The common wisdom for a
small travel agency is to specialize. Find out what you do well, or
understand well, or sell well, and present yourself as the tiptop,
A-1, premier expert in a particular destination or style of travel.
But now comes
Khalid Saghir, forcing us to re-examine common wisdom. Back in the
late 80s, before agents saw a need to work from home or develop a
niche, Saghir was a specialist -- from his office at home, he built
a small but profitable business selling consolidator air to the
Indian/Pakistani community of Chicago.
occasionally get calls from people in other ethnic communities but
found it difficult to close the sale. The Greeks or west Africans
or east Asians expectations about the sales process were, so to
speak, all over the map.
I was losing
business, and I didnt know why, he said. But instead of simply
sticking to his core clientele, he began hiring agents from
Chicagos patchwork of immigrant neighborhoods.
Today at the
headquarters of his Air K Travel, one can hear Bosnian, Swahili,
Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Telugu, Albanian, Nigerian
Pidgin-English, Greek and Caribbean Creole spoken. And in suites
down the hall, he hosts independent agents who speak additional
I have agents
speaking five dialects from India alone, said Saghir, who was once
a travel agent in his native Pakistan. But more importantly, they
understand how business is done differently in the
And that, he
believes, is the key. Clients hear the reassuring accent, but more
than that, the way of doing business is reassuring. Are they
looking for chitchat first, or do they want to get straight into a
discussion about price?
experimented with leisure sales -- packages, all-inclusives,
cruises -- and picked up some corporate business in the meetings
and incentives area as well. But most of his business still came
from people returning to their homeland for family
that is. He also observed that the second generation of immigrants
wanted something new: to vacation and maintain heritage ties. About
the same time, his Carnival Cruise Lines rep was urging him to put
together a group from his clientele.
I began thinking
about what my clients might want and came up with Maharaja Cruises,
He decided his
group would enjoy all the traditional attractions of a cruise, but
with a difference: Indian food would be served, Hindi movies would
play on their cabin TVs, and hed bring in Bollywood stars to
perform in the lounges.
We thought wed get
125 to 200 booked for the first trip and ended up with 1,000. We
had to turn business away. Hes got three more cruises lined up and
recently chartered an entire Carnival ship for a sailing in May.
Hes advertising internationally on Hindi cable stations, getting
bookings from around the world and wholesaling the product to other
Whats next? Im
organizing a Bosnian cruise and talking to the Syrian and Filipino
communities to see what theyre interested in. And Im looking at
opening an office in London.
So, Khalid Saghir,
former niche home agent, now serves ethnic travel markets with
consolidated air out of seven offices across the country, organizes
meetings and incentives for corporations, puts together group
cruises for a global clientele and wholesales to other
And in doing so, he
reminds us of the cyclical nature of business. While it may seem
that the shift to small, niche-focused agencies represents the new
reality, there is the more-enduring reality: Small businesses
either grow or die.
In truth, Saghir is
still a specialist. He has spent his whole career finding the gaps
between mainstream travel sellers and immigrant communities,
bridging those gaps with service and products.
And as a successful
specialist, he shows that, perhaps, the common wisdom may have some
life left in it.