Industry innovator created one of nation’s largest woman-owned businessesApril 27, 2012 6:00 AM
by Jessica Sabbath
A honeymoon cruise launched Gloria Bohan’s career in the travel industry.
She spent the first year after her wedding saving money from her teaching job in Northern Virginia so that she and her husband could go on another cruise.
But the second trip was no honeymoon with the cruise line. Unlike their first cruise, the ship officials didn’t upgrade Gloria and her husband, Dan, from an interior cabin to a suite. “But there are a whole bunch of travel agents on board, and they were upgraded to the suites … So I was saying to my husband, ‘I can’t believe I worked all year as a teacher,’” but they get the upgrades, Bohan recalls.
Her husband’s response was, “Well, if you can’t beat them, you join them,” Bohan says.
Less than a year later, in September 1972, Bohan opened a travel office in Fredericksburg with one other employee.
From deregulation of the airline industry to the expansion of leisure travel and the advent of the Internet, the travel industry has gone through major changes during the past 40 years. Through all of the twists and turns, Omega World Travel has been at the forefront of the industry.
Within a few years of the opening of the company’s first office, the travel industry saw sweeping changes, such as the deregulation of the airlines and the boom in leisure travel. “With all of the glamour, the changes, it was an industry that kind of sucked you in,” says Bohan. “It was exciting; the idea of going places and seeing places that I never thought I’d ever see. It was just the energy that I got from being in the travel industry that kept me motivated. When you really like something, you work hard at trying to be the best.”
Today, Omega World Travel is the country’s third-largest global travel management company with $1.1 billion in revenue last year. It has more than 800 employees at 100 locations worldwide. The company is one of the largest privately owned companies in Virginia and is one of the largest woman-owned, private companies in the country.
The company has led the travel industry in many ways throughout its history, including introduction of on-site travel offices, business travel management, electronic centralization of accounting and travel booking, the launch of Internet site Cruise.com and government travel.
Leisure travel makes up about 50 percent of the company’s business, while government and business travel represent the other half. Despite her success in the industry, Bohan hasn’t had much time lately for leisure travel herself. In 2004, Dan Bohan was undergoing heart surgery when he slipped into a coma and suffered brain damage. He had been an active business partner through much of the company’s history and was instrumental in the creation of Cruise.com and Omega’s government travel business.
Until his death in August 2010, Bohan juggled taking care of her husband at out-of-town rehab centers and managing her massive company. In his memory, she started the Dan and Gloria Bohan Foundation, which is dedicated to encouraging entrepreneurship and helping people who have suffered traumatic brain injury. “People who are in the business of helping those with brain damage are also entrepreneurial thinkers,” she says.
Virginia Business interviewed Gloria Bohan in March at Omega World Travel’s headquarters in Fairfax County.
VB: Can you tell me a little bit about the evolution of the business? When you started, did you envision it becoming a major travel management company?
Bohan: No. And travel management wasn’t even a word, a phrase. You were a travel agency that maybe sold tours or little trips to Europe or local stuff. The airline business had not even matured yet ... It wasn’t like it was a booming industry where tons of people were traveling. This was all being developed.
It was a business that seemed to be moving constantly, changing because air travel was becoming more exciting. Cruises were starting to pick up … it was a time when you started to read about national travel.
With the dawn of deregulation, you find that several things were happening. One, airline travel was becoming more competitive. People competed on the size of the steak they could serve or the types of meals they had. When you went on a plane, you got dressed up. I can remember my first trip to the West Coast. I got dressed up. I was in a hat. I had gloves with me.
With all of the glamour, the changes, it was an industry that kind of sucked you in. It was very exciting. And the idea of going places and seeing places I never thought I’d ever see ever, it was just the energy that I got from being in the travel industry that kept me motivated. When you really like something, you work hard at trying to be the best.
VB: When did you move to Fairfax?
Bohan: It didn’t happen until 1983 into ’84. Up until that time, I was in Fredericksburg. Within about two years, I opened a second office in Woodbridge, largely because there wasn’t a viable travel company there. My history will show that a lot of times I went places because my customers wanted me to be there … Woodbridge was actually building up much faster than Fredericksburg because it was becoming a real bedroom community.
… At the same time, too, because of deregulation, the airlines, which owned computer reservation systems, also saw that they could now put these systems in travel agencies, because we were writing tickets up until that time.
We became automated in ’78. These systems made a big difference because suddenly we could really be viable in getting information quickly. We didn’t have to just use tariffs and big, heavy books and call carriers to find out itineraries of where their planes were going, etc. That kind of launched us into becoming an even bigger company. Again, technology started to drive our success.
[Around the same time] my husband, who had a great eye for real estate, started to get interested in the business … I can remember going home one night after being in both of the offices all day, and he was waiting for me at 9 o’clock at night, and said, “Is that you?” I said, “Yes.” He said to me, “Well, I haven’t had my dinner yet.” And I said, “We need to talk because I haven’t had my lunch.”
With that, he got more interested in my business. I said, “Well, people want me to open in Washington. I think I could get quite a bit of business.” So we started to look for locations that would be a good draw for business.
VB: How did you expand into business travel?
Bohan: We combined our computer reservation system with a back office accounting and reporting system, which I can tell you were extremely important because it was then that business travelers started to think: “Well, these folks can help us track our expenses. And we can look and see if we’re getting the best airfares, and we can manage our expenses better.” We could book hotels and cars, and we could negotiate rates …
Business travel started to really become a norm, and because of deregulation, companies were a little bit more lenient in letting us put agents inside their offices … We were one of the first to pioneer that on-site program.
VB: How about government travel? How did Omega become involved in that?
Bohan: My husband was very interested in government travel. In ’81-’82, the [Government Accountability Office] had a test program to see how well private entities could handle official government travel, because up until that time, the airlines had control of doing ticketing for the government.
We were one of the first agencies to bid on this $26 million business … Only one agency won and [the problem] with them is that they did not have a good interface accounting system … so they had a problem in getting paid [by the government].
[The government later rebid its travel business because of problems the company encountered by booking government travel using Air Florida, which had a poor reputation after a plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C.]
I get this call, and they said to me, “Can you come up with a best and final offer for helping us with our travel business, because we’ve had problems with the existing contract?” I went back to the office. I went over to my Selectric typewriter and started to type an offer…
We get in our car, go up [to Washington] and lo and behold, they say, “Yes, we want you to go into these government agencies, bring computers.” At that time it was for two government locations. One was the U.S. Information Agency. And another was the GSA, the Government Services Agency.
That was the start of my inroads into government travel. And government travel was very interested in all the things that were happening in business travel. So we brought to the table a lot of those advantages — boarding passes, quality control systems, being able to design preferences for the government agencies that had special needs for travelers.
VB: Now today how does the business break down? How much of it is business versus government versus individual leisure?
Bohan: Well it’s about 50/50 [between leisure and business travel] now. Business travel [includes] government. On the business side, it’s very diversified. We have anything from law firms to retailers like Harley Davidson to CarMax and accounting firms. We cover a lot of industries.
VB: Some of those are located actually on-site? Is some of that travel handled in another office?
Bohan: Or through one of our offices or in call centers. Part of our marketing strategy had been to be close to customers where we could get to know them. In ’94-’95, the airlines started to experience a lot of financial downturn, and they started to peel away at our commissions … Therefore, all these high-rent offices became an albatross. I had to switch gears, and I had to then pare down many of them and look for more reasonably priced rents. I had to find cheaper labor markets … [for instance, the company has a call center in Jacksonville, N.C.].
While this is happening, the Internet is suddenly on our radar … my husband was kind of in and out of the business but really was a force in the travel industry. He was a good risk taker and could learn so fast. Well, he also had some experience as a programmer in the Air Force …
We knew a lot about cruises, and that’s what we liked. That got us into the [travel] business. You talk about going full circle and beyond. Nobody really had a really good cruise booking engine and search engine. Everything was still manual in the cruise industry. Meanwhile, the cruise industry is starting to become really popular … .
We brought in some programmers and established a separate company called TravTech. They started to program this product [Cruise.com] into a booking engine. Then we attached a reporting and accounting system to it.
That was really a big shot in the arm for us. Getting into the Internet, and being an online player, understanding SEO, search engine optimization, how to advertise, how to market … I can tell you, up until that time I did about $10 million as a company in cruises. After about four or five days on the Internet, I was getting 260 emails a day.
VB: How is business now for cruises?
Bohan: We do over $200 million in cruises a year. Then you get all the residual sales that come from booking a cruise because people need air [transportation], and they need to book insurance and ground transportation.
Then we saw the ability to also market our technology to others in the industry, other companies who needed booking engines.
VB: That’s TravTech?
Bohan: Yes. Let’s say they’re a Costco, and they’ve got their own travel program, but they want to use our engine, and they don’t want to have a staff that has to talk to the customers. So we’re like a fulfillment center. We [also] do fulfillment services for meetings.
Also, we’ve designed a luxury travel team, and we sell villas. We really have varied our product. I think a varied product for me has been one of the secrets to success.
VB: You’ve been doing a lot more internationally, right?
Bohan: Yes, we have partnered with offices that use our name [but are not corporate owned], so they’re like partner offices. I see that as a really great leadership opportunity for us to do more partnering on a global basis. South American [offices are] really going to be a huge concentration for us this year because there are just some really brilliant, creative people coming out of South America, coming up with software and technology.
VB: What trends right now are most important to Omega’s future?
Bohan: We have built a virtual call center, so we have very talented people working out of their homes using telephones. That’s going to continue as more and more people want to be more independent, have a different lifestyle, and work from their homes…
Then we’ve got an affiliate market. These are people who have their own businesses, but they need to have a bigger company with a large infrastructure that they can work under.
We like to use the state-of-the-art software which we also customize [for travel companies]. That’s a big plus for us today, and I see that increasing.
Online, real-time, mobile apps — they’re very key to our business. Being able to take the traveler from the moment they think of a trip, to [advice on what to do and where to eat]. You want to change your flight? OK, here’s a better deal for you. And take care of them. Something goes wrong with their schedules, they have to call us, we’re there 24/7 all the time.
… The exciting part of the business today is that we’re able to sell more than ever before because you’ve got all the access you’ve never had before. The agent who works in the office also has quicker access to information.
VB: Do you get to travel much?
Bohan: I get to travel to meetings, but I haven’t done too much leisure travel lately.
My great husband went in for an operation in 2004 for heart surgery, and everything went wrong … He suffered cardiac arrest. He went into a coma. They revived him, but he suffered brain damage also. As a result of that, until he passed away in August of 2010, I spent all that time in hospitals with him trying to get him better because there was hope …
But I went through a reawakening during that time. It was a very spiritual thing. We got close in other ways that I never thought I could get close to anybody. And I learned a lot about the brain. So I’m devoted to helping people who have brain damage. I have my own foundation…
That’s dedicated first off to the advancement of entrepreneurship throughout the country and also to helping those folks who have experienced traumatic brain injury. We have a two-fold approach.
[Entrepreneurs] are what I consider to be part of this whole thrust that I think is so important to life and to our economy, is generating that feeling of entrepreneurial spirit. You can do it even inside companies, too.
And I have to say that I am very enthused about still being part of an industry that is at the forefront of change, using the latest technology. I mean more people are traveling than ever before. You’ve got the senior citizens, people retiring at 60 years old, 61, 62, some even earlier. They have a little bit of money to do things with. So it has become a good market.
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