With two decades of experience in the travel industry, Ninan Chacko is the new CEO of Travel Leaders Group (TLG), the powerhouse umbrella corporation that includes Vacation.com, Tzell Travel, Travel Leaders franchise group, Protravel International and Nexion, to name but a few. All agency brands combined produce nearly $21 billion in annual sales volume and across the enterprise, TLG has approximately 40,000 travel agent advisors in more than 6,500 locations. Bottom line? That's about 30 percent of all travel agencies in North America.
We caught up with Chacko in his Madison Avenue office in New York to meet the man who is spearheading new initiatives and acquisitions for TLG. Why? Because nearly any move he makes will likely impact the travel industry as a whole, thanks to the company’s sheer size and buying power.
On tap, he tells us, are programs that put to work TLG’s economies of scale from the billions of dollars its agencies generate annually. Growing the number of agencies in the TLG family and attracting top talent to make all the moving pieces work in tandem are also active strategies.
Chacko, who started at TLG last September, has a strong background in the airlines and travel distribution technology. He's spent the first few months on the job listening and observing, speaking to as many people inside and outside of TLG as he could. His goal? To absorb as many impressions as possible of the mega-corporation that has grown by leaps and bounds organically and via acquisition over the past few years.
The varied travel brands and multitude of travel advisors in the TLG fold have been fascinating to study, says Chacko.
“It all very much defines diversity because we have agents of every stripe, of every background and of every competence,” he tells Travel Agent. “Whether it’s leisure, entertainment, meetings and events or agents focused on particular lifestyles or destinations, we are really a rainbow of any possible competence, orientation, capability or business model for an agent.”
Having been out of the travel industry for six and a half years (Chacko most recently headed up PR Newswire at a time when media was undergoing dramatic metamorphosis into the digital arena), the CEO says he has been surprised to see how supplier sentiment toward the travel agent distribution channel has evolved favorably over the years and how much suppliers value their relationships with TLG.
“Having lived in my part of the travel business for 20 years, primarily on the GDS, software and technology sides, travel suppliers were interesting entities,” says Chacko. “If you really look at it with an emotional measurement, their relationships with vendors in the business have probably gotten, let’s say, more challenged rather than less challenged over time. I was used to always developing a fairly thick skin, and in some cases, an adversarial relationship, especially with some airlines.”
Such was the case, circa 2000, he says but that’s all changed now. “The fascinating part about coming here, and I think it’s a testament to the business, is the depth of sentiment and support that I see from travel suppliers. It’s clearly not uniform with every single supplier, but really with the vast majority of them. It’s been fascinating to see how deeply they value the role that travel agents in general play, but specifically Travel Leaders, or one or more of our brands. Every so often I rub my eyes, and I go, ‘I’m not used to travel suppliers behaving this way toward partners in the food chain.’ That’s really a surprise,” he notes.
Chacko says it’s not just about the size and scale of business that TLG conducts with suppliers. “It’s also the quality of what we do that they value immensely,” he says. “That combination is unparalleled. There are other entities with pockets of either quantity or quality, but nobody with the combination of the two like ours.”
Simply put, that $21 billion produced by TLG’s 6,500 travel agency locations creates quite a volume of scale, which means it moves vast quantities of business for specific suppliers. “That puts you at a different level of dialogue, interaction and support that’s not possible otherwise,” Chacko says.
TLG generates $2 billion worth of hotel revenue alone, and it’s been evolving that business through its Select Hotels & Resorts program, which has more than 750 participating properties that provide clients with freebies, such as transfers, free breakfasts, upgrades and hotel credits.
Plans are to increase those sales by making it easier for advisors to sell hotels. In March, TLG’s hotel division launched “pinSIGHT,” an end-to-end booking solution for agents using either the GDS or the program’s dedicated online site. The program will ultimately allow all TLG agents to book more than 100,000 hotels worldwide with great visuals, including mapping details.
The big bonus, however, is that it provides agents with a wealth of knowledge on all possible hotel options and associated deals, meaning they’re savvier than the consumer who has been comparison shopping on the OTA sites. The program outlines the value of the amenities provided by the Select Hotels & Resorts program, such as early check-in, late check-out, free Wi-Fi and breakfast, allowing the agent to size up what the best deal is for their client overall.
“You can’t expect agents to do their jobs effectively if they don’t have access to at least the same information as their consumers have. Which means, on one screen, being able to comparison shop,” says Chacko, who notes that creating pinSIGHT was important because hotel is a category that is a multiplier across the entire TLG enterprise. “We’re always looking at things that can impact business in total, hotels are absolutely one of those things.”
Indeed, Chacko’s first hire at TLG was Erick Rodriguez as SVP of the hotel division. He is the founder and chairman of Happy Bookings, a technology and travel company that contracted with some of the largest companies in China to provide a white-label travel platform to offer to their clients.
“Erick’s been very focused on essentially making hotels a bigger multiplier for all of Travel Leaders Group,” says Chacko. What’s next for the hotel program?
“We’re very focused on making curated experiences for our agents to continue to delight their customers while creating the right opportunities for us to maintain and grow our business economically and otherwise,” says Chacko.
He points to the “Select Wellness Collection,” which was also launched by TLG this year. That’s a portfolio of 40 luxury hotels and spa resorts known for their focus on health and wellness. Like Select Hotels and Resorts, the program is amenity-driven and is available only to consumers through TLG travel agents.
Enabling the agent to provide the intel from pinSIGHT and the amenities through TLG’s hotel programs allows them to act as an advocate for their clients, which, in the end, puts the human touch back into the travel purchasing process, says Chacko. And that humanity is front and center in the lead-generation program, Agent Profiler, which is available to Travel Leaders Franchise Group agencies; it matches up consumers searching for an agent with a specialization. In 2015, the program generated more than 52,000 high-quality travel leads, says TLG, with an average sales per lead of $5,000, according to data gathered from ClientBase.
“Our ability exposes the right profile to the right search, generally based on two criteria: the lifestyle or geography that the person is interested in and their GEO IP, so where is that person searching from,” says Chacko. “We know from our experience that when somebody is searching for an agent, they much prefer an agent in their local geography.”
Results thus far are anecdotal, with agents reporting they’ve gotten new customers they never had before that have been converted to sales.
Vacation.com has a similar program called Agent Snapshot, while Tzell recently launched Agent Showcase. We asked Chacko if each TLG brand will get its own “agent profiler” program. His response:
“That’s a great question. It’s one of those things that is important for us to evaluate on a going forward basis, to understand what works the best for our members. That really should be our orientation. Not, ‘Gosh, we’ve historically had a relationship with A or B, and so we ought to keep doing that we’re doing.’
“What’s going to work best for our agents? Anecdotally, I do know what we’ve done with Agent Profiler works phenomenally well, and we’ve had a number of queries from agents, for example in Protravel, sort of saying, ‘Hey, when are you going to make that available to me?’ It’s one of those interesting things that we’re in the process of evaluating, what’s the right thing for us to do for our agents. Clearly, what they’re indicating is the status quo isn’t necessarily working well enough for their needs.”
Moving further into 2016, Chacko is forging ahead with his strategy to synergize TLG’s multiple, somewhat disparate travel agency groups.
Just announced is the formation of the Elite Travel Division, which brings Protravel and Tzell under one umbrella. Gail Grimmett is its new president; she hails most recently from Delta Air Lines where she spent 19 years. While serving as the airline's senior vice president, Global New York, Grimmett worked with Protravel and Tzell from the supplier side; she held full financial and commercial responsibility for the airline’s domestic and international performance in New York. During this time, she delivered over $6 billion of revenue to the company annually.
Grimmett, who had just started her new job as we were going to press, reports directly to Chacko and has the fascinating task of working with Protravel and Tzell, which together generate nearly $4 billion in annual sales. With the move, Patrick Fragale, president of Protravel, departs TLG and Barry Liben, who had most recently served as Tzell’s CEO, moves up as chairman of the two agencies.
A spokesperson for TLG said that Protravel will remain with Virtuoso and Tzell stays with Signature Travel Network, and that the two agencies will retain their identities.
Chacko also told us that Grimmett will be given time to evaluate what to do with the Elite Travel Division, given that it’s already a very successful business. “This is not a building platform,” he said. “It’s a business with a rich history that’s already on a successful path. This is really about having the freedom to say, ‘How do we make this an even better business?’”
An even more recent move was the creation of another new job title at TLG, chief sales officer and head of corporate travel, also reporting directly to Chacko. Filling the role is Gabriel Rizzi, a former vice president of sales for Dun and Bradstreet, who will lead “a matrixed sales and marketing organization across Travel Leaders Group,” according to the press release announcing his appointment.
Synergizing Travel Leaders is definitely one of Rizzi’s goals. In that same release, Chacko said, “Through his matrixed leadership role, we will ensure common systems, methodologies and best practices across Travel Leaders Group that will propel us toward further growth…so our brands can attract even more of the industry’s best agents and agencies, to those geared toward winning new corporate clientele.”
A Look Back
Putting all of the pieces together at Travel Leaders seems like a natural role for Ninan Chacko. From a very young age, it was clear he was going to be in the travel business; specifically involved with airlines. “I was always crazy about airplanes,” he says. “I always had this notion in my head that, of course, I was going to fly planes for a living.” Born in Malaysia with two physicians as parents, he was schooled early on in Bangalore, India, where his grandparents resided.
“That was probably my earliest travel experience, traveling as an unaccompanied minor at the age of 7, almost turned 8, with my sister for companionship, flying from Penang to Bangalore. Of course, non-stop flights between those two places didn’t exist then, so we did multi-hops. You were remarkably well taken care of, because that was the founding era of — now the parent precursor to — Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines,” he recalls. “Service was off the charts back in the day, and of course, you were just really well looked after.”
It was then he got to sit in the cockpit with the pilots and then it was off to more long-haul travel when, at the age of 14, he enrolled in boarding school in the UK “in a county called Herefordshire next to Wales,” says Chacko. He was on his own then, traveling back and forth to Malaysia and touring a bit through Europe. At 16, when he told his mother, who was then a widow, that he wanted to become a cadet pilot, she insisted he get a degree first. What to study? Aerospace engineering, of course. And, so, Chacko, at the young age of 17, navigated his way to the University of Kansas, where he got his B.S. and M.S. in Aerospace Engineering.
Something funny happened early on along the way, however, and that was finding out that he didn’t enjoy flying.
“I discovered, much to my chagrin, that flying a Cessna 150 was sort of like driving a Chevy Chevette,” says Chacko. “The part I enjoyed the most, by far, was taking off and landing. The actual flying part was just mind-numbingly boring.” He dropped the dream of flying and instead focused on engineering, becoming the Recipient and Project Manager for the NASA and General Electric University Program Grant at the Flight Research Lab, Center for Research. Reality became all too real, though, when he wrapped up his Masters in 1987. Chacko quickly found out that all of the jobs were in the defense sector and that as a foreign student he couldn’t get security clearance to work in the industry.
That stumbling block led him to opportunity; Chacko moved to Los Angeles and worked for System One, which had been forged with the distribution and technology assets from Eastern and Continental airlines when they merged. He joined the company’s engineering group and quickly moved up to manage it. “It was great. You were dealing with airlines all over the world, who were using our engineering services to calculate fuel loads, weight and balance, things like that,” says Chacko. A move to American Airlines Decision Technologies followed. “This was the group that designed and came up with the algorithms for pricing, revenue management, etc.,” he says. That led to senior executive positions at Sabre and, along the way, Chacko completed the Advanced Management Program (AMP) in June 2000 at Harvard Business School.
“I came back with my head full of all these crazy ideas,” he says. By “crazy,” he meant putting together a buyout consortium to purchase Worldspan from Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines and American Airlines, along with Greg O’Hara, whom he’d known at Sabre. Chacko became the chief commercial officer for Worldspan, where he was responsible for $1 billion in revenue and more than 600 staff worldwide; he was also responsible for sales, marketing, operations, service and support activities for customers and partners in over 60 countries. Those customers included Tzell, Travel Leaders Corporate and Travel Leaders Franchise Group.
After Worldspan was sold to Travelport, Chacko turned to consulting and, in 2009, with the economic downturn in full swing, he moved outside of the travel world and into media. He was named CEO of PR Newswire, which “provides electronic distribution, targeting, measurement and broadcast services on behalf of tens of thousands of corporate, government, association, labor, non-profit and other customers worldwide.”
Chacko says he found it refreshing to be in an industry that was new to him, especially one that was undergoing such change particularly in terms of search engines and traditional media versus digital media. After more than six years he decided to move back to the travel world and ended up at Travel Leaders Group, which was heavily funded by Certares, an investment firm founded by the same Greg O’Hara from the Worldspan buyout days. Chacko had remained friends with O’Hara, who was also on the TLG board, and the rest just fell in to place.
Now eight months into his leadership at Travel Leaders Group, Chacko is not slowing down his momentum in creating a new dynamic in the $21 billion company. At press time, he had just appointed two well-known travel industry veterans to TLG’s hotel division and airline relations teams. Both are newly created positions.
Art Jimenez, formerly a senior director of leisure sales for the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, was named the vice president of marketing for the hotel division; he’s a very familiar face to travel agents and tour operators, having created incentives, rewards and educational programs for that market. Jimenez, reporting directly to Hotel Division Senior Vice President Erick Rodriguez, joins the division’s other executive leadership, including Christina Gambini, vice president of supplier relations and program management, and Mai Meyaart, vice president of agent engagement.
Meanwhile, Shaun Malay was named vice president of airline relations; he hails most recently from FlightCentre USA, where he was vice president of airline contracting and strategy. Malay reports directly to Airline Relations Senior Vice President Peter Vlitas, who said in a release that TLG will “seek to further strengthen the already strong relationships we have with our airline partners.”
“Shaun Malay brings more than 20 years of experience in building and aligning organizations to drive results, which should ultimately help our travel agents as they continue building their vital air sales on both the leisure and corporate sides,” Vlitas added.
Making the right hires is vitally important to Chacko, who sees that as one of his key roles at TLG.
“As a person at the top end of the equation of a big pyramid of people, you can make an impact by hiring the best possible team or molding the best possible team from the existing talent, and then ensuring that they hire the best possible people below them,” Chacko says. “Talent’s pretty high on the list, along with the right organizational construct.”
Creating an environment that enables employees is another priority for Chacko. “That’s everything from the right rewards and incentives to the right culture, to the right strategy and where we’re going to be; to get everybody pointed in the right direction, and then to make the right resources available,” he says.
Acquisitions in the Works
As he moves ahead, Chacko will continue to build on TLG’s core initiatives, which will be to keep adding talent and refining its organizational structure. New acquisitions are also a major priority, he says.
“We think we are uniquely positioned in some respect, as one of the best-capitalized entities in this industry, to be at the forefront of looking at those things that are the best match for our business. We did approximately six acquisitions last year and I think we’re on pace to likely double that this year,” says Chacko.
As of late May none had been concluded, but Chacko tells us, “We’ve got a fairly solid acquisition pipeline. There are a number in the works. I’m very confident that in the space of the next month we’ll have both interesting acquisitions and some significant ones, size-wise. I feel pretty good about that.”
The first part of the year, he says, was focused on restructuring TLG’s credit agreements to get its balance sheet “in even healthier form in terms of client agreements, etc.” That task has been completed, he says. “It wasn’t necessarily an essential precursor to completing the acquisitions, but a helpful one.”
We asked if there are any particular travel segments in the TLG portfolio that need to be filled.
“I wouldn’t say necessarily there are gaps per se, because we are healthily represented with 6,500 agency locations and 40,000 plus travel agents,” he noted. “But, if I had to put a finer point on it, we love the leisure business, and I would put the word 'premium' around that. That’s not a snooty kind of a thing, it’s just that ultimately, we’ve got the best possible choice of offering consumers the best range of services and products to match to their needs. And 'premium' also represents the best economic opportunities for our agents, which is, of course, important.”
TLG is also focused on the “unmanaged” corporate travel sector. “Our orientation is very much the small- to medium-sized corporations out here. I think we can deliver a phenomenal level of service at a corporate level. If you look across corporations in North America, I would be shocked if the C Suite in every one of those places wasn’t using a physical agent and paying the extra fee to do so. Why? It’s not because somebody forced them to use an agent versus some stunningly good online booking technology. Bluntly, because it’s a better experience. That’s the single best proof point we have today of the power of the human being in the loop. You’d like to believe that the corporate C Suite is probably populated, on average, by smarter, better educated professionals than the general populace. I think that’s a reasonable assumption, so they’re all choosing to vote with their hands and feet and say, ‘We want to deal with human beings, not a piece of technology.’”
TLG has a very large segment of agents dealing with the entertainment sector, which is another niche that fascinates Chacko. “Clearly that’s a sexy part of the business. We’re dealing with touring music acts in particular. It’s a very custom-specific, reputation-based capability, and we’ve got some of the best agents in the business that I know of, who have phenomenal rosters of clients that they do business with. We’re always thrilled to add to that,” he says.
Meetings and events have always been a small and fragmented part of TLG’s business, he adds. “It’s one that speaks very highly of the competence we already possess in our supplier relationships. Just out of sheer size, that’s the area I’d love to grow the most, but I would say, we’re clearly interested in agencies of all these stripes that would fit in.”
Thus far, Chacko reports that he’s been greatly enjoying his role at TLG. “It’s been a great process,” he tells Travel Agent magazine. “I have a great group of colleagues. I’m having a blast. This continues to be an incredibly fun experience. And, now, I’m back in a place where all I can see is days filled with opportunity and challenges that I think the organization is well suited to overcome.”