A Passion for People

Patrick Fragale says Protravel will continue to grow organically and through acquisition. The agency generates about $1 billion a year in revenue.

Patrick Fragale is used to fixing things. As a general manager in his earlier days, his forte was overseeing the pre-opening and opening phases of a hotel; that’s when a myriad of details need tending to and managing processes and people is a must. As a GM, he’d also be sent in to repair situations at existing hotels. “I’d go in and fix things that were broken,” the president of Protravel International tells Luxury Travel Advisor. When he moved to Direct Travel, one of the top travel management companies in the country, where he served as president and chief operating officer from 1999 through 2013, he was credited with “transforming” the organization, negotiating the acquisition of several agencies as well as the buyout and stock transfer of the company to a private equity firm in 2011.

Pictured: Patrick Fragale says Protravel will continue to grow organically and through acquisition. The agency generates about $1 billion a year in revenue.

Imagine Fragale’s surprise, then, when he started as president of Protravel International in August 2014 and found a $1 billion enterprise that was humming along just fine. “To walk into a company that was an amazingly well-run machine was different for me,” Fragale says. “It was exciting. It was a humbling experience.”

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Protravel has long been viewed as a powerhouse in the luxury travel arena. The Manhattan-based mega-agency, which has 20 locations throughout the United States and the U.K., plus a network of hosted agents across the U.S., was founded by A-list travel advisor Priscilla Alexander in 1984. She ran it in a very hands-on fashion, and its scope and business grew year over year; in fact, Protravel has been rated as the top-producing agency in the Virtuoso travel advisor network for 11 years in a row — no small feat when you consider the caliber of agencies in the luxury consortia.

Alexander sold Protravel to Travel Leaders Group (TLG) in 2012, bringing it into a family of travel business, including Vacation.com, Tzell Travel, Travel Leaders franchise group and Nexion, that combined produce $20 billion in annual sales volume across the enterprise. All told, TLG has approximately 40,000 travel agent advisors in over 6,500 locations.

We recently caught up with Fragale at Protravel’s Fifth Avenue offices, where he’s based, to get an eye on what's happening behind the scenes.

Though it’s now part of a much larger group, it’s clear Fragale is charged with maintaining all of the good things that make Protravel unique. Support staff has remained much in place, and still heading up the leisure division is Andy Pesky, who was hired by Alexander in 1999 to oversee the independent contractor network and Protravel’s outside offices, some of which are the best in the business, crafting over-the-top vacations meticulously, sometimes for the same family across several generations.

When we visited on a Friday, the first week of January, there was a palpable hum with advisors and the support team moving at a clipped pace, but that was nothing compared to the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year’s, or what has become commonly referred to as “Festive Season” in the industry, when the agency’s affluent clientele was off to all corners of the earth for the holidays.

“If you were to be here between Christmas and New Year’s or the week before, it was very, very busy because we’re out and about making sure that the accommodations are perfect,” says Fragale. “The advisors were making sure that people are getting from point A to point B. We really, really follow them. I don’t look at it as being a travel agent. I look at it as a concierge. That’s really what this game is about; calling the hotels, ensuring the arrival goes smoothly, ensuring every aspect of the client’s trip.”

 

Fragale says providing such a high touch to travel is what it’s really all about. “Besides getting to travel virtually through the client’s experiences, you get to ensure that they have the right experience by staying on top of everything,” he notes.

Bottom line: “You really have to have a passion for this business to be in it. This isn’t one that you can pull the wool over with somebody and just say I’m a travel agent. We’re managing experiences and memories,” he says.

Fragale, who worked primarily in the corporate travel sector when he was at Direct Travel, says it took him all of one week to realize just how highly Protravel is valued in the leisure travel industry. One of his first tasks after joining the agency in 2014 was to attend Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. “To see the recognition that Protravel got at this show from the vendors and from its peers was pretty special,” says Fragale.

Of Virtuoso, Fragale says he’s known chairman and CEO Matthew Upchurch for many years. “He’s a great guy and a great partner. Virtuoso’s a great product. We’re a good partner, and the partnership will continue,” he emphasizes.

Now, a year and a half into his role, Fragale still enjoys the strength of Protravel as a major force in the business, but he’s also had time to assess just what it is that makes it tick.

“It’s really what’s under the hood. It’s about the people. The consultants are incredible. The support staff is equally incredible,” he says.

Protravel operates off of three pillars: corporate, leisure and entertainment. That means, that those advisors outside his door and in the 19 offices across the country are booking rock-and-roll bands, movie stars and celebrities, and high-profile, high-wealth individuals.

“It’s a very diverse portfolio. I think that really adds to the excitement,” he says. “To see the wealth of knowledge and experience in these advisors is amazing.”

Back to Basics

Fragale operates with an open-door policy, a tenet he’s held in all of his management positions. His cell phone number is printed on his business cards and when he’s traveling, it’s typically to visit with the advisors in the Protravel network. “I look at our agents as our clients. In the hospitality industry, there are internal customers and there are external customers. These advisors are certainly our internal customers,” he says.

On his visits, Fragale may use his people skills to assist advisors in cultivating their relationships with clients, but he admits that with such a seasoned portfolio of advisors, they seldom need help in that area.

“They are the relationship with that client. I look at our advisors who have had clients for 15 to 20 years. On the leisure side, they may have started with the CEO of a particular firm, then he got married and had children. Then their children had children. There’s such an amazing history and bond with our advisors that we rarely lose a client,” he says, adding that these relationships mean that Protravel doesn’t advertise its services; rather, it garners new business via referral.

Interacting with suppliers is another facet of the business Fragale enjoys and many come through the Manhattan office to visit with the advisors. That requires a calendar that’s blocked off three months ahead of time; it’s still maintained by Beverly Waldman as it has been for years. He says he’ll either go in to the boardroom to listen to the entire presentation or entertain visitors in his office.

What keeps Fragale in this most democratic frame of mind is that he has five children, ages 16 through 26.

“That humbles me,” he says. “Whether you have children or not. I think what defines the person is what you do outside of business.”

The travel business has long been an integral component of his career, but the truth is, Fragale started out as a chef and talking about that makes him smile a lot. “I grew up on the Jersey Shore and I ran a restaurant and a marina down there. We had 12 blackboards and, every day, whoever had the best penmanship would write the specials up on them. We’d bring a blackboard up to the table, and explain what else we were serving that evening.  We would do 500 meals a night,” Fragale says.

The restaurant business led him to the hotel industry where he worked for Prime Hospitality for 19 years as a general manager and vice president of operations throughout the U.S. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. A love of organization and travel sculpted his career, leading Fragale to Direct Travel and now Protravel.

Fragale reiterates that it’s imperative to have a passion for the business and he says that’s what’s fueled him along the way. “Sometimes it’s the blessing and sometimes it’s a curse understanding the back of the house. You can’t relax. I go to the bank, and I’m picking up paper off the floor. You’re always on.”

And of course, that love of travel ignites his excitement for life. After leaving Direct Travel, he took time off to honor a non-compete and rented a BMW to drive from Munich through Austria and into Italy. Along the way he skied and hiked. “I love to get out and explore,” he says.

Now, while splitting his time between his Manhattan and New Jersey residences, Fragale spends as much time outside as possible. He goes heli-skiing every year, is an avid mountain bike rider, loves surfing and golf.

We asked Fragale if the way he vacations, with as much activity built in to the itinerary as possible, defines the way luxury travel has changed over the years. Whereas luxury once meant white-glove service, it’s now about what you do that actually defines the success of a trip.

“Luxury is an experience,” he says. “But there’s an educational aspect of it as well.” He points to a trip he just took to Italy’s Apulia region, where he’d never been before.

“It was just over the top. The food was amazing. The people were incredible. It’s untouched still. It’s not a tourist trap yet. Everybody goes to Rome, Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast, Siena and Florence. To go on the other side of the country made it pretty special,” he says.

The best part? He took his oldest daughter with him and they spent a day making olive oil where “experience” took on a new meaning. Fragale actually participated in the labor aspect of it, wearing a straw hat and carrying bushels of olives around all day. But he says he learned a lot, namely that fresh olive oil shouldn’t be kept for more than a year and must be stored in a dark place. Regular olive oil is for cooking. Virgin and extra virgin are for finishing off foods. And that was a whole new perspective, says Fragale.

The Future of the Business

Clearly enjoying his role at Protravel, Fragale is also hard at work moving the organization forward. Plans are to continue to grow the network as Alexander did, bringing in agencies whose owners no longer want to handle day-to-day operations. “We’re still in that mode. We grow organically, and we grow through acquisition with agencies that want to partner with us,” says Fragale.

What Protravel brings to the table is the opportunity for agencies to have power they wouldn’t have on their own, he says.

In particular amongst the tools available to Protravel advisors is a litany of programs that provide clients with freebies, such as transfers, free breakfasts, upgrades and hotel credits. Protravel has a proprietary “Hotels That Inspire” amenities program; it of course also has full access to Virtuoso’s hotel benefits. Then there are the add-ons in the Travel Leaders Group’s Select Hotels & Resorts program, which has more than 750 participating properties.

These options, says Fragale, “afford us an opportunity to ensure that our clients are getting the best of the best. It gives our agents the opportunity to have an incredible inventory to be able to work with.”

Protravelinc.com was relaunched in December, replete with imagery and video and the theme, “Global Reach - Personal Touch.” The site’s leisure section spells out the VIP amenities and perks one gets when working with a Protravel advisor; it also has a directory of Protravel advisors with their specialties defined and a “contact” button that links to Virtuoso.com. Protravel’s air department is also detailed, noting that the agency, which is a top preferred partner with all major airlines worldwide, has an “in-house revenue management department — staffed by experts with over 30 years’ experience — that ensures best available fares.” Protravel’s charter air department is also outlined.

“It offers us an opportunity to show what we have,” says Fragale. “We’re offering a lot more support to the independent contractors and to our house staff. It enables us to enhance their toolbox to be able to grow their businesses.”

Benefits to the corporate traveler are also explained on the site, which includes an online client profile form that manages passport and Global Entry details, seating preferences, frequent flyer, hotel and car rental memberships.

 

The “Entertainment” section details the air and accommodations benefits and options (which include room blocks for entourages, private homes and extended-stay arrangements), and other services, such as location scouting, contract negotiation for logistic-related services and on-site coordination, as well as privacy and security, a major concern for many high-profile celebrities.

Fragale declined to name names on Protravel’s entertainment roster, but says, “It is an incredible division. I would bet 30 percent of what we do touches entertainment in one way or another. It’s doing the trips for the entertainers themselves or executing the actual movements of the groups. It’s staging, it’s bands, it’s actors and it’s very eclectic, from rap to country western, to rock and roll to film sets.”

Fragale will hit the road again soon to visit with the network. “It’s great to get out and touch them. When I go to the West Coast, I hit all six locations. I’ll bounce back and I’ll stop in Scottsdale and then I’ll stop in Chicago and go to Grand Rapids. I’ll go up to Boston. We’ve now got three in Florida. We have two over in the UK, so we’re in London and we’re in Glasgow. But you know what? It’s a relationship business,” Fragale notes.

He says that he visits Protravel’s locations twice a year and they receive a visit at least once a quarter from the executive team as well.

“We’re getting a lot more involved with the particular branches and I think that we’re starting to bear that fruit,” he says.

This mindset harkens back to his days when he was a hotel VP with 20 hotels under his watch. “Back then, the common complaint was you felt like a stepchild because you didn’t get visitation. It’s good to get out there and really walk the talk and to let [our advisors] feel that they matter, because they really do,” he says.

Watch for Protravel to continue growing via acquisition, but also through an active recruitment program that brings in new advisors, either just starting out or those who have been successful in other careers.

“I’m talking attorneys or doctors and hedge fund people that have this book of business that they don’t know they have. [They can have great success] as long as they have the passion and attention to detail. We probably have brought on 50 new team players over the past year,” says Fragale.

New recruits have to be the right fit.

“As we explain in this business, you have to love it. You have to live it, or don’t go there,” he says.

Fragale holds himself to the same rule, especially when it comes to applying his passion for working with the agency’s advisor network. “It’s all about this amazing machine called Protravel, which has all these moving parts. You really have to get out there, eye-to-eye and talk to everybody and interact with their clients, when [the advisor] feels it’s appropriate or when they need the help,” he says.

But communicating in person is a natural for this travel executive, whose affection for people and for the business is what keeps him moving. “It’s fun, I really enjoy it,” he says with a grin. 

 

Advisor Insight: Andy Pesky, SVP of Protravel

Protravel International has long had philanthropy as one of its key tenets. For the past 25 years, one of its major initiatives has been hosting a holiday party for the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation in Manhattan. For more than 30 years, Andy Pesky, SVP, leisure sales and marketing for Protravel, has organized the event, which is near and dear to his heart. This past December, Protravel had more than 130 volunteers at the event, which is no small feat to coordinate.

Pesky has been with Protravel since 1999; he’s been in the business for more than 50 years. He founded Zenith Travel, a powerhouse agency in New York; when his two business partners decided to retire, Pesky didn’t want to run it on his own, so he came over to Protravel with a band of independent contractors from a network he had built. Pesky today oversees Protravel’s IC network and also travels to its offices around the country.

There’s no doubt that the luxury travel business is in Pesky’s blood; he arrives at Protravel’s Fifth Avenue office at 4:45 a.m., works out in the gym downstairs and is back at his desk at 6:30 a.m.

There’s no basic day-to-day pattern for this executive; he and his assistants tackle any issues advisors across the country might be having. He also does a monthly newsletter that digs in deep to the industry and sits on nine advisory boards. “Anything and everything” is what goes into a typical day for Pesky. When we met with him in early January, he was about to get on a plane to visit with some Protravel advisors; in March, he heads off to Africa to help a dear friend celebrate her 70th birthday.

Some things haven’t changed over the past half a century. “Above a certain price point, people still want to speak to someone who’s knowledgeable, someone who’s involved, someone who can advise them properly,” says Pesky.