Safe Harbors for biz travelers

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When discussing his agency's location in a revitalized industrial area of Baltimore, Jay Ellenby, president and CEO of Safe Harbors Travel Group, quips, "The biggest decision of the day is deciding which restaurant to go to for lunch."

The 22-year-old agency, founded by Ellenby's late brother, Robert, had been located downtown until Ellenby saw the chance to relocate to the harborfront area he had always thought would be a "neat" place for a business. For some time, he had been eyeing a vacant and rundown can factory that faced the harbor and envisioned its possibilities.

Then, one day he saw the sign: A developer had bought the property. Ellenby made contact, and in 1998 he became one of the renovated factory's first tenants.

It's a coincidence that the agency is named Safe Harbors. Ellenby said the name reflected the fact that the agency early on had many clients who were involved in the investment business. The name was meant to convey the impression customers were making a good investment and gaining protection.

Safe Harbors now overlooks the harbor from the building's top floor. Employees enjoy the office, Ellenby said, adding that "it is good for morale." In that way the office also benefits the clients, although they don't see it.

Customers don't see the office because the $26 million business was 100% corporate until the February purchase of Texas-based Ministry Travel. Now it's 80% corporate and 20% groups.

Ellenby said he was brought into his brother's business in 1990 from the computer industry, "so I had an understanding of how automation can help a business grow. That helped then, and it helps now."

He cites several factors in the agency's success, but technology is a big one, and the agency has special needs because of its unique business niche: international travel involving complex itineraries to developing destinations.

Several of Safe Harbors' clients are companies doing work for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Ellenby called it "a strong niche for the agency, especially in the last eight years."

Now established with this type of clientele, the agency attracts additional business because of referrals and word of mouth.

"It's a tight-knit world," he said.

Ellenby said the agency has "highly trained counselors" who deal with things like 16-leg itineraries to Africa. Counselors are much more efficient and valuable, he said, if relieved of as much manual processing as possible.

Given the type of itineraries the staff handles, about 15% of its international tickets are paper tickets, although that percentage is declining as more interline agreements are established to accommodate e-ticketing.

To meet business needs, the agency installed Cornerstone's ResQCX, a quality-control product, then brought in a Cornerstone consultant to determine how to use it to the fullest and where to customize it in order to eliminate manual steps at every possible turn.

"There was a lot of low-hanging fruit," Ellenby said. "But other things have taken longer."

Success also hinges on ensuring the agency really does have "highly trained" counselors. To that end, Safe Harbors operates its own staff training projects, with weekly sessions on topics including technology, product information, customer service techniques and airline faring strategies.

About 85% of the training is conducted by staff. Other trainers are suppliers or the occasional outside expert on more generic topics like customer service. All the training occurs at the home office in Baltimore.

Besides the recently purchased Ministry Travel, Safe Harbors operates two on-sites for corporate customers and employs some counselors who work at home. To reach these off-site personnel with training, the agency uses WebEx technology.

Ellenby has expanded the business with purchases, a few times by "rolling up" agencies that were closing their doors. He looks for businesses that complement his own, but the most recent acquisition would not seem, at first blush, to be a match.

It was Ministry Travel, based in Wylie, Texas, whose clients are missionaries or lay persons on missions to destinations around the globe.

"As we did due diligence, we saw it made a lot of sense," Ellenby said. "I saw its international business. It has a different market, but [Ministry Travel] complemented a lot of what we do, selling travel to very difficult destinations."

Currently, Ellenby added, he has a few more acquisition options "on the table," some in the early stages, others in due diligence.

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Low fares for a higher calling

Ministry Travel, the Wylie, Texas, agency recently purchased by Safe Harbors Travel Group in Baltimore, specializes in one thing: getting the best fares for individuals or groups on religious or good-works missions abroad.

In 2006, it sold $6 million in such fares with a staff of two agents, one administrator plus some summer staffing and temp help, said Beth Banfill, president.

Clients include individuals on humanitarian trips, missions agencies that send groups overseas for good works, churches or the denominations themselves. In addition, Banfill said her agency provided net rates to other agents with clients who qualified for the fares Ministry Travel offered.

The fares are contract rates, obtained from a broker Banfill declined to name, designed for nonprofits, missionaries or humanitarian travel. At times, the discounted rates may be the same as those offered to the general public but with lenient rules.

Missions, she said, need the lowest fares, and they need time to raise the money to fund their trips. While Ministry Travel sends clients to points around the globe, it sends more to Africa than anywhere else (Entebbe, Uganda; Lusaka, Zambia; and Nairobi, Kenya, are the agency's top destinations). The agency has "really good fares to Africa," she said.

Banfill came to this travel niche as a result of a chain of unplanned events, and some prayer, she said.

She had worked at AAA Ohio Motorists Association in Cleveland as an office manager, not a travel seller. When she and her husband, Frank, agreed in 1999 to take positions at Global Missions Fellowship (now E3 Partners), a missions agency in Plano, Texas, her job was not defined. She proposed establishing an in-house travel office, then was soon asked to provide similar air travel assistance to specific churches.

So in early 2000, she and her husband launched the agency with a $100 bank account, she said. Simultaneously, she managed E3 Partners' travel office until 2005. Today, she remains as president while her husband, who founded his own nonprofit ministry, remains a missions consultant.

With the help of Safe Harbors' staff and access to services, she looks forward to offering her clients more, beginning with hotel bookings for her budget-minded clients when they are forced to overnight in some city on their route. She wants to add insurance coverage, too.

Ministry Travel doesn't have the time and manpower to do that on its own, she said, but will gain some staff time as Safe Harbors brings in better automation for the back office.

Banfill works long hours but finds the work rewarding because of the things she shares with clients at a personal level when missions are successful. "Clients feel we have a common bond. ... We share their joy."

Clients have called her at home at odd hours asking for help when stuck at an airport. "They may also ask, 'Can you pray with us?' Banfill said. "That's not the usual job description for a travel agent." -- N.G.

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