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