1992’s power agencies:
Where are they now?
Thirty years ago, Travel Weekly published its first Top 50 Travel Agencies list, a precursor to the Power List. A look at the list today illustrates the changes the industry has gone through — and perhaps where it’s headed.
TW illustration by Jenn Martins
TW illustration by Jenn Martins
Thirty years ago, the travel industry was on the cusp of the Internet age.
The dial-up service CompuServ
offered eAAsySabre, but that was about the extent of consumer online bookings; true OTAs had yet to burst onto the scene, and airlines had yet to cap, then cut entirely, base commissions.
The Gulf War had ended the year before, but by 1992 business and leisure travel were still recovering from that conflict’s chilling effects, airline terrorism and economic recession.
A look at the top agencies by sales volume in the U.S. in 1992 is both a glimpse back in time and an exercise in recognizing what vast changes businesses undergo over the course of three decades.
The 1992 list of the “Top 50 Travel Agencies” was the first that Travel Weekly published. It was the precursor to our annual Power List, which each year ranks the largest agencies by sales volume.
Notably absent are today’s perennial list-toppers, Expedia Group and Booking Holdings, as were all other OTAs on the 2022 Power List.
But a few agencies on the list 30 years ago are still present, or at least recognizable. For instance, Carlson Travel Network, No. 2 in 1992, was an ancestor to today’s No. 5, CWT. Liberty Travel, No. 6 in 1992, is today listed as a sub-brand of current No. 7 Flight Centre Travel Group Americas.
But steadfast Omega World Travel, celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, is still on the list and still led by founder Gloria Bohan.
The top 10: Where are they now?
The 1992 list was based on 1991 total sales. Most of the agencies who made the Top 50 then were focused on corporate travel. In fact, Liberty Travel was the only one in the top 10 primarily focused on leisure. At the time, most leisure travel was firmly in the hands of smaller agencies, who tended not to go after corporate accounts.
As noted in the introduction by then-Travel Weekly reporter Eric Lassiter, who compiled that first list, 1991 had been a tough year for the industry. But by the time the list was published in April 1992, most agencies reported that business had improved in the prior six months. Thanks to discounting, cruises remained a bright spot for leisure agencies, if not for cruise lines.
Here’s a look at the 1992 top 10 and where they are today.
1No. 1 on the list was New York-based American Express. The company’s travel activity dates back to 1915, when it announced it would offer American and Canadian clients tours as near as upstate New York and as far away as New Zealand.
By 1992, the company had more than 800 company-owned and representative agency locations in the U.S. and 1,700 around the world.
It was to hold the No. 1 position until being ousted by Expedia in 2010. (Upon hearing this news, Expedia’s then-CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi told Travel Weekly’s Arnie Weissmann that the elevation was “a wonderful thing, a great honor,” but he worried Amex might revive. “We don’t want to go back to No. 2 or 3 ever again.” Alas, it wasn’t Amex he should have worried about: Booking Holdings dislodged Expedia from the top spot this year.)
A spokesperson for Amex noted that Amex Travel today is much different than it was in 1992. Back then, agency operations were grouped under the Amex Travel Services Group, which included business and consumer travel. Today, those businesses are separate. Amex is now only a minority investor in corporate-focused American Express Global Business Travel, No. 3 on the 2022 Power list and a publicly traded company; it spun off in 2014 and became jointly owned by Amex and an investor group led by Certares, before going public.
American Express Travel, the leisure business, sits at No. 6 on today’s Power List. If its sales and those of Amex GBT were combined, they would amount to about $12 billion but would still be left in the dust by Expedia, at $72.4 billion, and Booking Holdings, at $76.6 billion.
2 No. 2 on 1992’s list was Carlson Travel Network in Minneapolis. Its U.S. business would merge with Wagonlit Travel in Europe to form Carlson Wagonlit Travel in 1994; in 2019, the company officially changed its name to CWT.
A healthy portion of what in 1992 was Carlson Travel Network was the result of the acquisition of Ask Mr. Foster, a leisure agency founded in 1888. Wagons-Lits — literally, “sleeper cars” — also goes back more than 100 years, tracing its origins to an 1872 enterprise that added sleeping compartments to trains in Europe. The leisure portion of the business was divested in 2008 from the Carlson Cos. and was absorbed by the agency rollup that eventually became Internova Travel Group (which is also in the investment portfolio of Certares).
3 No. 3 Thomas Cook Travel was founded in the U.K. in 1841. In the U.S., it was headquartered in Cambridge, Mass. Its formation was the result of a 1989 partnership among Cook, Crimson Travel Service and Heritage Travel. The partnership was headed by David Paresky, who had founded Crimson and later, with his wife, Linda, purchased Heritage. Eventually, the Pareskys took complete control of the U.S. operations, ultimately selling the business to American Express in 1994.
4 No. 4 in 1992 was corporate agency Rosenbluth Travel in Philadelphia, which was then celebrating its 100th anniversary. In 2003, American Express would purchase the company (then known as Rosenbluth International). A separate, leisure-focused company, Rosenbluth Vacations, wasn’t part of the sale. It operates today but is not on the Power List.
5 USTravel in Rockville, Md., was No. 5 in 1992. It merged with IVI Business Travel International in 1995 to form BTI Americas. Three years later, seven of its executives executed a buyout with financing from WorldTravel International, parent company of Atlanta-based WorldTravel Partners.
BTI subsequently merged with WorldTravel Partners. In 2001, the company became WorldTravel BTI, then, in 2006, it combined with two other companies to form BCD Travel, which sits at No. 4 on Travel Weekly’s 2022 Power List.
6 Liberty Travel in Ramsey, N.J., was No. 6 on the list in 1992. It opened its first storefront in Times Square in 1951. In 2008, it was acquired by Australia-based Flight Centre Travel Group. Today, the U.S. arm of Flight Centre sits at No. 7 on the Power List, and Liberty is still in operation within the Flight Centre family.
7 No. 7 in 1992 was IVI Travel in Northbrook, Ill. IVI merged with 1992’s No. 5, USTravel, in 1995. After several permutations over the years, it would become a component of BCD Travel.
8 Maritz Travel in Fenton, Mo., was No. 8 in 1992. Carlson Wagonlit Travel purchased its corporate travel division in 2004. The deal did not include the meetings, events and incentive travel management portion of its business; Maritz Global Events is still in business, styling itself as an “experience design company.”
9 Coming in at No. 9 was Wagons-Lits Travel USA in Dayton, Ohio. Wagons-Lits USA was a subsidiary of Wagons-Lits Travel, a multinational agency based in Paris. According to CEO Gregg Bedell’s obituary, he and his partner would purchase Northwest Travel in 1994, which merged with Wagons-Lits Travel USA to become World Travel Partners — later BCD — in 1998. It is unclear how Wagons-Lits Travel USA was related to the group that would become CWT.
10 Rounding out the 1992 top 10 was the corporate agency Omega World Travel in Falls Church, Va., still owned by president and founder Gloria Bohan and sitting at No. 21 on the 2022 Power List.
If the comparison between 1992’s top agencies and the 2022 Power List speaks to anything, it’s the inevitability of change. In 1992, four of the top 10 could trace their roots back more than 100 years. In 2022, the top two are products of the Internet, a technology barely understood by consumers in 1992.
“It just shows that even though you’re one of the largest today, in the next 30 years you’re probably going to be bought out or changed. Or something,” said Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Network, a division of Internova. “And what’s funny is, then new guys pop up, and they grow.”
Charting America’s top agencies over 30 years
 When companies change their names – for instance, when The Priceline Group became Booking Holdings in 2018 – the old name drops off the chart and the new one appears.  In 1999, there was no data available for Navigant’s sales. This figure reflects its 1998 entry.  Data was not available for 2002, 2003 or 2004.  Travelocity did not provide sales data in 2010. Its listing is based on an estimate that 2008 sales were down about 7% the following year.  HRG did not provide sales data in 2018. Its 2017 sales figure was used here.  The Power List was frozen in 2021 due to the pandemic. These numbers reflect the 2020 Power List.
A tech-driven strategy
The only top 10 agency whose ownership has remained a constant since 1992 is Omega, the majority of which is owned by Bohan, who started the company in 1972.
Though the ownership has remained stable, the company itself hardly resembles the one the founder operated in 1992. It has thrived in part due to its focus on cutting-edge technology, which was a priority for Bohan’s husband, the late Dan Bohan. Omega has changed with the times yet has been steadfast in one very profitable regard: Bohan has, over the years, continuously managed to hold contracts for government travel.
“Even though we’re a people kind of organization, we also saw the writing on the wall,” Bohan said, referring to the Internet, which much of the industry saw as a threat in the early 1990s.
From that insight, Cruise.com and Omega’s technology company, TravTech, were born.
Bohan is confident the company will continue to thrive and attract talent. “Travel and hospitality are two of the biggest employers in the world,” she said. “They’re needed for business. They’re needed for leisure. It’s an exciting business to be in.”
New agencies on the block
Small World Vacations in Washington Township, N.J., made its debut on the Power List in 2017 thanks to Barbara Corcoran, who sits on the “Shark Tank” investor panel.
The year prior, Small World’s president, Sue Pisaturo, arranged a 10-year anniversary celebration for her advisors in New York and had invited Corcoran to speak. Pisaturo took advantage of a chance to meet with the iconic businesswoman and asked for advice about hiring a public relations person to share the Small World story.
Corcoran very directly told her that no one cared about the Small World story and that instead she should focus on first establishing herself as an expert in her field. And, Pisaturo thought, what would imply expertise more than a place on the Power List?
With $102.9 million in 2016 sales, she qualified and has made the list almost every year since.
“For years, I was the last number on the list,” she said. “But I’m like, I’m on the list — I’m on the same list as Expedia and American Express. If that isn’t affirmation …”
Indeed, Pisaturo paved the way for another agency that has a focus on Disney to join her on the list: Marvelous Mouse Travels in Cornelius, N.C., which debuted this year.
Kari Dillon started that agency in July 2014 and today has around 275 independent contractors. She never wants to exceed 300, she said, to maintain the feel of her family-run agency and stay focused on growing her advisors’ sales.
Where were they then
1. American Express
2. Carlson Travel Network
3. Thomas Cook Travel
4. Rosenbluth Travel
6. Liberty Travel
7. IVI Travel
8. Maritz Travel
9. Wagons-Lits Travel USA
10. Omega World Travel
11. Total Travel Management
12. Travel and Transport
13. World Travel Partners
14. VTS Travel
15. McDonnell Douglas Travel
16. Associated Travel Services
17. Travel One
18. Corporate Travel Consultants
19. Northwestern Travel Service
20. Garber Travel
21. Travel Inc.
23. Morris Travel
24. World Wide Travel Services
25. McCord Travel
26. Professional Travel
27. Direct Travel
28. Murdock Travel
29. Zenith Travel
30. AAA Auto Club South
31. Arrington Travel
32. Automobile Club of Michigan
34. Hoffman Travel
36. Mutual Travel
37. Sundance Travel
38. Corporate Travel Services
39. Stevens Travel Management
40. Prescott Travel
41. Best/Easy Travel
42. Sunbelt Motivation & Travel
43. Woodside Travel Services
44. American Travel
45. Seagate Travel
46. Austin Travel
47. Wright Travel
48. McGregor Travel
49. International Tours
50. World Travel & Incentives
A tristate area fixture
In 1992, Liberty Travel had more than 200 locations in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, said Christina Pedroni, Liberty’s senior vice president. Its retail storefront strongholds were in New York City, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The agency employed around 1,000 travel agents at the time.
Trudy Lagerman had joined Liberty as an advisor in 1984 and has worked at the agency’s Selinsgrove, Pa., location ever since. She is Liberty’s top consultant.
In 1992, Lagerman said, it was nearly impossible to drive more than 20 minutes without seeing a Liberty storefront. Around that time, she recalled, Liberty’s founders, Fred Kassner and Gilbert Haroche, chartered a flight for Liberty’s top agents to Turks and Caicos. It was on that trip that they warned them something was coming: the Internet. More than ever before, they would need to elevate their service and provide something consumers couldn’t get online.
In 2008, Liberty was purchased by Flight Centre, which gave the agency access to more global products and buying power, Pedroni said. In the years following, Liberty began investing in a division that specialized in groups — a growing business until Covid hit.
“We had started rationalizing our footprint a few years prior to Covid and slimmed down some of the lower-performing businesses,” Pedroni said. “But it was really the pandemic that just fast-tracked change and [saw] us making decisions that [ensured that] we’re definitely going to look different when we come out the other side of this.”
At the same time, Liberty began investing in and emphasizing its host agency, Independent by Liberty Travel. With four storefronts, its footprint is certainly much smaller than that of the Liberty Travel of 1992, but Pedroni said its ranks of agents are strong.
And, Lagerman contends, the core of her job — customer service — hasn’t changed at all since 1992, or even since her start with Liberty in 1984.
“Travel advisors are a valuable and needed service,” Pedroni said. “They may look different, they may be in different places, they may be operating independently when, prior, they were [employed] in a storefront agency. But that guidance that the customers are looking for, the value that they’re going to bring to that transaction, is still needed. And it’s growing now more so than ever.”