Power List Profile: Key Travel

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Key Travel may be just one of 54 travel agencies on the 2019 Power List, but the first-time listee is one unique entry. Unlike every other agency on this list, the Key flagship has neither corporate clients nor hosted agents, nor does it handle any leisure travel (although a subsidiary does).

Key, ranked 29th on the Power List, joins the list after the November 2018 acquisition of close competitor Raptim Humanitarian Travel. Like Raptim, Key exclusively handles travel for the nonprofit organizations, faith-based communities and organizations and academic institutions.

Key Travel is "a 40-year-old business started in the U.K. by a couple of brothers who saw an opportunity to develop a product to move missionaries from London down to Africa," said Jeff Lavender, Key's president of North America.

View Key Travel's Power List entry.

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"They saw this niche and went to British Airways and created what was at the time known as a missionary fare but which then involved into kind of a humanitarian fare. It was a recognition that those kind of travelers had unique needs. Yes, they were going around the world to do good, but in particular they may need to change at the last minute."

The business since has evolved to become a global travel agency  it entered the U.S. in 2010  that still sends missionaries and aid workers to impoverished areas but also manages travel for nongovernmental organizations and universities like the University of Connecticut, Cambridge University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, Lavender said. He also cited as clients the World Wildlife Fund, the Health Access Initiative, Samaritan's Purse and World Vision.

"All of our clients are, we like to say, bringing hope to the world," Lavender said. "They're very unique in their product set. And so, we very much take the mission of our clients seriously and, we think, provide a very unique approach with some very unique products to serve them."

While Key clients travel globally, a "high preponderance" of travelers' destinations are in Africa and Southeast Asia, Lavender said. This is typical of humanitarian travel agencies, including Raptim, the 70-year old agency headquartered in the Netherlands and acquired by Key for an undisclosed sum.

"Raptim is older, but it has similar origins," Lavender said. "European, missionary-minded, Africa-focused. It grew around the world through a range of acquisitions, and its own organic growth. It was a wise purchase, because the DNA of the companies were very similar, with systems, etc. And many of the same clients. If Raptim didn't win a client, Key Travel had won it. So there are very significant synergies in place."

Among those synergies are operations in new markets for Key, including France, Italy and Switzerland, joining Key locations in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Belgium and the Netherlands. All Raptim operations will be rebranded as Key Travel operations this year, Lavender said.

"Key Travel has the largest place in this niche of NGO/humanitarian/academic space. Raptim was second-largest, and we acquired them, so we're now significantly larger than any of our other competitors in this particular sector," Lavender said. "And we'll continue to grow to dominate the market worldwide."

The high-touch complexity of humanitarian travel, the remoteness and requirements of some of its locations requires a high level of training for agents, Lavender said, citing visa and other entry requirements as well as knowledge of client donor organizations, which may require knowledge of the Fly America Act.

Key also stages symposiums for clients on travel risk management and has teams that continually monitor global events to communicate any risk to clients. The agency uses Amadeus' risk-management tools, Lavender said.

But while most travel risk management is concerned with avoiding risk and extricating travelers from emergency situations, that isn't always the case at Key.

"One of our clients is British Red Cross," Lavender said, discussing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. "When these things happen, these guys want to get into these countries in very complex times with things shut down and everything unavailable. We serve clients trying to get their [travelers] out, but a lot of times we're the first point of call to say, 'We're part of disaster recovery relief. We want to get in. We're there to serve.' These are unique features about our teams and our skill set."

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