Earlier this month, JG Worldwide announced the acquisition of tour operator Discover Outdoors, the latest in a series of moves by a company known chiefly for its sales, marketing and public relations consultancy, JG Black Book. Contributing editor Jeri Clausing spoke to JG Worldwide founder, president and CEO Jena Gardner about why her company has expanded to include travel company ownership, a space marketers rarely venture into.
Q: How was your company started and how has it has evolved?
A: JG Black Book is the original company I founded 15 years ago. It offers trade marketing and public relations support to independent brands.
That was the idea when I left Ritz-Carlton, was creating a corporate-style, back-end marketing arm for these independent brands that can't afford their own because of economies of scale.
Then we purchased Mercury [Mercury-csc], a company based in Bozeman, Mont., my hometown. They round out those service offerings with web design, social media, advertising and creative.
Today, our total portfolio is seven companies under JG Worldwide.
Q: Discover Outdoors is the sixth company you have acquired in the past two years. Is this part of a broader growth plan?
A: We haven't actually gone out after anybody for a purchase. They have all come to us. When Joel [Zack] came to me for the first acquisition, Heritage Tours, he said the thought was to take Heritage Tours to the next level. What they really needed was branding, marketing, public relations, sales. That's why he came to me at JG Black Book. And that's sort of been the common thread.
Q: Four of your recent moves have been on the tour operator and private travel specialist end of things. You must see this as a growing market?
A: That wasn't something that was initially an idea that came to me. But with the internet, and with the world becoming so small and increasingly accessible, travelers are leaning toward specialists that know the ins and outs of regions more and more. They could be tour operators, DMCs even agents that are becoming specialists now.
We were reaching the market through marketing and public relations, but travelers are requiring more and more expertise.
Q: Do you expect the buying spree to continue?
A: We are not out soliciting. But we do have companies coming to us. And if it was something that rounded out our portfolio, we would consider it if it's not competing with what we already have.
Right now, we do the U.S. with Revealed America. Millennium Voyages is French and focuses on inbound into the U.S. markets. We do more adventure with Discover Outdoors. And then Heritage Tours focuses on the Mediterranean countries [as well as Morocco, Sub-Saharan Africa, Israel and Jordan. It will also soon be adding Egypt.]
Q: You are very active and committed to working with the travel adviser community. Has that always been the case?
A: That's our bread and butter, the adviser community. That's where I started my business. Travel trade was the first service that JG Black Book offered. We cherish and believe in that channel because the agents are huge supporters of all of our companies.
The last company we purchased, Discover Outdoors, they'd never gone B2B. That's one of the reasons they came to us.
So we spend all of our marketing dollars on trade relations, trade shows.
Q: Tell me more about your agent advisory board. You host an event every year that brings together top travel advisers with some of the luxury travel providers you own or represent.
A: We just had one in Turkey, and next year we are going at Egypt.
These meetings are very collaborative. They are as much for advisers to talk to one another as to talk to suppliers. I've been to meetings where the big brands come and give some big presentation. This is more about what is going on in the industry, how can we help, what are some of the challenges in the industry. There's no sales pitch.