|Century Travel’s Peter Lloyd and Gene Lashley are shown here at their home in Atlanta’s Buckhead section. The house, which is on the National Historic Register, is the site of many a special client event.|
Gene Lashley, CEO of Century Travel, and Peter Lloyd, the agency’s president, today sit at the helm of a luxury leisure travel business set to garner an estimated $45 million in sales for 2012. Through organic development and a series of small agency purchases, Century Travel now counts 50 advisors on its roster; many of them either employees or independent contractors, working daily in the agency’s Atlanta headquarters, others working remotely with the assistance of a bit of technology.
Keeping such an enterprise flowing and profitable requires a strong business acumen, and indeed, Lashley and Lloyd have always treated their travel agency, a member of Virtuoso, as a business rather than as a venue that simply enabled them to travel the world.
“We always had standards on how to dress and how you handle your appointments and how you handle everything,” says Lloyd, who came onboard in 1994, joining Lashley, who had founded Century Travel in 1985 with one other employee.
Although the agency operates with a strong business foundation, it’s the people of Century Travel who have always come first. In fact, ensuring a comfortable fit for new agents is vital to Century Travel’s strategy. “We found some great agencies that had challenges, even though they had a great book of business,” Lashley tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “It’s getting harder and harder to be successful unless you are at the highest level of commissions with all your partners.” In some cases, agencies that joined under the Century Travel umbrella were able to do so as an affiliate, hence enabling them to keep their name. “That was great for them because they had built up a very strong, solid, positive name for themselves that they could keep and still become part of our team,” he says.
“When you speak to travel advisors, you find that each has different things that are important to them,” says Lashley. “For some, it’s all about having time to travel and having an assistant to help them while they are traveling. For others, it’s all about making as much money as they can; they don’t care about traveling too much.”
There may be other issues they need assistance with and for that reason, Lashley and Lloyd, who met through mutual friends in 1984, have careful discussions when an advisor considers joining forces with them. “We ask why they are looking to move and what type of arrangement it would take. We don’t try to control them by saying, ‘This is our salary, this is how we operate.’ We look at each person individually.”
It’s for that reason that Century Travel has been able to assemble an exciting team with different specialties, ranging from Southern Africa to Europe and from culinary and wine vacations to adventure travel. A number of advisors specialize in exotic travel.
“Some advisors have great books of business and have been in the business for years. What they are looking for is just a good team to work with and somebody who cares about them. One of our advantages has been to be open and to find out what they are looking for when they come over to us,” says Lloyd.
Weekly staff meetings provide a steady infrastructure for this diverse group of advisors, which are run by the agency’s vice president/manager, Belinda Crews, who joined the agency 17 years ago and whom Lloyd and Lashley credit with the agency’s having a very low turnover rate. Meeting discussions focus on where Century Travel’s clients and advisors have been so that the information can be shared. Customer issues and other agency-related business are also shared; notes are taken so that home-based advisors can benefit from the intelligence as well.
“Belinda does such a great job of keeping everything going smoothly and providing people with what they need. We’ve been very, very fortunate over the years in creating such a great team,” says Lashley, adding that he, Crews and Lloyd are also very careful about bringing in new people who will fit in well with the existing group.
“It’s not always about hiring everybody who might be interested,” says Lashley. “It’s about keeping the right group together. There’s nothing worse than getting a team together and you have a lot of friction and things start pulling apart and agents become unhappy. I think that’s again a lot of tribute to Belinda who runs our office.” He and Lloyd also credit Crews, who is now a part owner of the agency, with giving them the chance to expand Century Travel; once she came onboard, her skills at managing the team inside the office allowed them to venture out to further grow the business.
Luxury travel advisors at Century Travel are also encouraged to travel, to see the world and experience the hotels and the onsite partners that service the agency’s clientele.
“Clients don’t just want to know that you’ve been to Italy 10 or 15 times,” says Lashley. “They want to know that you stayed in the best hotels and that you’ve used the private guides and why they should use that private guide instead of taking a group tour.”
|In Their New Headquarters: Peter Lloyd, Elisabeth Landry, Michelle Hidding, Belinda Crews, Kerry Stegeman, Nora Townsend and Gene Lashley.|
When you chat with Lashley and Lloyd, you find that they both originally viewed the business world quite differently and yet have found the ideal complementary relationship. Lashley had majored in banking and finance in college and worked in that industry until he realized he didn’t want to sit behind the desk in a bank for the rest of his life. He longingly admired the careers of his friends in the airline industry who would come home on the weekend and talk about how exciting their weeks had been and where they had traveled to. “I just started thinking, ‘Gosh, I really would love to really get into something I loved,’” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
Making the decision to change careers wasn’t difficult for him; when Lashley was growing up in southern Georgia his father had started several businesses, exposing Lashley to an entrepreneurial environment. In 1984 it was boom times in the travel business; corporate agencies were making good money and the airlines were paying big commissions so Lashley made the move. Century Travel opened its doors on July 1, 1985.
|Belinda Crews is the VP/manager of Century Travel who keeps everything running smoothly.|
Lloyd meanwhile remained in the background, continuing his career as a software sales person and working at a number of big companies including Oracle and Dun & Bradstreet. His was more of a corporate mind-set. “I had always thought you just worked for a great company and that was your career path,” he says, adding that the “pie in the sky” idea, however, was that he would one day join the business. He continued to work with Lashley behind the scenes, advising on selling strategies and the art of making sales calls.
Another ally of Lashley was a very good friend, Irene Purnell, who worked by his side and who had no hesitation at walking up to a receptionist to request a meeting with the person who handled the company’s business travel. Together, she, dressed in a full-length black coat, and Lashley, dressed up to the nines in a suit and tie, would go from door to door.
Nothing deterred Purnell from approaching potential clients, not even a “no soliciting” sign. “I’d say, ‘Oh, Irene we can’t go in there,” recalls Lashley, “And she’d say, ‘Oh, sure we can, they’re not talking about us, we’ve got something we can offer.’ She would encourage me everyday and she pushed me to go out and we’d knock on the doors together.”
Friends at Delta Air Lines also taught Lashley of the importance of supporting certain vendors so the agency could benefit from commission overrides. The hard work paid off as Century Travel evolved into one of the largest independent corporate agencies in the Atlanta area.
Lloyd entered the business after an “aha” moment in 1994 when he found himself in Bentonville, AR, selling software to Walmart while Irene and Lashley were on a trip to Tahiti. “I was so jealous,” he says with a laugh. “That was my moment, when I knew I was really ready to make the switch from software sales to travel.”
|Laura Allen is passionate about educating clients, especially those among a younger generation, about the advantages of using a travel advisor.|
The two were nervous at joining forces since the entire household income would now depend on the travel agency, but they forged ahead, making sales calls and building the business, which at that point was 10 percent leisure and 90 percent corporate travel. Crews joined the agency in 1995 when it had about 10 employees. Airline commission caps hit hard that same year, but Crews, Lashley and Lloyd seamlessly determined that they’d shift their focus instead on high-end leisure travel. Through their clients they heard about a luxury agency consortia called API (which later would become Virtuoso), and in 1998 they joined the group.
“Once we joined Virtuoso we understood how there was a lot of money to be made in upscale travel,” says Lashely, who with Lloyd started putting together groups of friends and clients on luxury cruises.
Today, Century Travel counts on its membership in Virtuoso to help foster its relationships with suppliers.
“We really try to push every agent in our organization to attend Virtuoso’s Travel Mart [now Travel Week] because it’s so important to develop those personal relationships with the hoteliers, the onsite partners and the cruise line suppliers,” says Lashley, referring to the event that brings Virtuoso advisors face-to-face with suppliers in an intense series of one-on-one meetings over several days.
“Being able to help those VIP clients using those connections to make their trip very special and to do something they couldn’t do on their own is what makes you successful,” he adds. The two are very proud that the agency was voted the most hospitable by suppliers within the Virtuoso network and by Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts as well.
Advisors also advance their career development using the Virtuoso Professional Development Trust, which provides a multitude of online training courses every week on hotels and destinations. Lashley says that having the educational trust and the ability to attend Travel Week in Century Travel’s tool chest has enabled it to attract new advisors who can see they’ll be put on a learning path right away.
“That we can show them the wealth of knowledge that they can have by just being part of this organization has really helped us to grow our business,” he says.
These efforts are supplemented by setting up new advisors with a senior leisure advisor as a mentor in the office, says Lloyd.
“Add that to the Virtuoso Trust courses and it gives a newer agent a good broad base. We are able to share all the knowledge in the office on almost an hourly basis,” he says, noting that the questions being floated could be about a property or a destination or how you handle a certain client situation, or how to charge fees. That’s so important for any developing advisor and even for senior agents, who might need to learn how to charge fees themselves if they hadn’t in the past. It’s really helpful to be able to talk through it in the office and we do that all the time.”
As keen as Lashley and Lloyd are on ensuring their advisors have their niche specialties, they each have their own and in fact, each carries their own large books of business. This enables them to understand the challenges of what their team is going through in terms of juggling vendor meetings, working with clients and traveling.
Lashley specializes in scuba diving; he has been a diver for more than 10 years and tries to partake whenever he can, all over the world, while Lloyd’s forte is handling honeymoons and wedding parties, which he says is a great referral business. “When you do one person’s honeymoon, you inevitably do the entire bridal party; it’s also a great younger demographic.” The best part, he says, is creating an itinerary with an unexpected element, regardless if it’s for a trip with a huge budget or one for a very cost-conscious couple, who still want to have an amazing time. In those instances, says Lloyd, “you have to really work hard; three times harder to come up with something really amazing, an element of the trip that’s going to be so wild that they will remember it, hopefully, forever.”
Babymoons are another strong niche for Lloyd, who says these trips are taken by couples when the baby is in its second trimester and prior to six months into the pregnancy.
Century Travel recently moved to the fourth floor of an Atlanta office building that’s readily accessible to clients; the agency, however, has never had a walk-in clientele. Its business, in fact, is 100 percent referral based.
“That’s why you work extra hard to make sure you do the best job for everybody but you get some wonderful referrals that way,” says Lloyd. “You get their friends and then their friends of friends and that’s the name of the game for us.”
Such hard work has always included paying close attention to the details, sometimes in high-pressure situations. The agency once arranged a big wedding in St. Martin for 300 guests. At the last minute, the wedding planner realized that the wedding cake, almost five feet tall (coming from Sylvia Weinstock Cakes in New York) would not fit on the jet the agency had arranged to fly to St. Martin for the flowers. “We had to scramble to arrange another private jet—just for the wedding cake. Everyone was on pins and needles as we were afraid the icing would melt before the cake could clear customs and get to the wedding site. All ended well!” says Lloyd.
On another occasion, the agency arranged for a 10th wedding anniversary vow renewal ceremony for a couple in South Africa at Singita Ebony Lodge who wanted everything as authentically African as possible. “Our Africa specialist organized a troop of dancers and singers in authentic dress from one of the local tribes. The couple loved every minute as they had asked for a ‘wow’ moment that they would remember always,” he says.
One young man wanted to propose to his future bride in a very special way. “We brainstormed and our advisor contacted the Amstel Hotel [in Amsterdam] where they were spending the weekend and she arranged a private evening on the Amstel’s private antique yacht,” says Lloyd. “The couple sailed through the canals, stopping at each restaurant to surprise his girlfriend with a special course. After four stops and at the final restaurant, over dessert and after-dinner drinks, the gentleman proposed with a ring and the young lady of course accepted!”
Today, Century Travel skews 75 percent leisure and 25 percent corporate as it’s continued to do business travel for those companies it’s handled for the last 15 to 20 years.
|Advisor Colleagues: Chuck and Reta Frew with Chris Hammond.|
Taking a look back, Lashley and Lloyd are proudest of the team they’ve assembled and for the fact that the agency has twice been voted the most hospitable toward suppliers, once from the Virtuoso network and once from Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. Going forward, they’re optimistic about the future for their agency and for the business in general.
“The travel industry has changed so much in the 28 years we have been in the business, it’s hard to imagine what the next 28 years will hold,” says Lloyd. “We both feel very confident in the future of luxury travel. Expert guidance in the form of experienced and knowledgeable agents will always be in demand in the future as the trend of information overload continues.”
Meanwhile, watch for a potentially larger agency to transpire. “Century Travel has grown consistently, but very fiscally conservatively over the past 28 years and I see our future growth to be very similar,” says Lashley. “We recently moved into a new office and we made certain that we have the physical space to add future agents or affiliates, as we never want to be stagnant or miss great opportunities.”