Now in its 21st year of operation, Protravel International is a virtual powerhouse set to earn $320 million in sales this year, “with very healthy margins.”
In Manhattan alone, Protravel has 175 agents and 60 employees providing accounting, IT and telephone services to the entire company. Another 300 are scattered throughout the country in offices and in home-based locations.
President Priscilla Alexander credits the quality of Protravel’s agents for the company’s good fortune. In fact, she knew 20 years ago that assembling a community of “the best people who sell travel” was of dire importance.
“That we have been able to attract travel counselors who are the best in the industry has been a measure of our success,” she says. Alexander, however, also cites having the right people in administrative and accounting positions as an absolute necessity.
“These people are the glue, and a few pennies saved to have a less competent person is not going to save you any money. I’m sensitive to the fact that travel agencies are somewhat skittish about spending money, but that’s not the place to save,” she advises.
Protravel has been selling luxury travel since its inception in 1984, thanks to its Manhattan roots, whose existence of affluent denizens made selling affluent travel a matter of course.
“Before luxury became the buzzword I was doing it anyway. We just didn’t say it was luxury,” says Alexander. “It was us focusing on those who have always been high-touch people, who want service and who, when you deliver service, are willing to reward you for it.”
Indeed, Protravel’s customer list is generously sprinkled with the names of extremely well-known people, including movie stars, entertainers, government officials and Alexander’s favorites, “those invisible, high-net-worth individuals.”
This combination of high-spending clients and high-caliber travel agents has spawned a company whose sheer volume of premium business provides it access to proprietary deals from suppliers that smaller operations could never dream of obtaining.
And while Protravel certainly charges fees for its services, that’s not where the majority of its revenues are derived.
“We charge a transaction fee for every ticket and we charge what I consider a modest fee for FIT planning and special services, commensurate with the amount of work done and our relationship with the client,” says Alexander. “But it’s my firm belief that our fees are self liquidating, and by that I mean that our buying opportunities bring greater savings than any fee we are charging.” The reasons for this are threefold, says Alexander.
“Because of the amount we do in the premium market, there are many situations that are highly proprietary to us, and because of our size, we have access to products that few people can match.”Then, it all goes back to the quality of her agents.
“The rest comes from the smarts of the travel agents who know how to bring added value, which is the most important thing. We leverage a number of opportunities and look for the richest one. What dictates our choice has to do with the wishes of the client, the availability of the product and whether there is price sensitivity.”
It doesn’t hurt that business is strong across the board.
“Our premium business in all areas is extremely strong in making the numbers; the other part of it is that our cruise business has grown tremendously. For many years we were passive cruise sellers. For the last few years
we’ve been trying to bring business in and we’ve been very successful at that. Today we’re certainly one of the larger sellers of cruises in the United States.”
While the company is located in New York, Alexander insists it is not “New York-based,” since nearly half the company’s revenues are delivered from locations across the country, including California, Chicago, Arizona, New Jersey and Florida, and from its home-based network.
While Protravel is known for its girth of business in the leisure sector, 70% of its business is corporate and group based. A majority of that business booked is to international destinations, which tends to be more lucrative than booking quick domestic trips.
“The companies we handle travel for are well-known, high-end companies,” says Alexander. “However with a lot of those corporate individuals, who are premium travelers, we also handle their personal and family travel. When you are dealing in the luxury market, you are most successful when you are the total travel agent to the individual or the family. You say, ‘I will take care of your business trip to Geneva, and when you get back in two weeks your son is leaving for college, your mother-in-law is being flown in, and a month later your family is going on a cruise together.’ So you’re a counselor and an advisor. The most successful agents are available to handle everything for someone and aren’t selective about which facet of the clients’ lives they help with. We are there to be their travel counselor in all aspects of their lives.
“Simply put, a successful travel agent wraps their arms very tightly around their clients.”
Because Protravel does travel for very high-powered people, its agents are available 24/7, thanks to the technology infrastructure the company provides to each of its agents.
The “community” of agents keeps close tabs on one another, especially via e-mail. On one recent Thursday afternoon, Alexander’s computer was virtually buzzing with e-mails from agents sending out questions to each other, such as, “Does anyone know a company that can greet clients at Heathrow inside of customs?” Another agent had gained access to a condo in Aspen during a premium period of time and was offering it to her colleagues across the country.
Alexander’s agents have access to a number of “tools,” no matter where they are.
“If those we hire don’t have Sabre, we train them. We have a manual for processes and human resources and I have a proprietary back-office system,” Alexander says. “We also have physical trainers who will help them, and a help desk for anyone with questions.”
“My job is to bring as many tools into the tool box as possible, and then let them choose the ones they need. I might have phenomenal deals for first-class business on a number of airlines, but they have to know which ones to use and why. We may have proprietary value-added opportunities but they know which ones fit the right clients. We are members of Virtuoso and they know how to tap into that. We have some proprietary relationships with cruises that agents can tap into.”
Indeed, it’s this “tool box” that Alexander sees as Protravel’s unique strength in helping her agents play the proper role in their clients’ lives.
“Anything we can do to make travel painless is our job,” she says. “If you have someone who is a high-powered, high-net-worth person, time is the most important thing. By operating as efficiently as possible, we can take a lot off of their backs. We’ll arrange the spa treatments or ship their bags—anything to make the travel experience as unencumbered as possible.”
It’s this same “tool box” that allows one of the most successful aspects of Protravel to flourish. The company’s home-based agents are a driving force of the business. These agents are not dabblers in the travel agency business, rather they are those who have brought their “black book” of affluent travelers into Protravel’s network, which provides them with the infrastructure they need to plan travel for the likes of Madonna, the Rolling Stones, Tom Hanks, Sarah Jessica Parker and those affluent travelers who are not well known but spend a lot of money to travel in style.
“The good agents in this country walk with a book of business,” says Alexander, noting that many of her home-based agents came to her with their own client base.
Aside from hiring individuals as travel consultants, Protravel absorbs existing agencies.
“Sometimes I buy agencies, sometimes we just have agencies who have become Protravel one-hundred percent but they are not selling their business. They change from being owners to becoming agents,” she says.
Case in point: Within the past month, two agencies joined Protravel, each doing about $5 million to $6 million in business.
“I told them, ‘My business is no different from yours but I am doing a lot more of what you did,” says Alexander. “When people join us I ask what they want to get from the experience. No one formula fits the different kinds of travel agencies that exist. Some sell to get out of the business, others sell to stay in the business. Some are looking to stay in the business but want to be assured of an exit strategy at the time they are ready to leave,” says Alexander.
While Alexander leaves the hiring of individual travel consultants to local managers, she stresses that they have a particular trait.
“When you are hiring agents to sell to people who are going to be high-touch, luxury travelers, the person servicing them has to be able to communicate with the clients on their level.”
Another aspect to an agent’s success is the ability to match up the personality and tastes of a client with the product.
“It’s important to know how they see travel as part of their life in general,” says Alexander. “It’s important you know their taste level. With the budget traveler that’s less important because the price is the driving force. When you are dealing with the luxury market it’s not enough to bring names of the most expensive hotels. Your job is to find what fits that individual.”
A major aspect of “knowing” your client is to determine exactly what they perceive as luxury.
“The luxury traveler has the freedom to choose what they want,” says Alexander. “They may end up sleeping in a tent [in an exotic destination], but that is what they choose. The service you need to give that person is exactly the same as the one in the Presidential Suite of a grand hotel.
“Luxury has the tendency to be about ‘bling bling,’” says Alexander. “But there is also a person who has a controlled budget but has first-class taste. The challenge is, how do you deliver first-class travel to someone who has the taste and not the money?” she says. “Then we have people who have all the money in the world who do not even recognize first class and we have to know how to satisfy that person.”
Ever looking at the big picture, Alexander is designing a national program that identifies the next generation of luxury travel consultants.
“Those younger people who jump in now will be extremely successful because in the future there will be less competition, but the demand for their expertise will be even greater. I am looking for people who see this part of the travel industry as a very serious opportunity.” Alexander says her program will launch in four parts of the country with a specific syllabus. Participants will go through a series of learning programs, an internship and then a mentoring program while they work as an agent.
With all of these programs in play, along with traveling to the far corners of the earth to explore new destinations, how does Alexander keep the balance in her life?
The reality is, Priscilla Alexander is not only an artist in selling travel and running a successful business, but she is an artist in life as well.
If you spend enough time with her, you’ll see her idly drawing some of the most beautiful “doodles” you’ve ever seen. If you’re lucky, she’ll open up one of her many sketch books filled with drawings that could easily appear in an art gallery. The truth is, she is a studio arts graduate from Bennington College (she then got her masters from Columbia University), and today, she sits on Bennington’s board of trustees, a role that allows her to spend time with some of the most creative minds in the country. She also participates on a number of advisory boards. And then there are her four daughters, four sons-in-law and 10 young grandchildren.
“I’m a very dedicated family member,” she says, noting that, in a sense, Protravel is a family business since her son-in-law, Tony Shepherd, has for many years served as a senior vice president of the company, handling sales and overseeing its all-important technology infrastructure.
“He is a great guy and willing to jump in to assist in any way,” says Alexander, whose close cousin, Tova Fink, recently left a career in banking to become Protravel’s CFO.
“In a sense we are a family company, and part of my happiness in having Tony and Tova in the business is that I need a generation of people to be here when and if the day comes when I can’t continue to do this. Continuing to have a successful and viable business is also part of my responsibility,” she says.
“I don’t want people to think of Protravel just as myself,” says Alexander. “There is far more than just one face that makes a company operate like this and I am absolutely sure they could run this business very well without me,” she laughs.