When the Internet started to erode travel agency business, Atlas Travel International founder and CEO Elaine Osgood wasn’t worried. Instead, she embraced the Web with an online tool that now books 43 percent of customers’ travel.
After all, she had already built a virtual team back when telephones could barely accomplish offsite interaction, so leading the pack was nothing new.
And Osgood was confident that she had the prices, the behind-the-scenes service and the technology to draw customers back into the Atlas fold.
Which is exactly what happened.
Within months, corporate clients that had left returned. Not only were they spending too much time themselves on travel arrangements, but they also couldn’t beat Atlas’s negotiated rates or provide the same level of support for their employees as they traveled.
“We are travel managers,” Osgood says. “We are giving our customers the greatest value for their travel dollar.”
Today, Atlas Travel International grosses $150 million in sales; operates full-service offices at the Milford headquarters and in Lexington; employs 115, 70 percent of whom are virtual; and is the Northeast regional affiliate for global BCD Travel.
Along with corporate travel management, Atlas also handles vacation, meeting and incentive travel, and operates a Savvy Travel Boutique for women in Lexington.
The agency services more than 500 corporations and over 15,000 vacationers. Sales are up over 15% this year despite the difficult economy, far ahead of anticipated goals for the beginning of 2010.
“It’s amazing the amount of business we’ve brought in,” Osgood says, “and I believe it’s because, in this environment, corporations want someone to watch over them and make sure their money is being spent wisely.”
Osgood started Atlas in 1986 as a franchise with Uniglobe in order to learn the business.
Following her father’s footsteps, she began her career as a teacher until Proposition 2 ½ cut her job, and then became a social worker with DSS working in child abuse and specializing in child sexual abuse.
After eight years, when one of the children in her caseload died, Osgood began to look for another place to put her passion for caring, hard work and positive results. Without any travel business experience, she says she had to convince the franchisor she could do the job. Mortgaging her home for an SBA loan, there was no option to fail.
“I got into the business with a business head,” Osgood says. “I hired travel agents and I was the sales person with the single-minded goal of getting corporate business. I dialed the phone for eight hours a day, one by one getting folks to use us, building on those relationships and getting referrals. On weekends, my husband and I would clean the office and we’d drive to office parks to look for more leads for business.”
By the time her 10-year contract with Uniglobe was completed, Osgood had won every franchise award possible. She followed the Uniglobe recipe of first building a solid base of corporate clients for repeat business and then pursuing other offerings, and added in her own philosophy of viewing challenges as opportunities.
Take the first virtual employee, for example. Osgood didn’t want to lose a good travel agent who was relocating to Florida, so she worked on having the employee’s calls transferred to her when customers called the main number.
“It was crusty,” Osgood says, laughing, “but she’s still with us today, and I think it was the first time that was tried in our industry.”
Along with retaining the best employees, the virtual environment also allowed Osgood to hire the best from anywhere in the country. It has also allowed Atlas to go “green” before it was such a popular thing. She retains her staff the same way she keeps clients and suppliers – with respect and appreciation. It’s a three-way effort Osgood works hard to maintain.
“Without the support of clients, employees and vendors, you don’t have a business,” she says.
Over the years, Osgood gradually stepped out of the day to day and into the strategic by building the right management team. Admitting to her share of hiring mistakes, she describes her management philosophy, “once I learned this,” as “to hire the best and get out of their way. I don’t micromanage and I try to spend my day on strategic things – strategic planning, technology development, customer relations and culture preservation.”
A key to Osgood’s success has been asking clients the right questions and acting on their answers. One result is the customized itinerary (vs. the industry’s standard itinerary) that, as simple as it sounds, has put Atlas on the map.
Another result is the security Atlas is able to provide to clients in the form of a report, at the press of a button, noting the location and contact information for all of their traveling employees at any given point in time.
And then there’s the report that accurately details how Atlas is managing a company’s travel and saving money.
It’s hard to believe that way back when, corporate thought bigger was better with the name brands. “We had to deal with ‘Who’s Atlas?’ and show them the type of service and attention we could offer,” Osgood says.
Naturally, Osgood has big plans for this year and is ready to tackle anything else that might come her way.
At the moment, the agency is in the process of adding outsourcing to its list of services. The objective is to place travel expertise in-house for the first year or so of a corporation’s travel efforts and then move on to help the next company. “I think it will be a niche for us,” she says.
Osgood also expects to focus more on the individual traveler by figuring out how to better use social media and mobile devices. Atlas already supports stressed out travelers who might have missed a flight or had a flight canceled.
“We’re already involved in Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. We’re trying to find out how to do things better to service the individual traveler,” she says.
The Savvy Travel Boutique will also see improvement this year, with a move to online awareness.
“Change is good. We’re not afraid of change,” Osgood says. “We will continue to be an agency that leads rather than follows. That’s a result of the relationships that we build. We will continue to develop new ways of maintaining and strengthening the bond that creates brand loyalty. We don’t hear ‘Atlas who?’ very much anymore.”
Elaine Osgood, founder and CEO of Atlas Travel International, loves to travel – but she isn’t doing much of it for the time being.
Since 2002, when she and her husband adopted their daughter, she’s been very particular about why she travels.
“I want to be home for her while she’s young,” Osgood says. “I used to travel a lot, to see clients, to see what’s out there, to go with our sales team on presentations, to view hotels and critique them for our vacation clients.
“Now I have the team I didn’t have in the old days, so I can stay home. I have more team members who can go places on my behalf.”
To be sure, Osgood does still hop on a plane.
“When customers want to see me, I’m there,” she says. “My husband is very supportive when I have to travel. He takes on the Mr. Mom role.” (Do you think Pete will mind the Mr. Mom label? We could also change the sentence to something like “My husband and I firmly believe that family comes first.” Something like that)
Another related change: Instead of working 70 to 80 hours a week, Osgood has a more relaxed schedule, which comes back to having a strong management team.
“I don’t have to put in the hours I used to, but I like to,” she says.
And as for all the travel: “I miss it.”