James Ferrara is the Co-Founder and President of InteleTravel, the largest travel agency in the world measured by number of agents. We discuss simple ways to inspire the extraordinary in your team members, why you must fully understand your customer’s needs, and how to turn business challenges into opportunities.
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Inspire Extraordinary with James Ferrara
Our guest is James Ferrara, the CEO of InteleTravel, which is the largest travel agency measured by number of agents in the world. James, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much, Steve, great to be here.
So, James, tell me about how you got here. How did you become the founder of this travel agency with so many, 96,000 agents? How did it happen? What road led you to this path?
I wake up many mornings asking myself that question, Steve. I started out in investment banking. I was with Lazard Ferry Company. The partner that originally brought me on there eventually spun off, created his own shop and asked me to come with him. And in the process of looking for deals, we heard about a travel agency in California who was doing something different. And at the time, we were doing a lot of travel, a lot of international travel. We had projects in South America, and it struck a chord with us.
I’ve always been a frequent traveler from the time I was a young child. My father was a big executive and took me around the world. By the time I was 15, I had been around the world. And so I had a bit of the bug already. I had a wanderlust already, and hearing about an opportunity in the travel industry, which was really outside of our core work, just piqued my interest. My partner and I went out to California to see this company. It was a small mom-and-pop company. It was very, very local, but this is in the wake of deregulation in the United States, deregulation of the travel industry, which really changed everything.
Prior to that, you had to be essentially licensed, appointed by the airlines, you had to have a brick and mortar location. You had to have a safe with ticket stock, which was like negotiable currency, blank ticket stock, and so on. There were many barriers to entry. Deregulation did away with all of that, and maybe the most common result that people are familiar with actually came a few years after InteleTravel, which was the online travel agencies. So the idea of Travelocity and Priceline, Expedia, and all of that is actually a direct result of deregulation.
But one of the earlier results of deregulation was this idea that you could sell travel from anywhere and you no longer had to have a brick and mortar office and you could have people selling travel from home. Brand new idea. And this company jumped in the early days, this company in California, we went out there, great idea, very poor execution, they had no management experience, no real business experience, and so it was chaotic.
But still, at the center of it, was this very interesting idea, and one of the people who introduced us to this company, lived locally in the area, was Brian Tracy, the world famous speaker and motivator, a real hero of mine. Again, my dad was a big sales executive, and so when I was 14 years old, he gave me a set of cassette tapes, remember?
The psychology of selling, the psychology of success. I mean, I listened to them all. Brian Tracy was my hero. I discovered this whole idea. He talks about universal wheels. You’re listening to CDs in your car and cassette tapes. This is how you can get ahead in your career. I mean, I was eating that up from my early 30s. That was amazing. I thought this guy was a genius.
And he was. And I had that set from when I was 14 or 15 years old, and I wore it out to the point where, you know how cassette tapes start to sound warped because you play them too many times. So anyway, Brian was one of the introductions to this company. He was an early partner with us in the company. I authored the training materials and a lot of the marketing materials, working side by side with Brian, I went into the studio with him, so we were able to take this kernel of an idea and turn it into a legitimate, well-run, fast-growing business.
That’s pretty amazing. I’m very jealous of your association with Brian Tracy. I’d love to meet him in person. I saw him once talking Budapest in front of, it was a big stadium, like, I don’t know, 5,000 people, and he had an interpreter, so it was like line by line being translated. That was a very weird way, but he still could engage people, even through the interpreter. That was amazing. So, let’s switch gears here and let’s talk about a couple of the frameworks that you have come up with or use in your business, which I find really intriguing. One of them is turning a challenge into an opportunity. I mean, isn’t that what we all want to do? So, tell us a little bit about how you do that. What is your process for that?
You know, there’s a famous quote from Winston Churchill, I believe, who said that pessimists see the challenge in every adversity and optimists see the opportunity in every adversity, right? And that’s been a real core belief of mine in business. In between the punches, you look for the openings, right? Just like a boxer. So my focus has, first of all, always been never to accept the status quo, right? There are so many things we just assume should be done the way they’re done because they’ve always been done that way. And that, it’s just not how I’m wired. I’m not going to take any credit for any great thinking here.Pessimists see the challenge in every adversity and optimists see the opportunity in every adversity - Winston Churchill Click To Tweet
Something in me doesn’t understand that. And so, I re-examine everything. Every process, every marketing assumption, and then we, my favorite question is why is something done that way? Why do people believe that? So I just, not a very accepting person, and my least favorite comment is, you know, just because that’s the way it’s done, or that’s the way it’s always been done. Oh, I hate to hear that. So, disruption can have negative connotations. So, it’s not a word that I use all the time, but I get it. The work that we’ve done in the travel industry has been highly disruptive.
The concept of having this army of people working from home or from wherever, from the beach or from funneling business back to a central operation, that idea changed the travel industry. Now, three quarters of the travel agency business is done that way by the whole industry. It is now the sort of central idea in the industry. This approach of working through the adversity, looking for the opportunity in the adversity, has carried this company through 9/11, which of course brought the travel industry to a halt, several recessions, 2008, and of course, most recently, the pandemic. And during the pandemic, we were profitable, even in 2020, in the depths of the pandemic.
At the end of 2020, we distributed a dividend to all of our employees, a year-end profit share incentive to all of our employees. I’m not sure there’s another travel company that can say that. And then 21 was the best year we ever had. There was almost no recovery period for us. 21 was the best year we ever had until this year. Now this is the best year we’re ever having. The end of this year, we’ll have a billion dollars in travel sales this year.
So, recalling our earlier conversation about this process, because I’m always looking to turn your ideas into a process, so I love this idea to turning a challenge into an opportunity, to turn and look at it from all directions, and you have a big team, so you get a lot, and it’s a global team, so you’ve got the diverse perspectives of people in different parts of the world who have direct contact with the company.
And that’s critical, Steve, right? To take an idea or a challenge and think of it as a sort of crystal box in front of you, and to turn it to every facet. And having talented people around you helps you see that box from 20 different perspectives and that’s really important. And I know that there are other management approaches, but mine is very consensus building, you know, and to maybe sound trite, it’s absolutely team-focused and that’s what gives us the power in these situations. To make it very real, I’ll give you an example in the UK where we have a big business, the pandemic shut down corridors for the UK. They were not allowed to go to most places as a result of the pandemic.Having talented people around you helps you see that box from 20 different perspectives, and that's really important. Click To Tweet
Things were a little looser here in the US, but they are really, they typically go to Greece, Spain, Portugal, wherever, all of those corridors were closed. We taught our travel agents immediately how to sell domestic travel in the UK. And we reached out to our supply partners and said, domestic travel, now we want domestic product. And it’s a real mind shift. You’re sending people to Greece, typically, right? And now we’re gonna send them to the Cotswolds, or we’re gonna send them, not on a cruise of the Mediterranean, to Rome and Venice and Barcelona, we’re gonna send them on a cruise that circumnavigates the British Isles, where in fact, there are 17 tourist ports in the British Isles, right? So, it just-
I’d love to go on that tour. I think that’s fascinating.
Just have to pick a time of year.
You know, it’s a pivot. Thankfully, the pivot I didn’t have to deal with is that we were already a far flung network of home workers, right? So I didn’t have to worry about the pivot to Zoom and working from home. We were already there. That was all time for us. So that made things a bit easier. We could focus on pivoting our marketing and our products.
So, I love this idea to look at things from all directions to create this consensus, to mastermind, to brainstorm with your team, to find the pivot opportunity there. And then to look through, you said looking through the eyes of the customer. And you also talked about meeting the markets where it is. So what do you mean by these concepts?
Okay, there are companies, I believe, who make a mistake. They fall in love with their own idea, right? And then they seek to create a market for it. And as a marketer, I started out in business as a marketer, I don’t believe that. I believe you have to meet a market, you have to meet a demand, you can’t create it. Or let’s say to create it is a very uphill exercise. Instead, you have to, sometimes the focus is being an expert on your own product, when really, the focus should be an expert on the customer, right? And that will lead you to success. You will tool your product for the customer’s needs and you will find much more success and much less friction.
I mean, people often say that, well, you know, this is only partially true that you have to meet the demand and channel the demand because look at Steve Jobs with the iPhone, but you can also say that, no, Steve Jobs just creates the product that addressed the demand that was already there for a phone that could be used to browse the internet, to use it as an entertainment device and music device and all that stuff. And he just found a way to make it happen, to break down the barrier that.
And at a certain level of success, at a certain scale, there is a biodynamic, right? So that the excellence of that product and that idea actually does change the way customers desire and what their needs are. So there is a biodynamic, but it takes a while to get to that level. Same thing, we’ll have 100,000 independent agents around the world by the end of this year. We have changed the industry. And so now people, customers have a different expectation of what it means to have a travel agent, right? You’re not walking into that office on Main Street anymore. So there is a yin and yang going on, a give and take on this idea.
But it started with really trying to understand customers. And I bring, I try to bring every conversation, every management meeting, every issue that’s raised, back around to this customer-centric idea. And with some very talented managers and executives, it’s not always the first place they go. So I see that a lot as my role, and I’ve had executives come from other companies and actually point out to me that it’s a bit refreshing in our meetings that we talk so much about our customers.
Now, in this way, and basically segueing from this idea of leveraging your team and the perspectives and building a consensus, discussed, which I found fascinating, which I call recorded the inspired the extraordinary framework. And it’s all about finding the talent and giving them the opportunity and applying technology as well. So can you walk me through how that works?
Sure. And it goes back to this. Team and consensus idea for that to work really well, you’ve got to have the right talent. So we all have a superpower, right? My superpower is recognizing talent. That’s what, it’s my best skill. So I have found extraordinary people who care in an extraordinary way and have great ability and great insight, and I have built over the years a dream team of people. And then my function, look, each of these people is certainly smarter than I am about some part of our business, right? And I’m happy to hire people like that.
Of course, that there is a type of manager who is intimidated and afraid to hire people they think might be smarter or more skilled than they are, right? Not me at all. Makes my job much easier. My job then is to help make the connections, is to help grease the wheels, provide the resources, support any way I can, foster the communication, such a huge part of my job and such a critical area. We are in constant change in the travel industry and I’m sure there are many other industries like that, but particularly in my industry, it is constant change, constant new technology, changing world conditions and so on.
So what is the key to managing through change is communication and getting people to talk more, to pick up the phone more, which in today’s world is a bit of a struggle. A lot of my executives are younger than I am, and they would prefer to fire off an email or a text message, and that’s fine, but as a good friend of mine once said, an email is a monologue. A phone call or a meeting is a dialogue. So there are times when one is more appropriate than the other, right? So getting people to communicate more is huge, a big part of my job. And then, look, I don’t mean to preach it’s a certain approach, but I like to lead by setting the vision and then getting out of the way. Because I believe that responsibility breeds performance. Right, and if you give people room, they will blossom.The key to managing through change is communication and getting people to talk more, to pick up the phone more. Click To Tweet
I love that. Responsibility breeds performance. You just, you set the vision, this is where we want to get to and we’ll figure out how we’re gonna get there, right?
I don’t want to micromanage you because you have your own way, which is gonna be the most exciting for you to do your own way. And if I restrict that, if I straight jacket you, then it’s just gonna be a grind for you to follow my way of being successful. If you can go your way, you’re going to be fully empowered. I love that. What about tech companies?
I fully believe, I’m sorry Steve, but I fully believe that their ideas are going to be better than mine. Right?
Possibly, because that’s what they focus on is they’re part of the business, so they got to be much deeper, richer in that area. They’re more of an expert in that area than someone who is at the leadership level. That makes a lot of sense. So step one was cast a team with talented people. Step two was grease the wheel to make sure that they collaborate, to remove the friction from the collaboration, which is massive. And then get out of the way, watch them blossom. Step number three. And what’s step number four?
Well, you cannot avoid the conversation. And it’s about technology. The world we live in today, you can’t, it’s the 800 pound gorilla in the room. So for me, it’s about being an early responder, an early adopter of technology. Technology, these are the miracles of our age. But if you wait around too long and let your competitors or let your industry move faster than you are, that spells danger in my mind. So we are early adopters. And by the way, it’s exciting. I’m curious. I’m constantly curious about technology and excited about the opportunities.
So we jump quickly in, and I think of it this way. I talked about change. Think of change as your condition. It’s the condition of the race course is change. Your race car is technology. So to get you through that course as fast as you can and without crashing, you need the best technology that’s gonna give you the best race car. Yet you still need people, I always get a little nervous when I talk too much about technology. In my childish analogy here, you still need people to drive the car.
You still need a human being in that car, a talented race driver, right? So the same is true in business. We are going to be empowered by the technology, but particularly in travel, we are going to keep the human touch. I don’t believe that our travel advisors, our travel agents will ever be replaced by technology, but what I tell them is you won’t be replaced by technology, but you may be replaced by another travel agent using technology before you do.
That is so true. The human element is actually revaluing all the time because in the age of AI and information being ubiquitous and the tip of our fingertips, we can get the information, but how do we use the information? And then how do we humanize the information? That’s the real question because information is no longer very valuable. It’s about the humanized information, the judgments, it’s the customization of it is what is really valuable in my view. So you have 96,000 agents, close to 100,000, you’re gonna get to 100,000 by the end of the year. So how could you even lead so many people? How do you communicate with them? How do you build relationships with 100,000 people? How does it even work?
Well we’ve always been experts at the distance relationship, right? Because these people have never been in my office with me, these hundred thousand people, and even my staff, my executives, is spread out, especially today, right, with many people working from home. We’re spread out all over the place and we have a business in 10 countries in the Caribbean, Mexico, the UK, and the Republic of Ireland. So we cover all the British Isles. We have some big expansions being announced later this year into the EU and into Canada.
So, you know, we have employees and staff everywhere and we have independent agents everywhere. I have a call center in Barranquilla, Colombia as well. So we are experts at this distance relationship. We have communications channels that most travel agencies don’t have, right? We have technology nowadays that has really empowered us the last 20 years. We have online learning systems. We have certainly virtual events and use virtual technology like this, like Zoom and so on. We have podcasts. We have all of that. We touch them every day with emails or with messaging on our extranet. They’re all logging into an extranet.
We use that real estate message to them too. But to our earlier point about people, we also have live in-person events. So we’re a big event producer. We produce about 40 events a year on a very large scale. Our annual conference has about 3,500 travel agents at it, which makes it maybe the largest conference in the travel industry, but it’s just for us. It’s just for one agency. And then we have regional events, we have themed events for LGBTQ travel, millennial travel, wellness travel, luxury travel, and so on.
And at these events, it gives us the opportunity for my team to connect directly with our customer and essentially our agent. And I try to attend as many of those as I can because it’s that direct interaction with the customer that is so valuable to us. If I were the head of a department store chain, I would certainly travel around visiting my department stores on a regular basis, right? Walking through those stores, talking to customers, talking to my employees and so on. Well, this is the same idea.
We go to these live events, and I just came from one last week in Orlando, and we had a two-hour break for lunch in between the morning general session and the afternoon general session. And I came out from backstage after the morning general session, and as typical, someone stopped me to ask me a question, might take a photo with me, right? And a line formed, and for the two hours and seven minutes of the break between the sessions, I had a line of hundreds of people who just wanted to talk and wanted to take a photo and wanted to connect.
And somebody afterwards said, one of the staff said, oh, I’m sorry that you got bound up in this line. And I said, sorry? I mean, I absolutely loved it. I got to ask people, where are you from? When did you join us? What are you selling? What do you need? What’s the friction for you? It was primary research for me.
That’s big. And I remember when I was a young employee, I was an accountant at KPMG London, and I was assigned for one of the projects was an internal project, we were reorganizing some kind of reporting system, whatever it was, I can’t even remember. And we were out in the countryside, after it’s just like a one month long project. And it felt like we were out of sight from the top brass and we were not so important. And one day, the senior partner of KPMG, who was like the global chief of the whole organization, he showed up and he came to our center where we were doing this stuff.
And he just did a short speech. He made a five minute speech and then he took some questions. And that completely changed the atmosphere. People thought, wow, we are really important for the organization, this is an important project, and the boss came here to see us, and that totally changed the energy for the next couple of weeks. People were much more engaged and much more productive as a result. So this is really, really critical what you’re doing.
I would say to any CEO, get out of the office. Your most valuable time is out of the office. And during the pandemic, there’s an example of another pivot, that became impossible, right? So instead I held town halls with the employees on a regular basis and communicated with them about the change that was going on in the world and that company. It helped relieve stress, I’m told later, for them. It helped relieve stress. It made them feel seen and heard. And it’s important to shut up a little bit and let people talk. You know, it’s a sort of my father always said to me to listen more than you talk. So that’s an opportunity for me to listen to them. And we did the same with our independent agents around the world, just regular meetings. Me and my team, I asked everyone to show their faces a lot, to get on Zooms, to get on Facebook Lives, to get out there and connect and communicate. And I think it’s one of the secrets to our success even during the pandemic.
Yeah, as Brian Tracy used to say, that you’ve got two ears and one mouth and you have to use them proportionally, right?
He did used to say that. My team rolls their eyes now because I quote Brian every day, I quote something, and they’re so tired of it. He’s still with us and he’s amazing.
He certainly isn’t. Yeah, I hope to see him someday. But that’s another topic for another time. So we are coming to the end of our recording. If our audience would like to learn more about your company, about you, where should they go and how can they connect with you?
Sure. Well, Inteletravel.com is the company website, but I’m on all the social media platforms as James Ferrara or JR Ferrara, you can certainly find me. They are very active on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook. I’ll ask your permission, Steve, can I mention that I have a podcast? Absolutely, please do. I have a podcast that is divorced from my commercial work. It’s a personal podcast with a dear friend of mine. We’ve both been in the travel industry over 30 years, and it’s called No Tourists Allowed, and you can find it anywhere you find your podcasts, Spotify, Apple, Google, and so on, or you can go to notouristallowed.com. But that’s a really personal podcast for me and Mike Puffin, we talk about helping people to travel in a way that is more authentic and will create more memories and be more soulful. We see too many people traveling as tourists and we want to help them travel in a different way.
I totally relate to that. this is the way to do it. During the pandemic, we went to the UK and there were very few tourists and we had a completely different experience. And when I was in my early 20s, I did the backpacking trips when it was weeks on end and doing some local culture. So that’s definitely no tourist allowed that comes to check out the podcast. And James Ferrara from Internet Travel, CEO and founder, co-founder. Great, it was great to hear your stories and to learn about your framework of how you empower your people. So those of you listening, please check us out on YouTube and subscribe on our YouTube channel, which is growing, and let us know what we can improve, how we can improve on this podcast. Thank you, James, for coming, and everyone has a great day.
Thank you, Steve. Great fun.
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