Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada

A little over 35 years ago, Paul Metselaar was newly married at 27. He was also an unhappy lawyer, and he decided that if he wanted to stay married, he was going to have to find a career that made him feel less miserable.

His father handed him the keys to an insolvent travel agency in New York, and the rest is history. Today, that agency has morphed into Ovation Travel Group, No. 16 on Travel Weekly's 2019 Power List with $1.4 billion in 2018 sales.

Metselaar, Ovation's CEO and chairman, recently reflected on the company's history during its 35th anniversary year. It's come a long way since 1984. Metselaar credits Ovation's growth to persistence and the fact that it has been independently owned from the start, with no investment firms involved in decision-making.

Metselaar enjoyed his first success in the travel industry when he turned the focus of the agency from serving those working in the garment industry to lawyers. He started knocking on doors to find attorney clients and created Lawyers Travel Service, today Lawyers Travel.

At the same time, he folded in a leisure travel agency business his mother owned, the genesis of Ovation's leisure business.

Today, Ovation's mix of business is about 70% corporate, 25% high-end leisure and 5% groups and meetings. That business has grown 20% year over year for the past three years.

"The most important quality that I pride myself on is persistence," said Metselaar, who attributes much of the agency's growth to that characteristic.

In the past 35 years, the country has gone through multiple wars, airlines eliminated commissions, 9/11 happened, and the global financial crisis was more protracted than predicted.

"Every time we went through one of those catastrophic events, we emerged as a stronger company, and our competitors fell away," Metselaar said.

Going forward, Ovation is bolstering its ranks of luxury independent contractors (ICs) and employees alike. The agency has around 700 employees and 200 ICs, Metselaar said. He still calls each one individually on important milestones with the company. He said that contributes to a company culture that makes employees and agents want to stay there.

"It's two words: We care," he said. "I think we show that in the way we run the business."

Going forward, Ovation plans to be opportunistic about potential acquisitions, though most growth to date has been organic, Metselaar said.

The business is helped because margins on the luxury leisure side are higher than on the corporate side; and in a business with historically tight margins, Metselaar said, a good way to increase them is growth on the luxury leisure side.

Ovation is looking to acquire an agency in the Los Angeles market, he said. The agency is also after more luxury leisure-focused ICs.

Gina Gabbard is tasked with that as Ovation's senior vice president of leisure and independent advisors.

Gabbard said she doesn't have a specific number of advisors in mind but wants to find those that are the right fit with Ovation and focused on high-touch service.

"We believe that our people are the greatest asset that we have in the company," she said.

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