First in Service: How the Family Agency Became a Global Brand

Fernando Gonzalez, pictured at The Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, operates his agency from the center of New York City.

Twenty-six years and one name change after opening up, First in Service has expanded far beyond the brother-and-sister agency it began as. Today, it’s a global, luxury travel agency that specializes in fashion, entertainment, finance and tech.

Big things began to happen around 1994; a mutual friend introduced CEO / co-founder Fernando Gonzalez to the late David Bosman, president of Boss Models, which was the first international agency in Cape Town. Bosman took First in Service “under his wing,” Gonzalez says, connecting it with other agencies and fashion companies.

The fashion industry is one that’s very relationship-driven, says Gonazalez. “They’re very prone to use services that are personally referred to them. Word-of-mouth is really the key in these industries. I don’t think there’s any level of marketing or sales that you can utilize to enter these circles.”

From there, everything took off for the Manhattan-based agency, which is located on 42nd Street, between the always-bustling Times Square and Grand Central Station. “We’re probably in the capital of the world, and we’re on the main block of that center of the world,” Gonzalez says. “That means we’re very lucky; probably every existing hospitality supplier that we work with passes through our office.” That fact has helped the agency foster relationships.

“That’s been tremendously helpful in that we’ve been able to foster the relationships that have allowed us to grow in the way that we have; we’re able to see and meet everyone in our industry,” he adds.

First in Service, which is headed by Gonzalez and president / co-founder Erika Reategui (his sister), has seen a very impressive growth in the past four years, beginning with the opening of their second office, located in Santa Monica. Since then, the company has opened offices in Bogotá, Miami, Madrid and Beverly Hills, respectively.

Each location serves as an extension to the Manhattan office; they have advisors selling corporate or luxury leisure travel. Gonzalez feels the physical offices help keep his employees more attached to the company, and provides them with better access the services provided by First in Service.

For his part, Gonzalez travels to each office at least once a quarter and often once a week to California.

During the expansion, First in Service has gone from 30 to 130 employees, 90 of whom are advisors, split nearly down the middle between in-house and independent contractors. And just as impressive — if not more so — is the fact that they’ve nearly quadrupled their sales in that same time, from $40 million to most likely north of $150 million by year’s end.

Sales growth like this begins at the top, where Gonzalez teaches his management team and advisors to erase the word “no” from their vocabulary, and, instead, find solutions.

Such impressive growth is already earning Gonzalez kudos; he has been nominated as Virtuoso’s Most Innovative Advisor for 2017.

The company, which is a member of both Virtuoso (since 2015) and Tzell (since 2007), will likely hit its mark of $150-plus million in revenue this year as it continues its expansion. In the near future, it will open offices in Brazil and Hong Kong, both of which Gonzalez says are very strategic markets. While First in Service — often abbreviated as F1S — has trusted partners on the ground in both locations, it “has to keep it in house,” as Gonzalez says. “It’s got to be our people handling our clients around the clock.”

That level of hands-on advising appears to be mutually symbiotic with the company’s growth: on one hand, having offices in more locations allows First in Service to have more control over their product, giving them the ability to find and maintain more clients; on the other hand, as First in Service’s client list grows, they’re forced to expand upon the size of the company by adding more advisors and management.

First in Service’s top management team comprises eight executives, most of whom purposefully do not come from a travel background. Each member has a “core responsibility but we don’t limit them to that,” Gonzales notes. “We’re a small, dynamic team so we need to pull from everyone every which way, every which time and with every which project.”

With the company’s opening of its Madrid office, it added a managing director, who is now part of the executive team. Last month, the company added a CFO — a first.

“I never thought about the importance of having a CFO,” Gonzalez says. “The truth is, with everything we have going on, we needed somebody who is looking ahead three to five years, because that’s where our head is at. That’s exciting. That’s a very big deal.”

Humbly, Gonzalez wouldn’t call his 130-person, $150 million agency a big company but to him the idea of a “big company” goes beyond the numbers. First in Service is keeping its “small business” approach through its mentality.

Erika Reategui with Fernando: The sister and brother pair took their agency from their kitchen table in 1991 to six offices located across the globe in 2017

How It Began
“We’re a family business,” Gonzalez says.

And it’s true. In 1991, his sister, Erika Reategui, came to him with an opportunity to open an agency together; he was still attending college at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. She was working for a corporate travel agency when she won an account with the Embassy of Spain. After her bosses told her to drop the client, her mother, a veteran of the travel industry herself, advised her to start her own company. Reategui took the account and opened Erika’s Worldwide Tours. A year after opening, the agency became First in Service.

“What do we do?” Gonzalez recalls. “We give the best service, we make it happen. That’s how the name was born.”

For the first 10 years of the agency, Gonzalez, Reategui, and their travel advisors sold mostly corporate travel. Until 9/11. Following the events, First in Service needed to reinvent itself so it would not have to let go of its team. And so began the dramatic shift to luxury leisure travel.

Some change is forced; other times it’s organic (“Change is how we’ve built this company,” he says). In the years since 2001, F1S hired a dedicated leisure team, formed its alliance with Virtuoso, which, Gonzalez says has been an overwhelming help, and created its “Wonderwall.”

The Wonderwall is a literal wall, filled with postcards with information on 52 properties from 12 regions, but it’s much more than that. Gonzalez described it as the cornerstone to First in Service’s marketing. “It’s the heart of everything we do around corporate, entertainment and luxury leisure.”

The idea came out of necessity when the company shifted from corporate to leisure travel. “We realized they [F1S’ clients] did not even recognize us as being supplier or providers of luxury leisure travel,” he says. Drawing from the fashion industry, Gonzalez came up with the Wonderwall. (Many modeling agencies have a wall with comp cards of each model, so agents can see who advertisers need and who’s available.)

While there was debate as to whether the wall would be digital or paper, Gonzalez won and postcards were the result, which clients can peruse and take with them.

 “We’re still about the five senses,” he says, noting how the feel of a piece of paper or the sound of a phone call go beyond the strict visuals of the Internet and e-mail. “The result has been tremendous,” he adds.

The transition to a leisure-focused agency has also allowed Gonzalez and his team to sell more than just hotels or destinations. He says the term “luxury” is changing; no longer does it mean a $10,000 watch on your wrist or five-star resorts (although, he says, there’s nothing wrong with those) but, rather, it’s come to mean experiences. With its expansion into leisure, F1S has been able to sell more experiential travel than ever before.

Among Gonzalez’s list of reasons why he’s excited about the future of his company, a new partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) is at the top.

In the works for over a year, The Jane Goodall Institute hired F1S to develop its leisure program, designed as an educational component for its top donors to bring them closer to the sanctuaries that Goodall built. According to its website, the Jane Goodall Institute “promotes understanding and protection of great apes and their habitat and builds on the legacy of Dr. Jane Goodall … to inspire individual action by young people of all ages to help animals, other people and to protect the world we all share.”

Some of the institute’s initiatives include restoring chimpanzee habitats, improving women’s health in small villages, and working with youth groups in over 100 countries.

“You go on these types of trips to learn about yourself, to learn about the world, to figure out how you can give back,” Gonzalez says. “Everything we’re doing is [centered] around creating opportunities for our clients to be able to get out there and create memories, make an impact in the world.”

He says that most travelers don’t embark on a journey with the concept of, “‘I’m going to build wells or build a home.’ You go somewhere, it touches you — and bam; you’re hooked. JGI very much represents the type of programs and luxury that we want to become known for.”

The Jane Goodall Institute wanted a partner who shared its beliefs. Some locations offer five-star hotels (Congo, Uganda), others however, either lack them or the ones in place promote game hunting (Tanzania). So to ensure the best service is afforded to the clients, First in Service had to build infrastructure from scratch (Think: leveling the ground, connecting the camp to running water, and pitching “totally gorgeous” tents).

“When you’re finding untouched and unexplored parts on earth, you need to create a working infrastructure to offer that once-in-a-lifetime experience for your clients while respecting the environment and community,” First in Service Marketing Director Sekita Ekrek says.

The agency’s partnership with JGI sparked an internal conversation about the suppliers it works with. Starting three months ago, Gonzalez and his team stopped taking visits from every supplier that requested one and began reviewing each relationship, evaluating them and their core goals, and seeing if they are in line with those of First in Service. “We can’t do our business without the right relationship with the suppliers,” he says.

“To be able to step back and do that has been incredible,” notes Gonzalez. “After 26 years, it becomes a bit routine. One of the things that I remind our team, is that in this industry, you’re either going down or you’re going up. There’s no gliding. If you don’t have your eye on the prize, if you’re not looking ahead, you’re going to start going down.”

Sometimes that means cutting ties with suppliers or even clients. But the re-evaluations have given Gonzalez a clearer picture of what he wants from First in Service. And, simply, it’s experiences.

Spearheading the movement from purchasing goods to spending on experiences are Millennials. That phrase can mean the age group or older like-minded individuals with a similar psychographic.

“I think we’re finding that, clearly in numbers, [Millennials] are very relevant,” Gonzalez says. “They’re becoming more mature in their spend. They’re very much in line for First in Service. A lot of our core values are their core values.

“Interestingly, for a lot of Boomers and even in my generation [Gen X], a lot of our spend goes to luxury goods, whereas one of the things that’s super key for Millennials is that they are all about experiences. Their money may not go toward a luxury item; it’ll most likely go toward a trip. That, to us, creates a tremendous forward potential.”

Millennials only make up a portion of F1S’ clients, however, as industries are more relevant to the company than any age group, Gonzalez estimates that 80 percent of First in Service’s clients come from fashion, entertainment, finance and tech. As the two offices abroad suggest, clients come from all over the world — with as many as 50 percent located internationally (although many are expats living abroad). The key to the clients is their like-mindedness.

With experience-driven clients in hand, Gonzalez finds this to be an extremely opportune time for First in Service. Helping him is the potential for the industry as a whole, which Gonzalez sees at the highest it’s ever been.

One observation Gonzalez sees with his company and the industry is the blending of personal and business life. “The industry we’re in really allows you to start evaluating life in a different way,” he notes. Experiencing both the good and the bad in the world (“Sometimes there’re things that aren’t so pretty,” Gonzalez says) has shaped him and made him who he is today. Similarly, he wants those same experiences to be available to his daughter, Sofia, who’s 12.

“To me, to my wife, to my family, understanding culture, understanding the world, connecting on a deeper level than just in our city, our state, or our country is more valuable than being an ace in math or an ace in English or an ace in science,” he says.

South Africa: Fernando, his wife, Awilda, and daughter, Sofia, traveled to Singita Sweni Lodge and &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp to celebrate Sofia’s 10th birthday

Sofia has even surprised him at times.

Most of his personal travels include Gonzalez and his wife, Awilda, who has been with Tzell Travel Group for 20 years, following Sofia’s bucket list. Recent travels include: a visit to Costa Rica, where their Four Seasons organized a meeting with a local family, and a trip to South Africa that included visiting a school with new supplies and clothes, but speaking with the children was something his family would never forget. Next up, the Gonzalezes are off to Greece where they will spend a day at a children’s program in Athens.

Sofia has officially earned the title of First in Service’s Children’s Ambassador. Having traveled to more than 30 countries and having attended a dozen site inspections, Sofia has picked up on the family business quickly (some of her earlier reviews included how suitable beds were for jumping on but now talks about sleeping outdoors in South Africa so she can listen to the hippos). However, as a Children’s Ambassador, she’s beginning to write for herself, find her own voice, and really reaching out to her own demographic.

Gonzalez also encourages all of First in Service to participate in the type of travel that he and his family goes on. To aid them, they created F1S Helps, where the team gets involved with fundraising projects and the like. The slogan is “Giving back through traveling.”

One such initiative included adopting a school in Bogotá. The team flew down with clothing, shoes, backpack and school supplies for 63 students, ranging from six to 12 years old. Sofia, unable to attend, made a video to share with them.

In addition to the F1S Helps projects, Gonzalez also makes a point of getting the entire company together at least once a year, usually around the holidays. Lately, the destinations have been in sync with the opening of the new offices, and, since they skipped Madrid when it opened, he’s looking to make that the destination of their next gathering.

Having the ability, as a large company, to have everyone connect on a personal level has been met with resoundingly positive reviews. With the closer personal relationships, advisors are more likely to call each other and back each other up in sales, which is crucial, especially with a company that has its advisors specialize in specific countries and regions.

Gonzalez says they may even add a second yearly company event — which is all from his pocket, by the way. It has two main benefits: additional communication among the company, and, according to Ekrek, “you really feel invested in the company when you see that the founders go to those lengths.”

As part of Gonzalez’s role at the head of First in Service, he has to make sure he’s running one company, and not six (and soon to be seven, and then eight). He calls it One Global Network, or 1GN.

“As we open different offices we realize we just couldn’t scale and have different teams in every office,” he says.

“Really what we’ve developed is one team throughout various campuses. As we grow in Latin America, our team here very much is the core and the heart. When people call us from Brazil or from Peru or from Colombia or Mexico or all these places where we sell heavily, we’re connected. Our infrastructure, our backbone — from GDS to back office to reporting to telephony — is connected. We transfer over. All of our agents are minimal bi- or tri-lingual so they’re able to service them. Many clients really look at that favorably.”

Growing up in a household where one parent was a travel agent, it would be easy to say that this was in the plans the whole time. However, that’s not entirely true. Gonzalez’s father was in construction and he grew up practically with a hammer in his hands at all times. He thought he would be an engineer.

If and when Gonzalez retires, he says he may return to that career path — most likely by purchasing “really cool homes in really interesting places” and rebuilding them so that he or his clients can live in them.

“I thought I’d be building, and you know what? I am building,” he says.

With an engineer’s point of view, Gonzalez is building his agency — or his village as he calls it.

“I know where we want to be, and I know the house and the village that I want to build,” says Gonzalez, who notes he likes to share that vision with his management team.

“Having that vision and being in a time where I truly believe that village is so needed, and is going to be so amazing, so impactful and such a leader in our industry, that’s my high. That’s what I enjoy doing,” Gonzalez tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

“Every day and every single call that we get is a different challenge. That’s what keeps me and, I think, many of the people on our team on our toes and excited to come to work.”

First in Service
Headquarters: New York, NY
Co-founder/CEO: Fernando Gonzalez
Co-founder/President: Erika Reategui
Number of Agents: 90
Annual Volume of Business: $150 million
Affiliations: Virtuoso, Tzell
Agency Website: www.firstinservice.com

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