Alex Sharpe is the CEO of California-based Signature Travel Network. He's been helping to manage his $8 billion group from his home in the midst of a pandemic that has resulted in more business closures than the Great Depression. Signature agencies represent over 11,000 travel professionals and share the distinction of being "member-owned," which can place some additional pressures on any management team entrusted with its care.
He was home a few weeks ago and had just ended another in a long string of Zoom meetings in which it was decided that regional owner/manager meetings would need to be canceled. It was not a happy call.
Just after that, Alex started thinking about why he was bothered by this new form of communication. He hatched a wild idea: His members need to see leadership.
He talked with his family, went over the kids' school schedules and planned a roadtrip.
His driving/flying/motel-packed schedule would get him in front of as many owners and managers as possible. He felt he needed to look into their eyes and to hear directly about their frustrations and needs.
As he drove away from his house on his long trip across the country, Alex felt a certain clarity of mission. No Power Points, no presentations, no motivational speakers who lacked any experience surviving a pandemic. No, this would be face-to-face with small groups of owners and managers. He wanted human connections and a shared meal or two. That was the goal. This was his "listening tour."
The journey lasted weeks, visiting small towns and cities, with Alex always hopeful he could find a place for lunch that could accommodate a small group. He planned much of this journey himself, and, yes, he made some mistakes. He took one of his top-producing members to a famed Brazilian steakhouse in Philadelphia. As the skewers of various slabs of meat were being deposited at the table, he noticed that his friend was not eating. He suddenly realized his mistake: Vegetarians aren't always keen to sit and watch an unending parade of meats.
So what did Alex learn during his journey across the American travel landscape? Here are just a few of the takeaways we discussed:
- There are 210 shareholders in Signature, and they wanted to be able to talk with other owners to hear about what they were doing that seemed to be working well. There was a feeling that "members helping members" needed to be accelerated.
- Alex was able to identify a common thread: Some of the very best business people among the membership were still having issues with changing rules governing PPP loans. Not everyone had filed for forgiveness, and they wanted him to arrange to have them walked through aspects of the process. He made sure this happened quickly.
- Signature decided to have members of the executive team call every member. Then, when they finished, they turned the list over to another executive so another round of weekly personal calls could be made. This was key to listening and combined with his personal visits made Alex feel that "listening" is the very best strategy to achieve results during a pandemic in which travel is among the hardest-hit victims.
Alex is still on the road but not constantly. The upside is that he has accumulated a significant amount of airline and car rental miles. He became a pandemic road warrior. His family has forgiven him, and his members surely appreciate his efforts.