Transparency & Technology: Jeff Willner's Travel Edge

Jeff Willner launched Travel Edge as a technology solution for travel agents, but has grown to love and respect the human factor that travel advisors bring to the table.

It’s a $750 million enterprise that all started at a kitchen table. Jeff Willner, owner and CEO of Travel Edge, wanted to devise a technology solution to connect tour experts all over the world. That spurred the launch of his company, Kensington Tours, in 2006. That technology solution was then adapted for the travel agency market, and Willner’s travel agency business was created in 2011, with its proprietary Agent Digital Experience (ADX) as its backbone. 

Growth came primarily via acquisition early on. In 2011 alone, Willner purchased C Travel, Travel Edge, Worldview Travel and Pisa Brothers Travel, and Worldview Travel became the umbrella name for the growing company. In 2012, Travel Resources and Travel Door came in to the fold. In 2013, The Travel Network and Meyer Franklin were added on; and Cardoza-Bungy was purchased in 2015. Century Travel, a high-profile luxury agency owned by Gene Lashley and Peter Lloyd in Atlanta, was Willner’s most recent purchase.

Earlier this year, Worldview Travel, based in Toronto, rebranded to Travel Edge and is now stepping into the limelight as a competitive player in the consolidating travel agency arena.

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What’s the story behind this burgeoning business, which is steadily becoming a collective for some of the most prestigious luxury executives in the business? We caught up with Willner at Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas in August to learn the strategy of this evolving empire.

Good to know: Willner, who holds an MBA in Finance from Wharton and was awarded the Lauder medal in Public Policy, had a career prior to travel; in the ’90s, he co-founded ObjectArts, a sizeable Microsoft technical training company. Travel was always in his blood, however. The son of missionaries, he grew up in Africa, close to where Stanley found Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. As he was building ObjectArts, the travel bug struck big, and he hopped in a Land Rover Defender and drove it around the world. This ambitious venture earned him the title of “Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.” After he sold ObjectArts, Willner became a management consultant for McKinsey & Co. 

Enter an “aha” moment.

“I had little kids and wanted to have some time with them, so I started a travel company at my kitchen table in 2006,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “And that little company has turned into Kensington Tours,” he says, referring to the company that crafts FIT tours using private guides around the world. Since its inception, Kensington has been recognized in consumer surveys by Travel + Leisure and National Geographic Traveler.

“That’s over 11 years ago. It’s now a $100 million company and it grew 38 percent this year. So we’re really proud of it,” says Willner.

In the company’s early days, it quickly became apparent that Willner needed to bring his technology expertise to Kensington.

“It just seemed weird to me that the technology didn’t exist to do many of the things that we wanted to be doing as tour operators. So we ended up having to build it over the course of a decade or so,” he tells us.

Now at Kensington, more than 300 guides and transport on-sites in 80 countries are connected via Willner’s custom Tour Management Technology (TMT) platform. The technology allows the user to create custom itineraries in minutes, he says.

Willner admits that Kensington Tours’ initial strategy was forged on the concept that travel agents were going away, but he was quickly disavowed of that belief. “I’ve found over time that there are a lot of amazing agents who are very highly skilled and hold great value for their clients,” says Willner. “So we went from paying no commissions to really engaging with the travel agent channel. And in the process of doing that, I really fell in love with leisure travel and leisure travel agencies. So we started buying them.”

The year was 2011 and the initial purchase was C Travel in Bermuda. Worldview Travel, originally owned by Ricci Zukerman, was the second. At this point, Willner says his plan for his company was to be a “purveyor of technology,” powering agencies with a great back-end platform. For the first three years, the company, then known as Worldview Travel, acted more as a partner to the agencies it was acquiring, but over the last two years, Willner began drawing on the talent from those agencies to create a strong management team.

Enter Century Travel in Atlanta. “I started talking with Peter Lloyd and Gene Lashley at Century; they’re great guys, they run a great shop and they have a great sense for style and for luxury,” says Willner. “They’re great builders of agents, they invest in their agents. So adding them to the mix as well was really a wonderful springboard for the group that we put together.”

Peter Lloyd and Gene lashley’s Century Travel is Travel Edge’s latest acquisition.

Today, the company, now known as Travel Edge, has 750 independent travel advisors in 13 offices in the U.S., Canada and Bermuda. Plans for 2017 are to grow by another 10 percent. 

That could come organically, as advisors seeking a new home sign on with Travel Edge, or from additional purchases.

“Acquisitions are always something that’s on the table for us,” says Willner. He says he loves purchases where the owners are passionate about leisure travel and want to stay involved and Travel Edge can step in to handle central-office functions, such as the finance and accounting, human resources and marketing, e-mail campaigns and cloud-based technology. 

“This allows them to do more of what they love, which is the Century Travel story in a nutshell,” says Willner.

Travel Edge brings to the table a proprietary technology called ADX, a.k.a. the “Agent Digital Experience,” a dashboard that accesses multi-GDSs, CRM, accounting, reporting and merchant processing.

Essentially, it allows advisors to create bundles of air, hotel, cruise, insurance and service fees, and give the client a single price quote for the trip. The advisor can easily add in a fee to that quote, and the back office accounting and commission tracking are handled automatically. 

“It’s an incredibly powerful platform,” says Willner. “We are connected to multiple GDSs, to multiple wholesalers and to virtually all the cruise lines.” Wholesalers connected to ADX include Hotelbeds.com, Jack Travel and GTA, which provide car service, attraction tickets, group tours and such, as well as trains and ferries in some locations.

Also in the offing? A connection to the 300 companies that Kensington Tours uses in 80 countries, which means advisors will be able to seamlessly book and bundle in private guided tours to their packages.

That’s about a year away, but Willner says adding Kensington Tours to the mix will provide a layer of offerings such as game lodges, boutique hotels and local airlines.

Linking advisors directly to Kensington’s system will turn them into personal luxury tour operators, says Willner. “This will give them the ability to create complete experiences for their clients.”

Enabling the advisor to provide such a total travel experience for the client will empower them to charge more for their services, which Willner believes they should do.

“In our experience, when you can turn a series of services into a complete experience, there is room to start charging for the real value of trip-planning expertise, as well as mid-trip customer service, and post-trip issue resolution, if needed,” says Willner. “Selling a bundle allows for higher fees and margins.”

This plays in to Travel Edge’s tagline, “Expertise that’s worth the fees.” 

He cites examples of travel agents who specialize in cruises, but tell their clients to book their own air or pre- and post- hotel. 

“That doesn’t make any sense,” says Willner. “Bringing it all into one package also gives the client peace of mind, because if something goes wrong with the hotel or the flight, there’s someone who’s going to stand behind that.”

Advisors, in turn, booking via ADX, will have a full team to support the transaction.

All this keeps Willner jazzed about the company’s potential and he says that the rebranding of Travel Edge from Worldview was just the start of a process that will make Travel Edge a more prominent player in the industry, and a “better place to have a career.”

All these tools, including the Travel Edge support system, should allow advisors to earn margins of 20 percent, he says.

“If they can get to 20 percent, it will revolutionize their lives,” says Willner. “They can build their businesses, they can afford to market again and they can afford to hire young people.” Willner is keen on elevating the image of travel advisors, who he says have one of the most difficult jobs out there. “What galvanized and upset me when I fell in love with this industry was the level of casual disrespect there was for a profession that I think is one of the greatest professions that you can have. [Being a travel agent] is about helping people to reinvigorate, reconnect and enjoy their lives.” 

Another strategy at Travel Edge is to be as upfront as possible about how advisors are paid. “We publish our [commission] splits on our website, which is very rare for a travel company to do,” Willner tells Luxury Travel Advisor. Those details, listed under an “Advisor Program” button, list advisor tiers such as “Small Biz,” “Professional,” “President’s Club” and “Chairman’s Circle.” Based on revenue earnings, each category lists the services and amenities that come with each tier, as well as a commission-split schedule.

Established advisors joining Travel Edge will be credited for their past achievements from the start. “If an advisor comes over from some other company, they would receive the split based on their full volume,” he explains. “For example, someone who had done $400,000 to $600,000 in revenue in the previous 12 months would immediately earn 90 percent on their first sale. The idea is not to penalize someone who brings over their own thriving business.”

Why make a payment scheme so public?

“When I acquired the agencies, we had about 650 agents on 350 different arrangements and I felt that was unprofessional and unfair,” says Willner. “It rewarded the agents who were the loudest or the most vocal, and there were a number of true top performers who were being, in effect, taken advantage of because they weren’t loud enough,” says Willner. “And so we made a commitment as a company to be as transparent and honest with our clients, who are our agents, as we possibly could.”

Attracting New Talent
More on the ADX technology: Travel Edge is $20 million into its development and has a team of 40 programmers who push out a new build weekly with features and functionality that advisors have requested.

Willner notes that on screen, ADX has the appearance of being very “point and clicky,” but he believes that simplicity is necessary if new talent is to be drawn in to the industry.

“We’re not going to bring a whole new generation of people into travel if we’ve got to train them on blue screens,” he says. “Technology is at its best when it acts the way you intuitively expect it to act.”

Willner hopes that bringing new people to the industry will ease the dynamic of many agencies vying for the existing pool of advisors. “It’s the chance to fundamentally change the model and for people to realize, ‘I can win, while not making other people lose,’” he says.

Watch for Travel Edge, which has been fairly low key throughout its growth spurt, to be more in the forefront in the future.

“We haven’t really beat our own drum very much, but we need to and it helps our agents to do it. If there is a message from an acquisition perspective, it’s that we’re in search of the best talent. If there are people who are excited about being in the business, but are tired of dealing with the craziness of accounting systems and other things, we can do that [for them].”

The Human Factor
Willner launched his company as a pure technology play, but he’s enjoying the people side of the luxury travel advisor business more than he expected. 

“I’m a bit of an introvert,” he tells us. “My parents were missionaries in Africa, I grew up in the Congo. But, I’ve traveled a ton, I drove my Land Rover to 120 countries around the world and I’m a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. So I really do like people and I’m a big advocate of family.”

For that reason, he says, he loves that his management team comprises “nice, hardworking, low-ego people, and that’s something we work really hard on. While we were on a tour to all of our branches a month ago, I realized we were giving out a lot of hugs. I really, really enjoy that part of it. That’s what keeps you coming back to work.” 

Meet Cheryl Nicholson, EVP of Leisure for Travel Edge

As the executive vice president of leisure for Travel Edge, Cheryl Nicholson runs the company’s entire leisure division, which straddles the United States, Canada and Bermuda, and includes a collection of 700 independent travel advisors. Nicholson is also responsible for recruiting new advisors into the network.

Cheryl Nicholson keeps Travel Edge’s management team together.

And while she’s based at Travel Edge headquarters in Toronto, she’s more often out in the field or at the company’s other locations. “I do a roadshow around all of our offices in all of our countries, and we make a conscious effort to make sure our communication includes our remote advisors as well,” she says.

Due to the wide geographical spread, opportunities to gather at big annual meetings, such as Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas, are critical to Travel Edge, which encourages as many of its advisors as possible to attend the event, held every August. For this reason, Travel Edge pays a portion of the registration fees, based on the revenue tier the advisor falls under and even makes that contribution a part of the advisor agreement. 

Who would be a good fit for Travel Edge? “We’re looking at those new to the industry and at those seeking a second career,” she says. “We’re also looking at established advisors who have been doing this for a long time. But our priority is to find people who fit with our vision of where we’re going as Travel Edge.”

What is the profile of that person?

“We’re looking for people who manage their clients the way that we would expect them to be managed. We are looking for entrepreneurs who are looking for new ways to grow their businesses. Some of our young professionals are doing great things with social media. We’re looking for people seeking unique ways to grow their business and who are professional about it, because we think we provide a great support system for them,” she notes. Advisors should be the type to nurture their clients and protect them while they’re traveling. “That’s more important to us than their number of years of experience,” she says.

She’s also keen on getting Travel Edge’s developing management team together regularly so that divisions are not working in silos, which can happen when a company grows via acquisition. 

“That allows us to benefit from our acquisitions, such as Century Travel. We joined Century for the same reason that they joined us, and we want to leverage their best practices and share them with Bermuda, for example.”

Top performers will also meet once a year; in the planning phase is a trip to Costa Rica in December.
“It’s a great opportunity for top performers in Montreal to tell top performers in Los Angeles what they’re doing to grow their businesses,” she says.

When it comes to future agency purchases, Nicholson says, it will once again be about being a good fit, rather than growing for the sake of growth.

In terms of expansion, Travel Edge might purchase an agency, or that agency could align as an affiliate. It comes down to the objectives of the existing agency, she says. Century Travel was an outright purchase and became a branch of Travel Edge. The former owners, Peter Lloyd and Gene Lashley, immediately became part of Travel Edge’s brain trust, and Lloyd was instrumental in helping develop its new website, she adds.

Nicholson says that travel advisors and agencies are looking carefully at whom they want to partner with and that the landscape is competitive. 

“Selling travel is one of the most difficult jobs there is,” says Nicholson. “You need to know that if there is a situation, you’ve got an IT team that will help you, or a financial team, or an HR team. Those are the questions we’re hearing when people are considering whether they’re going to join. Everybody is interested in the commission and the revenue, but it’s also, ‘Who will support me? How many people are available?’ For that reason, Travel Edge publishes service commitments that are transparent, and that include such information as how long it will take to get help if there’s something wrong with your phone, for example.”

Support comes in other ways. As Hurricane Irma was heading to Florida, Travel Edge reached out to their 15 advisors in its path from another office staffed by independents, who were ready to help by taking client calls and providing service to clients. Travel Edge’s head office also reached out directly to advisors, asking if there was anything they could do to assist with customers.

“Obviously, if you’re concerned about your own security, you can’t be managing your travel business, but we wanted to make sure that they were covered and protected,” notes Nicholson.

She tells us she’s excited to see where Travel Edge is going. “All of these changes are positive. We went to Travel Week as Travel Edge [for the first time] and the feedback we got was positive and energetic, so it’s really an exciting time to be part of the team,” she says.

Travel Edge

Headquarters: Toronto, Canada
Owner / CEO: Jeff Willner
EVP of Travel Edge Leisure: Cheryl Nicholson
Annual Revenue: $750 million
Business Mix: Leisure travel, corporate travel and private guided tours. The leisure division has 13 offices in the U.S., Canada and Bermuda.
Travel Advisors: 750 affiliated advisors specializing in air, cruise, vacation and VIP travel. 
Affiliation: Virtuoso
Website: www.traveledge.com

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