It was August 2001 when Elaine Osgood, president and CEO of Atlas Travel, purchased Global Odysseys, a meeting and incentive firm. Her goal was to diversify her 15-year-old agency. She knew neighboring Global Odysseys well; Atlas had been doing their air ticketing for the past few years. To Osgood, it was the logical progression in a carefully planned expansion that had started with building a strong corporate base for her agency, and then adding vacation travel to the mix. The only hitch was timing; one month later, 9/11 hit. When the Twin Towers fell, the meetings industry fell along with it.
“We had to start over and rebuild,” said Osgood, who added that 9/11 was just the first in a series of “hiccups that always seem to be popping up… First came 9/11, then SARS, H1N1 and now the struggling economy. Rollercoaster is the perfect description!” She noted that what’s helped her through these crises was having perseverance and the economic resources of her now $150 million agency to fall back on. She also shared some other keys to creating a $45 million meetings business.
Diversified business base. The advantage of a diversified client base is that when one segment is down, another might be steady or growing. Atlas Meetings and Incentives, which represents 30% of the agency’s total revenue, handles programs from associations to non-profits to corporations ranging from pharmaceuticals to insurance. “I would never want to put all my eggs into one basket,” Osgood said.
Purchasing, tech power. Osgood attributed the agency’s success to its purchasing power and aggressive negotiation on behalf of clients, strong relationships with clients where “there’s never a cookie-cutter approach; unlike larger agencies, we individualize everything” and advanced use of technology, like a proprietary registration program that allows the agency to integrate their flight manifest from their GDS into the registration database.
The power of education. She is also a huge advocate of continuing education, which she says contributes to one of the agency’s largest benefits to clients — a “living, breathing library of knowledge.” One example: recently a client called who wanted to book a meeting in Macau. “None of our seven meeting planners had been there so we sent out an email polling our 100+ corporate agents and within five minutes, I had located someone who had traveled to Macau within the last year,” Osgood said.
Flexible solutions. Creativity has always been a hallmark of the company. Atlas offers an individual incentive program for clients who “can’t afford to send their entire sales force out on a group trip. Our Great Escapes program lets the company reward their top 5, 10 or 20 salespersons,” explained Maureen Santoro CMP, the agency’s director of group operations. Of course, they also create memorable incentive programs for those companies who could travel en masse, she noted.
Creating memorable experiences. On the Big Island of Hawaii, a low-flying helicopter dropped thousands of rose petals on the beach where the attendees, members of a direct sales company, were enjoying a cocktail party. “There was a big wow factor!” said Santoro.
In another program, quick on-the-spot schedule changes allowed a group of high tech executives to visit an orphanage and lend assistance to children who had serenaded them the evening before, as part of the local entertainment Santoro likes to incorporate into her agendas.
Perhaps the agency’s most memorable program was at a Copley Square, Boston-based hotel where the president looking to introduce a new initiative with “a big splash” rode into the ballroom on the back of an adult elephant. “There was a small pause when the animal momentarily got stuck between two air walls, but luckily no one panicked, including the elephant. When [the president] came out on stage, it was quite a sight. I still can’t believe we talked the management into letting us do that; even though there was no damage, they no longer will allow live animals on the premises,” said Santoro.
Cutting Costs. Creativity can also translate into cost-savings for clients. Santoro told TMR about a meeting for a software company with a program that allowed copy machines to become electronic printers/laptop computers. Both sides of the negotiation were tapped out — the client didn’t want to pay anything more for the meeting and the hotel was unwilling to offer additional concessions. Santoro discovered that the hotel in question was actually using the client’s software and structured an unusual deal where, for additional concessions, the client gave the hotel a free one-year service contract on their product.
A team approach to marketing. When soliciting new business. Osgood says she does everything “short of walking down Main Street wearing a sandwich board.” She says her agency works with clients in teams and each team gets to know its corporate clients well, which translates into an opportunity to discuss Atlas’ meeting capabilities. “This gives me more than 100 salespeople working for me,” she said. This is in addition to email marketing, direct mail approaches and an outside sales staff who “discuss our entire story” with prospective corporate customers. One of her biggest sources of new business is referrals, she said.
Transparent pricing. Atlas structures prices for meetings and incentives on a cost-plus basis “so everything is transparent and the clients see every charge,” explained Osgood. The percentage of the service fee varies depending on the scope of the project. In cases of site selection alone, for example, the agency just collects the commission offered by the property. For more expansive programs, the agency’s profit margin can range from 10%-30%, she said.
Osgood’s and Santoro’s advice to agencies interested in meeting planning: Know what you’re getting yourself into. “It’s not the same as corporate travel — there are a lot of details. You have to know the destinations, the venues at the destinations, the trends taking place out there…There’s a big difference between thinking you know how to do it and really knowing how to do it,” they agreed.