Travel Leaders, Carlson, TAG and TZELL

The rebranding of 500 Carlson Wagonlit U.S.-based travel agency franchise locations into Travel Leaders is a major move for the individual agencies involved as well as for the Travel Acquisitions Group (TAG) and TAG’s franchise group.  It’s also a milestone for the industry.

The January acquisition of the Carlson franchise network by the Travel Acquisitions Group, headed by the highly regarded Carlson veteran Michael Batt, stunned many— as did Batt’s upfront commitment to expansion of the newly formed TAG. Even more surprising was last week’s merger of TAG and New York-based Tzell Travel Group.

The rebranding positions the new Travel Leaders (formerly Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates) as a division of The Travel Franchisee Group (TTFG), a TAG unit headed by Roger Block, a veteran executive and franchise manager. When combined with the other brands, including Cruise Holidays, Results! Travel, and Sea Master Cruises, TAG can lay claim to be the largest franchiser of travel agencies in North America.

But there is even more at stake. TAG has other strong brands under the TAG umbrella, including All Aboard Travel, Carlson Destination Marketing Services, Connexion Loyalty Travel Services,, Cruise Specialists,, Luxury Travel Network, Partners In Travel and (TAG has both owned and franchised locations).

At launch, Batt and Block made clear that, with TAG purchasing the travel assets of the Carlson Leisure Group (CLG), they intended to sustain high levels of growth— both organic and by acquisitions. Batt noted that CLG has grown from 960 locations in 1996 to more than 1,700 in 2008. CLG-owned operations had sales approaching $1 billion while travel sales made by the franchise group are in excess of $5 billion. It is now nearly $7 billion in sales including Tzell.

Batt also said that TAG would pursue an aggressive acquisition strategy and that he believed TAG could deliver exceptional value for acquired agencies. Without diluting service quality or product integrity, Batt said that a goal would be to increase TAG’s sales/asset base by $1.5 billion over two years. He wants to be a "driving force" in both corporate and leisure travel sales.

Batt did not wait long to make good on his promise. Within months, TAG acquired TraveLeaders, Coral Gables, Florida, a $223.3 million mega agency travel distributor with nine full-service agencies. There may be more selective acquisitions coming. And, to top off the release of its new Travel Leaders name, Batt announced the Tzell merger, underscoring TAG’s commitment to growth.

While the buyout of CLG by TAG had the strong support of Marilyn Carlson Nelson, Carlson’s world-class chairman and CEO, the new TAG/TTFG is now largely on its own. The rebranding in a competitive, fast-changing industry will test TAG’s formidable management team, as it will the well established marketing skills of the franchisees.

The rebranding includes the new Travel Leaders logo and name that will distinguish the CWT Associates/franchisees from the Carlson-owned Carlson Wagonlit Travel. The brand change applies solely to Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates and its U.S. franchisees. But TAG/TTFG wants to capitalize on the proud 120-year tradition of customer service and commitment to quality that both Batt and Block advocate. Agencies are already being advised on how to notify clients and how TAG/TTFG can be expected to handle the rebranding with consummate managerial skill.

Certainly, handling the rebranding without loss of clients or agencies in a tough economy will be challenging. Some confusion is inevitable. But even the toughest-minded competitor might pause a moment to wish Batt, Block, the 500 plus agencies and the partner franchises and staffs great success. TAG and The Travel Franchise Group will carry on a great tradition of professional excellence, quality service, innovation and leadership in the travel industry.


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