|Howard Scharf’s accounting career was put on hold when he joined Travel 100 Group in 2000. Nine years later, he is the Chicago-area agency’s owner and president.|
As a teenager, Howard Scharf’s future flashed, quite literally, before his eyes. His daily route to high school in suburban Chicago cut right through Park Drive in tony Kenilworth, IL, and by the Travel 100 Group, a family-run travel agency that had been a neighborhood fixture for years.
Whether by fate or plan, Scharf, two decades later, at the tender age of 40, is now the owner and president of Travel 100 Group, which employs a staff of 62, in Kenilworth and Chicago. The agency bends primarily toward high-end leisure travel (80 percent of its business and the focus of the main Kenilworth office), with the remaining 20 percent being corporate travel that is predominantly dedicated to group meetings.
What makes Scharf’s meteoric rise so compelling is that he doesn’t have a travel background. Numbers and financial forecasts, not FIT bookings or Mediterranean cruises, are his specialty. Before joining the travel ranks, Scharf worked as a CPA in a public accounting firm whose clients included car dealerships and country clubs. “This gave me valuable firsthand exposure to a great number of different industries,” Scharf tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “It enabled me to quickly adapt to any new business situation or model—such as travel.”
His financial acumen, coupled with the latitude he gives his travel consultants to perform their jobs, has turned Travel 100 Group into one of the foremost players in Chicagoland, with a rolodex of affluent Chicagoans, celebrities and plain old, hard-working Midwesterners as clients.
|The Travel 100 Group poses in front of its office in Kenilworth, IL, an affluent suburb of Chicago. Scharf’s goal is for every Kenilworth household to know the agency’s name.|
Scharf has been able to achieve this success through a three-pronged
approach: embrace consultative selling for all client transactions; achieve success in charging fees for services; and have a consistent sales and marketing plan that offers opportunities for consultants to market to clients. Regarding fees, “We stopped making the assumption that clients knew what they wanted and we stopped making assumptions of what our clients may or may not be willing to spend on,” says Scharf. “The consultative approach that we had always taken for planning our clients’ customized itineraries was essentially applied to all transactions, enhancing our clients’ more ordinary travel experiences and, in turn, our value as a service provider.”
Travel 100 Group also reaps success by leveraging its status with preferred vendors and through its Signature Travel Network affiliation. “Signature’s travel magazine and direct-mail campaigns work for us, generating client interest and creating sales opportunities,” says Scharf. “We also take advantage of our preferred status with vendors and use this as another selling tool, whether it’s Ritz-Carlton’s STARS program, Four Seasons’ Preferred Partner program or Orient Express’ Bellini Club. Each of our consultants has the ability to use any, or all of these tools, and can rely on management’s support to aid in the execution.”
Road to the Top
When we arrived at the Kenilworth office, its homey feel immediately struck us—a corporate environment it is not. Indeed, the office is akin to a large home rather than an office. It also skews toward females. (Besides Scharf, we spotted only one other male.) Upon entering, a cluster of affable women greets guests; upstairs, consultants welcome suppliers and clients in a makeshift living room that has a very folksy feel (a plate of cookies lay on a side table next to a couch). There’s even a deck for outdoor gatherings.
If not for an acquaintance, Scharf may well have never found his way into the travel business; in fact, he was all set to pack up everything and move West. But on the cusp of the year 2000, many companies pushed the panic button on the Y2K transition. Scharf’s friend set up a meeting with Travel 100 Group’s then president, who offered Scharf the CFO job. “At that time I was going through a lot of changes personally and was really looking to pick up and move,” says Scharf. He put his plans on hold and took the job.
Though travel wasn’t an industry he knew intimately at the time, it still interested him. “It has all sorts of good sides to it and was very appealing to me,” he says. “I thought, ‘Hey, what the heck, I would like to give it a shot.’”
At the time Scharf became CFO, the owners of Travel 100 were by no means investing 100 percent of their time in the business. “They were not as willing to make the changes that needed to be made in order for this to be a real business proposition,” says Scharf. Eventually, by 2002, the owners intended to close the agency—just the stroke of luck Scharf was waiting for. While the owners never considered selling, Scharf pondered buying. “They never asked me to go out and do anything other than wind the business down, but having a background as a CPA, I was sort of uniquely qualified to do some projections and estimates and go out and shop this thing with potential investors,” he says.
He did his calculations and, satisfied by what he gleaned, went out looking for potential investors. Through a family friend, he met some real estate folk in Chicago who pitched the perfect deal: they would put forth the money but leave the day-to-day operations to Scharf, an arrangement that suited the budding president.
Finding a buyer was easy; the harder part was convincing the staff that someone so young was capable of running a luxury agency. “I was 34 and most of the consultants there had already been in the business 20-plus years,” says Scharf. “I needed to prove myself.”
Though Scharf had no prior travel background, he did have a goal-oriented strategy to move the business forward. “In our model, we’ve got mostly independent contractors, meaning that they truly own their clientele,” says Scharf. “My vision for success was really about envisioning their success.”
Scharf gives his consultants freedom and independence. He recounts a consultant who recently convened her own client night. “She culled through her client list to select targets and leveraged our preferred status with Abercrombie & Kent to host a client night in the agency’s living room,” says Scharf. “About 25 of her clients were treated to a catered dinner with African wines while one of A&K’s Private Label Guides gave a presentation discussing his own personal experiences in East Africa.”
That Scharf doesn’t dip his hands too often in the travel aspect of the business (he has no direct clients of his own) serves as an advantage.
“One comment you hear a lot directed toward the owners is the need to work on the business and not, necessarily, in the business,” says Scharf. “Not having a list of clients lets me do just that. I can work on the business in terms of things like marketing and human resources, but also work directly with all of our consultants. It allows me to address their individual needs.”
While Scharf was happy with the arrangement he had struck with the new ownership, he harbored an even greater vision. “It became a question of whether or not I was okay continuing to put in this kind of effort for other people,” he says.
|An Avid Outdoorsman, Scharf takes a moment to relax while hiking in Grand Teton National Park.|
He was not. By May 2009, Scharf bought out the other owners and became the sole proprietor of Travel 100 Group, which, today, has yearly sales revenues of $25 million. After the deal closed, Scharf had one thing on his mind: expansion. Just two months later, Travel 100 announced it had acquired two area travel agencies—Winnetka Travel and Four Corners Travel. The acquisitions upped the company’s client base by 25 percent.
Today, Scharf believes the company is operating at peak levels. “We have finally gotten to the point where the people that are here want to be here and all have the same overall values and goals,” he says. “Not everyone was on board from the start. Change is always met with some level of resistance in the beginning but subsides as the vision becomes clearer.”
He says that some of the consultants still struggle with charging fees but, “we continue to work with them and know that once a consultant has achieved some level of success with fees and built confidence, there is no turning back.”
Scharf’s goal is to have all 900 homes in the Kenilworth area know the name Travel 100 Group, which advertises in the local paper, mails—not e-mails—a newsletter and writes a travel blog. The company has even dabbled in TV, running a 15-minute video-on-demand spot. “Anyone in Chicagoland could dial it up from their living room,” says Scharf. A Facebook page is imminent.
The group has also looked to tap into Gen-X by making younger hires with little to no experience. “The thought being that they would grow into their roles by showing them the ropes,” says Scharf. He also has the advantage of a polyglot staff. “Our ability to speak the native language of the local hotelier, guide or on-site destination specialist greatly benefits our clients and enhances their travels,” he adds.
Though Scharf continues to concentrate on the numbers, he never misses an opportunity to sell the value of the travel advisor. “I’m often asked, ‘Why would anybody go to you?’ I always see that as a foot in the door,” he says. “I say, ‘You worked really hard for your vacation time. Why wouldn’t you want to entrust your time and money that you are going to spend with an expert who has knowledge and can provide additional value in terms of creating a great experience for you?’”
And how does he stack up as a boss? So far so good, according to Suzanne O’Brien, one of Travel 100 Group’s more experienced travel consultants. “He is obviously very young to be a president,” she says, though conceding that his non-travel background is an advantage. “We tend to be so travel- oriented and he is more business; he brings a different perspective.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t know anything about the product that pays his salary. In fact, he’s been on quite a few trips himself. An outdoorsman, one of his more memorable experiences was hiking through the Hoh Rainforest in Washington’s Olympic National Park.
While Travel 100 puts together too many FITs to count, he defers to his consultants on some of the better itineraries they’ve put together. One consultant, Anne Kennedy, arranged a mother/daughter trip to Thailand and Cambodia. The daughter was seriously interested in leprosy as a public health issue, so Kennedy arranged visits to several hospitals.
O’Brien has carved out a new niche for the company, one that’s becoming a rage—the “babymoon.” Turns out, many pregnant couples are coming to her to arrange one last hurrah, so to speak, before giving birth. One of her clients could be Scharf; he and his wife are expecting their first child in March. “In January, my wife and I are taking a trip to Hawaii,” he says.
When he returns, he will again focus on moving the business forward. “I like a challenge,” he says, “and travel is an incredible product. It’s always changing. For those that adapted to being a consultant over being an agent, I think there is real reward in it for them.”
Travel 100 Group
Owner/President: Howard Scharf
Offices: Kenilworth, IL and Chicago
Number of Agents: 62
Annual Sales Revenue: $25 million
Affiliations: Signature Travel Network
|A Champagne Toast caps off a balloon ride with Big Five Tours & Expeditions in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.|