Sometimes how you look at things can make all the difference. In the case of 58 Stars Travel, it took someone on the outside looking in to do just that and take the former Passport Travel & Tours to the next level.
That someone was Mike Salvadore, an advertising and marketing executive who had no travel experience other than his own personal journeys to share when he teamed up last year with Dan Burke, an agency owner of 23 years.
Burke had purchased Passport Travel & Tours near Seattle in 1994, after working for the owners of the agency right out of college. Business was good, with sales at nearly $10 million and 15 agents and ICs on the books. But Burke knew it could be even better.
Enter Salvadore, who sold his 15-year old ad agency with no major plans in sight for what was next. Then a mutual friend introduced the two professionals. After eight months of Salvadore doing his due-diligence of the travel industry, he determined that he had something to offer: a career’s worth of marketing experience that, coupled with Burke’s industry knowledge, could really take this agency to new heights.
Reinvention step by step
Once Salvadore signed on with Burke, a reinvention began. First on the agenda was to find a consortia partner that focused on their core business: leisure and luxury. After being an American Express agency for years, the two wanted to build on those clients, but also broaden their reach. They settled on Travel Leaders, which has a deep connection with American Express but would also allow them to grow.
The next priority was the individual brand. “We wanted national exposure and we needed a brand that was own-able and we could build around. If you typed in ‘Passport Travel,’ you got 15 different agencies. There is nothing own-able to that,” said Salvadore, who added that the key was finding a name that had a story to it and wasn’t already taken – not an easy task in the world of travel.
“A friend of mine came up with 58 Stars,” Salvadore said. “According to celestial navigation, there are 58 stars that are visible to the naked eye. The world’s first explorers used the same 58 stars to navigate their journeys around the globe, so we thought, ‘Why can’t we use the same 58 stars to help our clients see the world?’”
Salvadore said the story behind 58 Stars is helping their team carry on the message of providing expert, one-of-a-kind experiences that range from FITs to cruises and everything in between.
With a new brand and strategy in place, the team Salvadore speaks of has now almost doubled to 26 employees – a number of whom (like him) have no travel experience whatsoever. However, they all possess one thing in common: a love for travel.
“We knew that if we were going to grow with our strategy, we needed to bring in additional people,” Salvadore explained. "I started having conversations with people that I worked with in ad agencies and even some clients. We brought in eight ICs that are all completely new to the industry and have no experience in travel. But what they all have is a passion and a love for travel. That is crucial. You can teach people how to sell travel, but you can’t teach passion and motivation.”
Four critical phases of growth
Beyond staff, Salvadore laid out the four critical areas that needed attention in order for their reinvention to work.
The first task was redesigning the company’s website. “We completely rebuilt our website from scratch with search engine optimization (SEO) as our first priority. We needed to focus on how people are searching for travel.”
The second step was to rebuild the agency’s social media platform and strategy. “We need to be where people are searching online, but also on channels where friends are sharing travel stories and beautiful photography,” he said.
Next up was influencers – both inside and outside the travel space. Salvadore said they explored how they could work with both travel influencers and outside sports stars in their community to help create branded opportunities that would build out the business. “It’s a fresh and unique way to grow your reach,” he said.
Pop-up retail strategy brings travel to them
The final phase of 58 Stars Travel’s reinvention is quite possibly the most unique. While the agency is presently located in a standalone building, Salvador and Burke realized that in order to grow, they needed to be, as Salvadore put it, “where the people are.” This mindset led the two to embark on a new pop-up retail strategy that will launch this Spring whereby they will travel to local companies and malls to present mobile travel workshops and, of course, make sales presentations.
“We will spend two, three or four weeks in one location of a company like Amazon, for example, providing their employees with access to information on how to travel, when to travel, and financial planning for travel. Then before we get stale, we will leave and pop up somewhere else.”
Salvadore noted that, as more companies realize that employee happiness leads to increased productivity, the idea of bringing travel to them has never been more receptive. “The companies we are partnering with really want their employees to take vacations. It’s a great way for work and life balance to come together.”
58 Stars is working with corporations in and around Seattle with the intent and desire to go wherever this pop-up strategy will take them. “There are so many opportunities to go where they are, rather than waiting for them to come to us.”
For mall presentations, Salvadore is digging deep into his marketing expertise and making sure their mobile presence gels with the venue. “For the malls, we need to create an experience that plays to the particular audience of that location. For example, the mall near us is very focused on families. That’s a different story [than corporations], so you have to create an experience that is moldable but can be changed on a quick turn.”
The agency hopes to partner with suppliers and work with local travel organizations and clubs to enhance its pop-up strategy.
Since implementing some of Salvadore’s marketing ideas, 58 Stars is happy to report the agency tipped the $10 million mark at the end of 2018 and has no plans of slowing down. It’s clear that, together, Burke and Salvadore have realized the benefits that shaking up a business model can bring.