40-year-old Detroit travel company works to stay relevant in changing industry

Memorial Day is upon us and so is the unofficial start of summer and its travel season. Vacation planners have relied on travel agencies to give them peace of mind by making arrangements based on their needs and expectations. However, technology has changed that.

With the advent of online capabilities, travel agencies have had to adapt to changing consumer purchase patterns and emerging online habits. Some travelers simply research and book trips online, others rely solely on a travel agency while other vacationers might use both.

This begs a simple question: How have traditional travel agent services been impacted by the growth in online purchases?

Detroit-based Your Premier Travel Service is a family-owned business that has spanned over 40 years and three generations. Started in Detroit in 1978, it has expanded to three locations— two in the city and one in Novi.

Under the leadership and vision of third-generation owner Sanya Weston, YPT is expanding and establishing locations in Atlanta and Houston through the franchising development process with Francorp Detroit.

Weston, who took control of the family business in 2004, comes from a family of entrepreneurs. She has many travel-related experiences that helps her adapt YPT’s business model during a changing marketplace.

I recently sat down with Weston to understand how YPT has achieved business sustainability in light of changing consumer tastes and the emergence of technology.

Lee: What have been your keys for success over a 40-year period?

Weston: The keys to our success have been to remain adaptable to our customer needs and changes in the travel marketplace. Over the years, we have made vacations a reality for many people who could not afford a vacation by setting up payment plans so our customers can manage the cost of a trip over time. By doing this, we created a market that did not exist and helped thousands of people take their dream vacation. We also changed as the market changed. We developed specialties such as destination weddings, wedding registries, incentive group cruising and personalized planning to serve our customers.

In keeping with the family business legacy of being responsive to travel client’s needs, it is very important to continue to reinvent ourselves to stay relevant in the industry.

Lee: What changes have occurred in this industry and what are the implications?

Weston: The changing travel landscape that is now seeing a rebirth or interest is being driven by millennials who are now looking for a travel agents/agencies relationship that can help them make informed decision on travel destination and experiences. Many of my millennial clients have disposable income or have inherited money from their parents, so they want to travel more because they do not want to wait until they are “old” to see the world.

Another major change is how technology has transformed the travel industry. Most travel sites are backed by marketing dollars that try to motivate a one-stop-shop approach for the price conscious consumers. I appreciate price conscious clients, they tend to know what they want and I see it as our job to offer the very best for any and all clients looking for a great destination and experience.

Lee: What is driving people to travel? Trends?

Weston: People are looking to for experiences, such as camel riding, seeing the great deserts of the world. Millennials are competing among themselves for who has the most and best experiences. What’s driving this is social media. Millennials want to go and see things so they can post it, share with their friends and talk about them online.

Other trends include the activity of baby boomers who want their grandkids to see and experience hallmark destination in the U.S. such as national museums and monuments, etc., like Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon and national parks before they pass on.

Lee: Many people are purchasing products online. How have you adjusted your business model?

Weston: Years ago, the majority of our customers came into the office if they wanted to purchase an airline ticket. There was an opportunity to meet face-to-face and build a relationship with customers. The internet changed this dynamic and enabled people to purchase tickets online and plan their own vacations.

We had to work harder to build relationships with our client base. One of the ways that we did this is to turn our best customers into travel agents, or travel evangelists. They had the passion and experience to share travel with those who longed to travel but did not feel that could afford to take a vacation.

We developed a niche for group travel such as high school trips, family reunions, designation weddings and theme cruises.

Group travel is not for every agency. We got into high school senior trips when a local travel agency abandoned its high school seniors and left them stranded. After hearing of this my mother went into action to make sure the children were able to continue on their trip and that was the birth of our senior trip business

Lee: What makes your agency different from others offering travel-related services?

Weston: YPT now has a new U.S. staycation travel specialist who happens to have a degree in ecotourism from Eastern Michigan University, and skilled at travel within the United States. EMU is one of the few universities that have a degree in ecotourism, so we are investing in travel talent who understands the changing travel landscape.

We believe that stress reduction, physical and mental health enhancement, and strengthening of relationships with family and friends can all be accomplished through travel.

Our selections of travel packages are available at competitive prices. Whether a client is looking to arrange a corporate retreat, a destination wedding, or just want to get away, we’ll provide with exciting options for destinations from around the world and our service is always complimentary.

Lee: What’s your business philosophy?

Weston: We focus on customer first. The travel industry can be complex at times so educating our clients are key. We do not take any travel experience for granted. Addressing the small things like what to pack to international etiquette we go over everything with our clients before their travel experience. We also make it affordable with a free payment plan to accommodate everyone.

Lee: You’re expanding into other cities as part of a franchise model. What’s your thought process behind this move?

Weston: Transforming a family business into a multi-location business (Detroit and Novi) that now is exploring the opportunity of franchising to cities such a Atlanta, Chicago and Houston.

Lee: What are the hottest travel destinations domestically and internationally from Detroit? How does this compare to five years ago, for example?

Weston: In 2018, some of the hottest destinations are the United Kingdom because of the royal wedding. The idea of having a real black princess has sparked the interest of African-Americans to visit the UK as a travel destination. Additionally, Greece, Cuba, Spain Portugal, Dubai and parts of Africa are also hot destinations

Domestically, Sedona, Ariz., Las Vegas, New Orleans and San Francisco.

Five years ago, Miami, Hawaii, Alaska and the Caribbean were hot destinations.

Lee: The movie “Black Panther” was a hit at the box office. You mentioned to me this has had an impact on Africa as a travel destination. Please explain.

Weston: The “Black Panther” movie instilled a pride in African-Americans about their ancestral heritage and peaked their curiosity about Africa in general. Ghana and Cape, Kenya and Cape Verde. Forty or 50 years ago, most people only knew about African what they saw on television from movies like “Tarzan” or safari programs, and most people did not want to go to the jungle. Travelers have learned a lot since then but Africa as a travel destination recently gained a lot of appeal following the movie.

Lee: You also have corporate travel-related services. What types do you provide and how has this sector changed over the last several years?

Weston: We can assist in offering corporate retreat travel, incentive travel conferences planning and inspiring health and wellness through our corporate motivator program and our sales motivator program to increase sales. The goal is to encourage and motivate employees to take proper vacations that will increase health and wellness and productivity.

Entrepreneurs do not take vacations because they forget how to relax. Studies show that when entrepreneurs take a vacation every quarter, their creativity, happiness and productivity increased by an average of 25 percent. Our solution is to offer recurring, scheduled, planned vacations.

Lee: Any recommendations for those wanting to start a business or have simply “hit the wall” after being in business?

Weston: My recommendation for anyone wanting to start a business is to find a mentor, preferably one in the same type of business that can help you stay on track with your goals and counsel you when you face challenges.

This article originally appeared on Crain’s Detroit.