Charting a New Path | Brownell Travel

Charting a New Path

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Brownell President and CEO Troy Haas, left, and Executive Vice President Meg McGriff North.

Birmingham Business Journal – December 8, 2006 by Tiffany Ray

Brownell may be one of the oldest travel agencies around, but it is by no means stuck in the past.

Founded in 1887, the company has changed with the times, and as the evolution of online travel planning has absorbed business from standard full-service agencies, Brownell is thriving as a specialty operation catering to leisure travelers with a taste for far-flung adventure and upscale amenities.

Indeed, Troy Haas, Brownell’s president and CEO, said it no longer wants to be considered just a travel agency but is looking to brand itself as a professional services firm. That’s why the company recently dropped the “Travel” from its name.

Brownell also is launching a new Web site designed to provide a personal connection to its increasingly widespread client base.

The new site, which was slated to launch this week, provides detailed company, travel and related information. Visitors may search geographical areas for Brownell experts and read biographical sketches of the agency’s consultants, including personal travel photos. The site also features a new tagline, “Travel beyond your expectations.”

Started in upstate New York, the agency had been moved to Alabama by the early 1900s. The company hit a peak in the 1960s as a tour operator, organizing extended trips by ship abroad. But the proliferation of jet travel changed the business, and by the late 1970s the agency had left group tours behind to focus on travel planning for individual clients.

As the number of traditional full-service agencies declines, specialty companies such as Brownell are hitting their stride, riding a wave of increasing demand for high-end travel and adventure.

Laura Madrid, manager of worldwide sales for Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts in Atlanta, agreed. “Luxury hotels and luxury products are in high demand, and I think more than ever people want to spend their money on memorable experiences.”

The ease of booking flights, hotels and car reservations online has prompted many consumers to do their own footwork, but Haas said that “transactional” business is not what Brownell is about. Instead of booking travel, consultants today plan experiences, getting to know their clients so they can plan customized trips tailored to suit individual tastes and desires.

Rather than take away its core business, the Internet has provided Brownell the means of extending its customer base nationwide through a combination of online resources and information and a network of contract consultants. “The Internet’s the best thing that ever happened to us,” Haas said.

In addition to the 65 employees in its Birmingham, Atlanta and Mobile offices, Brownell contracts with nearly that many travel consultants throughout the country who work independently in their markets using Brownell’s network and resources.

The ways in which people want to travel can vary wildly, Haas said. For some, the ideal vacation is a luxury spa experience; for others, it’s educational, cultural or romantic. An increasing number of travelers are opting for multigenerational family vacations as a way to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries or other special occasions.

Meg McGriff North, Brownell’s executive vice president, said people today have more specialized areas of knowledge and personal interests, and their expectations for travel reflect that.

Kathy Johns, sales and marketing manager for Lindblad Expeditions and a onetime Brownell marketing director, said travel agencies that know well the products they are selling and their clients are more likely to succeed, particularly when working with an upscale or niche provider such as Lindblad. “That’s one thing Brownell does better than anybody else,” she said.

Headquartered in New York, Lindblad runs tours on small ships to the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica and other exotic locales. Johns said Brownell is committed to education companywide; Brownell agents regularly sign up for training sessions offered by Lindblad.

“In the past, travel was sort of thought of as a commodity, almost like selling a bed or a room, and it’s just not like that anymore,” Johns said. “Particularly affluent clients who travel, they want the whole experience, and that’s where the travel agent comes in.”

Haas said technology has helped develop that know-how. Traditionally, travel agencies relied on antiquated reservation systems and manila folders to keep track of client travel. Today, Brownell uses sophisticated computer databases to maintain a wealth of information. He said the company’s reputation and extensive contacts also help its agents to deliver special perks that make the travel experience better. “That’s where you really deliver the wow,” he said.

Haas joined the agency as a partner and president in 1993. In his dozen years there, annual sales have increased to $60 million from $20 million despite three “very difficult years” following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Brownell merged with Mountain Brook-based Destinations Travel in 1995; and in 2004, the agency merged with Atlanta-based Sterling Travel. This summer, Brownell sold its corporate travel arm. In addition to its leisure travel business, the company also maintains an incentive travel division, which represents between 10 and 15 percent of the agency’s annual sales.

Haas said negative perceptions of the industry have made it more difficult to find talented new agents. In response, Brownell and its Atlanta counterpart recently launched a mentoring program, recruiting professionals from unrelated fields with a passion for travel for a training program that teaches them to become independent agents. Haas said the program’s inaugural class, in session now, has attracted a theologian and a photographer, among others.

Graduates will be added to Brownell’s growing list of contractors nationwide.

Despite the naysayers, Haas said travel agencies will survive recent industry changes, albeit in a different form. As proof, a sepia-tinted portrait of the first-ever group of 19th century Brownell travelers hangs in a front room of Brownell’s Birmingham office. Similar pictures of long-ago excursions to Italy, Greece and other vacation spots line the corridors. After all, Haas points out, the company has been around for a long time.