|GOGO Worldwide Vacations President Michele Kish is leading the wholesaler into its seventh decade with a dedicated team that includes Senior Area Leader Phil Kennewell (left) and National Sales Director Frank Corzo.|
A lot can change in 60 years, but if something has withstood the test of time it must be for a reason. For GOGO Worldwide Vacations, creator of the classic vacation package, one of the top reasons for its success is the travel agent. GOGO, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, works exclusively with agents.
The company has seen several changes over the last few years. In 2007, it was purchased by Flight Centre, an umbrella corporation based in Australia with branches across the globe. GOGO is a part of Flight Centre USA along with Liberty Travel, the retail side of the company.
While GOGO has gone through its own changes and upgrades, it continues to be an innovator in the industry and one of the main pillars of support for travel agents.
“[GOGO] was the first one to bundle air and land to sell as a package, and the business has just continued to grow from there,” says Michele Kish, president of GOGO Worldwide Vacations. “I believe that we started as the innovators and a lot followed. Sixty years later, nothing much has changed. We pride ourselves on still being the innovators.”
Thinking Ahead for the Agents
Innovation is key in today’s travel industry, with competitors always looking to gain the edge, cash flow being stifled by an uneasy economy, and a society with a misinformed perspective on the longevity of travel agents. Kish tells us that at GOGO, it is imperative to stay ahead of the curve so that travel agents have the best and the most current tools available.
“We try to look ahead at what the travel agent needs for tomorrow,” she says. “We made a move to e-documents in late 2009— which was a bit of an adaptation—but I promised our staff that in two to three years, they would be what everyone is looking for.” In today’s world of iPhones and tablets, this thinking proved dead-on. “It was a bit of a gamble, but we were able to position ourselves properly.”
GOGO always emphasizes working exclusively with agents, which is a testament to their prevalence throughout the travel industry. “Everything that we do revolves around keeping the agent relevant,” says Kish. “They are a very important distribution channel for everyone throughout the industry, from hoteliers to consumers. We really do need and value the contribution of the travel agent.”
The support of agents is deemed imperative in ensuring that the traveler receives as much value as possible. That's why GOGO hosts several events annually to give agents training and knowledge and to help them meet suppliers.
“We are present in any industry event held throughout the country,” says Kish. “Our only customer is the travel agent. We don’t compete with them; we support them.”
Another way it supports agents is by changing the way it pays them to ensure that they receive full commission at payment, rather than at time of departure, which improves cash flow. If a client books and pays up front, commission checks are issued immediately, which is another first in the travel industry.
|Mexico has long been one of GOGO’s most popular vacation destinations. Pictured is Los Cabos’ iconic El Arco.|
Earlier this month, GOGO launched a $60 Bonus Commission program, in honor of its 60 years of service, at over 75 participating hotels in Mexico, the Caribbean, USA/Hawaii, Costa Rica and elsewhere. The new program is valid for all new bookings made through December 17, for travel from December 23 through April 7, 2012.
Although GOGO was the first to develop the vacation package, plenty of others have long since arrived on the scene. In order to remain a top option for agents, GOGO says that it is constantly making improvements.
Part of GOGO’s commitment to keeping travel agents relevant and at the top of their game is to arm them with tools that help them secure, close and repeat sales. One of the most popular advancements is the development of MyTime, an amenities program exclusive to GOGO clients. Travelers who book with GOGO’s MyTime are entitled to certain vacation extras, such as private check-in, welcome gifts or personal letters from the property’s GM. GOGO has exclusive MyTime agreements with 65 properties around the world, with plans for 135 hotels by this time next year. “These properties are contracted with us so that customers cannot get these experiences with any other company,” says Kish. “To be able to sit down with your customer and show your strength in what you can give them in terms of exclusives is something that helps to set agents apart from the competition.”
Another tool at agents’ disposal is GOGO’s 24/7 help desk. Kish tells us that while at a conference, she discovered just how many agents worked past business hours and through the weekends. “So we opened up a desk with a team of agents that work out of our headquarters in Ramsey, NJ. The service is available to help agents with anything they [ordinarily] would call a GOGO branch for during the day,” says Kish. “It’s there for them if they have a problem, if they want to make a payment in the middle of the night, or if they want to make a booking on the go. It’s there for customers, too. If they have an emergency, we can assist.”
The benefit of the 24/7 desk came through loud and clear during Hurricane Irene. GOGO managed to service over 1,100 emergency calls that weekend with minimal hold time. “That’s why you should book with GOGO,” says Kish. “No one else can offer that.”
GOGO also has a full line of marketing materials that allow the travel agent to maintain a professional image and a sense of belonging to a larger company, even if it is a solo operation. “We send out deals of the day, which can then become an agent’s deal of the day. Agents post them on their Facebook pages and use them as if they are their own,” Kish elaborates. GOGO also distributes flyers and brochures, all of which are stamped with “Only at Your Travel Agent.” When customers look at the material, they know that they can book a GOGO experience only through a travel agent.
Kish tells us, “It is a challenging industry right now and I think we’ve managed to put together a complete package of benefits for the travel agent, which will only help them grow. With our 24/7 desk, MyTime and customer service, we are really here across the board.”
The power of GOGO lies within its partnership with agents, hotels, destinations, management companies, local governments, federal governments and more. The support and feedback they give to hotels and destinations facilitates a level of trust between the two, and the agents then reap the benefits.
“From a product perspective, one of the things that I am particularly proud of is the breadth and depth of the product line,” says Colette Baruth, GOGO's head of product strategy. “We pay particular attention to whom we contract with, and we always speak on behalf of the agency community and defend their interests.”
Little Arches, a boutique property in Barbados, for example, will only work with GOGO as a wholesaler.
“Our buying power allows us to provide exclusives. We have seen a loyalty base coming out of that. Agents can demonstrate to their customers how they can provide for them,” says Baruth. “We are in the business of selling dreams. You do what you do with passion because it provides an experience for people that could be a life-changer.”
Progress for Success
Passion is a necessary piece of the puzzle, but forward thinking is equally important. GOGO was a game changer when it started out and continues to put this progressive attitude into action. Baruth recalls, “Last May, we knew that because of the rocky economy people would not be spending much money. We did a gigantic sale for Florida travel to combat this. Hoteliers came to us with great specials and increased our business to Florida that month by 22 percent year-on-year.” It is this type of creative strategy that continues to give GOGO an edge over its competitors.
|Little Arches, Barbados, is an example of a hotel for which GOGO is the exclusive wholesaler.|
GOGO has also given its brochures a makeover to make them even more user-friendly. Today’s GOGO's brochures have icons to make deciphering room amenities easy for agents. For example, a hand icon indicates that the room can accommodate five people; a leaf indicates that the hotel is green. Baruth says, “What we have looked at is the changing face of the consumer. What do they need? Our brochures are content-rich because we want it to be an experienced-based sell.”
Similarly, GOGO has crafted specific itineraries based on who their customers are. Agents can book itineraries that focus on nature, history, family, food, soft adventure and more. These new itinerary sells provide base packages with a list of add-ons, which helps agents upsell. “This is helping our relationship with the agency community because we help them get what they need. We give them the tools to create that sale,” adds Baruth.
The company has also decided to put more of a focused effort on group planning with the launch of five additional teams in the U.S. The launch of these businesses will expand GOGO’s group teams to six. Teams are spread throughout the country—in the West, Midwest, South, Mid Atlantic, Northeast and New England.
“As destination weddings, multigenerational travel and the like continue to grow, we recognize the need of the agency community to have experienced wholesale consultants to help them plan, execute and close all their group inquiries,” says Kish.
60 Years and Counting
GOGO Worldwide Vacations dates to 1951 when Fred Kasner met Gil Haroche at New York University. Haroche started Liberty Travel as the retail side of the company, with GOGO as the wholesaler. Kasner focused on growing wholesale, while Haroche stuck to retail. Kasner was very active in the company’s day-to-day operations until he passed away, leaving daughter Michelle Kasner to take over. She was responsible for the business until 2007 when GOGO was acquired by Flight Centre.
Today, GOGO is part of the Flight Centre umbrella, but still operates like a family business. Dean Smith, president of Flight Centre USA, strolls around the office, making him a very present and approachable figure. “We are very open and interactive,” says Kish. “The heart and soul of the company has not changed.”
Kish started with the company in 1982 as a travel agent on the retail side of the company. After six years in retail, she moved over to the management side as the team leader for a branch. From there, she moved into a regional manager position where she was responsible for most offices in New Jersey and the online division. Five years ago, Kish moved to the wholesale side of the business where she has been since.
“I spent the majority of my career in retail, so I have a very good feel for what the agents need and what they want,” she says. “I really think that helped to guide us in our core principles and customer service and how we worked to continue to move forward with the organization.”
Smith has been in the travel business for 16 years. He began with Flight Centre as a travel agent at an office in Melbourne, Australia. After four years in retail, he moved to a wholesale position, climbing to regional manager and eventually ran the business throughout Australia. At the time of the acquisition of GOGO, Smith came to the U.S. to be GOGO’s president. After a year, he became president of Flight Centre USA.
The entire value of Flight Centre USA is just under $2 billion in sales, of which GOGO represents a significant portion of sales and profits.
“We see GOGO as more than a tour operator. We see GOGO really engaging the travel agents to grow their business,” says Smith. “We’re not just a product provider. We are a nationwide marketing support. We’ve been here for 60 years and you can expect to see us for another 60.”