William Hsu has been in the travel business almost since the day he got out of college at the age of 22. That doesn't mean he joined or inherited a family business, and it certainly doesn't mean he knows even now how to make a reservation or issue an airline ticket.
In fact, he says, "I didn't know anything. I followed to a T what the franchiser was teaching."
Opening day was Dec. 16, 1985. Today, Hsu is the managing partner and CEO of the $120 million agency Uniglobe Geo Travel in Edmonton, Alberta. He also operates a large retail store called Geo Everything for Travel.
Hsu explained that he was just completing his bachelor's degree in geography at the University of Alberta when his brother suggested the pair start a business. His brother would invest and "I'd build the business. It just happened to be a travel franchise."
Hsu has since bought out his brother. Today he has 19 partners but remains majority owner.
His agency employs 165 people in 16 locations in three provinces: Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba. The business is roughly 65% corporate and 35% leisure; 95% of customers are in Canada.
A sliver of that business, something shy of $1 million, is generated by the agency's retail store, which occupies most of the ground floor, or 6,000 square feet, of Uniglobe Geo's three-floor, 18,000-square-foot space in Edmonton. In that space, Geo Everything for Travel highlights an upscale product line.
Hsu opened the retail store eight years ago. He said it "adds to our image instantaneously for any kind of client, including corporate," he said.
The store is Hsu's highest-margin business, but it isn't the prime business focus. "It supplements and complements all we do," Hsu said.
Indeed, the shop needs the agency, Hsu said. If he didn't already have the area's biggest agency, he said, "I doubt anyone could build it and expect people to drop by. People have to make it a point to come" to the shop, he said.
He said the store has gone upscale because preopening marketing research revealed a shortage of quality, brand-name travel products. His store carries Tumi and Victorinox luggage and travel clothing by ExOfficio and Canada's Tilley's Endurables.
Only a very small percentage of business is done online, "possibly because we don't do big blowout sales," Hsu said.
But he does have a plan for building the online portion. The agency, from about four years ago, has developed a niche for destination weddings, a market that barely existed in western Canada prior to 2003 or 2004, Hsu said. But now, he added, it is a growth phenomenon.
Uniglobe Geo gets more than 200 destination weddings a year, but Hsu wants more wedding-related business.
So the agency will relaunch the romantic-travel section of its website to include a bridal registry, with the goal of bringing more sales of both travel and goods. Brides will be able to register parts or all of the honeymoon as well as clothes for their trip.
The registry, Hsu said, will enable Geo Everything for Travel to work with a long lead time to get the goods that a bridal couple wants, helpful for stocking the store correctly.
Uniglobe Geo has something of a specialty niche on its corporate side, too. The agency has served Canadian military deployed in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo since 1999.
Hsu said that in order to deal with these travelers in various time zones, the agency is open 18 hours a day, with a number of staff dedicated to the account.
Looking back on his 23-year career, Hsu can point to plenty of successes and a mistake or two.
In that latter category, he said, he has tried to maintain relationships for too long with either partners or staff who were not compatible.
He said, "We need a tight team for the long term, and it's a compromise and drain on efficiency to keep the wrong people around too long."
On the other hand, Hsu said the smartest thing he ever did was invite a handful of middle managers to become shareholders six years ago.
"It changes an employee relationship to a more level working relationship." This, he said, allows his middle managers to grow with the business, and he can share the responsibility for taking care of others.
Finally, Hsu said, he is "amazed at how sophisticated the business is, how much precision is required to operate a sustainable, high-level customer-service agency."
But then, he added, "if this were easy, the customers wouldn't need us."
After India, dropping by Dubai
The following itinerary was created by the luxury travel specialist at Uniglobe Geo Travel in Edmonton, Alberta. It features the southern leg of a longer India trip plus Dubai.
Day 1: Arrival in Cochin, India, and transfer to the Taj Malabar Hotel for two nights.
Day 2: Morning at leisure in Cochin. In the afternoon, visit the Portuguese church built by St. Francis in 1562; the Mattancherry Palace; and the Chinese fishing nets, which are ingenious devices requiring little human attention. At night, experience the colorful, costumed Kathakali dance drama (shown at right).
Day 3: Depart for Kumarakom in Kerala state and experience the rich culture and active lifestyle that has evolved over the centuries in and around the backwaters and waterways that thread this region. Arrive at the Kumarakom Lake Resort for a two-night stay.
Day 4: Take a boat ride through the canals and lagoons that snake their way through tiny villages and tropical vegetation. Afternoon at leisure. Experience an Ayurvedic therapeutic massage, indigenous to this region.
Day 5: Travel to Thekkady, located on the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border. This wildlife sanctuary is about 300 square miles and centered on an artificial lake fed by the Periyar River. Afternoon is at leisure. Spend four nights at the Taj Garden Retreat.
Day 6: Morning game viewing by boat, which sails along the waterways and affords sightings of elephants, bison, deer and tigers. Visit spice plantations in the afternoon.
Day 7: Drive to Madurai, a bustling city packed with pilgrims, businessmen, bullock carts and legions of rickshaw pullers.
Day 8: In Madurai, visit Shree Meenakshi Temple, a baroque example of Dravidian architecture; Thirumalai Nayak Palace; and the Gandhi Museum. Continue to Mariamman Teppakulam Tank. In the evening, visit the Meenakshi temple to witness the evening Puja ceremony.
Day 9: Fly to Chennai (formerly Madras), the fourth-largest city in India. On arrival at Chennai, embark on a tour of the city that includes the Victoria Art Gallery, the Bronze Gallery and the Chennai Museum, Fort St. George, San Thome Cathedral and Kapaleeswarar Temple. Drive to the city of Mahabalipuram. Spend two nights at Fisherman's Cove.
Day 10: Morning excursion to the ancient Pallavan port of Mamallapuram; en route, stop for lunch at a seaside resort. Later, visit the seventh century, rock-hewn monuments. The shore temple, the only surviving one of seven, is built of rock quarried elsewhere and carried to shore. Afternoon at leisure on the beach.
Day 11: Morning at the beach. In the afternoon, proceed for sightseeing in Kanchipuram, one of the seven sacred cities of India; it is also known for having served as a capital for several dynasties. Visit three temples: Kailasanatha and Ekambareshwar (dedicated to Shiva) and Vaikunthaperumal (dedicated to Vishnu). Afternoon sightseeing of Chennai. Overnight at Taj Connemara.
Day 12: Fly to Dubai. At the Dubai Airport, transfer to the Amwaj Rotana Hotel for a three-night stay. Visit the Mall of the Emirates, with indoor ski slopes.
Day 13: A morning, half-day Dubai city tour starts with a photo stop at the Burj al Arab, the world's tallest hotel. Proceed to Jumeirah, the picturesque palace and residential area of Dubai, also home to the Jumeirah Mosque. The tour continues to Al Bastakiya, the old part of Dubai, to reach the museum located in Al Fahidi Fort. Then, climb aboard the water taxi to cross the creek to the spice souk. Upon returning, there is time to shop in Dubai's gold souk.
Day 14: Morning at leisure. Afternoon desert safari. End the journey watching the sunset.
Day 15: Transfer to the Dubai Airport for the flight home.