Life goes on. At some point a business will change hands. It may be to a member of the family or a complete stranger. People sell when they get old. They sell when they get tired. They sell when there is an opportunity. With the changes we have seen in the travel industry, many may be thinking about getting out. Maybe it is time to sell? Maybe it is time to buy? As with life itself, timing is the key to acquisitions. As we slowly crawl out of the economic havoc, unemployment, and a recent election, the travel industry may suffer in the short term;but will survive and bounce back in the mid and long term.We are a very resilient industry having recovered from wars, 911, SARS, ship fires, and much more. A little bad economy is nothing!
While some of this information may seem a bit negative, there is still a market for acquisitions and mergers. The overall trend for what buyers are willing to pay for a break-even, small, retail agency has plummeted from 100% of gross profit in 1990 to 33% of gross profit today. Spouses of doctors, lawyers etc. were overpaying in the late 80s for break even hobby shops. Today’s buyer is the corporate warrior looking to control his own destiny. These buyers are willing to pay three times the net profits for small operations; and up to five times the net profits for larger operations. Please understand the difference between “gross” and “net”—it is critical.
Banks are not anxious to loan money on these types of businesses without collateral. Banks view travel agencies differently than a manufacturing or trucking business where there is value in machinery and equipment. Investing in the travel industry is considered risky due to the very cyclical nature, dependence on consumer discretionary cash, and economic conditions. Travel is not like a food company or supermarket. With the advent of clear video conferencing and webinar meetings there is pressure to keep the cost of travel in reach of the average consumer.
There are always buyers on patrol for good acquisitions. The market today for a travel agency is decidedly a buyers market. If you are thinking of selling consider these 9 steps to be ready to let go of your baby:
- Refrain from signing any long term contracts (rent, GDS, etc) as buyers want to negotiate own terms with their own vendors.
- Obtain non-solicitation agreements from your key staff whereby they agree to not contact house clients if they are no longer employed by the owner. This agreement may or may not stand up in court if challenged, but if able to present them, it is a valuable asset for the buyer.
- Keep your top 5 accounts under contract. Do not risk having them walk away on a whim.
- Zero out your accounts receivable to 100% credit card business.
- Review and prepare financials with a CPA firm.
- Record a detailed list of personal type expenses such as car insurance, club membership, personal travel, meals etc. you have taken as an owner.
- Eliminate non-essential personal.
- Do not give raises prior to closing the sale. Let the buyer do it.
- Defer all non-essential equipment purchase or leases.
Sellers need to be prepared to sign a non-compete agreement barring you from contacting any former clients or from setting up a similar business after the sale—typically these will range from three to five years; but can go as high as ten years.
Selling your agency is about relationships. You will need to form a relationship with the buyer and work together to make the transition as seamless as possible. However, like in any relationship, things can go south. Here are my top 4 deal killers:
- Buyer terminates negotiations after seller insists on too many concessions during too many rounds of negotiations.
- Seller’s volume drops precipitously during negotiations, with no coherent explanation.
- Word of impending sale leaks out and the seller’s employees decide to leave and competitors decide to raid the seller’s accounts.
- The buyer has too many other acquisitions in the works and the seller becomes disgruntled with the buyer’s lack of attention.
However, CPAs and attorneys that do not specialize in tourism and travel industries are often times deal killers themselves. CPAs and non-travel attorneys do NOT want to lose you as a business account and often will steer you into a deal that may not be as good as it can be. Additionally, the travel industry is a unique business proposition and it is best to have someone represent you that knows the ropes. Travel industry attorneys are few and far between, but worth every penny.
Sellers should never “play cutesy” in this or any market. It’s always best to receive two offers when possible. This precludes dealing only a single potential buyer. From my experience, very few “single suitor” transactions consummate. Comparing one offer to the other is fine, encouraged, and to be expected; playing one off the other is never wise nor is it nice. More likely than not, you are emotionally vested in your business. My best advice is to not sell without a middleman. You must keep your head out of your heart in these negotiations. Terms are more important than price in many cases. Negotiations are tense. Use a professional who has been through the trenches and knows the pitfalls in the minefield of mergers and acquisitions. Check your ego at the door and approach any sale (or purchase) as a business transaction.
Innovative Travel Acquisitions, Inc. president Bob Sweeney and staff have completed more than 600 acquisitions of tour and travel related businesses since their inception in 1991. Bob has been in the brokerage industry for 21 years. He is a proud member of ASTA, NTA and many other known industry affiliations. Known as “the Matchmakers for the Travel and Tour Industry” ITA is available to answer any questions you may have by contacting them via phone 800-619-0185 or by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.