Arnie WeissmannThe owners of Brownell Travel of Birmingham, Ala., the oldest leisure travel agency in the U.S., have done something remarkable: They have created a cutting-edge service methodology and a model corporate culture, either of which could be featured at a TED conference or as a case study for the Harvard Business Review. Yet Brownell still embraces its 125-year-old principles, traditions and history.


In the lobby of its headquarters office, a row of iPads mounted on a wall, each with dazzling travel imagery rendered on Retina displays, stands opposite sepia-tone photos taken on founder Walter Brownell's first tour to Europe. He stands in the French Alps, bearing a walking stick, wearing a three-piece suit and sporting a beard to rival any member of ZZ Top.

The agency's physical space reflects not only an aesthetic, but a management style. The entire staff was involved in the design.

I can't recall ever being in an office where enthusiasm for work, appreciation for a company and a sense of fulfillment were so pervasive among staff. I spoke with several employees throughout a daylong visit, and each, at various times, expressed how lucky they felt to be part of this company.

I suspect that none of this is lost on the clients who walk through the door. The atmosphere and staff engagement provide a strong, positive first impression.

New clients are soon introduced to "Discover More," a counseling methodology that's designed to ensure they'll get the most not only from their travels, but from the planning and re-entry phases of their trip. The actual experience of travel is only one of five touch points on which the company focuses.

It begins with the "Discover" phase, where adviser and client explore possibilities together. The conversation is less about where a client wants to go than about what the client wants to get from the trip. It might be a feeling, rather than an activity, that is first identified.

The second is the "Design" phase, where agents work closely with clients to focus on various possibilities and select elements that will achieve the clients' travel goals.

Phase three is "Connect." The counselor not only stays in touch with clients about the actual booking process but might also connect them with vendors who will be involved in delivering the trip.

The trip itself, "Experience," is phase four. The counselor checks in with the client during the trip to see if upgrades were obtained and, perhaps, hold a Skypesession if appropriate.

Upon the client's return, the "Share" phase is entered. The client is invited back to review how the trip went and to share photos and memories.

Brownell CEO Troy Haas calls the process "an experience wrapped around a conversation. It's about getting them engaged, not just about getting the booking." It is more a "swirl" than a linear progression, he said, with advisers and clients frequently moving back and forth between phases one and two.

Brownell's director of marketing, Haisley Smith, ensures that every step reflects "luxury and graciousness." Documents are delivered in a red box, wrapped in tissue that's sealed with a gold sticker.

"It's like opening a Christmas present rather than a manila envelope," Smith said.

In addition to leisure counseling, Brownell has an active meetings and incentives division. It's a member of Virtuoso but has also partnered with Tzell for any unmanaged corporate business that comes its way.

And Brownell is also a host agency, with 65 independent contractors in 25 states. Haas said the agency only accepts 3% of applicants and only those the staff believes will be a good fit for the company's culture and philosophy. Those who are accepted are put through a structured mentoring-based curriculum.

Technology, too, is only embraced if it's a good fit for the company. Brownell uses a sophisticated, cloud-based network, but on the other hand, "If a counselor wants leads driven off the Web, they're just not going to be happy here," Haas said.

And what of the founders' legacy? The family that started the company is no longer involved, but Haas is proud of the firm's rich history, and he feels he keeps much of the original spirit alive.

Brownell, he said, "was started before there was commercial electricity and before manned flight, let alone jets. If we focus on travel and clients and what clients have in their hearts and minds and dreams, it doesn't matter what changes; we'll do well. The Brownells taught us that."

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter. 
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