Casey Hunter did not know it at the time, but he picked a rather inauspicious moment to switch fields, from finance to corporate travel.
After a few years of working post-college, in April 2001 he was ready to join the family business, Hacienda's Hunter Travel Managers, full time and permanently. Even before starting at St. Mary's College in Moraga in the mid-1990s, he had always known that he would eventually take the reins at the firm his father, Nelson, had been nurturing for two-plus decades. Part-time work there during school, a degree in business administration, and a stint at Norwest Financial equipped him with the tools he needed for the generational hand-over.
The problem was simply one of timing. "Just a few months after I joined the business full time, the September 11th attacks happened," Hunter remarks."I will always remember that as one of the worst times to be in travel. I had left the mortgage industry at its peak, and here business as we knew it just came to a standstill. Planes were grounded, and it was mass chaos. Everyone was looking for a hotel room or a car to get where they had to go. I learned a lot in a short, very dramatic period of time, but it took the industry a long time to recover."
As it turned out, however, the upheaval had a proverbial silver lining, the kind of fortuitous consequence that has made the agency even more of a success today.
For Hunter, the most significant byproduct of September 11th was the new-found demand on the part of clients to know exactly where their travelers were at all times."On 9/11, companies were inundated with calls from their employees' families trying to get in touch with loved ones, not knowing where in the world they were. Very few vendors had the capability to give travel managers that information," he explains.
That lack converged with news of the Enron scandal, in October, and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act's mandates for extensive financial disclosure, in 2002, to signal a looming sea change in corporate travel, he recalls. Travel reporting, in particular, was about to become "huge." Across-the-board belt-tightening in corporate travel programs quickly followed, with many enterprises shifting to a single-provider strategy in order to keep closer tabs on all travel activities.
Sensitive to the impending changes, Hunter formulated a viable response. "We saw the demand for visibility and control and lower prices, and we became early adopters of technology that could give us that capability." The results are that "at any given time, we can run a report in seconds showing where every one of a company's travelers is. Prior to 9/11, those kinds of constraints weren't as important. Business was so good, the idea was 'just get me from point A to B, I want to make the sale.' But now it's all about control over expenses and visibility over travelers, at the lowest cost," he observes.
Recent economic conditions have put even more pressure on cost, but, accustomed to fighting back, Hunter Travel has kept up with the times. One of its prime tools is Concur software for automated expense management and online ticket booking. As a licensed reseller, Hunter Travel not only provides the system but also configures it to operate according to an individual client's travel policies and criteria.
"Early on, people said sites like Expedia were going to put travel management out of business, but we looked past that and found better ways to serve the needs of our clients," he comments. "The software allows us to build in a mirror image of the corporate travel policy, for example, contracts with a specific airline, hotel, or rental car company. When the employee searches for travel information, preferred vendors come up first, with the corporate discounts automatically reflected in the pricing. This gives control of the process back to the employer."
Concur's Cliqbook module has shown to generate significant cost savings in online booking, an especially attractive feature in a tight economy, Hunter points out. "It used to be typical for an account to pay $25 to $45 or more to call in and book a ticket through a bricks-and-mortar agency. With the new Cliqbook technology, we can manage the process for around $8 per booking, which drastically decreases the cost of business travel for companies. With travel being the second or third largest expense, it's a great time to be offering this solution. The demand for what this software can do is really high."
The agency has applied the benefits of technology to other aspects of the business as well. A staff that works virtually helps keep internal costs down without missing a beat in productivity.
"When I came in full time, our physical office was bursting at the seams," Hunter notes. A few agents had left because of the area's high housing prices. "We realized we had to do something if we wanted to keep our talent for a long time, so one by one we started setting up our agents at home, supporting them with computers and printers, the network, email, and phone." Ultimately the firm transitioned from having 100 percent of its staff at the corporate location to having 80 percent of them working from home.
Hunter also found a powerful management tool in a 20-member consortium of non-competing travel agencies that share best practices and benchmark their expenses on a quarterly basis to gauge operational performance.
"Being linked to other agencies has done wonders for our business," he enthuses. "We submit all our financials to this consortium. It's a huge database of peer-to-peer comparisons. If we're spending too much on phones or rent, we'll know it. Especially post-9/11, just as our clients need to know where their travelers are, it is vital to our business to know where we are as a company."
Hunter is the classic example of offspring who grow up in a family business and have the opportunity to work in almost every capacity. "I started coming to work with my dad as little kid and have been connected here ever since," he relates. In high school he delivered tickets to corporate clients; in college he scheduled his classes so he could work in the agency's accounting department on Tuesdays and Thursdays. After graduating, he sought out the experience of a different environment, but he always knew where he would wind up.
In addition to the challenges of business transformation, Hunter's long-time association with travel is responsible for another major life event, this one on the personal side. It was thanks to his father's business that he was able to conduct a long-distance relationship visiting the young woman from Oklahoma he had met on a cruise - and who became his wife in 2003.
Today the couple has developed an interesting approach to travel. Instead of planning an all-leisure get-away, they usually tack a few extra days on a business trip, giving them some downtime in a fresh setting. Chances are, however, they will not be venturing far over the next several months. On December 21st Nicole Hunter gave birth to the couple's second child, a son. For the moment, the proud parents of baby Jake and his three-year-old sister, Ashley, are quite content to let others do the traveling.
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