June 10th, 2013
In April of 1988, Los Angeles Times Magazine published an insightful look at the year 2013, aptly predicting a network of fiber optics, a reliance on electronic navigation, and a deep appreciation for such modern conveniences as the automatic coffee maker. In a brief passage on teleconferencing, the author barely touched on the drastic changes that would take place in the travel industry, changes that, in June of 1988, weren’t yet a concern to Ella Grondahl as she looked for a place to start a new agency.
After spotting a For Rent sign in Athens, GA, Ella established Discount Travel in a small brick building on the corner of S. Milledge Ave. & Springdale, just opposite to the historic property where it still thrives today. Currently operating as Global Escapes Travel, Ella’s company continues to serve the greater Athens community, managing the intricate travel needs of corporate and leisure travelers.
In June of 2013, Global Escapes will have weathered 25 years in a volatile industry, managing to survive while other agencies shuttered. For her success, Ella credits a long-standing business philosophy of exceptional customer service, executed by travel-savvy employees who make personalized service a priority. One such employee is her daughter Tiffany Hines, VP, Travel Consultant, and long-time Athens resident who is poised to take control of Global Escapes when Ella retires. “It’s been a long road,” Tiffany says, “but Ella paved it as we went along. I’ll be building this business on a very strong foundation.”
1988 was the first year that CDs outsold vinyl records, thanks, in part, to REM’s Green. It was also a year when you could start a business with not much other than an IBM computer, a phone and fax, your name in the yellow pages, and a box full of mis-matched pens. For Ella Grondahl, it also helped to have a prime Athens location and a sign outside.
Below is an interview with Ella on her remarkable experience of running a travel company through twenty-five years of drastic industry change.
What gave you the idea to start a travel business?
I had been working as a sales rep in the steel business for sixteen years. This company decided to move to New York and asked that I come with them. My daughter Tiffany was a senior in high school, and there was no way I could disrupt our lives by moving. I decided to use my savings to start my own business, to find a new career where I could be in control. I was approached by a friend about a travel franchise, so I spent a few months at a travel company in Atlanta, just to see what it was all about. I absolutely loved it. It was the perfect way to combine my love for the world and my genuine love of customer service. I’ve always been a people person, and this job attracted all kinds of people. There was so much excitement, so much happiness. I just loved it and knew it was right for me.
What kind of support did you have when you were just starting out?
Because I was buying into a franchise, they offered some office equipment, and sent an experienced sales agent to help get me started. The biggest hurdle was getting approved by ARC (Airline Reporting Corporation), since at the time they required that you have at least two years of experience selling airline tickets. Luckily my neighbor had this experience, so I asked her to come on board. This helped me get approved and from there we just slowly built the business.
Why did you decide to base the business in Athens, Georgia?
My daughter had just started school at the University of Georgia, and I was looking for a reason to leave the hustle and bustle of Atlanta. I loved being in Athens, but at the time there were 9 other agencies here. I didn’t think much about the competition. I had just turned 40, I was starting a new career, and so I just dug my heels in and focused on really good customer service.
Was it harder than you thought it would be?
Absolutely, yes. Much harder. The hours were longer. When you own your own business, it’s 24-7. You don’t ever get away. We were open 6 days a week, and on the 7th day I had to do paperwork. In those days, travel was retail, and in retail, you had to be open.
How did you get into the marketplace?
I tried everything – you name it. I did every kind of ad imaginable, but our best advertising was word-of-mouth. Because I had come from a busy male-dominated industry, I was used to providing great customer service to a wide-range of clientele, so we became known for that. I could talk to anybody. I treated everybody with efficiency, kindness, fairness, and respect. And I mean EVERYBODY. I’d get calls from people who could barely speak English, desperately seeking help with a ticket. I would go vowel by vowel until I understood what they needed. When I travel, this is the same kind of patience I would hope to receive from the people helping me, so I give it when given the opportunity.
What sort of training did you have before you started the business?
I had a lot of experience in sales and I also taught tax consultants at H&R block, but I knew nothing about travel. I’d say the best training I had was being a single mother with one, two, sometimes three jobs at a time. Working 24-7 was not new to me. The satisfaction from this job though, was that for the first time ever, the result was all mine.
How did you find your first employees?
My first employee was my neighbor, and as business grew I was able to get referrals from a travel agency school in Atlanta. I advertised in the paper for agents with experience, because at that time you would never hire someone without GDS experience or familiarity with travel suppliers.
Describe the office in the early days.
We had two main rooms with a pair of desks in each. We had a back office that was filled to the ceiling with brochures. At the time we were hand-writing airline tickets, so we had piles of forms. We had a few telephone lines and a fax that rang off the hook. In those days, nobody specialized, everybody was a generalist, so you had to know a whole lot of basic information about many destinations and every kind of travel supplier imaginable. With experience you could recall this information quickly, but when you’re just starting out, you had to look everything up. There were cabinets and cabinets of printed reference materials, and we were always running around, finding what we needed, calling properties and travel suppliers to book reservations while the phones rang non-stop. It was chaos, really.
What kind of technology did you use?
The phones and the fax of course. We had a few IBM computers for our reservation system with a dot matrix printer. Our first GDS was System 1, which was owned by Eastern Airlines. As we grew we moved to Sabre, then to Worldspan, then to Amadeus, then back to Sabre. We were always evolving as the technology evolved, always trying to stay ahead of the curve.
What’s the best technology that ever happened to the business?
The internet. The same technology that was the catalyst to so much industry change is the one technology I’m most grateful for. It complimented our focus on customer service in every way, by making all that information, and our clients, easier to get to.
What do you think is the biggest shift in the way you operated then vs. the way you operate now?
As I said before we were all generalists then. Now we all specialize, which requires a great deal of personal travel experience and research. Our biggest shift as a business is that now we charge fees for our services, whereas in the past, our service was no cost to the public because the airlines and travel suppliers paid us for selling their product. While this shift caused some agencies to panic, it freed us to focus on the areas we were passionate about, and allowed us to charge what we knew we were worth for our knowledge. When the industry shifted to serve the supplier, our business shifted to serve the client, which is where our focus had been all along.
What daily habit changed the most in the last twenty-five years?
The way we store information. Back then we were always organizing, storing, and delivering paper tickets. If you lost a confirmation number or proof of purchase you were in really big trouble. Now we store everything electronically, so the information is easy to find, the products are easier to deliver, and there’s not so much stress about where you might have filed something.
What brought you to the building that you’re in now?
We came into this old house right around the time I was realizing that a franchise was not right for me. I knew I wanted my own travel brand, and just needed the right place to build it. 697 S. Milledge Ave. was a family home. Mr. Thomas lived here, and every day I would watch him sit on his front porch and sing. He eventually moved on to Assisted Living, and the family put a For Sale sign in the yard. I mulled over the idea of buying it because there was so much work that needed to be done. It was built in the early 1920s, had no AC, no modern wiring, and wasn’t capable of being used as an office. I bought it on a leap of faith because I respected the legacy of this home and wanted to preserve it for years to come. I wanted to create a place where other people might come and sing on the porch. And they do in football season.
How has the house changed over the years?
We’ve modernized everything while still keeping with the feel of a historical home. Our clients love to come in here because it feels like they’re visiting a friend. It’s very warm and welcoming. My husband Mike has worked extremely hard to fix it up, to revitalize the structure, and to landscape the yard and create a parking area, which, in the beginning, was like a rainforest with a thick canopy of wisteria. You can’t fix up a house without talented help.
Describe the hardest time for Global Escapes.
The three months after 9/11 was the hardest time for us. None of us had ever experienced that kind of tragedy. I can only describe it as shock – a helpless sense of profound grief. As a business we issued nothing but refunds for three months, and as humans we felt so much sorrow for the victims of that tragedy and for our nation. It’s still painful to reflect on how difficult that period was for everyone.
Describe your best experience at Global Escapes.
My best experience is a combination of all my travel experiences. A three week trip to Africa is a highlight.
Are there clients that have been with you this whole time?
Yes. 80% of my clients have been with me since the very beginning. Every one of our consultants has their own loyal clientele, and mostly by word of mouth, they get new ones regularly.
Did you ever think of throwing in the towel?
No, not ever. Although lately I’ve been thinking a lot about throwing the towel at my daughter, who is transitioning to take over when I retire in the next few years.
What is the secret to your success?
My secret to success is not really a secret. A business can’t be successful without exceptional employees. Travel attracts interesting people, and we’ve had our share of extraordinary.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to yourself 25 years ago?
I would tell myself to get more training before starting this business so that the work-load is not so daunting. Although I know I wouldn’t have listened to me.
What advice would you give for somebody just starting out today?
You can’t just be great at sales or great at travel. You’ve got to be great at technology, great at social media, great at marketing, great at networking, great at service, great at managing risk and debt. But most of all, you’ve got to be great at change, because that’s the only thing I can guarantee will happen to you.
Where do you see Global Escapes in the next 25 years?
There is no way to predict where this industry will be in ten years even. We are poised for enormous change that only just began in the late 90s. My daughter Tiffany has loved this business from the very beginning and has a very refined vision for it. I have faith she will continue to focus on customer service, while leading Global Escapes into a new era of consultancy that I’m proud to have been a part of. To work in travel now requires so much passion, and so much creativity, and my daughter has both in spades. Global Escapes would not be what it is without her, and with her at the helm I’m not at all worried about where this business is headed.
What are you going to do after you retire?
I’m going to spend a lot of time with my grand-daughters, watching them play travel agency.