Only 12% of travel agencies with less than $3 million in annual revenue consider corporate travel to be among their focus products. Kerri Lauro, president and co-owner of Cherry Hill, N.J.-based MCA Travel, a small agency that generates 70% of its sales from 11 corporate travel accounts, spoke with Travel Weekly contributor Chris Davis about her strategy for surviving in a sector with plenty of larger competitors.
Q: As a smaller agency specializing in corporate travel, how do you approach the market?
A: My biggest strategy is to offer everything a large company does but still have a small-business mentality. With customer service, we have a 24-hour hotline where you will speak to an agent who works here, and nothing is [outsourced]. We offer a flat [transaction] fee that includes reporting and issuing the ticket. There are no hidden fees, which I find a lot of my competitors still charge and which clients aren't necessarily aware of.
I've been in corporate travel for 25 years and have worked for quite a few of the larger companies. I've seen their contracts, and I use that to my advantage. On Page 1, they may be charging you $35 per ticket, but on Page 4, if you call between this hour and this hour, they add $4 to that charge. We don't do that. We've had corporate clients with us for over 20 years, and the majority of our clients are from word of mouth, which is awesome.
Q: What's your typical corporate client profile?
A: We have very large companies and very small companies. I have corporate clients based in Toronto, Houston, New Orleans, North Jersey and in this area [suburban Philadelphia]. My company grows as needed. We definitely are in a place where if we were to grow more, we would hire more.
Q: You offer clients Concur's online booking system. How interested are your clients in travel technology?
A: It's funny. My largest client, a quite-a-few-million-dollar-revenue company, ordered Concur and never uses it; they call us all the time. One of their biggest issues is that they might not know something about a flight. Actually, they have one person who utilizes it all the time, literally one out of 600 travelers. You will have tech junkies in every organization; the trust of personal one-on-one transactions is what my clients are looking for.
Q: Even for simple transactions?
A: Tech-wise, we are completely up to date, and we offer everything we think might be of interest. But most of them aren't interested, even though we could put airline policy right into Concur.
I find there was a huge boom of everyone wanting to do things on the Internet, but when you get stuck, you go ahead and you try to call the Internet, or whoever you booked [online] with. These people need their business to run smoothly and be at their locations when they are requested to be there.
"On the corporate side, there is always going to be that need for the agent, that watchdog to watch the spending." -- Kerri Lauro
Q: You've worked for Travel One, American Express and Rosenbluth International. What did you take from your big-agency experience?
A: Twenty-five years ago, customer service was important to every company. That's gone. I learned that customer satisfaction is the most important thing there is, and outsourcing is definitely not the way to go. You're frustrated, stuck at the airport; the last thing you want to do is talk to [a call center in] India, and larger companies are doing that more and more. All that's doing is sending more business my way. People don't come back to machines.
Q: Looking five years down the road, where do you see the industry and your role in it?
A: There is a need for travel agents; I strongly believe that. On the corporate side, there is always going to be that need for reporting and that watchdog to watch the spending. Companies that say, "Hey, go ahead and book," they lose money every day. If I'm allowed to book whatever I want to book, I'm booking nonstop [flights].
But an agency will say, "I'm not putting you on that flight, because I can save you $150 if I send you 20 minutes later." You still get that with a corporate travel agency.