An Interview with John Stachnik, Co-Founder of Mayflower Tours
Mayflower Tours, located in Downers Grove, Illinois, is a professional tour operator handling individual and group escorted tour arrangements throughout the world. John and Mary Stachnik started the company in 1979. John, president and co-owner of Mayflower Tours, entered the travel industry in 1966 when he began working for a Washington D.C.hotel company. From 1970-1978 John was founder, part owner and president of an Illinois-based tour company which grew to more than 36,000 passengers a year. John’s wife Mary serves as co-owner and senior vice president for the Mayflower Group.
TRO: Since the founding of Mayflower Tours, how has your mission statement changed in the past 30+ years?
JS: I would actually like to talk about how it hasn’t changed. One of the basic tenets of our mission statement is that we want to be intensely liked by our travelers. Everything we do focuses on the tours being thoroughly enjoyed by our clients. When we put together programs, cancellation provisions, etc. we try to take our responsibility to the traveler into account. It doesn’t mean we’re soft or we take the easy way out we just want our clients to be as comfortable as possible. One of our sales tenets has always been, “You don’t have to work with us but we want you to want to work with us.”
TRO: How has Mayflower Tours adapted to the digital age and its prevalence in the travel industry?
JS: We’re certainly not the leader and we’re not the follower but we’re right with the pack in terms of the digital age. We’re very keen on our web presence, we have a webmaster who works full-time on board in our office. We’re very prevalent in social media and websites that have the capacity to publish online brochures; when we work with travel agents we create digital promotional materials that can be transmitted to clients electronically. We want the old fashioned experience but we realize and believe that talking to people in 21st century methodology is the way to go.
TRO: What makes your company different from other tour operators?
JS: In the long run, most of us use the same hotels or same types of hotels and motorcoaches and we go to the same destinations, so from that standpoint differentiation comes through service. You have to be the best at one of three things: price, service or quality. This doesn’t mean you goof off in the other two areas, but we’ve always been a great believer in service. When you call our company, you get a live person on the telephone and if there’s a challenge with a client I deal with it personally because I’m head of the complaint department. I believe service is the hardest attribute to sell because until you experience a challenge, you don’t know what great service is. If everything goes well, that’s wonderful, but when things don’t go the way they’re supposed to the reactions and how the company handles the situation are the real indicators of how quality the service is.
TRO: Speaking of service, you offer “Guaranteed Departure Dates.” This is rare during these unsure times as a myriad of issues threaten travel. How do you maintain this guarantee?
JS: When we publish a brochure, we don’t have guaranteed departure dates a year and a half out. As we see the need, we name certain tours to our guaranteed departure roster and that goes online. When travel agents call our reservation center, our agents assist with educating them on which dates we are able to offer guaranteed departures. Have we been burned? Yes, a couple of times. The volcanic ash is a great example. We had a tour to Paris and we were able to get one group to France but we were unable to transport a different group. But we honored our guarantee. It’s something that requires constant watching, it’s something that has worked for us and we think travel agents really appreciate it.
TRO: As an operator that offers trips overseas, how has Mayflower Tours been affected by the civic unrest and/or natural disasters recently? How do you handle such things?
JS: It’s interesting because in the “old days” when something would go wrong, like a forest fire in Yellowstone or something of that nature that makes people nervous regardless of how it affects their trip, people would just cancel. Now, with deposits and trip cancellation insurance, people don’t cancel as often but new bookings stop coming in.
If something happens like the unrest in Egypt and the country is essentially closed to tourism, that’s one thing. However, of the challenges that we encounter, about 80% of them are perception challenges. To get anyone to go to Europe when the volcanic ash was spewing was very difficult, even though the southern part of the continent was perfectly fine. Therefore, we are affected but we try to come up with a solution such as a trip somewhere else or during a different time so everyone is satisfied.
TRO: What is Mayflower Tours’ most popular destination or tour?
JS: Right now, the number one product for Mayflower Tours is river cruising in Europe. It hasn’t always been this way. If you go back in the past 30 some years since we were founded, New England and Cape Cod were more popular than any other destination, especially during the fall foliage. There are always destinations that are hot for a couple of years and then something else is popular. I think some of the river cruises may be big today and not so much tomorrow, it’s all about current trends. We also do ocean cruises and Gulf cruises and so on but a lot of clients who go on a river cruise come back and say they never want to go on a big ship again.
TRO: How do you foster your relationships with travel agents?
JS: We take care of everyone. We respect the agents and their clients and the prices don’t change for our trips regardless of who books it (agent, consumer, etc.). We maintain our own relationships with agents who are near and dear to us who have been working with our company for many years and just try to bring the message out to the agent community. We send e-mails and advertise in the usual fashion, and my wife Mary, who is my business partner, was just speaking at the travel agent trade show in Las Vegas to build face-to-face relationships with agents who may not know who we are yet.
TRO: How do travel agents generally become involved with Mayflower Tours?
JS: I think there’s one way that people generally become involved with new suppliers, regardless of their profession or industry. As long as they’re having no challenges with their existing supplier they are not apt to change. However, we seem to get our best leads from agents who are having issues with their current supplier so decide to try us out, are happy, and stick with us. Of course, this is not where all of our business comes from but it is a good portion of it.
TRO: Do you have any educational tools in place for agents who wish to partner with your company?
JS: We’ve published a book on enhancing traveler loyalty through group programs. One of the things we’re best known for in the travel community is the fact that we love groups and we work with agents on their group programs. They don’t have to have a full section to plan a group trip, if they only have 10 people we will still make it work. When you’re a small company like Mayflower Tours you worry more about guerilla marketing than others may and I would say our long-term devotion to the concept of groups has separated us from the pack. Therefore, we try to educate agents as much as possible on this niche or to just help them find out if there’s anything they’re missing.
TRO: You recently launched the “Mayflower Tours’ Go Green Program.” Please explain this initiative.
JS: There’s an old saying that “Charity begins at home.” We firmly believe that the greening of the world should start at home as well so the program started in our office. We would give employees re-usable water bottles, individual recycling bins for every desk, and biodegradable materials to encourage our team to help out. We focused first on making steps internally and from there it has spread into our tours. We don’t turn down hotels for not sharing in this initiative but we do ask suppliers in our questionnaires whether or not they have recycling programs, etc. We also find that if a supplier takes the steps to participate in a green program, they are likely to take the initiative to do other things really well.
TRO: When it is time for you to take a vacation, what is your favorite destination? Any destinations on your bucket list?
JS: Domestically, I’m very keen on the Canadian Rockies. There’s tremendous sightseeing but there’s also sight-doing. I can look at the pretty scenery but I can also do things like biking, canoeing, skiing, etc. Internationally, being half-Italian, of course I love Italy but Mary and my favorite destination has always been Egypt and we’re really pulling for Egypt to come back from this latest conflict.
As far as my bucket list, I have not done a lot in South America. I’ve been to Brazil and Chile but I’d really love to explore more in South America. I think travelers are the same way because no matter what client I have fill out a questionnaire asking where they would like to go they always say, “I’d like to do something new.”
TRO: Anything new on the horizon for Mayflower Tours?
JS: There is. We are not ready to announce it yet but we understand that the escorted market is a small percentage of the overall travel market. I think in the not-too-distant future you are going to see Mayflower Tours taking advantage of the knowledge we have of destinations for the FIT side of things.
TRO: Anything else you would like to share with the travel agent community?
JS: We are good people and we hope that the travel agent community will look at the family we have in our company. Not only John and Mary Stachnik own Mayflower Tours but several of our employees also have a stake in the company, which fosters loyalty and maintains the family feel we strive for. I think that if agents want to be comfortable in their dealings with their suppliers they should look to us and we would really appreciate it.