When Gloria Bohan is asked how it happened that she went from diminutive school teacher to president and CEO of Fairfax, VA-based Omega World Travel, one of the country’s largest international travel agency operations, she has only one answer: “Accidentally. You never know when you are going to trip on opportunity.”
In Bohan’s case it was her honeymoon – a cruise on the QE2 that caused her to simply fall in love with travel and so much so that she took the small settlement she received from a car accident ($2,000 in 1972) and opened up shop as a one-woman travel agency in a Washington suburb. But it wasn’t chance or luck that kept her there fighting the forces that were stacked against her success. It was, as she describes, the courage that lack of choice brings when you just have to keep putting one foot in front of another to survive.
Forty years later, Bohan is no worse for wear. She has won such honors as ASTA’s Agent of the Year in 2004 and Vacation.com’s Agency of the Year in 2011, and has grown that agency from a one-woman shop to a 1,500-employee business with branches all over the world. But the way to survival was not through travel alone.
Bohan says it was technology that took her to the next level, at a time in the 1980s when such concepts as back office integration, airline data, GDS access, even the ability to print tickets, were barely in their infancy. Bohan, and her husband who had been studying COBOL programming for systems development, saw needs and answered them with bridges they were able to engineer between client, agency and airlines.
“We have had many ups and downs in this business but we always found new pathways, new avenues to take our services in the next direction,” she says.
For instance, as a Washington area agency in the right place at the right time, when the U.S. government opened its policies for accepting private contractors for booking government employee travel, Omega World Travel was big enough, technologically agile enough and smart enough to win the contracts.
Three Words: Technology, Technology, Technology
“We had technology no one else had,” she said. “You have to remember this was the time before PCs so setting up systems in some of these offices was a big deal.”
Realizing she had to invent her way to success, Bohan decided to embrace technology rather than run from it and created a vertical called TravelTech.com, which white labeled a digital booking platform for travel companies, allowing them to become some of the first online agencies. She took those capabilities and started Cruises.com, allowing consumers to do their research, choose their cruise and send in the data for a quote followed by some face to face or voice to voice time with an agent — not groundbreaking news for the current digital era but big news in the mid 1990s when many suppliers did not even have websites yet.
Today, Bohan is still inventing, still innovating. Some mobile cruise booking applications are in the works; she is expanding her meetings business and back office management tools and reporting streams are seeing constant updates. A business model once based solely on the proliferation of retail locations in the right places is slimming down to a largely online presence these days.
“We were watching companies throw an inordinate amount of money into airline reservations systems when we first started our technology jumps. It was a very overcrowded space. But the part of the industry that we loved most was the cruise industry and no one was putting these systems together for this segment. So we did,” says Bohan.
While a veteran in the business, Bohan is not slowing down. The new customer is high engagement, high touch and wants that touch to come from voice phone, smartphone or computer interface 24/7. Omega provides that service, she says. There is always a human that can be reached, whether to fix a problem or validate a choice.
“The new customer has done all the research. We don’t have to go over the destination or the type of tour or cruise. In some ways selling travel is much easier now. By the time a customer is talking to us they are in the confirming stage.”
The real work comes in the packaging and customizing for special interests, she says. And that’s where the money is. Whether an agency or agent is in a niche business or do-it-all company such as Omega, it’s about finding out what a customer wants, customizing it for them, integrating it with other solutions and leveraging technology to make the work accessible and easier.
“If there is one word that will be driving the travel business moving forward, that word is technology,” says Bohan. “And you continually have to learn new ways to use it. Just because you have it does not mean it is working for you.”