|Troy Haas and Meg North , president and executive vice president, respectively, of Brownell Travel, at their new headquarters in Birmingham, AL.|
Today’s face of Brownell Travel would be somewhat unfamiliar to its founder, Walter T. Brownell, who set up the company in 1887. The new headquarters, which opened this year, sits in one of the poshest retail districts of Birmingham, AL, rubbing elbows with Brooks Brothers and Saks Fifth Avenue. Inside, visitors are greeted with a wash of earth tones, clean lines and hi-tech touches that convey an ambiance of Southern-hospitality-meets-SoHo chic. The meeting areas are accented with wall-sized National Geographic maps as well as larger-than-life blowups of exotic destinations and hotels.
“We wanted the new office to collect the excitement and energy of Brownell,” says President Troy Haas. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day and to forget why we do this. It’s important to have beautiful, romantic images of destinations here to remind us.”
The new office was also designed to be a fun space, specifically when suppliers come to meet with clients. Sliding doors give way to a spacious entertaining area with kitchen facilities, so cooking demonstrations for clients, cocktail hours and more are within easy grasp.
Additionally, the new office provides tools for the Brownell team to be as self-sufficient as possible and, according to Haas, “allows us to continue to attract fresh talent to this industry.”
In 2012, Brownell Travel will celebrate its milestone 125th year, and to do it up in style, will host a gala in the beginning of the year for partners and clients. The gala will also kick off a yearlong series of events and offerings for Brownell clients, including a transatlantic crossing, reminiscent of the very first Brownell Tour to Switzerland that began with a sailing aboard the SS Devonia. Brownell hopes to team up with Cunard, whose parent company owned the SS Devonia, to recreate the historical event.
Brownell in 2011
Brownell has come a long way after the first excursion. The company has served more than 75,000 clients in the last 124 years, proving that the travel advisor is still a vital component in planning memorable luxury travel experiences. It’s even expanded beyond its Birmingham headquarters, with offices in Mobile, AL, and Atlanta, GA. The company has sales advisors and independent contractors in 20 states, whose combined forces pull in more than $75 million in sales annually.
Brownell today is headed by Haas and by Executive Vice President Meg North. Haas began his career after graduate school working for the consulting firm Bain and Company. He was on a case team that helped the Official Airlines Guides purchase and integrate Thomas Cook Travel as part of an early online travel venture. “I was struck by both the lack of resources in the industry for providing professional travel planning and the opportunity for a fee-enhanced and more professional business,” says Haas. “I put in the back of my mind that I would like to give that business a try in the future when I found the right opportunity.” That came in 1993 when he was offered the opportunity to buy into Brownell and to become the company’s CEO.
North, meanwhile, got into the business looking for a complete change in direction. “I was 35 years old and divorced. I was just ripe for a change,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I ended up purchasing a small travel agency, Destinations, which had been started a year and a half before. I bought the agency at 51 percent of stock and negotiated future buyouts so I could buy the whole thing. Ten years later, Troy came a-courting and it was love at first sight.”
|Brownell Travel’s Youth Wave (Left to Right): Marianne Gurak, Connie Forrester, Courtney Lankford, Emily Debruge, Caroline Couch, Jordan Parker, Grier Donald, Haisley Smith and Mabry Fiddler.|
Haas approached North in October of 1994. In just 12 short weeks, all the legal paperwork was signed and by January 1, 1995, the two companies reopened as one unit. “Meg and I had such a shared vision,” says Haas. Since then, their unified passion and similar mind-set to selling luxury travel, supplemented by a wonderful friendship, has led the two to build a dynamic and engaged travel advisor model.
“Troy and I merged businesses during a time when people were looking to make acquisitions,” says North. “Other companies had come to me to make deals but I was waiting for the cream of the crop. That was Troy, and it has been a great partnership ever since.”
Part of Haas’ and North’s shared vision comes from the love of travel, which is not a unique phenomenon in this industry, but is the No.1 ingredient in building a successful luxury travel agency. “As we merged or joined companies with Brownell, we learned that these partnerships only work if we bring in people who have the vibrancy and passion, and who are excited about what they do,” says North. Brownell Travel merged with Abeta Travel in Mobile in 2001 and Sterling Travel in Atlanta in 2004 to dominate the Southeastern travel market.
When such moves are made, Brownell prefers to keep existing owners in the fold. “Aggregation is not the direction we are going for,” says Haas. “Agency owners who are selling to get out of the business are not the right fit for us. We’ve found that aggregation only works if the owners remain committed and passionate about the business.”
|In Africa, 2008: Troy Haas (second from right), with his wife, Ann (to his left) on an African game drive with their children, left to right: Cottrell, Margret and Amelia.|
So, what’s the secret to Brownell’s staying power? “We attribute our longevity to three things,” says Haas. “The first is passion for the travel experience. The second is we strongly listen to our clients. We listen to what their dreams are and we work to make them come true. Third, we have a collection of top-notch resources from which to draw.” Brownell Travel is a member of Virtuoso and has access to the consortium’s wealth of luxury suppliers. Brownell Corporate is a sister operation and part of the Tzell Travel Group.
North’s Destinations agency was one of the early members of Allied Percival International (API), the predecessor to Virtuoso. When Destinations and Brownell merged, one of the decisions of the merger was that Brownell become part of Virtuoso.
“Virtuoso is an extraordinary organization and it’s a key component of our model and our success. Both Meg and I have chaired the member advisory board and we are supremely committed to our relationship with Virtuoso,” says Haas.
Maintaining great supplier relationships is also a driving factor. “We are very connected with our top vendor partners, who give our advisors key contacts in the industry,” says North. In addition, Brownell members are on advisory boards of top suppliers, such as Four Seasons, Abercrombie & Kent and Ritz-Carlton.
Brownell receives an impressive number of supplier visits, given that Birmingham is not on the main travel circuit for most vendors. The company’s reputation as being gracious and collaborative with these partners is a big draw for its hosting program (a program offered by Brownell to establish independent contractors who then gain access to Brownell’s vendors and support system). One of the walls in the new office lobby is decked with awards that Brownell has received from vendors, but the one that Haas and North are most proud of is the Virtuoso Hospitality Award, which is voted on exclusively by suppliers.
|In The South Pacific : Troy Haas at the St. Regis, Bora Bora.|
Part of what makes the team of Haas and North so successful is that it is a true partnership, through and through. “I just look at it like you would any strong friendship,” says North. “We are both committed to what we want to do. We both respect each other so much.” Haas adds, “It is all built on trust.”
This partnership model has carried over to the rest of the business, which is how Brownell was originally operated upon opening. “We believe that advisors work best with assistants,” says North. As a result, the majority of advisors under the Brownell name have assistants with them to handle the minute details in planning luxury travel experiences so that advisors can build relationships with their clients. “This is how Brownell functioned originally. It had destination specialists, each with a support team.”
“If we are going to create great experiences, the advisor has to be emotionally engaged with the client,” says Haas. “It is a creative and emotional process that goes beyond making sure the seats and documents are correct. That’s very much a different part of the brain.”
Finding a Fit
Finding the right client is a major part of Brownell Travel’s success story, because one size does not fit all in this business. “During the 1990s, we dealt with so many people for whom we were not the right choice,” says North. “They were just looking to book a trip, and we have gotten away from that type of transaction-based business.” Brownell’s services cater to the upper premium market—clients seeking travel experiences that go beyond the guidebooks and are culturally immersive. The company also has a meetings and incentives division, with a high level of engagement with the client.
|La Dolce Vita: Troy Haas and his wife, Ann, enjoy a cooking class at Villa San Michele in Florence.|
Brownell’s model urges the advisor and client to engage with one another. It is more than offering quotes and suggesting destinations. In fact, Brownell advisors are instructed to uncover the “why” of travel, first and foremost. Why someone wants to travel unlocks all the answers to how it will be planned and what the trip entails.
North tells us of one particular client—a family of six with three natural children and two adopted children from China. The mother decided to plan a trip back to China to visit the orphanages from where she adopted her children. The “why” was to help reconnect her children with their roots. From there, Brownell was able to arrange age-appropriate activities to do, in addition to tracking down the original orphanages and nurses who took care of her children as infants.
“You have to have relationships with suppliers who understand this emotional connection,” says North. “Whether it’s this story or an anniversary trip, you have to know what experiences will have just enough of everything to bring magic.”
When the right fit is made with a client, Brownell is able to soar. Haas and North told us of one of the most lavish trips they ever put together, which the office lovingly refers to as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding & Honeymoon.” North and her team planned a destination wedding and honeymoon for a client in Greece. The trip kicked off with a Silversea cruise. The wedding party (including family, priest, Rabbi, dressmaker and personal assistants) disembarked in Athens and traveled to Santorini via private helicopter transfer. With the help of its Virtuoso partners in Greece and Spain, North’s team took over a Relais & Château hotel to house the wedding party. On the big day, they arranged for a street to be closed off so the bride, and her 10-foot-long train, could walk to the ceremony through the cobblestone streets. Following the wedding, they charted a private jet and flew the party into Valencia to rejoin the Silversea cruise.
Trust is another key component in the advisor/client relationship. Case in point: En route to India, a Brownell client stopped over in London and called the office when he had an anxiety attack. He was sick and wanted to come home. “I told him I would have someone at his hotel first thing in the morning to take him to the doctor. You can’t file for insurance without a doctor’s report,” North says. “But first, I urged him to hop into bed, order room service, relax, and [told him] he was going to be fine. By 10:30 the next morning he called me saying, ‘I’m just fine! I’m not coming home!’ That is [an example] of what we do day in and day out of our job.”
Brownell Travel’s longevity demonstrates that the need for a quality travel advisor won’t go out of style. In fact, it’s ensuring that travel advisors continue to play a key role in the industry through a mentoring program it launched in 2006 to find and recruit new professional talent. “The main mission behind this program is to find people who share this passion for travel, are outside of the industry and have a fresh take on it,” says Haas.
After discussions within the company, it was decided that Brownell would extend its existing successful hosting program for independent contractors to create a program for new candidates, spearheaded by Rebecca Willson, senior advisor.
The mentoring program follows a 12-month curriculum. Upon acceptance, new mentees visit Birmingham and spend two to four days going over the Brownell handbook—learning about the company, the culture and the rules of the road. From there, prospective agents head home to begin the nitty-gritty work. This involves monthly conference calls, monthly homework assignments on the industry, putting together a one-year marketing plan, vendor trainings and more.
With such an intense curriculum, Brownell is highly selective in choosing who would be the best fit for the program. Haas tells us that there is a less than 3 percent acceptance rate, and since 2006, 12 students have graduated from the program. The exclusivity of the selection process has paid off. Each of the graduates, all without prior experience in selling travel, now averages over $800,000 in sales annually.
These new, youthful faces also help to bring in a new, youthful clientele. “So many agency owners run the business by their own book,” says North. “But what we have got is a love affair. Our advisors are smart, the light is on and they smell the coffee. They come here to work and they are so supportive of each other.
“What I love about what we’re doing is that we are investing in the longevity and future of this business. We hope to be here for another 125 years,” she says.