I was recently introduced to the leadership of a diversified travel company that is striking in its willful disdain of contemporary corporate practices. They hire when they could outsource. They buy when they could lease. They steadfastly resist expanding their successful, but modest, tour operation beyond one country, foregoing opportunities for repeat business from satisfied clients who wish to see new destinations.
They use the same brand name to market high-end and low-end products. Wearing the hat of travel agency owners, they speak of their warm relationships with airlines. And the CEO himself makes it a point to regularly call on very small ethnic agencies that use his consolidator business.
Chicago-based Greaves Tours (www.greavesindia.com) and its sister operation, Greaves Travel, seem intent on demonstrating that one can be successful with business practices that went out of favor 20 years ago. Their mode is guided by personal values rather than conventional wisdom. That their old-fashioned approach seems both refreshing and contrarian in 2008 indicates just how far from traditional principles most corporations have moved.
The majority of Greaves' revenue comes from a travel agency/consolidator business. Most airlines regard consolidators as a necessary evil. They all but hold their nose when dealing with them.
But Greaves finds itself in a different type of relationship with a carrier. CEO Shahrookh Cambata traces it to a meeting between his father and British Airways 35 years ago. His father, R.S. Cambata, who founded a ground handling service at Indian airports, listened to BA officials complain about their inability to sell premium-class seats to Indian communities in the U.S., U.K. and Canada.
"His approach was always to try to understand both sides of a problem and then come up with a solution," the younger Cambata said. "We now sell 100,000 tickets a year for BA. There's a trick to it. I don't want to give away trade secrets, but it's about profitability, about how we deliver higher yields for BA and not dilute existing business for those seats."
BA is part of the equation; travel agencies in ethnic Indian communities are another.
"We work exclusively with small agencies that have no direct relationship with BA," he said.
Cambata's sister, Anita Captain, who is also a director of the company, offered: "We're totally loyal to our agencies. We visit them, we support their community activities. It's old-fashioned salesmanship."
Greaves also provides the agencies with technology that makes it easier to book the tickets and enforce rules. No-shows on consolidator tickets can run as high as 50%. But by instituting regular pre-flight audits to make sure every passenger is ticketed before flight time, the booking technology has brought their no-show rate below 1%.
Greaves' sister business, Greaves Tours, provides high-end, FIT travel to India. "We send 700 to 800 groups every year," Captain said.
How high-end? "You'd be surprised how many people are willing to put down $100,000 for a week," Cambata said.
Greaves approaches its relationship with its guests the same way it approaches its business relationships, looking for problems and focusing on unique solutions.
"Americans are pressed for time," Cambata said, "and much of what people want to see in India requires time -- five or eight hours in a car, bumping along dusty roads, or hours spent at airports, waiting in lines. So we bought an airplane. It gives the clients an edge."
By basing the plane in Jaipur, he can bring passengers to Agra, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Amritsar, Gwalior and game parks on day trips. Owning rather than chartering gives him more control, which is the same reason he employs his own guides.
By limiting itself to India, isn't Greaves foregoing the opportunity for repeat business by bringing satisfied clients to other destinations? "I'm not tempted," Cambata said. "India is our focus. We do this because we want to show the India we enjoy."
What ultimately became clear to me was that Greaves is not contrarian by nature; its decision-making process is driven by the clarity of business values that started with the directors' father.
What's happening at Greaves seems analogous to a trend occurring in food production. When I go through the produce departments of grocery stores these days, I come across "heirloom tomatoes" and "heirloom lemons." These look and taste like tomatoes and lemons did 20 years ago, before flavor was sacrificed for the sake of uniformity and shipping durability. What's interesting is that grocers can charge a premium -- at least twice the normal price -- for heirloom varieties. The Greaves, with their heirloom values, find sufficient numbers of customers at $100,000 a week. They may be on the cusp of a business trend that yields high profits.
E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].