On any given day, Ovation Travel Group has a lot going on. The New York-based travel firm generates $1.1 billion in annual revenue streaming from its corporate and leisure travel businesses. But there’s more to come. Expansion plans have recently put the company in the news; first, with the purchase of Chartwell Travel, a leisure agency in the U.K.; then, with the appointment of the widely respected industry executive, Gina Gabbard.
Hailing most recently from Tzell, Gabbard is Ovation’s new senior vice president of leisure and independent advisors. That’s a new title at the company, signifying a major push to grow its independent contractor network.
Complementing ambitious growth plans are strong financials. Ovation reports that last year was a record year, with its corporate division alone winning $100 million in new business.
The numbers also show the company is already way ahead for the first six months of this year on both the corporate and the leisure side.
We traveled to 71 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to garner insight into this major powerhouse in luxury travel.
The strategic wizard behind the scenes is chairman and CEO, Paul Metselaar, who founded the company in 1984. You might not see Metselaar out at every industry function; rather, he says his job is to be the catalyst behind the scenes, to help when things get stuck and to be a cheerleader from the sidelines.
“I call people on their birthdays and anniversaries. Clients, as well as the most successful luxury travel advisors, want to know that there’s somebody who cares about them and will go to bat for them when they need help,” says Metselaar.
He’s being modest. Metselaar has consistently steered Ovation Travel Group through growth by seeking out new niches while adjusting to market conditions.
Based on its revenue numbers today (Ovation Travel Management is the largest company in the very large BCD Travel network, for example), it’s surprising to learn that Ovation has humble roots, launching as a family-owned business. His father, Jack Metselaar, a science teacher in the Bronx, identified the teen tour niche early on and led groups across the country to earn extra money during the summers. He and, another teacher, Allen Rich (who went on to found Rich Worldwide Travel), teamed up to open a travel company in Scarsdale, NY, and their wives launched a travel agency of their own.
This means that Paul Metselaar grew up in the business, running tours and traveling the world. Along the way, he developed a desire to go into journalism; however, after graduating from Cornell and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University in Manhattan, he became a litigator.
He loved law, but the day-to-day eventually got to him.
“When you’re a litigator, you’re fighting with people all day long. And I was miserable,” he reveals. “I was more of a people person so I was always trying to get my clients to make up with each other.”
The scene was set for change. After splitting from Rich, his father had purchased, and overpaid, for a travel agency that was now in financial trouble. Metselaar at the time was 27 and had just gotten married. “As soon as we came back from our honeymoon, I resigned from my law practice to take over my father’s business,” he says.
A young lawyer, running a nearly insolvent travel business with just four employees, Metselaar knew he needed to carve out a niche, especially with giant firms like American Express and Carlson as competitors. He founded Lawyers Travel to tend to the needs of professionals whose travel needs change frequently, are often last-minute and definitely skew toward luxury in terms of hotels and airplane seats.
“Lawyers are very demanding; they’re probably the most difficult business travelers of any,” Metselaar says. “But it’s not because they’re annoying by nature. It’s because they’re subject to the vagaries of other lawyers, clients and courts so they’re constantly changing the plans. They change their plans on an average of four to six times over the course of a trip and 80 percent of their travel is within 24 hours of the reservation. So it’s very last-minute. It’s very fluid. That’s just the nature of their travel. We wanted to create a specialty brand that would enable us to compete using this niche market.”
Lawyers Travel became wildly successful. The Wall Street Journal reported on its unique strategy to help law firms manage their costs and to let lawyers have better experiences when they travel. Its preferred hotel partners program, comprised of corporate and luxury hotels, provided a large number of amenities, says Metselaar. Guaranteed early check-in in London, for example, was one of them; ideal for those clients arriving in the morning after an overnight flight from the U.S.
“We found that lawyers were showering at Heathrow and they’d be miserable. So we made deals with our hotel partners in London, the top hotels, and they’d give us the room the morning clients arrived, so they wouldn’t have to pay for it the night before, which is what they were doing. So they were saving money and having a better experience,” says Metselaar.
He said the deals were possible because luxury hotels love lawyers. “They have the highest ADR of any group they’ve identified,” he said, noting that Lawyers Travel’s air and hotel program became the basis of Ovation’s client offerings today.
Having such a stronghold within the legal industry led to further success as executives running those law firms moved over to run investment banks and hedge funds, for example.
To broaden the agency’s reach beyond the legal industry, the Lawyers Travel monicker was changed to Ovation 15 years ago.
“That enabled us to go to other vertical markets that look and feel like lawyers; businesses that have lots of last-minute changes,” he says. “I would categorize it all as super-high-end business travel.”
Metselaar had done well transforming his father’s travel agency into a mega-corporate travel firm. After he rebranded to Ovation, he took over his mother’s very successful leisure travel agency in Scarsdale called Windows on the World, which marked the beginning of Ovation Vacations.
“My mother actually still works for the company. She’s going to be 88 years old and she still has clients. I love her,” says Metselaar with a tremendous grin.
His father also remained in the business before passing away eight years ago. “Even up until the day he died, he loved coming to the office and watching what was going on with this little business that he thought was going to go south. He even gave up golf because he wanted to be around. He even played on our softball team for a few years. It was great.”
“I learned a lot from my parents early on,” he adds.
With his father’s teen tours business and his mother’s travel agency, Metselaar says Ovation truly has leisure travel roots. In fact, it was one of the first members of Virtuoso.
“Matthew [Upchurch] has built an amazing business,” says Metselaar. “I have tremendous respect for what he’s done.”
Family Photo: Metselaar and his family recently enjoyed an African Safari.
A Synergistic Business
Business continued to grow following the rebranding to Ovation. The company expanded in to very high-end business travel verticals and that fueled the leisure side of the business. Today, the company generates well over $1 billion in revenue and that’s only going to get stronger as its 600 employees and 200 independent contractors keep doing what they’re doing.
“We get so much great, high-end leisure business from our corporate clients. And we get corporate clients from our high-end leisure clients,” says Metselaar.
On the leisure side, it’s all high-end as well, servicing high-net worth individuals. “Between [top advisors] Jack Ezon and Judy Stein and some of our ICs, they’ve built an incredible business,” he notes.
For his part, Metselaar operates under the radar, instrumental behind the scenes to help his advisors build their businesses. He says that referring businesses from the corporate side is one of the most exciting opportunities that Ovation has as a company.
Perhaps most satisfying for him is that Ovation is possibly the largest independents left in the industry because of all the travel agency consolidation taking place.
That’s where Metselaar’s plan to expand his IC network comes in to play.
“There are a lot of unhappy people out there who are looking to affiliate with a company that owns their own business, where there isn’t a big bureaucracy, that’s still family-owned, but has all the bells and whistles of the ‘megas,’” says Metselaar. “My partners and I come to the office every day. We answer the phone and we’re hands on. We get involved in all kind of issues. And so, the same way we’ve helped the leisure agents here build, retain and grow their businesses, we’re going to be growing quite a bit on the leisure and affiliate side over the next couple of years.”
He sees tremendous opportunity in such a plan, particularly with the recent acquisition of Chartwell Travel in London. Metselaar describes it as currently a small business, very service-oriented and focused on high-end corporate travel for the film, television, media and photography industries.
He’s hired Tina Rose, formerly of Protravel’s London office, to oversee the business.
“It’s a great platform for us to build both our leisure and IC business,” he says, adding that growth in corporate travel could also be a part of that plan, at least for the U.K.
For corporate travel, Ovation is BCD Travel’s largest global affiliate, he notes.
“We have a very close relationship with them and we’re never going to buy companies all over the world. That’s not really part of our strategy,” Metselaar says. “But in London, it’s a little unique; we have the opportunity to do something really special there. And we’re going to be adding a lot of leisure.”
Metselaar says there are many opportunities coming to Ovation now because of its ownership model. Last year was its best year ever, he says, and 2018 is on track to surpass that.
“Business has been very strong this year and we’re hoping it can continue,” he reports.
“Tremendous” investments on the technology side for both corporate and leisure travel have supported that growth, as have new reporting platforms. Ovation just added Genesys to its toolbox, an omni-channel communications tool that streamlines e-mails, chat and text. “It enables agents to become much more productive,” says Metselaar. On the leisure side, Ovation has also invested heavily in reporting tools and dashboards for ICs to track and grow their business.
“Travel advisors now really look at themselves like they’re running a business,” he says of the current climate. “That’s very different from years ago when I first started. They’ve been in business for a long time. They’ve survived so much, and there’s been such a shake out. They take this profession seriously and they are succeeding. We want to give them the tools to not only retain their clients, but to help them grow.”
Even more important is the human side to it all. Metselaar says Ovation is getting phone calls from advisors saying, “Nobody cares about us anymore.”
“That’s a culture that has been lost in companies that have been consolidated,” he notes. “People are feeling like it’s a big bureaucracy, and they don’t feel like somebody cares about them. And that’s something that we do. And not only do we care, but we help you build your business. If I have an IC who has a corporate client that has an issue, or that goes out to bid, I’ll go to the meeting. I’ll introduce myself.”
“ICs are our clients just like our corporate clients are our clients,” he adds. “They work very hard to build their business. And actually, believe it or not, the margins for ICs and affiliates are higher than the corporate business.” This is because corporate clients require account managers and other people to support their account. “On the IC side, they’re effectively the account managers for those clients and so the margins are actually better,” he points out.
The New Luxury Traveler
On the client side, Metselaar is seeing younger luxury clients traveling differently. As an example, he says his oldest daughter recently took a pre-honeymoon trip, going first to Croatia, then moving on to Paris.
The difference with this demographic, he says, is often with how they first access the travel advisor.
Metselaar’s latest brainchild, operating as a separate company from Ovation, is called Skylark, which he sees as the future of luxury travel.
“If you look at our clientele as sort of a pie, we have always had half of this very lucrative high-end travel buy. And so how do you get the rest of our corporate clients to use us for leisure? Trying to get [younger travelers] to be on the phone? That’s like anathema to them,” he says. “They want to go online first.”
The current model for his leisure division is to be in touch with the client by phone first. Skylark is a hybrid model that provides strong travel content that draws the potential client in as they research their trip.
“We try to get the customer as far down the funnel as possible. It’s for, obviously, a younger person whose preference is to go online first. But you can chat, you can pick up the phone, and you can speak to a luxury travel advisor.”
Skylark is three-and-a-half years old but in the past few months, has taken off like a rocket ship, he says.
“The demographic for Skylark skews much younger, and we’re starting to really get tremendous traction,” says Metselaar. “Not only that, but we’re working on a B-to-B solution at Skylark, where independent luxury travel advisors will be able to take Skylark content, and use it for their own clients.”
Travel products are offered in bundles (he doesn’t like the word “packages”) that are incredibly well-priced and provide amenities through Virtuoso.
On Skylark, some clients are booking luxury hotels and don’t need to speak to an advisor, others prefer to communicate via chat. As a result, Skylark’s business model enables you to do 10 transactions in the amount of time you could do two in the traditional fashion.
“So we’re trying to prove out this business model, and we’re making great strides,” says Metselaar, noting with a smile that Skylark is his second good idea; Lawyers Travel was his first.
“I feel very hopeful about it,” he adds. “Suppliers have been incredibly supportive and very welcoming. They’re very excited about this because they see this as being able to drive ‘Millennials with Money.’ And so we can deliver MWMs to them.”
Skylark is currently raising funding. “If we’re successful, we’re going to give people something to think about because there’s no real place for the do-it-yourself luxury traveler to go on the Internet. There’s no real home. They don’t feel comfortable going to Expedia or going to Booking.com because that’s not luxury travel. It’s got everything that a carriage-trade Virtuoso agency would have, with great content and great information. And it’s online first.”
The People Factor
Ovation President Jack Ezon has just moved over to focus on his own very high-end clientele, and, along with Judy Stein, is working on a new venture for Ovation. This meant Ovation needed a new executive for its leisure division and that is Gina Gabbard, who was named to the new role of senior vice president of leisure and independent advisors. Formerly with Tzell, Gabbard is highly respected and beloved amongst the supplier and IC arenas.
“We were just blown away when we met Gina,” says Metselaar. “It’s a very small industry, and it’s amazing how everybody knows everybody. And as soon as her name came up, the first thing out of everyone’s mouth was, ‘She’s terrific.’ She’s only been with us for a few weeks but already I can see that we made a tremendous hire.”
He says Gabbard has come in to Ovation at a very high level and will lead the effort to grow the company’s leisure and IC network.
That is a critical strategic initiative for the company, says Metselaar. “Just as we’ve invested so much over the years into the corporate side, now we’re investing in the IC and leisure side and she’s leading that charge for us.”
Gabbard told us she came to Ovation because when she first spoke with Metselaar he said that people are the most important part of the business. That was clear late last month when Ovation took home an Innovation Award from Virtuoso Travel Week for Personnel Empowerment. That’s a tribute that honors “an agency that implements innovative programs that recognize and support agency employees and independent contractors.”
“At the end of the day, for our business to be successful, it’s all about great people,” says Metselaar.
“It’s all about letting them do their job and giving them the resources that they need.” He says the culture at Ovation is that of a “total meritocracy. You have incredible opportunity here. People can go as far as their own talents take them. We don’t care what your background is. If you’re a hard worker and you’re committed, the sky is the limit.”
Gina Gabbard, here seen in Peru, says she came to Ovation because when she first spoke with Metselaar he told her that people are the most important part of the business.
Ovation Travel Group just won Virtuoso’s Innovation Award for Personnel Empowerment. The award recognized a variety of the travel company’s efforts. Here are just some components in play at Ovation.
An “Emotional Impact” program encourages advisors to share creative ways they went above and beyond to add an emotional impact to a trip. They are recognized throughout the team on a weekly basis for their creativity. Meanwhile, “Camp Ovation” outings bring together agents in a more relaxed setting to compare notes while doing something fun in the city with their preferred suppliers. Outings have included pizza tours, trapeze classes, cupcake baking, art tours, painting classes and spa nights.
Personal one-on-one onboarding supplements a week of extensive training, including a one-on-one kickoff call to discuss their goals.
A mentorship program incentivizes existing agents to sign on for a limited time mentorship relationship with new ICs. The program also includes training support and educational trips to get them the experience they need to start speaking with confidence to their clients.
A “Cross Trainer” Supplier Exchange Program pairs an advisor with an interested supplier, and allows the advisor shadow the supplier for a day. The supplier then shadows the advisor for a day at Ovation’s headquarters.
Ovation is also known for its “Friendly Competition” on FAM trips, which could include scavenger hunts, speed-round quizzes and some exercises around an obstacle course.
Ovation Travel Group
Headquarters: New York City
Chairman and CEO: Paul Metselaar
Executive Vice Presidents: Michael Steiner, Sunil Mahtani, Elie Gordis
Senior Vice President of Leisure and Independent Advisors: Gina Gabbard
Team: 600 employees and more than 200 independent travel advisors
Annual Revenue: $1.1 billion
Affiliations: Virtuoso, BCD Travel