Sky’s the limit for local travel agency
by Clay Neely
As Mitchell Hicks boarded a plane only four days after 9/11, he couldn’t help but notice that he was one of only four people on the jet headed to Oakland that day.
“It was definitely eerie,” said Hicks. “I think we all thought the bottom was falling out. Between that event and the emergence of the Internet travel sites, people have been very quick to write off the relevance of the local travel agency.”
However, for Hicks, owner and president of Uniglobe McIntosh Travel in Newnan, his numbers tell a different story. For the past 26 years, Uniglobe has seen consecutive growth in both sales and revenue. Even throughout the recent economic slump, 2013 will stand to be the company’s best year to date.
“We’re very fortunate,” said Hicks. “Sometimes airfare to London can be cheaper than to Nashville. The travel industry isn’t always a logical business.”
In 1987, Hicks purchased the fledgling travel agency from local businessman Bill Lofton. “I was originally doing consulting work for Bill, and one day we were all sitting around and talking about a possible business opportunity. Bill owned a little travel agency and had initially bought it to get discounted travel but had never really utilized it,” said Hicks. “It was floundering around and he asked if I wouldn’t mind giving it a shot to try to turn it around. He’d give me six months to decide.”
However, after the initial six months passed, Hicks wasn’t sold on the idea and requested six more.
“Finally, after one year I bought it,” laughed Hicks, “and 26 years later, we’ve grown quite a bit and doing better than ever.”
However, some significant changes have transpired since his acquisition. “When I first came on board, I’d say that 80 percent of our business was leisure travel and the rest was charter and corporate. These days, it’s the exact opposite, with corporate travel taking up the majority of our business.”
Some of Uniglobe’s biggest clients include a 22-year relationship with Chick-fil-A; IronPlanet, a California-based company whose CEO is a Coweta County resident; and Carter’s Company, the leading brand of children’s clothing, gifts and accessories in America, which Uniglobe has handled for 24 years.
“That’s unheard of in our industry,” said Hicks.
“The company we have now hardly resembles the one I took over in 1987,” said Hicks. “Back when I was a consultant, I traveled extensively for a living, so I knew the hassle of living out of a suitcase. As a result, I did most of Uniglobe’s corporate sales myself since I really empathized with their needs.”
And it appears that some of the needs of corporate travel are quite formidable.
Imagine the average planning and logistics that go into planning a family vacation. Now imagine that your family constitutes the entire corporate staff of Chick-fil-A and you’re attempting to arrange travel for more than 4,000 people to a single destination in one day.
“For their (Chick-fil-A) annual conferences, we’ve arranged travel to places like San Antonio, Orlando, Long Beach, Nashville, Washington, D.C. It really narrows down to determining where you can go with 4,000 people in one property. Right now, they’re growing at 125 stores a year, so they’re running out of places that can handle those kinds of numbers. Not only that, but since this conference takes place in the winter, they prefer to frequent warmer places.”
With the growth of Internet travel sites over the years such as Orbitz, Travelocity and Kayak, one may assume that the local travel agency is not only facing stiff competition, but even the possibility of obsolescence.
“Not so,” according to Hicks.
“The biggest fallacy we face is the notion that you can get a cheaper fare on the Internet. Unless you sign into 25 sites, you’ll never really know unless you use a tool like Concur, that consolidates all those fares.”
“Concur is a corporate booking tool that we have partnered with that searches all the airline websites and the GDS (global distribution system) and consolidates all the information in a matter of seconds,” said Hicks.
“It’s similar to Kayak except much more robust. It allows a company to put in their own travel policy so if it has certain restrictions, it can customize the needs for the company. The bottom line is that a company has much more control over how their money is spent,” he said.
According to Hicks, a company like Carter’s mandates that all their travelers use Concur.
“If a company like Carter’s is planning an international trip to the Far East, they’ll stop over in 10 different destinations along the way. By utilizing our company, we can break fares up for them and reduce their costs over $2,000 depending on the routes.”
However, what really gets Hicks excited is the new generation that is coming to the forefront at Uniglobe.
“We have hired several new people over the last year and a half that are just out of college and they’ve picked up the GDS (Global Distribution System) code very well. Some of our highest producing corporate agents are our newest employees,” said Hicks.
One of the newest additions to the Uniglobe staff is Mitchell’s son, Michael, who recently joined the company in September.
After receiving his master’s degree in sports marketing from the University of Arkansas, Michael went to work in the private sector for two years before expressing interest in joining the family business.
“Michael has been a blessing to have around and sports marketing is something we’re going to be actively exploring within the next few years. It’s a very niche travel marketplace with lots of charters,” said Hicks.
“We’re very excited about having him here along with the rest of the young blood here and taking the company to the next level,” said Hicks.
When asked about his proudest achievement as president of Uniglobe, Hicks paused for a moment.
“You know, I would say the fact that we have been able to grow and increase jobs in our county along with bringing in second generation to see the company moving ahead really springs to mind,” said Hicks.
“We’re always looking for great people looking to get into our industry. Attracting great people is our main goal. We’re expanding and growing and want to find people that would be a good fit for our team.”
“Back when the Internet came about, so many people believed the travel agency industry was a dinosaur, but as long as you can provide value and build relationships with your clients and show that value and give that value back to them, that’s what it’s all about,” said Hicks.
“Sure, we have people that walk in our doors and say, ‘I found this price on the Internet. Can you beat it?’ And nine times out of 10, we can. Being a franchise means we have thousands of offices around the world with large buying power and discounts with certain suppliers. It’s something we’re extremely proud of.”