Liberty Travel Upbeat on Agents' Future

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Billy McDonough is a man with a mission. As the newly promoted president of the Ramsey, NJ-based Liberty Travel, McDonough is charged with expanding the presence of Liberty Travel's network of 160+ stores in a highly competitive U.S. market. A tough assignment by any measure, but one compounded by the current economic downturn and the recent impact of the H1N1 influenza scare.

Though he faces a challenge, McDonough has formidable assets to deploy, not the least of which is Liberty Travel's parent company, the Australia-based Flight Centre, which acquired both Liberty and GOGO Worldwide Vacations (Liberty's sister company, a travel wholesaler) in November 2007 for $137 million. The one-two combination of Liberty and GOGO gave Flight Centre, a publicly held company listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (FLT), instant and powerful presence in the U.S.

Another important asset is Liberty Travel's iconic status in key U.S. markets, its solid brand reputation, and the talents of the more than 900 travel professionals and team leaders who staff Liberty's storefront offices. "Liberty is a strong competitor with a great national brand and a very loyal customer base," McDonough said in a recent interview with Travel Agent. Liberty's 2008 sales were estimated at $1.7 billion.

A 14-year veteran of Flight Centre, McDonough was born in the U.S. and lived in Australia for 20 years, during which time his career with Flight Centre began. After serving as Flight Centre's Queensland Leader of Retail (a key post, given the company's emphasis on sales) McDonough returned to the U.S. last year to take over Liberty's retail operations.

"The Liberty and GOGO acquisitions were the largest for Flight Centre in the U.S. – a market that is critically important to us," he said. "The companies are separately managed and both have long established, excellent reputations." Liberty has office locations in 13 states, and the brand has a strong presence in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New England. Stores are also located in Chicago, Washington D.C, Los Angeles and Florida.

McDonough believes Liberty offers Flight Centre tremendous opportunity, and fits comfortably with Flight Centre's global operations (they currently operate over 2,000 stores in 11 countries). "As Liberty brings new distribution strength to Flight Centre, so does Flight Centre bring product and resources to Liberty," he said. "Despite the downturn, well-managed retail agencies can prosper."

Flight Centre's acquisition and global perspective have brought some changes to Liberty, including the closing and consolidation of about 30 retail locations, bringing the number from 197 to the current level of 164. The changes were necessary, well-handled and added strength to the Liberty network as markets and consumer demand shifted, according to McDonough. Liberty still remains focused on leisure sales, including cruises and tours.

While McDonough leads Liberty Travel, Michele Kish serves as president of GOGO, and Gregory Lording heads FCm Travel Solutions, the company's corporate travel division. The three leaders report to Dean Smith, who had previously been president of GOGO and is now the president of Flight Centre USA Inc., and responsible for all U.S. operations.

"Liberty and GOGO have a great legacy and reputation, and Flight Centre adds to it with innovative, growth-minded management and sound financials," McDonough says. "We have rolled out a new look for many stores, a new website and our corporate travel service, Liberty Business Travel, which focuses on small and medium sized businesses. You can expect new initiatives this year and next."

Another major strength is Liberty's use of effective marketing and advertising to generate consumer inquiry and motivate consumers to buy. Advertising takes place across all media – including television, radio and print – and prominently features Liberty's Price Beat Guarantee, a policy that offers consumers assurance of the competitive value of Liberty's prices.

Effective marketing and advertising also takes place at the store level. Many store locations have strong histories in their communities, and long-serving staff with loyal clients. "One thing Liberty does is adapt quickly to local and regional needs," McDonough said.

Liberty has also demonstrated the ability to adapt on a broader scale, marketing to the online community via social networking outlets like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as redesigning the look and feel of libertytravel.com. But McDonough maintains that Liberty's personal, consultant-based approach to booking travel is the brand's primary focus. "Technology is a tool but not a substitute for building customer relations," he said.

Fittingly, the professionalism of Liberty's staff is treated as a valuable asset. McDonough estimates that 20-30 percent of Liberty's budget is allocated to education, training, communications and incentives for Liberty's employees. “We believe that successful travel retailing is driven by effective sales and by motivated, quality people," he said. "We offer strong rewards and incentives for performance, including superior client service and retention.”

While upbeat about Liberty's future, McDonough is aware of the challenges that it entails, including the current economic downturn and the speed of recovery. Liberty took a hit in 2008, but sees a turnaround underway this year. GOGO Worldwide is profitable, as is Flight Centre, who reported worldwide sales of $8 billion. Cost containment is also working.

McDonough's greatest asset in the future is his strong belief in the value of travel. People learn and grow from their travel experiences, and lead richer lives because of them. "As travel products become more diversified and travel options increase, people are looking for more than just a flight, cruise or hotel room," he said. "They're looking for rewarding, enriching experiences. As a result, they're looking for knowledge and expertise."

There is also his conviction that Liberty's staff brings the knowledge and expertise that translates into satisfied, repeat customers. "We value salesmanship backed by professionalism. Our customers value our expertise and keep coming back, not because of a price point, but because we offer a superior level of customer service.”

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