't leave it to chance. Build systems that encourage knowledge sharing.