Tom Baumann is president of Travel Leaders Leisure Group, part of Travel Leaders Group, a North American travel company that includes over 1,500 company-owned and franchised travel agencies in Canada and the United States. The agencies include All Aboard Travel, Cruise Specialists, CruiseDeals.com, Cruise Holidays, Partners In Travel, Luxury Travel Network, and SinglesCruise.com He joined the executive ranks of Carlson Leisure Group in 2000 following CLG’s acquisition of his $50 million dollar Associate agency. Mr. Baumann founded that agency 20 years earlier.
TRO: Way back when, you used to be a travel agency franchisee for Carlson Wagonlit Travel. With the Cruise Holidays franchise program now being run by you as a part of the Travel Leaders Leisure Group, do you feel like things have come full circle?
TB: This makes me smile……full circle might be a good way to describe it I guess but I’ve never lost sight of what it’s like to be a franchise owner. It’s tough and it’s a lot of hard work every day, seven days a week and as long as we always make sure we are sensitive to that as a franchisor and continue to provide the very best tools and resources available, Cruise Holidays will continue to be the very best! I’m very proud to be leading this organization with such an incredibly talented group of franchise owners and honestly, I just feel like one of them and we are all in this together.
TRO: How has your experience as a franchise owner helped you with having Cruise Holidays part of Travel Leaders Leisure Group?
TB: As I mentioned earlier, I’m very sensitive that each franchise owner is running his or her own business and we need to do everything we can to help them succeed. We can’t do it for you (even though I wish we could) but we can provide you with the best to be the best which is how I grew my business as a franchise owner. Taking the tools that were available (every one of them) and working them as hard as I could to get as much out of them as I could. Mr. Carlson used to have a favorite saying of mine….”The harder I work, the luckier I get”!
TRO: How has franchising changed in the past five years, where do you see it growing in the next five?
TB: I think franchising is still as strong as it was five years ago. In our industry though, technology has played a key role in its development. You no longer have to have your entire staff sitting in a store front office behind a desk. Customers can be serviced from anywhere anytime which is a good thing for Cruise Holidays because it allows us to manage costs on an ongoing basis. I see the next five years continuing to move in that direction, being able to do business from “anywhere” which will only continue to allow additional growth potential to everyone.
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TRO: How is Cruise Holidays taking advantage of the overall relationship with Travel Leaders Leisure Group?
TB: The Travel Leaders Leisure Group has some of the most powerful brands in the cruise industry…..Cruise Specialists, SinglesCruise.com, CruiseDeals.com, All Aboard Travel, Partners in Travel, Luxury Travel Network and our wholly owned and operated Travel Leaders leisure full service agency locations. I’ve said it before and I live by this every day. Everything we do in all of our brands is shared with everyone, including Cruise Holidays. We have no secrets, we have no “it’s mine” attitude and whatever one has done, if it can help another so be it and as long as I’m heading up this group, that’s the way it will always be. It’s tough enough out there with the competition, the least we can do is share our resources and knowledge across brand lines for the benefit of all of us!
TRO: Let’s talk about the new programs and services made available specifically to Cruise Holidays owners. Share some of these new programs. How are those helping franchisees?
TB: This is easy…we simply took what we are using in our other cruise brands and gave it to Cruise Holidays. We know they work, we’ve kicked the tires on them and made them available. Are all programs going to work or satisfy all franchisees, no! However, as I stated earlier whatever we have, Cruise Holidays has. Things like our incredible access to international airline rates through our sister company, TZELL Travel. When you’re a billion dollar airline agency, it comes with privileges and those privileges are now available to our Cruise Holidays franchisee’s as well. Our hotel/car rental booking system with rates (and commissions) that most agencies would only dream about are part of the recently launched programs.
TRO: Let’s talk about the Cruise Holidays Independent Contractor training program. What is it? Are you still seeing growth in both home based and store front franchises? How will IC’s allow Travel Leaders Leisure Group to continue to grow CH?
TB: This is another thing that we have in some of our other brands, IC’s or Independent Contractors. We are nearly finished with the full training materials and program details for Cruise Holidays. It’s just another program and opportunity for Cruise Holiday franchisees to have local people in their communities selling travel under their business. It’s a great way to grow revenue at a very low cost and add value to both the local franchisee as well as the overall Cruise Holidays brand. I’m excited to have people get behind this and add as many qualified and talented IC’s as possible and we’ll do all we can to help them achieve their goals.
TRO: How is CH’s expansion with home-based franchisees into Canada going?
TB: FANTASTIC….I think we’ve signed nearly ten already with more in the pipeline. Canada is a real hot button for me and I want us to become a lot bigger and a lot stronger there. We have absolutely fantastic franchisee’s there and we can be a real powerhouse in Canada in the not too distant future.
TRO: What are your various business units doing as far as social media?
TB: We are all over the board with this. Some are doing great, others not so great! We are working on consolidating our efforts currently within the leisure group to have people focused on these efforts for ALL of our brands and I’m nearly finished with that new infrastructure and what it will look like for us going forward.
TRO: Could you address the impact of the internet on the travel industry and the evolving role of the travel agent?
TB: This one makes me laugh a little….I remember it like it was yesterday when the Internet boom happened and the headlines every day stated the end of the traditional travel agent is near. I actually was a bit concerned about it and they even had me believing this a bit….but not for long. The internet is an incredibly powerful tool for our businesses and I don’t know how we lived without it to be honest with you. It will always have a place for those customers that want to buy their travel on line and do everything themselves. Could I go on for hours with you about the horror stories I’ve heard in my life from people that have done this? You bet I could, including a couple that just planned a trip oversees to take a cruise but unfortunately, they didn’t get the proper visas. They lost their vacation and their money! Pretty expensive lesson I would say but I hear it over and over again. Now, as firmly as I believe there will always be a targeted audience that wants to be their own travel agent on line, there is equally as big of a population that wants to deal with a professional. Someone that knows where they are going, what to do, where to eat, what’s the best diving spot, where’s the best location on the ship for my cabin category and on and on. For fun, when someone tells me they don’t need a travel agent I always ask them, do you cut your own hair? Do you do your own tax returns? Do you do your own dry cleaning? Of course not, you go to a professional and pay and value their services. Why would we be any different?
TRO: Let’s talk a little bit about your years in the travel industry, what do you see as its greatest change?
TB: WOW….this is a tough one…..it’s hard to believe from when I started in October 1987 (and we could still hand write airline tickets and Sovereign of the Seas was considered the “wonder ship”) to where we are today. I just sailed on the world’s largest cruise ship, Oasis of the Seas, in November and you could put nearly five of the 1987 “wonder ships” into it. Who would have ever thought the cruise industry would become what it is today and I don’t think we have come anywhere close to where it’s going. New designs, new concepts, new dining venues, new top name entertainment (Hairspray, the Broadway musical on the Oasis? The Blue Man Group on the Epic?) You have to love this business to be in it and it’s an incredibly exciting business to be in. It sure beats selling widgets!
TRO: What advice do you have for both retail and home based agents for building business in the year ahead?
TB: It’s pretty simple really….provide the greatest customer service you possibly can at every turn, it will come back to you tenfold. We have a saying in all of our businesses which is our daily purpose every time we deal with a customer….”Delight the customer one travel experience at a time”. As long as you do that, the business will build itself and everything else will fall into place.
TRO: What do you see as evolving trends in leisure travel?
TB: People want nice and they want it at a value. I think that’s the biggest trend we will continue to see over the next several years. Gone are the days when people are happy with a two or three star vacation….now they want four or five star but at the best possible value. It’s going to be up to the resorts and the cruise lines to continue to find ways to offer this experience for our mutual customers.
TRO: Are you seeing leisure travel rebound in 2010?
TB: Absolutely yes and it’s so refreshing to see. Is 2010 going to be the best year in the travel industry, absolutely not, is it going to be a whole lot better than 2009, count on it.
TRO: As a frequent traveler, from a consumer perspective, what’s the neatest thing you’ve experienced on a recent trip – be it a feature on a specific cruise ship, or a customer service story, etc.
TB: WOW, this is a tough one. I’ve had many and each one of them is a great memory for me. I’m a big Windstar Cruises fan when I want total relaxing. I’m also a big fan of the mega liners (I went kicking and screaming to the Oasis and absolutely loved it). I guess the “neatest” experience I’ve had recently is last fall I had the pleasure of playing golf on the Kings Course at Gleneagles Resort in Scotland, it was truly an awesome experience!