Small is beautiful

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Ashish SanghrajkaMany readers have noted my concern about our industry's direction and how we in the travel business must embrace new strategies to help us surmount the challenges ahead.

This year, I traveled throughout the country to deliver this message. Participating in various events, I have had an opportunity to hear firsthand the concerns of travel agents in every line of service. It is their feedback that fuels my conviction that our industry needs leadership by example.

We all acknowledge that we must develop approaches that will enable our industry to thrive. A business-as-usual approach led to chaos in our financial industry. Let us not follow a parallel path.

This moment provides opportunity, for as we seek to understand and overcome the challenges to our industry, we must admit that emphasis on a vital piece is missing: the smaller tour operators, the independent home-based agent, the mom-and-pop agency, i.e., the "little guys."

 One of the most resonating questions came from an experienced, older agent who asked, "What about the little guys, the home-based and smaller agencies? What's going to happen to us in the wake of the mergers and closures? How do we survive, and how do we reinvent ourselves?"

Small agencies are typically run by dedicated individuals who do everything from managing to sales to making the coffee. These agencies don't have access to the resources and financial treasure chest of the larger houses. For me, this agent's question has come to define our industry crisis.

 In my former role on Wall Street, I worked for a firm that controlled more than $1 trillion in assets. Following the disintegration of the dot-com bubble, I witnessed how smaller financial advisers working with our firm quickly adjusted. They were able to turn on a dime and cater to the market with new, relevant investment vehicles, quickly balancing portfolios.

It was nothing short of amazing to watch how these small and medium-size company indexes rebounded. It was they who led the market back into the black. A similar shift can be seen today in the banking industry. With the larger banks in regulatory and solvency distress, smaller local and regional banks are meeting the savings, loan and mortgage needs.

There lies our answer, too. In the travel industry, it is the smaller houses that are more nimble to react and adapt product to demand. Historically, data show that during challenging periods the product pace is reversed. New and pertinent product flow actually reverses, beginning a trickle up from small companies to large.

Large companies often have too many levels of approval and bureaucracy. Response time is spent on planning versus implementing. While large companies labor with structure, small organizations waste no time adjusting to market changes.

Small companies have shown us how technology can be our best friend. Lacking the advertising muscle of larger companies, the industry's little guys have turned to creativity to promote their product sales. Blogs and online communities advertise their special brand and help to paint an irresistible picture of the product they offer. I applaud these imaginative marketing strategies and recognize how the survival of our industry is being charted by the inventions of colleagues at the ground level.

But without strong ethics, even the most agile business plan can be undone.

This same agent described how small operators and agencies she knew had cut corners to maximize profits. When competition undermines ethics in one's personal life or business, the loss of trust can be fatal. Thus, for the little guy, maintaining an ethical focus is paramount to success.

Smaller tour operators, independent home-based agents and all the little guys are needed more than ever for our industry to prosper. They prepare early and adapt quickly. They lead the way.

I am honored to follow your example.

Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions, worked as an economic analyst and trainer in the capital markets division of a Fortune 500 firm before joining Big Five as vice president in 2002. He was named president this year.

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