|Cadence’s Management Team: Harold Frysh, chairman; Elaine San Juan, COO; Jeannie Turner, manager, business services; Wendy Burk, CEO and founder; Aimee Leon, manager of leisure services; Gail Concepcion, manager, accounting and administration; Monica Smith, director, meetings and incentives; and Don Jones, executive vice president.|
Step into the sleek Cadence headquarters on Herschel Avenue in La Jolla and you’ll feel a mellow vibe that reflects the sunny Southern California weather outside. Leisure travel advisors calmly conduct business at attractive work stations and there are several large high-tech meeting rooms for the team to gather for updates from CEO Wendy Burk and where visiting suppliers can present their latest product news.
During our visit, a window was open somewhere in the building and a fresh ocean breeze wafted through the corridors. Cadence is just blocks from the Pacific Ocean and even closer to the ultra-affluent shopping and dining enclave in La Jolla, dubbed by some as the “Beverly Hills of San Diego.”
Burk, however, hasn’t let her impressive location or that she’s leading a $100-million travel company go to her head. As we chat in her spacious office, she’s adamant about her position in the company. “I created an environment from day one in which I work for the employee,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
Indeed, everything about Cadence, known originally as Travel Dynamics Group, is really about its team of 200 travel advisors, the large majority of them independent contractors. Case in point: Among the permanent staff at Cadence, there are “techno-nannies” to help advisors with any need. Others are also ready to assist, including an air desk for those who don’t want to book tickets. It’s all a human toolbox of sorts for independent contractors to serve their clients in whatever way they see fit, and because they’re independent, they decide what’s best for their business. In fact, there’s even a menu of optional services for them “based on what their needs, wants, and fantasies are to deliver to their client,” says Burk. That could be creating a welcome-home fruit basket, a customized brochure or the preparation of travel documents in a nice box with a bow tied around it. A Cadence specialist can craft beautiful memory books and there’s a store just down the street that supplies a neat selection of customer gifts with the Cadence logo imbedded on them, such as a traditional luggage tag, a picture frame or, even better, cleverly crafted tiny portable speakers for a mobile device.
“Yes, we have everything logoed, from flasks to anything you could possibly imagine,” says Burk with a laugh. “If we know what their drink of choice is, we’ll have a beautiful bottle of whatever it is with matching flasks delivered to wherever they’re going to be. We always do something special that has their name, their trip, and our logo so it connects us. It’s about creating stickiness in a commoditized world.”
Stickiness with the client, sure, but at Cadence, it’s imperative there’s stickiness with every independent contractor in the fold. “We have a support system within our agency that is bar none to serve the independent contractor as if they were the customer,” says Burk.
If it seems as if all this is designed to spark productivity, it is. Cadence generates $100 million a year in sales; the intent is to double that to $200 million. And lest you think Burk is taking her own goal lightly, consider that she’s brought in a seasoned heavy hitter to assist. Don Jones, formerly VP of sales at Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, joined the company earlier this year, leaving his career of 26 years at one of the top luxury hotel companies. (See sidebar).
Jones will help expand all three sectors of the business: leisure, which represents 50 percent of overall sales; corporate travel management; and meetings and incentives.
The diversity of the business wasn’t culled from a grand plan, but from customers asking Cadence to assist with other aspects of their travel, says Burk. Typically, one segment outperforms the others, depending on macroeconomic or geopolitical influences, but in today’s economy, all are seeing steady growth and all segments work symbiotically, not in silos.
“Everyone knows there is someone in this office who has a strength and passion for one part of the business,” says Burk. Hence, the corporate sales team takes a meetings and incentives specialist with them to present for corporate contracts. When that business is won, Cadence contacts the company’s human resources division to ask about presenting the benefits of its vacation division; executives at that corporation are immediately signed up to receive Virtuoso’s consumer publications to inspire their leisure travel. “We also tell them, by the way, we can do an off-site meeting for your executive leadership team and we can handle your national sales meeting,” says Burk. Cadence, in fact, has handled medical conventions of 5,000 people.
Cadence COO Elaine San Juan gets credit for enabling the logistics of such a diverse operation and making it possible for Burk to keep adding on independent contractors to the leisure division. She joined the company 10 years ago in mid-February. In fact, Burk calls San Juan, who had worked previously at Royal Viking and United Airlines, her “Valentine’s Day present,” thanks to her extremely strong operational skills.
“She told me, ‘You’ve got all the right stuff but we’re going to scale this so you have a system in place to continue to grow this,’” recalls Burk. “My ability to connect with people and to be able to build the business through relationships with independent contractors as well as with clients, coupled with Elaine’s ability to run an unbelievable operation, has taken us through the last decade, and we’ve quadrupled our business.”
Cadence’s keen focus on its internal operations has paid off. It’s a top producer for most of the major cruise lines targeting the affluent customer; it’s also in elite travel advisor clubs for luxury hotel companies, such as Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Dorchester, Sofitel, Rosewood, Belmond and Mandarin Oriental. Cadence was also recognized as one of the top travel companies in 2012 and 2013 for “Year-Over-Year Growth” by its consortium, Virtuoso; Cadence has been a Virtuoso member since 1999.
Hailing from Detroit and schooled in travel industry management at the University of Hawaii, travel was always going to be the career for Burk. “My first sales job was talking my parents into allowing me to go away to college in Hawaii,” she says. She fell in love with the Aloha State and worked there in travel sales for 15 years before moving to San Diego, working for three years in travel management before deciding she needed to be her own boss. She became an independent contractor within someone else’s office, and called her business Wendy Burk’s World. Her roster included long-time clients from Hawaii and those she had gathered along the way.
The "Aha" Moment
In 1994, her mother was gravely ill and Burk, who was at her hospital bedside, needed emergency assistance for a client, only to be told by those in the office that they would not be staying after 5 p.m. to refill the ticket printer for her. So Burk left the hospital and did it herself.
|“Elite Advisors:” Wendy Burk and Aimee Leon, manager of leisure services, with top independent affiliates: Jane Rosenkrantz, Joan Lovell, Steve Kuriga, Julie Skalko, Francine Mellon and Gina DeSantis.|
That disappointing experience, coupled with the subsequent loss of her mother, who had been her number-one cheerleader, inspired Burk to do something notable with the next phase of her life. Her concept was to create an environment where independent contractors were treated like clients, not shuffled around as their agencies were sold or merged with another. In such cases, agents could easily be told that their corporate customers now belonged to house accounts and that their books of business were part of their agency's assets.
Burk refers to that environment as “swimming in shark-infested waters.” She opened Travel Dynamics Group atop a liquor store on January 2, 1995 (she eventually changed the name after a company with a similar name initiated a lawsuit). The concept of an agency comprised primarily of independent contractors was wildly unique for the times, but it quickly took hold as, one by one, agents flocked to a place where they could work for themselves and keep the bulk of their commission. (Sometimes it was the Sabre technician visiting one agency after another, telling travel agents they should check out what Burk was doing.)
The business grew extremely quickly, and Burk’s father was right by her side, promising to help with ticket delivery and accounting. “He helped me launch an unbelievable business,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
Burk earned the reputation as a maverick and her team was known as the “Dirty Dozen.” Now 20 years later, the leisure side of the business has swelled to nearly 200 advisors; most work remotely and are able to come into the office to use its facilities as they need. Burk will also get on a plane to visit with them to help expand their businesses.
These days, her title could just as easily be “rainmaker” as CEO; her main role is bringing in new business for Cadence.
“I can sell. That is what I know how to do, sell. The best role for me is to have independent contractors to feed business to,” she says.
She and her husband, Harold Frysh, who is chairman of Cadence and is integral in its financial and operational aspects, are very much a part of the local community—working on fundraising events for their synagogue, the La Jolla town council and the San Diego Community Foundation. “We are involved in every aspect of networking,” she says. They’ve hosted client events at their office with food trucks and even a band; Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts held a soiree around the pool at Wendy and Harold’s beautiful home. The back conference room of the Cadence building has served as a venue for travel fairs where suppliers each get their own station.
Trips for clients in attendance tend to be over the top, with Italian villas, personal chefs and private jets involved. Itineraries are shaped for each member of the traveling party; a family with three daughters going to Europe included private dance lessons in London and designing perfumes in Monte-Carlo while Dad tried his hand at car racing. Another day, the parents flew to Dublin to see the band, U2, while their daughters stayed in France to take pastry-making classes and private tours with a Four Season’s nanny.
Using its meetings division, Cadence took a group of 50 to see the Pope in Rome; handling logistics to ensure all food was entirely kosher. Most were high-end luxury clients from past meetings and trips, but Burk garnered new business as well. “Being on that trip I got lots of amazing clients, because they came from different places and came together for this one event,” she said.
Burk is adamant about charging service fees, especially after her daughter, Victoria, who essentially grew up in the business, observed, “Your business model doesn’t work, Mom. The harder you work, the less you make.”
“Keep in mind, she is now a successful attorney and they bill by the hour! What a great concept, charging for what you do,” says Burk, whose client credo is: “We are going to be paid for our services and we are going to share all of our knowledge with you. We’re going to simplify what is really complicated. You still can go on the Internet, but there are lots of things that are not Google-able. There are lots of things that are experiential that we can share with you, in addition to our Rolodex that enables us to have the contact where you need it. If something doesn’t go right, how it gets fixed is most important.”
Excellence is rewarded at Cadence, and each year, the company does something special for its top-producing advisors, such as a trip to Mexico or Hawaii. Meanwhile, Burk is bringing in the next generation by working with San Diego State University’s Hospitality and Tourism Management program to hire students; she also seeks those outside the industry who have traveled well.
“You can teach the logistics to anyone if they have the passion and the attitude,” says Burk, who brought her daughter-in-law to Virtuoso Travel Week last year for the first time.
Because so many of her advisors are offsite, Burk makes it a point to collaborate and communicate with them as much as possible. Advisors attend or call-in to weekly roundtable meetings. Some are themed as “Mentoring Mondays” and “Technical Tuesdays.” "We do these roundtables continuously with our agents so they know exactly what their needs are and can articulate them to us. We then are able to act on them,” says Burk.
So what’s the secret sauce to running a group of disparate travel advisors all over the country, all with different needs and different ways of doing things? Burk replies in typically calm fashion.
“The truth is, everyone is human and they want to be heard; they just want to have their needs met. What I am probably best at is being able to connect with people and saying, ‘Okay, how can we get you to be happy?’’’
When her advisors sign on to Sabre, they’re greeted with “Where in the World is Wendy,” messages, which are bullet points and sound bytes on the hotels and destinations she is experiencing. Her “Words of Wisdom from Wendy” are meant to inspire. “I live in the moment; I am absolutely excited about everything that I am doing at any given time,” she says. “We are very blessed to be in an amazing industry. I love what we do. We get to travel to wonderful places, but I always love to come home.”
One could argue that Burk loves returning home the most. When she speaks of those she works with, she glows. She admits she brings in some challenging projects, but it’s how they’re executed that matters, she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I have great energy and a great passion for the business, but I cannot scale that without the wonderful people around me. They are truly wonderful. I absolutely know I could not have done it without them.”
As Cadence enters its 20th year of operations, Burk feels it’s just as nimble and entrepreneurial as it was from the onset. And, having navigated the shark-infested waters travel agents swam in two decades ago, she says those at Cadence are now swimming with dolphins; she even has a wooden sculpture of dolphins in her office, a gift from her brother, to commemorate the change in environment.
“I created a path," she says. "I was a pioneer in the industry who said, ‘We can do this. You have a strength, I have a strength. Let’s do this together.’ The dolphins are a symbol that we helped one another. That’s how the business was born.”
CEO & Founder: Wendy Burk
Chairman: Harold Frysh
Executive VP, sales & marketing: Don Jones
Headquarters: La Jolla, California
Number of Advisors: 200 (includes in-house advisors and independent contractors)
Annual volume: $100 million
Affiliations: Virtuoso, branch of Tzell Travel for Cadence Corporate and Meetings, Four Seasons Preferred Partner, Ritz-Carlton STARS, Dorchester Collection’s Diamond Collection, Sofitel, Rosewood Elite, Belmond Bellini Club, Mandarin Oriental Fan Club, Abercrombie & Kent Connoisseurs Club, Classic Vacations’ Million Dollar Club, Cunard Inner Circle & Commodore Agency, Holland America Line Premium Preferred, Oceania Cruise Connoisseur Club, Princess Cruises Preferred Account & Commodore Agency, Windstar Cruises Star Club, Yachts of Seabourn Inner Circle & Pinnacle Club. Top producer for Azamara Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Globus, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Silversea, Viking River Cruises.
Meet Don Jones, EVP of Sales and Marketing for Cadence
It was big news when Don Jones, formerly VP of sales at Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, joined Cadence as EVP of sales and marketing earlier this year. It was no small leap for him, leaving a company he’d served for 26 years, and it also prompted a move from Los Angeles to La Jolla. “For me, it never was about going to another hotel company because I had already checked that box. It was about where could I take what I’ve learned and experienced and apply it in a different way,” said Jones.
|Don Jones joined the Cadence team this year.|
At Cadence, he’s helping the company attain its goal of doubling its sales from $100 million to $200 million. That’s a task that involves everyone in the company, he said. “We’re all in, we all win or we all lose. Everybody has to believe in that. Wendy has spent a lot of time with our executive leadership team saying, ‘Here’s where we are now, what is our next level of leadership? Who are our business leaders? How do they drive this forward?’”
On the leisure side, that includes getting more consumers to understand what a Cadence travel advisor does. He laughs when he cites neighbors who traveled to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt for a dive vacation using a hotel they’d booked online. Drama ensued when the air conditioner in their hotel room caught on fire during their stay.
“I said, ‘Really, are you OK with that? That you traveled all the way to Sharm el-Sheikh and the air-conditioning unit in your room caught on fire?’ I keep jokingly saying, ‘Why would anyone plan their travel alone? Why would they entrust it all to a TripAdvisor source or some random Internet source when there are specialists who do it?’ That’s our opportunity. One is making the story compelling so that the audience is listening to what we do, secondly, we have to continue to reinvent the way we present ourselves.”
For example, he’s looking at how long and hard the advisors at Cadence work to craft meticulous itineraries for clients. “Is there technology that could actually push that out in a way that’s snappy and quick and creative and engaging?” he asks.
For those wondering how the change has affected Jones’ day to day, he and his wife, Lisa, live in idyllic La Jolla Village and he walks a few blocks to work every morning. They love the simplicity of their new lifestyle.
“What I’ve learned through all of this is that I love working hard. I really do,” says Jones. “The difference between here versus where I was is that what I’m doing today has a much more direct effect on the business. I feel so much closer to the business at hand. Sometimes, the bigger a company gets, the further you get away from what it is you love to do. This move has allowed me to connect back to that.”