Arnie WeissmannThe 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.

He would 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 languages.

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 motherlands.

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?

Saghir also 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 reasons.

Until recently, 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 said.

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 agents (www.airktravel.net).

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 agents.

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.

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