Gloria Bohan, President and CEO, Omega World Travel
Omega World Travel’s president and CEO Gloria Bohan discusses her pioneering career in the travel industry, a unique background that is an inspiration to today’s travel advisors.
It’s the story of how Gloria Bohan, a schoolteacher with no background in business or the travel industry, built an international travel management company, Omega World Travel, that today handles business, leisure and MICE travel and books $1 billion in annual sales. Operations at the privately-owned agency include multiple subsidiaries, four major walk-in offices, and 30-plus onsite corporate locations. While continuous innovation is the foundation of the agency’s business success, it is Gloria’s generous heart and gracious spirit that is the true source of power behind the evolution and impact of Omega World Travel.
Travel Weekly spoke with Bohan about her career challenges, successes and her strategy to continually embrace the travel industry’s evolution. Included here are some highlights, read the entire interview here.
50 Years of Travel Industry Innovation
Omega World Travel is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a special commemorative supplement. Learn more about the company’s history and check out the exclusive travel industry educational highlights: career advice for today’s travel advisors, the importance of DEI and CSR, how to cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit, how to find a career mentor and more!
When you started the agency in 1972, what was your vision for Omega World Travel?
To tell the truth, I didn’t have a grand vision. I loved cruising so I thought I would probably be selling cruises. As I was trying to survive and pay my one employee, I started figuring out what I needed to do and just kept doing those things, and from that I started to see opportunities evolve.
How did you identify those opportunities?
A lot of times it’s the market and the need that the marketplace has that determines what the opportunities are, and what you need to do. I think that’s a good way to talk about my vision. I’m always looking at what market demands might be there, and what those demands might be beyond the initial need I can see. You have to keep looking for what is the next best thing that could happen.
When you first opened Omega Travel, did you advertise or market the agency?
I realized I needed to get the word out, so I created some ads on local radio stations using some tunes I liked as background and talking over them about the agency and cruises. They were not too expensive as I was on a very tight budget. And I went around to local beauty parlors and doctor’s offices and dropped off gorgeous supplier brochures with my name stamped on them. I couldn’t believe how beautiful they were.
I wasn’t accredited by ARC yet, but I could still sell products through tour operators and cruise lines and bus companies. I was learning about all these complicated things. My first employee, who was going to be the person who helped me get accredited by the airlines, was a 76-year-old woman. At this point, she seems kind of young!
Did you only sell cruises during the early days of the agency?
Disney had just opened in Florida the year before I opened the agency, so I decided to do school charters. I started with bus charters, but then high school principals wanted air charters. Those school charters really got me involved in the community, and they were a wonderful way to get the agency going and to learn about the airlines. They were very popular and were considered a very important event. There were a lot of high schools in the area, and a lot of parents learned about me that way.
I also asked reps from the cruise lines to help me do seminars at some senior communities in the area. Carnival had started some cruises out of Norfolk, Virginia, so they were very convenient for seniors. There was no air involved, and I could keep the prices pretty low.
When I think back on it, I got things going quickly, which was nice. It took me about six months to get air accreditation.
Did your business expand once you got air accreditation?
What eventually emerged was a new concentration on air travel for small businesses, then government travel in the Washington area. We found that a lot of people who traveled for the government could extend their trips and maybe add an extra two nights on their business trip and stay in a hotel, so I found an opportunity there as well. That paved the way for me to become familiar with the government offices and how to relate to government travelers.
The early years for Omega coincided with a period of economic stagnation in the U.S. when there was high unemployment and high inflation at the same time. How did that affect the business?
Even though there was a recession and interest rates had spiraled by 1979, the 1970s were full of opportunities. All of them had to do with what was going on at the time with computers and automation. The airlines started doing teleticketing and they decided to see how well agents could handle automation, so they started offering computer systems for agencies. I automated my two offices with computers in 1977 and 1978. I saw the opportunities and the advantages of automation and really got to like it.
Coincidentally, there were some airline strikes and then deregulation of the industry. That encouraged small carriers to enter the market and a lot of competition opened up. My vision for Omega Travel kept growing as all of this was happening. It was quite a time.
How were you able to expand your vision during such a challenging time?
You have to have a mindset, an attitude, that you are going to try things out. You have to be cautious, but you can’t just sit back. It was a tremendous learning curve and I was a very busy person. It’s like I got on the treadmill and never got off, and I’ve just kept on it for 50 years. The vendors, during challenging times, are hungry too; they need the agency community to keep working with them to creatively market travel. This is a winning way to secure a real partnership with them.
What is your strategy when it comes to hiring and developing staff?
You look for talent in people — what makes them tick, what makes them happy, what are they passionate about — and then you tell them what you see in them. I have helped many people develop their careers by working closely with them over the years. I always have a buddy next to me, maybe a new person, and we learn together. It’s a give-and-take relationship.
Over the last five decades you have continually diversified and expanded your business. What role has this strategy of ongoing diversification played in your success?
I am always thinking about what other services would be relevant to a new or existing customer base. In diversifying you learn so much, and you might open yourself up to a new market. Finding new markets is a form of diversification. You are broadening your scope and your experience of how to do business. I’ve had the experience of losing business to competition here and there, but I’ve always felt you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. It’s very important to have backup.
In your mission statement, one line particularly stands out: “to prosper unselfishly.” On a practical level, what does that mean in terms of how you run the business?
I wrote that in the early 2000s when we had to be proactive, we had an obligation to grow and to be successful, and as we were prospering, we wanted to share as much as we could. It’s important to realize that you are in a community. We wanted to be good citizens. That’s very important for a company’s credibility, particularly if you are breaking into a new market.
It’s also important to understand it’s not just about making money. I tell my staff everybody can give something, it’s not just about me giving, and it doesn’t have to be money. It could be mentoring people, participating in a community fair to support that event with our own energy and our own talents. My staff loves that, they love the environment and sharing that way. You have to give, you have to participate in the community and understand the people. It means so much, and it shows the positive nature of our mission.
In today’s world, is it possible for a new travel advisor, or an entrepreneur who just opened their first agency, to achieve the kind of success you created?
There was a certain amount of innocence in the 1970s. That’s what I felt when I first started out, I had that energy. The challenges are much bigger now, and more difficult, but I do think others can achieve a lot of success in this industry. It’s just going to be a little different. The way they achieve success won’t be the same as my way, because so much has changed with social media and technology.
You must be aware of the times and ask how you can take this wonderful industry and make it relevant and successful in today’s world. I see people are doing that right now. One of the examples is the advisor or consultancy concept. New people need to use all the tools that have been developed over the years, but now they are more like consultants than order takers. They need to personalize trips more. It’s a nice challenge. I was telling one of my long-time clients that the old idea of the independent tour where you put together a unique package for someone is front and center again. People want that kind of customization.
What’s ahead for you and for Omega Travel?
People might think I’m going to give up now that I made it to our 50th year, but I don’t think I would be happy retiring. I know it would be hard for me to leave the business. I would like to give more of the reins to some other people because I want to keep traveling. As far as the future, life will go on, and hopefully what we have done in the industry will go on as well. I’m not going to be around forever, but we have planted a good seed here and I hope it will continue to develop and grow.