It's A Trip

Posted on Apr 1, 2011 :: Cover Story
Margaret LeBrun
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Photos by Shane VanBoxtel of Image Studios

It’s a good thing David and Chip Juedes love their jobs. Even when flying to exotic locations across the globe, they are always “working.”

“We travel a little differently than Joe Public,” says Chip, vice president of finance and administration at Fox World Travel. “Even when we check into a hotel, before our bag hits the room, both of us have our cameras out to take pictures. It’s kind of nerdy, but it helps to be able to share it with somebody who might want to go there.”

For this father-son duo, it’s all in a day’s work.

Fox World Travel marked 50 years in business last year, but David, president, and Chip are more concerned with where they’re going than where they’ve been. They’ve grown the Oshkosh-based company to the 18th largest travel management company in the nation, according to Business Travel News. They’ve done that by focusing on relationships, technology and a relentless quest for the perfect experience. And they’ve come up with some creative ways to be more efficient while keeping their employees happy.

Some might think the days of travel agents are on the way out, given the ease of online booking today. But as they say in Provence – David’s favorite travel spot – au contraire. Business travelers have been trending back to travel agent services: 36 percent plan to use a travel agent to find a better deal this year compared to 29 percent last year, according to Ascend, a consulting company to the global air transport industry.

The novelty of bypassing a travel agency, particularly for business travel, has worn off and for many, worn thin, says David Juedes (pronounced Yeedis, as it says on his business card).
“It was my prediction for a long time,” he says. “People don’t have the time. It’s information overload. After you look at half a dozen websites for a plane ticket, you just want to go to somebody who can do it for you.”

That’s not to say all their customers make a phone call to make their plans: Half of them book their travel arrangements using one of Fox World’s customized, online booking tools. This allows them to input and store their basic information and preferences – and even tracks airfares to alert them of price drops. If they have questions, agents are a phone call away.

Fox World handles more than half of all business travel arrangements for companies in the region. China, other parts of Asia and Latin America are among their fastest growing destinations.
“I have been personally responsible for managing the Plexus partnership with Fox World Travel for the last 10 years. During that time, the travel industry has radically changed and FWT has helped Plexus to change with it,” says Jeff Woldt, commodity manager, Indirect Spend, Plexus Corp.
Change is an everyday thing at Fox World. On a hectic winter day in the midst of their busiest season, David and Chip pause from the office drama of rescheduled flights due to a snowstorm to share their story.

“We’ve had several days this year when we’ve issued over 1,000 tickets just for corporate travelers,” Chip says.

“It’s effectively filling, like, eight Boeing 737s each day,” adds David. “Who would have thought back in 1973 that it would turn out that way?”

Are we there yet?

You could say that David and Chip are living proof that having itchy feet – the urge to travel – is genetic. David’s father, Harold Juedes, founded the company in 1960. David, who dabbled in jobs from auto mechanic to machinist before studying business, joined his dad at Fox World in 1973. He worked at his side as a travel agent until Harold passed away unexpectedly at age 57. David, who was then 27, recalls they had five employees, and, “That year, I worked seven days a week.” A year later, he purchased the company from his mother. Three years after that, he made his first acquisition. Since then, Fox World has acquired 21 more companies, the most recent one in 2009.
Chip never doubted what he would do.

“When my brother and sister and I were growing up, one would run the grocery store, one would run the toy store and I would be the travel agent,” he recalls.

Chip worked in the business every summer when he was old enough. After graduating from Marquette University and managing a boating supply store for a couple of years in Chicago, Chip joined Fox World as a travel agent.

Fox World Travel today employs about 150 and operates three divisions: The Corporate division makes up 61 percent; Fox Premier Meetings and Incentives accounts for 5 percent; and vacation travel, 34 percent of the business.

The economic recession took a toll on the travel industry, to be sure. Some of their peers nationwide lost as much as 80 percent of their business, Chip says. At their low point, in fiscal year 2008-09, they reduced some staff through attrition.

In the company’s fiscal year 2010, which ended Sept. 30, they brought in a total volume of $123 million. This year, they’re on pace for revenue to be “north of $150 million,” exceeding their record year of 2007-08 by $3 million, says David. Part of the increase is due to the higher price of airline tickets, which are tied to the price of fuel, he adds. But it’s also due to pent-up demand.

The recession gave businesses a chance to try video and audio conferencing to save money on travel, says Lori Wilkening, vice president for Fox World’s Business Travel Division. “But it just doesn’t replace travel. There is still a definite need for face-to-face.”

According to a study by American Express Global Business Travel, for every $1 strategically invested in business travel, corporations see an increase of $20 in additional gross profit.
But after reports of Wall Street excesses involving wild destination parties, companies all but stopped sending their employees to corporate meetings and sending their top performers on incentive trips.

Since last fall, that business has finally begun to rebound. Fox Premier Meetings and Incentives, named one of the top 25 most influential full-service meetings and incentives companies by Corporate Meetings and Incentives magazine for the second consecutive year, handles about 15,000 passengers a year. (Creative Group, based in Appleton, exclusively handles meetings and incentives; it ranks among the top 10 meeting companies nationwide.)

“Companies have been under the microscope for doing these boondoggles,” says Karen Williams, purchasing specialist at Fox Premier Meetings and Incentives. “During the downturn, they either stopped their programs or scaled way back. Their budgets (for meetings and incentives) are starting to grow again. Some moved their programs from an international perspective to domestic. We’re also seeing quite a bit of regional incentives, like Road America, the Osthoff Resort or the American Club.”

Shifting with the times in their 18,000-square-foot corporate headquarters on Washburn Street along Hwy. 41, employees handle corporate reservations, information technology, online support and other business functions. Sales agents in their vacation travel division work from 11 brick-and-mortar locations: Green Bay, Appleton (Fox River Mall), Neenah, De Pere, Fond du Lac, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Greenfield, Brookfield, Kenosha and Oshkosh (headquarters).

Over an 18-month period between 2007 and 2008, Fox World closed its five brick-and-mortar corporate reservation call centers. About 26 of its 40 corporate reservation agents now work from home – a win-win for all.

“The employees were very excited to work from home,” says Wilkening.

A handbook specifies requirements of each agent’s home office to maintain a professional persona. Agents attend quarterly meetings and keep in constant contact with supervisors via e-mail, texting and phone calls. The arrangement makes it easier for agents to handle calls into the evening when necessary. David says it fits the company credo, “We’ll find a way.”

“We didn’t ask any of our employees to leave their cell phones on at night when the volcano was going off in Iceland, but they did,” David says. “Whenever something happens around the globe, we have a monitoring system here so we can contact a client or someone at their company immediately.”

Agents act as consultants, striving to help their clients saving money, time and hassles.
“Identifying cost-saving opportunities – and providing detailed reports on them – has assisted us in looking at our travel habits and adjusting them where needed to control spending,” says Woldt, describing how Fox World has helped Plexus.

Technology has also allowed Fox World Travel to compete with travel management companies nationwide; it has bid for business in Indiana, Minnesota and Washington, among other states – but has also increased competition for local business. “The walls have really broken down in the last four or five years,” says David.

Fortunately, Fox World enjoys a 99 percent client retention rate, Chip points out. And experienced employees – the average has 11 years of tenure – keep customers coming back.

Donna Gehl, president of Image Studios, counts on Fox World for business and personal travel. She recalls booking a trip to Hawaii a few years ago, and though she checked on the flight a few days ahead and the weather was fine, learned her flight was cancelled when she arrived at the airport. She was told she could leave the next day. “I was aghast,” she says. “I immediately called my travel agent at Fox World. She said, ‘Hand your phone to the person behind the desk and I’ll take it from here.’ Then, click-click-click – the next thing I heard was that we were flying another airline, leaving just a few hours later. And the best surprise was finding out that we would fly first class all the way to Hawaii.”

It’s a given that when people have limited time, they want to be sure their experience will be a good one, David says.

“We’ve got agents who have traveled the world, and when you know we have one that has just gotten back from Fiji and one who just came back from Tahiti and another who just got back from Ireland, it’s great to talk to someone who has been there,” says David. Eight employees exclusively handle international reservations.

Recruiting and training new employees became easier since Fox World fine-tuned and customized its travel school. Once a brick-and-mortar location for training agents, Fox World Travel School is now completely online.

Retention is a natural – employees are allowed to take a certain amount of “fam” trips to travel and familiarize themselves with the trips they’re selling. Every September, the company does a daily drawing for prizes from airline tickets to cruises to hotel nights or gift cards.

It’s safe to say that everyone in the company loves to travel. David still makes most of his own arrangements. And Chip, who recently returned from a two-week trip to Australia and New Zealand, says he loves to fly.

“I get just as geeked up about getting on a plane for 14 hours as getting to the destination,” Chip says. “I still get a smile on my face when the wheels go up.”

Margaret LeBrun

About Margaret LeBrun

Co-Publisher, Executive Editor View all posts by Margaret LeBrun →