|Craig Beal, CEO and owner of Travel Beyond, spends about a month in Africa each year, going to new destinations and revisiting those he knows well.|
Craig Beal, CEO and owner of Travel Beyond in Wayzata, MN, literally has Southern Africa in his blood. His father, a Minnesota native, married a South African woman and the two created Travel Beyond in 1975, specializing in expertly planned tours to Southern Africa. Their love for and know-how of the destination was most certainly passed down to their son. Craig Beal doesn’t just know Southern Africa—he breathes it. Today, he runs the company as both a tour operator and a luxury travel agency with the same level of service and expertise, and it is this deep knowledge that keeps his clients coming back.
“You can’t really book a safari on the Internet,” Beal tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “There are so many questions that come up, starting simply with, ‘How do I get there?’” Beal, who has been to Africa with more than 30 teams, has stocked his staff with Africa experts whose knowledge rivals his own. For example, he has a former Africa director from Abercrombie & Kent on his staff. Other members of his team have lived in Africa or have been tour guides there. The level of knowledge is unparalleled. Beal spends about one month of the year in Africa—his time there is equally split between new destinations and revisiting old ones. So when clients come to either Beal or his specialists with questions, they can be sure that they are getting the most up-to-date and in-depth responses. “I have visited just about every luxury safari lodge in the country that would be on the mind of a first-time traveler to South Africa,” he says.
In fact, the breadth of Africa knowledge at Travel Beyond has prompted many lodges in Africa to refer their business directly to the agency. “Lodges send us inquiries they receive from their websites for us to follow up with [in terms of organizing the details and answering questions],” says Beal. “We typically book our clients directly with suppliers and we feel relationships are very important.”
In fact, these relationships with suppliers are so important that Beal will invite them to stay at his house when they visit his offices in Minnesota. “In the past few years I have had the general managers of the Cape Grace, the owner of Lion Sands, a director of Wilderness Safaris, a sales rep for Orion Expeditions [now Lindblad], a sales rep for Tswalu Kalahari and the managing director of Mala Mala stay at my house.”
|Celebrating Travel Beyond: Craig Beal, right, at the company’s 35th anniversary gala with his father, David Jameson Beal, who started the family business with his wife in 1975.|
This above-and-beyond modus operandi does not pertain only to his relationship with suppliers. His bread-and-butter is treating his clients with the same level of service and hospitality. Customized, over-the-top travel to Africa is second nature to Beal. He tells us about one particular journey he organized for a family over the holidays. The family flew into Kruger National Park in South Africa where they went on a safari and the same afternoon they were on a safari in the Serengeti in Tanzania, a journey that is ordinarily impossible to do in one day with scheduled air travel. “Using private planes, it was actually a very efficient trip,” says Beal. Another journey he organized involved a gorilla trek in Rwanda followed by a private plane journey to two luxury lodges in Zambia, and then onward to Johannesburg. Beal has also organized weddings on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya.
But Africa is not all Travel Beyond sells. When Beal bought his family out of the company in 2006, he decided to focus on Africa to build the company up. Back then, there were just four employees and a few independent contractors. Africa was in the company spotlight until about 2009, when Beal decided to expand and begin to sell other parts of the world. Today, Travel Beyond books luxury cruises and organizes free independent travel to France, Italy, Croatia, New Zealand, Australia, Peru, Argentina, Hawaii, Costa Rica and Alaska. “We are trying to stay focused on 10 or 11 core countries,” he says. Right now the company’s model is 80 percent safaris and 20 percent the rest of the world.
|In Namibia, Beal explores the panoramic landscape in style.|
But sometimes the high level of Africa expertise presents challenges when booking vacations to other parts of the world. “People come back from that trip [to Africa] and see we sell other products and they expect us to have the same in-depth knowledge for other destinations,” says Beal. “And we don’t have that same level of expertise. It’s a challenge explaining to people that we don’t have that tip-of-tongue knowledge with respect to the rest of the world.”
He tackles this challenge by working with on-ground operators in the other destinations that they sell. This model does not work for all his clients, who have come to expect the hand-held service and rapid response they receive when planning an Africa trip. “There is no way we can convert 100 percent of our safari leads to future business,” he says. “Then again, there is a percent of our client base that does not mind a slower response. They can wait for answers, and those types of customers do become [our] clients for all of their trips. As long as people understand that they will get the same level of service when booking their trips, but not the same deep expertise.” This doesn't seem to be that much of an issue for the company, which booked about $11 million last year.
The Travel Beyond Picture
The ideal, quality customer for Travel Beyond is someone who is looking to spend on a highly customized trip. According to Beal, most of his clients have just sold a business or have recently retired from being business owners, doctors or local executives from Fortune 500 companies. Most of his business is built on word-of-mouth, which speaks to the level of care and service that his team puts into each trip.
The company’s headquarters in Wayzata, MN, on the edge of Lake Minnetonka, is a stand-alone brick-and-mortar building that is about six years old. Beal has 15 employees in the office and about nine in various locations outside Minnesota. “We are deliberately trying not to grow,” says Beal.
“What makes us unique now, and this is a challenge, is it is hard to recruit people to come to Minnesota, to find talent, so I started working on a remote employee model,” says Beal. In 2006 he opened an office in Wisconsin with one employee. There they used test computers and remote phone lines to make it all work like one cohesive project. Since then, Travel Beyond has acquired ICS in Canada, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area. “What makes it unique, though, is that most of our sales force for Africa are remote employees. They are full-time employees with a salary. No one is paid on commission,” says Beal.
The Man Behind Beyond
Beal has been traveling to Africa his whole life. His first excursion was when he was five years old and his mother took him out of school for a month. Looking back, he says his favorite travel memory was taking his two children to Africa in 2008. The family visited Botswana and Victoria Falls. “Seeing it through their eyes and how much it impacted them has stayed with me,” Beal tells us. “They remember specific guides and people. They still burn CDs with music that reminds them of the trip, and that trip was five years ago.”
While he does not have a favorite destination in Africa, he admits that he has really enjoyed selling Zimbabwe. “It surprises people, and it’s inexpensive,” he says. Safaris in Zimbabwe are still fantastic and a third of the price that they are in Botswana for a similar experience. “If you use Wilderness Safaris, you can spend six nights in their Classic Camps in Zimbabwe [which have 600-square-foot tents with indoor/outdoor showers] and probably pay a third of the price,” he says.
|In Lower Zambezi National Park, Beal partakes in a meal at Sausage Tree Camp.|
His greatest destination knowledge and “true niche,” as he puts it, lie in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. “I have been to Botswana many times dating back to 1984,” he says. “I have visited every ecosystem in the country in almost every season.” His travels have taken him to more than 35 lodges in Botswana in the past five years alone, and he has personally arranged travel of 200-plus people to Botswana annually for the past three years.
Beal’s parents sold the company to him and his brother in the mid-’90s. Before he took on the advisor role, he was a nuclear engineer and a naval officer on submarines. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1994 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Systems Engineering. From there, he went on to graduate from Georgia Tech with a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Engineering. His naval career led him to three years on the USS Rhode Island in Kings Bay, Georgia, and another three years on the USS Columbus in Pearl Harbor.
When Beal was brought onboard, the business had a corporate travel side. By 2004, Beal’s brother exited the company and Beal ran the business with his mother until 2006 when he bought her out.
Today, while he is the face of the company, Beal prefers to get his hands dirty. “I still spend about 30 to 50 percent of my time booking trips,” he says. His other responsibilities include communicating with his people on the ground in Africa, managing traffic for the company, strategic planning and marketing, but his true love is helping book trips for his clients. His vision is to directly deal with his top 50 customers in a more personal way.
A Signature Relationship
After belonging to a laundry list of other consortia, Travel Beyond teamed up with Signature Travel Network in 2010 and has never looked back. “Let’s say you have a booking at a hotel in Berlin and you make the reservation through Signature’s portal. You get immediate attention,” says Beal. “This allows us to earn higher commission levels with companies that we don’t do a ton of business with.”
|Relaxing at Tongabezi, a luxury lodge near Victoria Falls in Zambia.|
Beal feels that Signature’s turnkey marketing strategy is effective, but one that he feels Travel Beyond needs to adjust to. “Our database is still admittedly in poor shape,” he says candidly. What Signature is able to do is gain electronic access to member agency databases and pull e-mail addresses from these databases to target clients. “If you’re a small agency and you know all your clients, then this is a really good model,” says Beal. “We are a relatively big agency and we’d like to have it so that our database can work better with Signature to generate more leads. Our problem is that our database is [huge and] not well segmented right now, but we are in the process of making it work.”
Business for Beal continues to grow. Travel Beyond is consistently a top selling agency for Africa, including for Mala Mala, Wilderness Safaris, Singita and more. “Last year we did about $300,000 in sales in Zambia, and this year that number is up to about $700,000-$800,000. Our business in Kenya is up over 100 percent from last year,” he says.
In fact, even with Travel Beyond’s admittedly Africa-heavy focus, the company continues to thrive. Beal manages to make such a large profit even after turning business away. “We turn away a ton of business,” says Beal. The person who does not fit the Travel Beyond picture is someone who feels as though the company cannot meet their expectations for a non-Africa trip.
“Sometimes it might be budget, especially when it comes to Europe,” says Beal. “We can’t afford to sell trips that are $2,000 per person. Trips outside Africa have much lower margins.” To combat this, Beal has no problem referring clients to travel advisor friends with other specialties.
“We’ve stopped rapidly growing. We just want to increase the quality of clients,” he says. “A better client is one that seeks the advice of a professional and accepts it. They also realize that value comes from more than price. In five years, we will be the premier luxury tour operator for Africa and a leader in luxury travel for clients seeking a high level of service.”