The pace of change in travel technology, marketing and management will continue to challenge travel agency owners, managers and staff – along with independent agents, U. Gary Charlwood, founder and chairman of Uniglobe Travel International, said in an interview with Travel Agent.
Uniglobe’s Charlwood, an ASTA Hall of Fame honoree, is marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of Uniglobe in 1980, and remains bullish on the future of professional travel agents and the travel industry.
”Young entrepreneurs have great opportunities ahead of them,” Charlwood said of the field.
Technology has made the most dramatic impact, Charlwood said, reflecting on Uniglobe’s growth to a branded global network of 750 agencies in 50 countries – and with more coming.
“Its hard not to point to the internet as a revolutionizing factor. It introduced pricing transparency and further facilitated supplier’s ability or desire to deal direct with the customer," he said. "And, it introduced several behemoth competitors to the leisure travel sector. At the same time, on the traditional agency side, technology has changed the nature of client relationships. Many clients can now research destinations and hospitality services online. They come to the travel purchase armed with more information than ever before.
“Automation has impacted every aspect of the workflow in agencies. Going from hand-writing airline tickets to being able to process a transaction from start to finish with only a handful of entries, with reliance on file-finishing and quality control functions and auto-ticketing routines has allowed agency staff to spend more time with the clients. Technology can empower agents and help them deliver value to their client base.”
Another major change in the past 30 years has been the opening of so much more of the world to travel. “To put it in perspective, the first Uniglobe agency launched in Canada in 1981 — the Berlin wall didn't come down until almost a decade later," Charlwood said. "New regions have emerged as forces in global travel, including Latin America, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and South Asia – all areas where Uniglobe has prospered. This expansion will continue. A recent report projects that global travel spending will double in the next ten years, and these economies are going to be influential players. A study( by Amadeus) of the evolving markets was entitled: The Travel Gold Rush 2020. China and India are giants with a middle class that wants to see the world.”
All of this adds up to genuine opportunity for travel management corporations (TMCs) which — despite competition — will benefit from the globalization of the industry as successful companies look beyond the boundaries of their homeland. Charlwood said. “It’s a truly global industry.”
“Successful TMCs have global connections with local knowledge, which is something we focus on strongly at Uniglobe. For example, we have a Global Partner in Iraq, Uniglobe Dahlan Tours and Travel, which supports our Uniglobe TMCs in other countries by helping to mitigate the risks for businesses and NGO clients entering the country to aid in rebuilding efforts,” he said.
Charlwood is also a veteran of what many believe is the roller-coaster ride of airline-agency relationships over the last three decades. He began operations shortly after airline deregulation and has seen big names such as PanAm, TWA and Eastern come and go during his time in the business.
“When we started Uniglobe, we approached airlines who had no idea who we were and said “Give us a target. If we hit it, you’ll pay but you’ll also have incremental revenue. If we don’t, you’ve lost nothing," Charlwood said. "And, with a good deal of persuasiveness, it worked. We found the right people and showed them what could happen. Over time, airlines lost a degree of flexibility in putting together programs like that.”
Charlwood noticed that the influence of Wall Street analysts desperate to see share price increases helped begin the downard slide in relationships and compensation. He said it was refreshing to see airlines introduce a fee for customers who call their call centers, as it was a recognition by airlines that travel agencies' work was worth something. Airline-agency relationships bottomed out in the past decade, but Charlwood has been able to build great relationships with preferred airline partners that are mutually beneficial, he said. He also cited parallels between the current pressures faced by cruise lines on distribution costs and the 1995 rupture between airlines and agents over commissions.
He also offered a warning regarding taxation of the travel industry: “In many parts of the world, the government taxation of travel has an impact as it increases the cost of travel, which does affect demand. This is seen in Europe with many governments increasing departure taxes and in the U.S. with cities and counties taxing car and hotel users to build convention centers and sports stadiums. This can damage the industry and deserves watching.”
Online travel agents are another major force that has emerged in the last three decades: “Many OTAs aren’t designed to deal with changes in travelers plans. The Icelandic volcano eruption earlier this year, unusual weather and other travel disruptions have shed light on the advantages of TMCs and personal travel agents over impersonal OTAs. You need a real person working for you in the case of an emergency or change in plans.”
“I see a return to localized service and a greater emphasis on travel flexibility; electronic or mobile communication with TMCs is being backed up by real people empowered to act in the event travel arrangements don't turn out as planned. This underscores the obvious: the value and need for personalized services to complement or supplement high tech tools.”
The emergence of independent agents is still another force in the travel industry: “The growth of home-based independent agents has been phenomenal and it may not be over. We have long viewed the independent contractor and home-based agents as important players in the industry. That’s why we got into that market back in the late 1990’s and remain a leader today.”
“There are clearly a lot of experienced people in the industry who are interested in working for themselves and we’re happy to enable that. At the same time, it has an effect on the traditional store-front agencies as it has reduced the available talent pool for them. The store-front location is still important from an industry perspective as consumers need to see that agents are still there, in business and thriving.”
Today, Charlwood is chairman and founder of the Charlwood Pacific Group, the company that owns Uniglobe Travel International. His interests include Century 21 Real Estate in Canada and he has also been a force in franchising. Charlwood became the first Canadian to be chairman of the International Franchise Association (IFA). In 2007 he was honored by the group as the 2007 inductee into its Hall of Fame. Centum Financial Group Inc. - a network of independently owned and operated mortgage broker firms in Canada – is another CPG unit. Overall, Charlwood Pacific Group has more than 1,700 locations and 11,000 employees.
Also noteworthy is Charlwood’s strong, continuing support of ASTA and his role as a driving force behind the creation of ASTA’s Corporate Advisory Council which brought the leadership of the industry’s biggest players under one umbrella. As founding Chairman of the CAC for its first two terms, he helped protect the retail sector from policies and regulations that were harmful to the industry.
In the future Charlwood sees Uniglobe remaining a powerhouse in the travel industry with a strong brand name with global reach. The cornerstone of Uniglobe’s program will remain with Uniglobe committed to providing the highest standard of service with integrity.