Sho Dozono

When you take a good look around the conference room of Azumano Travel's headquarters in Portland, OR, one award stands out among the dozen displayed—an Olympic Torch from the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

"At that time, my daughter worked in the mayor's office as press secretary," says Sho Dozono, president and CEO of Azumano Travel, which is a member of the American Express Travel network. "She called me and said the City of Portland didn't have the $20,000 to pay for overtime costs for the torch to be carried through the city. I told her not to worry, that I'd raise it myself."

Later, in the hallway, Dozono points to a picture showing him in track sweats, jogging through the streets of Portland carrying the Olympic Torch held high.

"It wasn't designed that way, for me to carry the torch, but that's how it turned out," says Dozono. It's true that it wasn't designed that way. It was Dozono's love for his community and his proactive "let's-get-it-done" philosophy that put him at the head of the pack that day.

Here's another example of that get-to-it attitude, which you might have already heard about. In 2001, when the terrorist attacks in New York City brought travel to a standstill, Dozono and his wife, Loen, came up with a concept they called Flight to Freedom, in which a group would fly from Oregon to New York in a show of support for the beleaguered city and for the right of Americans to travel.

 "I realized that the only way for our business to recover, and to recover as a country, was for people to get back to traveling," Dozono recalls. "At first, I invited some close friends to join us on the Flight to Freedom, but with coverage from the local media, the group burgeoned into a group of 1,000 people," says Dozono.

When the group arrived, they were officially recognized by President Bush and Mayor Giuliani; they even got to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Subsequently, their mission garnered Azumano Travel the American Express "Great Performers" award.

In 2004, when the tsunami struck in Southeast Asia, Dozono organized a group of 60 people to travel to raise awareness of what was happening in the area. "We felt that, as an industry, we really needed to help that area recover its tourism, and we worked with PATA to highlight the tourism-dependent areas of Thailand," says Dozono. In subsequent years, Dozono was part of relief and humanitarian awareness efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans and in North Korea. "These efforts have less to do with business—it's giving back to your community that's important," he says.

But while Dozono is clearly a humanitarian, and a strong one at that, he also has quite a healthy travel business that is still in growth mode. In fact, Azumano Travel, whose headquarters are in the historic district of Portland, has bragging rights as the largest travel management company in the Northwest. It comprises 250 employees in 12 offices throughout the Portland metropolitan area and the WillametteValley. It also has several offices in the Puget Sound area, as well as a location in Vancouver, WA and in Anchorage.

Click to enlarge This year the company has already pulled in $225 million in gross sales and, according to Dozono, will end the year at the $250 million mark. A healthy 80 percent of the company's business is corporate travel, while the remaining 20 percent is leisure. But while that might be a small portion of the business, "we're talking about $35 million in leisure, so we're not insignificant in that area," says Dozono.

Since Dozono acquired Azumano Travel from his father-in-law 20 years ago, he's seen the face of his clientele change dramatically.  Back in the day, virtually everyone who had a job and intended to take a vacation was a potential client of the agency. In fact, Azumano Travel was the most aggressive in the Portland area in promoting budget prices for airline tickets. That's a practice Dozono has gladly left behind him, noting that he's "no longer trying to compete with companies such as Expedia and Orbitz."

In fact, because luxury is a growth area for Azumano Travel, the company has gotten much more selective about the business it accepts. Dozono says that, now, one in 20 customers is a potential client of Azumano Travel.

"We've moved away from the mass market and we're targeting the working rich—they work hard and recreate in luxury," says Dozono.

Ron Letterman, outgoing president of Classic Vacations, gives Azumano Travel high marks in responding to changes in the travel business climate. "He shifted the focus of his agency to delivering the highest level of service to his customer, and in the process, Azumano Travel became very consultative in its approach," says Letterman, who also lauds Dozono's humanitarian efforts. "Sho is a close personal friend of mine and one of the most innovative people in the business," Letterman adds.

"We've definitely seen an increase in luxury business in the last five years," agrees Nancy Parrott, Azumano Travel's director of leisure sales and marketing. "Because of our size in the marketplace, and the fact that many travel agencies are going out of business, many displaced travelers end up finding us." Azumano Travel also grows its leisure bookings as a direct result of its corporate business, receiving luxury clients from within these companies, she says.

Once the needs of the client are determined, they are matched with the agent who specializes in the type of travel they are seeking.

"With our luxury clients, we first make sure we have the most knowledgeable agent for their chosen destination," says Parrott. "That knowledge is vital. For example, a luxury client who comes to us to book a high-end African safari will be paired with an agent who has a deep understanding of the destination, including the tour operators and hoteliers serving that destination." Parrott explains that in some cases the booking will be a team effort, with the client's initial agent continuing to be involved with the booking. This is especially true if that initial agent has developed a strong relationship with the client.

"Every luxury client is a little different—we don't have one set methodology to handle the booking," says Parrott. "With our luxury clients, a little more TLC may be required. They want the personal touch."

When it comes to consulting with luxury clients, Parrott notes that there's no predicting the number of meetings that will be necessary to complete the booking. "It depends on the individual traveler, and the amount of detail in the itinerary," she says. Although most consultations begin and progress over the phone or through e-mail, Parrott notes that the last consultation before the trip is often face-to-face in the office—often the first time client and agent have actually met—when the agent sits down with his or her client to make a final review of travel documents.

Parrott notes that, in most cases, luxury clients have a pretty strong sense of what they want, although their actual trip might change during the planning stages. "As we examine logistics and availability, where they started and where they end may be very different," says Parrott. Luxury cruise bookings are another story. "A luxury cruise booking may see more input from us," says Parrott. "Luxury clients may know they want a luxury cruise, but they really want our recommendations as to which cruise line and itinerary is the most suitable for them."

One trend Parrott has noticed is an increase in luxury multi-generational travel. "The grandparents are not sitting on their retirement," she says.

Along those lines, another area in luxury travel that is growing for the company is soft adventure, such as African safaris. Dozono sees the Internet and cable TV as driving baby boomers' desire for trips to exotic destinations. "They see it in high-definition on TV, on the Discovery Channel, and they want to experience it," says Dozono. "I'm a baby boomer myself and have been on recent trips to the Amazon, the Galapagos, Machu Picchu and safaris in South Africa and Kenya." On many of these trips he's accompanied by Loen and one or more of his five children. Currently, Dozono says, he is looking forward to an upcoming trip to Easter Island.

Dozono calls attention to the changing luxury demographic. "We're seeing more Asians, African Americans and Indians," he says. "The customer base has become much more diverse, which is not being reflected in the print and broadcast stories being told in our business. We see Asian faces leading high-tech companies, but not leading travel-based businesses."

On the supplier side, Dozono is quite selective about the suppliers he does business with. "We don't have a vendor list a mile long, and we haven't carried a product we didn't have confidence in," he says. "With our preferred vendors, they're either on our shelf or not. We don't stock Brand X in order to catch one or two clients."

Relationships are key to success, he says. For example, Dozono notes that in order to serve its honeymoon and romance clients, the company is building its ties with high-end luxury boutique properties in Fiji and Tahiti. "These relationships with general managers can guarantee that our luxury clients will be properly taken care of," says Dozono. "Our customers have traveled the world and stayed at Ritz-Carltons and Four Seasons and they're looking for an alternative to that experience."

When it comes to building relationships with wholesalers, Dozono notes that volume is becoming much more important; in other words, multi-million-dollar relationships are necessary.

When hiring agents, Dozono tailors his requirements to whether he is hiring a corporate or leisure agent. "With corporate agents, I look for those who are highly technical," he says. "While hiring leisure agents, I look for those with prior experience selling travel."

Education is key to the success of an agent. As a result, Azumano Travel this year has sent 22 of its managers on fams. "We encourage them to develop their own itineraries," says Dozono. "If our management people are not well-traveled, how can we be in this business?"

Along those same lines, Azumano Travel requires its vendors to have an agent-training program. "If they don't, then we don't want to be associated with them," says Dozono.

When considering the company's track record with humanitarian efforts, one might not be surprised to learn that Azumano Travel is also committed to doing its share with regard to preserving the environment. "We're going to become a completely green company by purchasing Green Tags and reducing our carbon footprint," says Dozono. "It's not realistic to ‘green' everything overnight because the cost is fairly significant. For example, the surcharge to green corporate jet travel is 10 percent. If a company spends $40 million, that's a $4 million price tag." Dozono points to private

corporate jet travel as being an area that needs to be evaluated. "You have two executives flying on these jets, which might be great for time convenience, but it's certainly not great for the environment," says Dozono. "So in our sphere of influence, we're trying to be on the leading edge of helping to solve the problem."

To that end, Azumano Travel is promoting green travel and the development of green resorts, and is working with companies to green their corporate travel. For example, American Express is taking Dozono's advice and greening the American Express Consumer Travel U.S. Representative Network National Conference, to be held in Tucson, AZ September 30 through October 2.

Last month, Dozono met with Celebrity Cruises executives to talk about how they could green their Galapagos expeditions. "I think the small ships sailing between the Galapagos Islands could be converted to bio-diesel," he says. "The cruise lines have done a great job in not dumping waste and oil, but now it's time to look at the consumption of fuel in terms of travel."

Although Azumano Travel is not looking to expand beyond the Pacific Northwest, the company is committed to growth. Last year, the company partnered with Portland-based The BigDay.com to create a new company, The Big Day Travel. "Honeymoon travel is a new venture for us, and we hope to do $10 million in it by the end of the year," says Dozono. The company's goal is to grow this niche market to $20 million-plus annually.

In fact, over the next 10 years, the company's growth strategy is all about leisure.

"Clearly we're not about price," says Dozono. "We're about follow-up and customer service. That's what's worked well for us since 1949. One of our messages to our clientele is that, when there are issues or problems, we'll take care of the customer," he says. "So, in the corporate world, when 9/11 happened, we knew exactly in the world where all of our corporate customers were and we got all of them back home safely. With leisure clients, when something goes wrong—and it will—we're the insurance policy that makes sure they'll be taken care of."