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This story originally ran in the December 13, 2018 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.
TORONTO — More than 30 years later former agency owner Peter Vanderheyden still remembers the sign in the window that changed the course of his career, and his life.
“It said: ‘Do you love to travel? Have you always wanted to run your own business?’ And there was a phone number.”
Vanderheyden saw the sign posted in a Goliger’s travel agency, wrote down the phone number and the rest is history. “I booted it down to Toronto and met with the family. I thought, what’s better than selling sunshine and happiness and memories?”
Starting in 1986 and over the course of three decades Vanderheyden and his wife Linda built up their business, ultimately owning and operating 12 Goliger’s TravelPlus locations across southern Ontario, specializing in leisure, corporate and group travel with the head office in Waterloo.
Then in November 2017 came the announcement that Vanderheyden’s 12 agencies were joining forces with Vision Travel. Direct Travel, Vision’s parent company, acquired the business in a deal that was finalized by the end of that month.
In the mid-1980s Vanderheyden was fresh out of university with a chemistry degree and working in Sarnia’s oil industry. Now he’s a member of the leadership team of Vision Travel, as Vice President, Leisure, Ontario, and still the go-to for his “G12” agencies, as they’re called.
A year after the acquisition, he’s also an expert at navigating the fork in the road many agency owners face as they look to the future. Vanderheyden knows all the questions, because as an agency owner he was asking himself the same questions just over a year ago. To sell or not to sell? Stay in the industry? Leave the industry?
And other agency owners might have their own question for Vanderheyden, which is: Was it the right move?
For Vanderheyden, the answer is an unequivocal yes. But he has some advice.
First things first: for any agency owners who are thinking of selling their business, “park your ego”, advises Vanderheyden. “When you’re an agency owner, you’re a rock star. And when you sell, you have to check your ego. You’re not the ultimate decision-maker anymore. That’s probably the hardest thing to get used to. The buck doesn’t stop at your desk anymore.”
That said, leaving behind cash flow worries is nothing short of a godsend. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a $1 million agency or a $100 million agency. Your receivables could shoot up and then you’re in a cash crunch. I don’t miss that.”
Vanderheyden was 54 and starting to think about his options when he got the call from Vision Travel. “It had been 31 years. My kids weren’t interested in taking over the business. We were a $100 million business with 12 branches pre-acquisition. To continue to grow, we would have needed 8 – 10% growth per year. Organic growth gets difficult at that point.”
Vanderheyden says that when he got the call from Vision Travel President (Ontario-West) Brian Robertson, “that got the wheels turning. I thought, three things are happening: my exit strategy is working out, my staff have an even brighter future and I’ve got a place at the boardroom table. After 31 years you just want to be able to contribute and have an impact.”
Vanderheyden says he was also heartened by the fact that Robertson and wife Stephanie Anevich “had been through it all already”, when Vision Travel joined forces with Direct Travel a year earlier.
Vision Travel first came together in 2000 with $140 million in sales, but its origins date back to 1953. Vision merged with Direct Travel Inc., one of the top travel management companies in the U.S., in spring 2017. Later that year, in November 2017 Vision Travel and Direct Travel announced that they planned to build on their merger by joining forces with travel management company ATPI to form Direct ATPI Global Travel.
Together Vision Travel, Direct Travel and ATPI now represent over $7 billion in sales, with 160+ locations in more than 50 countries and over 4,500 team members worldwide. Vision Travel alone has a team of more than 800 travel professionals, with some 50 locations coast to coast.
Despite its size the company “believes in bricks-and-mortar”, says Vanderheyden. “We have the technology but our focus is local, regional and global. Vision’s technology is one of the industry’s best-kept secrets.”
The buying power that comes with a merger can’t be discounted either. “If I did X with one tour operator, now I’m doing 5X. I get a louder voice.”
One of Vanderheyden’s chief concerns with any acquisition scenario was his staff, numbering about 170 at that point: “I wanted to do what was best for my family and also for my employees.” Looking back, he says, “as nimble as we were, we very rarely lost an agent. I can count on one hand the number of travel agents we lost in 31 years.”
He adds: “Not to get too sentimental about it, but one of the most rewarding things as an agency owner is developing staff. A 22-year old out of college, you teach them, you mentor them. I’m super-proud that we created all those jobs.”
Post-acquisition, he says, “not one job was lost. And people stayed on.”
The deal had another upside he didn’t anticipate. Pre-acquisition, he was on the verge of hiring a full-time HR person. “People would stop me in the halls and say ‘Hey Pete, did you know I haven’t had a review in five years?’” he jokes. “As an entrepreneur, parts of your business are run by the seat of your pants. Now [with Vision Travel] the team has an HR department. It’s been a real upgrade in that respect.”
He adds: “We rebranded, the G12 agencies are all Vision Travel now. The signage went up about six weeks after the acquisition.” Meanwhile “all the G12 agents are still working on G12 business. The G12 agencies all still roll up to me.”
For Vanderheyden personally, there are more upsides post-acquisition. “It’s definitely a better balance. After the merger, 100% of my focus now is leisure. That’s where I want to be, focusing on luxury leisure travel.” He can even take time away from the office, for the first time in decades. “The funny thing is, people would say ‘You must love to travel’ and what I realized is that anyone who gets into this business loves to travel, but the biggest wake-up call is that between running your own agency and having a young family, there’s no time to travel. I never took a fam trip, I would always pass them on to the staff. I wanted our front line to experience all this wonderful stuff, not me.”
Would he do it all over again? “The good outweighs the other side of the equation, by a long shot,” says Vanderheyden.
“Bigger is not necessarily always better. But if it’s managed right, bigger can be better.”