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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 6, 2019 4 days ago

Defined exit plan eases transition at $34 million business

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Exiting a business after decades building it up requires lots of planning, an entrepreneur recently learned.
by: Jay Schlichter Lee-Collier Editor

After leading a travel agency for 35 years, Wilma Boyd felt it was time to step back and do a little traveling of her own.

The founder of Preferred Travel of Naples decided to retire about two months ago. She sold the company’s assets to Olga Placeres — whom Boyd had mentored and groomed to eventually take over for her.

To mark the occasion, Boyd made the transition official at a recent company party held to celebrate the agency’s 35th anniversary. Boyd says Placeres proved herself to be an excellent employee, partner and leader many times over throughout the numerous years she has been with Preferred Travel. “Her work ethics are indescribable,” Boyd says. “She is very, very smart.”

The transition from owner to one-time employee also highlights the importance of having a defined exit strategy in place before it's time to exit. Placeres has been with the company since 1988 and became a partner in 2001 by purchasing the shares once owned by the company’s co-founder, the late and well-known Naples philanthropist Earl Hodges.

'We evolved and changed with the advent of the internet. The main part has been focusing on our relationships with customers.' Wilma Boyd, Preferred Travel of Naples

Placeres plans to continue the legacy Boyd built since she started the company in 1984 with Hodges, which rapidly grew into one of the largest travel agencies in Naples. Preferred Travel of Naples has also pulled off a rare feat, in growing sales during an era where travel agencies are like fax machines fending off iPhones, given people's penchant for booking trips online. Revenue increased 9.5% in 2018, from $31.5 million in 2017 to $34.5 million, and sales are up year-over-year every year since at least 2009, when it did $15.5 million. 

Along the way, Boyd acquired several other agencies and hired more employees, decisions that required her to move into bigger offices. The agency, originally Travel Professionals International, was previously in downtown Naples off U.S. 41, but expansion of staff led to a move in 2005 to the current 3,000-square-foot office in the Pelican Bay neighborhood. Today, the company has 58 employees, a little less than half are independent contractors.

To compete in the travel industry’s modern climate saturated with innumerable online resources and sites, both Boyd and Placeres say they have had to adjust the agency’s business model. “We evolved and changed with the advent of the internet,” Boyd says. “The main part has been focusing on our relationships with customers.”

Placeres says they do that by helping clients sort through the “information overload” they get when researching travel options online. “We figure out what the customer is looking for,” she says, adding many travel websites often don’t answer detailed questions people have when booking trips.

Other keys to survive the industry disruption? The agency joined a large travel network that provides more options and incentives to offer to clients, for one. They also created a 24-hour toll-free hotline for travelers who become stranded or have questions during their journeys. And Boyd has invested in new technology and software to help agents and staff do their jobs better. 

The company’s main source of revenue comes from booking cruise ship trips, and the agency also has agents devoted to air travel, vacation packages to exotic locales and more. 

Placeres says they are noticing a trend with younger clientele reaching out to them, which they see as an encouraging sign for growth potential. As a result, she says they have been hiring staff who are in the millennial generation, with plans to bring on more.

Boyd won't run day-to-day operations anymore, but she still plans to attend company functions and provide guidance to Placeres and others. On her travel, she recently returned from a Caribbean cruise with all her children and grandchildren. She plans to visit family across the country, and has booked another cruise, to the Mediterranean on Crystal Cruises, for next year. Her bucket list trips include Hawaii and Japan. 

Meanwhile, Placeres, 60, plans to teach the next generation the tips Boyd taught her about the travel industry. Some of those include treating everybody the same way you want to be treated and sticking your neck out for others, Boyd says.

“I believe in family first. If you’re worried about family issues, you’re not going to be fully invested in your job,” Boyd says, adding that being flexible with your staff pays off as employees will want to do an “incredible job” for their boss.

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