|BY TIM PAPPA
As if travel agents weren't depressed enough over the industry
wide slump in tourism and business travel, Gloria Bohan has more bad news.
"I don't think I'm going to retire,"' says the
CEO and founder of Fairfax based Omega World Travel, the world's seventh-largest
full-service travel agency, which bills itself as the largest woman-owned
firm in the D.C. area.
Travel agents all over the world should be cringing right
TWO GRAND AND A LOT OF MOXIE
Bohan did not arouse much interest when she entered
the travel business in 1972. It all began with the co-signature of a
70-year-old former female travel agent, the only person Bohan could
find in Fredericksburg, Va., to give her accreditation.
"You won't get someone who's highly complacent in
me," Bohan says.
If only area competitors had known that then. When the
other shops closed at 5 p.m., Bohan stayed open until 7. Bohan went
door to door with Omega brochures when other companies, which were few
and far between, sat in the office. She personally delivered tickets
and made a quick transition to computers. All this, and $2,000, got
her a closet-sized office in Woodbridge -her first branch.
Today, Bohan's cost-saving programs and Internet
startups keep her financially agile in an industry relentlessly battered
by bankrupt airlines, blackouts, terrorists and an economic depression.
The corporate, group and leisure travel provider grossed a little over
$1 billion last year, just behind the Falls Church office of Worldtravel
BTI. The next-closest company made a mere $104 million.
Bohan says taking risks means constantly reinvesting in
the business. One of those risks was bidding on government jobs, a move
many businesses in 1982 would avoid, she says. It paid off though, as
Omega, an $8 million company at the time, was awarded a $6 million contract
to straighten out government travel logs.
"You have to get out into the field if you're going
to be a large business,"' Bohan says of catching the GSA train.
"Because you need to be seen. That's one of the ways you survive."
Case in point: When Bohan needed operators for a new call
center in 1997, they came from an unlikely place - behind bars. She
cut costs by employing female prisoners at the Leith Correctional Institution
in Greenwood, S.C., for $3 an hour as reservation operators for travel
At the time Bohan insisted on women for the jobs.
"Women are just better at this,"
Bohan told Washington Business Journal in 1997. "They don't have
big egos, and they're more empathetic and patient with the callers,
When South Carolina shut down the Leith call center and
similar programs in 2000 amid concerns of male prisoners stealing credit
card information, Bohan again changed gears. To stay competitive with
agencies that operate solely online, she launched several Web sites,
including Cruise.com, the leading cruise reservation site. The company
even developed its own IT solutions program, TravTech, to keep things
"You have to have a backup plan at all times, for
everything and everyone, if you want to move forward," she says.
Almost half of Omega's customers are government. Combine
that with Omega's online services, and federal clients may be deterred,
says William Goldstein, CEO of Beltsville -based Travel-On. Many companies
opt not to use online service, because it results in loss of productivity
for each federal worker to make arrangements via the Web, he says. As
much as online use is rising, it is still low, and will never exceed
face-to-face arrangements, Goldstein says.
However, Rochester, Wisc.-based Runzheimer International,
a travel management analyst, reports that 91percent of all airline tickets
Omega averted a $3 2 million breach- of- contract lawsuit
by St. Louis-based TWA in 1997 by winning the right to sell discount
tickets to its customers, even though the airline is not receiving that
money. Friction between travel agencies and airlines stems back to 1994,
when airlines capped travel agency commissions for the sale of domestic
Now Omega faces an industry in which airlines continue
to file for Chapter 11.
"I have a strong infrastructure," Bohan says.
"We've been able to weather a lot of the storm. We have depended
so much on the airlines. They still control us in a lot of ways."
Neither has corporate travel been putting as much into
the pot as it used to.
"I don't think it will ever, ever be how it used to
be," Travel-On's Goldstein says. "There was a time when corporate
travel accounted for 80 percent of the airlines. Business travelers
historically have paid more, because of so many last-minute flights.
You can charge more."'
There's always the moon. Bohan is co-founder of Arlington-based
Space Adventures, a company promoting private space tourism.
CEO and President
Company: Omega World Travel
Type of biz:
travel agency for corporate, group, leisure travel
Revenues: $1.03 billion ($176
million for metro area
Number of employees: 276 local