December 1, 2011

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Change Agent

Local Travel Firm Outwits the Internet Revolution

Dianne Lewis

December 1, 2011

When Mike and Camille Cameron bought Christopherson Business Travel in 1990, the internet wasn’t even a consideration. However, early on they made a critical decision, which proved to be vital for the future: the company would focus exclusively on business travel and drop the leisure travel services.

Mike Cameron says the decision wasn’t happenstance. He liked the idea of the return business corporate travel provided. He also knew businesses would pay for an ongoing service that individuals may not.

The decision, he says, “turned out to be, frankly, just lucky.” The new corporate focus proved to be the right move when the industry faced major upheaval and change in the mid ‘90s. First, airlines started cutting back—and eventually eliminated—the ticket price commission that travel agents received. A year later, Expedia arrived. The economy took a dive at the turn of the century. And then air travel came to an abrupt halt on Sep. 11, 2001. In the space of six years, the business of travel changed forever.

“You can’t predict, no one can predict, those kinds of disruptive technologies,” says Cameron. “The secret is not being able to predict disruptive technologies, but being able to respond, to adapt, to them.”

Pinpoint the Value

Christopherson Business Travel has survived and grown in the 21 years since the Camerons bought it. Cameron attributes this success to determining his unique value proposition early on. He stepped back from the day-to-day operations of the business and took a hard look at what his business offered that others didn’t. He says the value proposition needed to be objective, quantifiable, not cliché and not something claimed by competitors.

Rather than being all things to all people, Cameron says he focused on excelling in one area, transitioning the company from a travel agency to a travel management company. To do that, he worked on finding a unique value proposition in the three parts of the company: agents, account management and technology.

Now, the agents provide hard numbers about how much money clients are saving every time they book something. The account managers developed into consultants who offer a wide variety of services—clients can come to them for almost anything. The consultants track time spent on services so clients know what they get for their money. The final part of the value is the proprietary, in-house software that helps clients get the best service and deals.

“We started to dissect our value proposition one component at a time, and we’re still doing it,” Cameron says. “It’s a process.”

That intense internal evaluation paid off. Christopherson Business Travel went from booking $10,000 in tickets every week to booking $10,000 every four to five minutes. The company has grown from a $1 million company in 1990 to $240 million in 2010. But the road to success didn’t come without potholes.

Learn from Missteps

Cameron says he can think of many mistakes he’s made through the years, but three in particular stand out. First, the company opened a branch in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and kept it open too long. It was not the right market, the right manager or the right team, and he just didn’t want to admit it wasn’t working. A second, similar situation happened with a manager in Utah, and Cameron says he had a hard time acknowledging the manager wasn’t right for the position.

And his third notable mistake was changing the name of the company to Christopherson Travel Group in 2001. The change took the emphasis off the company’s expertise in business travel, diluting the brand. Cameron soon reverted to Christopherson Business Travel and learned to keep the company’s business and vacation travel brands separate.

While he’s very happy with where the company is today, Cameron wishes he would have known earlier that the company would end up making so much of its own software. Then he could have created a software development department sooner.

“You have to be willing to invest in R&D and things that will benefit you for the future. That’s when it’s an advantage to be a privately owned company that doesn’t have to pay attention to quarterly earnings,” he says.

Share the Success

Too many companies get consumed by daily minutiae, Cameron says, without looking at how to reach their goals. Christopherson’s success came from finding a niche and using a rigorous process to look at the value proposition within that niche. Companies struggling to survive in a changing industry must remain flexible, he says. Businesspeople cannot get so attached to an idea or way of doing things that they can’t see when it’s time to make a change.

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