Episode 99: Keeping Things New But Timeless, with Justin Osbon
The travel industry is changing all the time. But some things are timeless. The challenge is to meet the evolving needs of clients, but retain all of the standards of good customer experience that are indeed timeless.
On this episode of Destination on the Left, we talk with a true practitioner of this art. Justin Osbon talks with us about his experience with a truly legendary European tour operator, how to thrive as a 3rd generation company, and how to look to the future.
Justin Osbon started with Image Tours as an account executive where he was expected to deal directly with travel agents who were already working with Image Tours as well as prospects and create new relationships with additional travel agents. In 2007, he was promoted to senior account executive where he was in charge of the team of account executives, and in 2009 became sales director covering all aspects of sales for Image Tours, Inc.
During his career, he has volunteered and participated at various associations including the National Tour Association, American Bus Association, as well as others. He was also given the opportunity to mentor some of the collegiate scholarship winners for Tourism Cares. He was voted one of the top travel supplier sales reps in 2010 by readers of Travel Agent magazine. In January of 2014, he was voted top 10 next gen by readers of Group Today magazine. He has also served as NTA’s chairman in 2016 and remains involved with NTA through leadership team committees.
More on Justin’s Background
Thank you so much for joining me, Justin.
Thank you, Nicole. I appreciate it.
Well, welcome. What I’d like to do is have you tell us a little bit more about your story in your own words. I think it really helps give some perspective to the conversation.
I actually started as an intern. They liked what I was doing and offered me a job out of college. So I said, “Absolutely!” As everyone says, once travel kind of gets in your bones, it’s hard to get it out. So, I interact with the travel agencies and the tour operators. It just makes coming to work so much fun because you’re always working with somebody new and you’re always helping them help their business get better. So, it’s a pretty fun, fun ride.
In 2005, I attended my first NTA meeting. It really opened my eyes to what the travel industry could be. I decided to get more and more involved within the National Tour Association with volunteering. They asked me to run for the board. I said, “Sure,” thinking I didn’t have much chance of winning.
Then I got elected to be on the executive committee, and then through that went up the ranks to become the youngest chairman of the National Tour Association. So that’s kind of fun to do all that and along the way I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of agencies across the country, helping build their businesses through our marketing programs. I also enjoy working with tour operators to help find a product that fit their clients need. So it’s been a fun, fun ride of almost 14 years now.
Wow, that’s awesome. You’re very humble. I’ve known you for a few years now and I know that you are very dedicated to the industry and always full of really great ideas. I appreciate you sharing your story and talking about, just going for it. And I think that that’s a true testament to who you are and what you really bring to the industry. So, thanks for sharing that.
Before we dive into the questions, tell us a bit about Image Tours – what Image Tours does, who your target audience is and just a little bit about the business side of things.
Image Tours is a third generation family owned and operated company. We specialize exclusively in European tours. We compete in a very competitive market by being very agile and being very focused in what we offer.
So, we only offer 12 itineraries in Europe. We don’t try to get too into the weeds with customized itineraries. We say, “Okay, here are our 12 itineraries that we know we can offer a great value to our partner clients,” which are travel agents who then promote our tours to their clients. We’re completely wholesale, so we work everything through either a travel agency or a tour operator. We just do those European tours and it’s gone very well. 2019 will be our 80th year in business.
Wow, that’s amazing. Being the third generation is quite the feat for any company, right? Switching from generation to generation, a lot of businesses don’t succeed, so I think that’s really awesome that Image Tours is going on to 80 years and third generation.
I’m kind of blessed that it’s my sister-in-law’s grandfather started the company. So, he came over here in 1962 to the US because they started in 1939 in Europe and then they came to the US in 1960.
They say generational transition can be tough, but for us, fortunately, it’s been very easy.
That’s great. I know you’re going to bring some really great insight to our listeners today. I’m interested to dig into questions on creativity. I think you’ve already kind of gotten to this a little bit in talking about Image Tours and how niche you are and how you’re very focused on not only the European market but on those 12 itineraries.
So what helps you stand out from the crowd in this very competitive environment of travel and tour?
Europe is a very competitive market, so you’ve got to find a way to stand out. What makes us different versus the other suppliers that are out there providing escorted Europe tours? We have our signature tour, our Heart of Europe Circle Tour. We’ve been doing that tour going on 59 years now and it is a well-established itinerary, the perfect tour for first-time clients to Europe.
“Europe is a very competitive market, so you’ve got to find a way to stand out.” - Justin Osbon #podcast Click To Tweet
We’ve set it up so it’s well balanced between free time and group sightseeing. And then we use only native European tour managers so that definitely gives us more of an authentic European tour when you’re doing that. So, the clients definitely feel they’re getting that true European experience. That’s definitely been one of our advantages, if you will, of being in this market.
We came from Europe, so we have a European mentality, but we’ve been in the US since 1960. So we have the ideals of what American tourists want but we execute it with that European flair and style. It’s that perfect hybrid blend of the European/American atmosphere if you will.
That’s really interesting. Actually, that is really a unique, the way your business has evolved and how it started in Europe and has moved into the US to create that perfect hybrid opportunity. I think that’s really a great point and really a good competitive advantage for you.
So I want to switch gears just a little bit, and still thinking about creativity, but I like to ask each of my guests this next question which is with regards to a challenge or some sort of adversity that perhaps you might have faced. Because I find that when we’re faced with some sort of a challenge, the creative solution and problem solving that comes from that sometimes can be really great. I’m wondering if you have an example of that that you can share with us?
Well, I do. With us only focusing on one destination, that being Europe, if there’s ever a time when there’s any turmoil, any type of conflict, or any type of fear within the public sector, then that market suffers. And we definitely saw that over the last few years with the incidences that did happen in Europe.
Clients would wonder if travel would be ‘safe.’ And so we had to really work hard with our suppliers. We found a unique relationship with Singapore Airlines. They had a flight going from New York JFK to Frankfurt that wasn’t being utilized as much. And they said, “Hey, how about you guys work with us, help fill your flight, fill your tours, we’ll give you a really awesome airfare and then you can combine that to come up with a really awesome tour package price and you can promote that.”
So, that’s what we did. We teamed up with an airline that is one of the best in the industry, but not very well known to clients here in the States. But once they experience that, they wanted to fly Singapore Airlines all the time.
The partnership allowed us to have a very competitive price so clients could take advantage of that. It allowed us to keep operating itineraries in a time when it was very, very challenging to operate a tour to Europe.
I think that’s a really great example and I love that you’ve found a partner that had a similar challenge and you were able to actually come together and help each other solve that challenge.
Yes. They were flying because they go on from Frankfurt, Germany on to Singapore and then they come back. That middle leg was not getting utilized as much. So we all saw it as a win-win. That’s been a very good partnership here for the last four or five years now.
Absolutely. How did that conversation come about?
Well, we had the similar challenge after 9/11. They had a flight that went from Chicago to Amsterdam and we came up with a tour package to get people traveling again. Because the price was at a point where if you didn’t do it, you were kind of silly.
So again, we had those challenges. We reached out to them. Chicago-Amsterdam wasn’t an option, but this Frankfurt, Germany flight was. So we rearranged about three different tours so we could make that work. And now that’s the way we run those itineraries because it works A) for the client and it works B) for us and works C) for the airline.
The Triumph of Old School Marketing
That’s awesome. That’s great. So, Justin, I want to ask you a little bit about your relationships with the travel agents because I know that, you know, you mentioned that you wholesale through travel agents and tour operators, but also I know that you support them and help them in marketing those tours. Can you talk a little bit about how those travel agent relationships work?
Yeah. I mean, that’s kind of the fun part. The perception, of course, is that there are few travel agents left. The reality is, there are more travel agents to work with now than there was 10 years ago. So, travel agencies are growing in that regard. And, the best part is, is we have established marketing programs to help them build their businesses even more.
We also do a newspaper advertising program. I know that’s kind of a crazy thing. Another thing that people assume are dead or dying are newspapers. But we actually have one of our best returns on investment when it comes to marketing dollars in newspaper advertising. So we team up with agents across the country. We supply them with the ad, we supply them with the creative. They run the ad. I supply them with a great follow-up process that takes them not only from leads to booking. Because the newly retired mature adult client still gets the Sunday paper. They trust the person that’s on the end of that ad, in that paper because it’s real. Whereas online, it may, it may not be. There’s a lot of hesitancy there. It’s not the same buy-in that older adults have with a newspaper ad; you call, someone answers, and you get a brochure in the mail three or four days later. Now as a client, I’m fully engaged, because that is a real person on the end of that phone that wants to help me with my travel. And we help establish that pipeline.
“Another thing that people assume are dead or dying are newspapers. But we actually have one of our best returns on investment when it comes to marketing dollars in newspaper advertising.” - Justin Osbon #podcast Click To Tweet
That’s awesome. I love that you not only provide them with the marketing tools in the newspaper ad program, but then the system to be able to take those leads and turn them into booking. So, really you are helping build these businesses, which I think is really awesome.
For our listeners, can you talk a little bit about the travel agent community? Because I think, maybe, when the naysayer says, “Geez, that’s too bad. Travel agents are kind of a dying breed,” and you say, “No, they’re actually growing.” They might be thinking back to, you know, the 80s and 90s when, when all of your air was going through travel agents, you didn’t have the OTA’s to compete with, commission structures were different.
So I’m wondering, has there been kind of an evolution of the travel agent? What do they look like today?
They are completely different than what you thought.
Before you had to deal with ABC Travel that was on Main Street and that was the only place to go for flights, hotels, and everything. Now, most of the time clients are booking their flights, which is fine. But when it comes down to the actual vacation packages more people are realizing they don’t want to spend all that time doing the research, the finding out, and everything else. They don’t want to do all that work and then have a bad experience on the little bit of free time that they have.
So you’re using an agent who already has all those answers, that already has done all the research, that can send you on a vacation that you know will be flawlessly executed and you can come back refreshed, ready to tackle life. And I think that’s what’s helped, rejuvenated, the travel agent industry is that people have a limited quantity of time and money and they don’t want to waste it on research or a potentially bad experience.
I think that’s really an awesome point because you are so right. There is so much information out there. And kind of back to your point about the newspaper, you know, that particular adult client that might not trust online resources, right?
And so, they like having that person that you can trust that you’ll know they have these proven trips, right? They’ve sent other people on them.
I think it’s a perfect situation for these travel agents to really be making a comeback, you know, at this time. It’s a unique opportunity.
Absolutely. Because you have the cruise lines, who decided to try direct only sales, and that was not working like they thought it would. And now they’re working even more with the agents. And then your tour operators, of course, we love travel agents because we know they can be our advocate of why use X, Y, or Z tour operator because we each have our own unique competitive advantage and specialty that we offer to those clients and have that product that fits that particular client so they come back happy. The worst thing is you put the wrong client on the wrong tour. They’re coming back upset because you recommended it to them. So, having that relationship makes everything work better.
Absolutely. Definitely comes back to relationships. I totally can hear that. So Justin, is there a project that you’re working on now or something that’s coming up in the future that you’re really excited about that you’d like to share with our listeners?
I mean we don’t do too many big new projects. I have a new advertising campaign coming up that we’re advertising or our Spring 2019 tours, and that’s coming out here in the fall. And I’m very excited because just the little bit of advertising we did for early bookings was greatly received. So I’m very excited that this fall advertising of close to 200 newspapers across the country. I think it will be very, very well received by the clients that are opening up their paper, seeing the dates, seeing the prices, and calling our partner agents and making even more bookings. I’m very excited about that because the market is ripe for travel to Europe.
That’s great. That’s really good. That’s good news, right? People are still traveling. It’s a growing industry. That’s awesome.
So I want to switch gears a little bit and make sure that we talk about collaboration because I know you have a lot to share on this topic, especially with your work with NTA and with other organizations that you’re involved in.
I really like to explore this whole idea of what I like to call “co-opetition” where essentially perceived competitors come together to create programs or to create something bigger than they can do on their own. And I’m wondering if you have an example of a time when a collaboration between competitors has worked for you.
I absolutely do. And it’s just recently happened, and it happens to be a TAP member, which is kind of even more serendipitous. Ed-Ventures, they’re also a Europe tour operator heavily involved with customized Europe tours. I first reached out several years ago, and they were not interested in working together
When I went back a couple of years later and said, “Hey, here’s an opportunity for us to work together in your local area to work on our newspaper program and to bring new clients into your business, sell our tours,” and this last year they were one of our top booking producers from our newspaper ad program.
Paul Larsen at Ed-Ventures is really pleased with all that little tiny 4″ newspaper ad produced for his business.
Years ago in the second generation iteration of these companies trying to work together, it just wouldn’t have happened. Staying separated from the competition was a point of pride. But we’re able to look at and say, “Hey, you have something that’s a little bit different than what I got. I got something that’s a little bit different than you got,” and it’s worked.
Just on the flip side, I had a group leader come to me about, think it was about a month ago and said, “Hey, I want to do the Europe Passion Play, I want to do this, want to do that.” I said, “You know what? Unfortunately, I’m not going to do the Europe Passion Play in 2020. But I have a partner in Minneapolis that is almost like us, a family company doing Europe.” She said, “That’s great. That’s what I want. That’s why I wanted to work with you guys because you’re a family company.” I said, “They’re a family company, too. They just happen to be on the other side of the lake, and they do Europe tours.” And so I said, “Please call Paul at Ed-Ventures.”
So, then about two weeks later Paul calls me and says, “I can’t believe it.” I said, “What?” He says, “That group leader you sent me.” I said, “Yeah.” “She’s about to do about 125-200 passengers on the Passion Play.” I thought it would be like 20, 25, maybe 30 people. I didn’t realize she was talking about 3 or 4 different buses of people to the Passion Play.
So, that’s how that co-opetition, probably 10, 12 years ago, would have never happened. Completely happens now. And, so that’s probably my best example, and most recent example, of that.
I love that example. A lot of times when we talk about co-opetition on this show, we’re talking about maybe competing destinations, competing hotels, competing attractions, and this really gives the perspective from competing tour operators targeting a similar market, selling a similar product. And for the two of you to be able to come together and figure out a way to work together, that is truly a win-win for each of you. Actually, it’s just such an awesome example of the power of co-opetition, right? And this whole concept of collaboration. I think that’s just really awesome.
Absolutely. It’s working. We’re both very happy.
Travel Alliance Partners
That’s terrific. I know you mentioned that that’s a TAP partner for our listeners’ sake. Can you just talk a little bit about TAP for listeners who may not be familiar with it?
The Travel Alliance Partners is a group of around 28 tour operators, all across North America. They partner together to work together and find a way to operate more tours with less overhead. Meaning I will work with the different tour operator to promote their area and put people on their tour so they’re not canceling departures, they’re filling departures and vice versa. So now you don’t have to try to do the world, you just have to work with a partner.
And it’s been a great collaboration, not only for all the other partners but for us as well because we found some great tour operator partners who work at a different level than the travel agents, because, for instance, they already have people that are used to traveling on a motor coach. So to have them travel on a motor coach in Europe is, simple, easy, quick. So, they are our greatest partners because they already have an engaged audience that is ready to book an escorted tour in Europe. And by being a wholesaler, they understand that we’re not really there to work against them, we’re just there to help them answer their solution of, “I need to get these people to Europe instead of here.” Because they’re going to Europe whether they’re booking it through me or XYZ company, so I might as well keep them my client, work with you, and we all win.
That’s awesome. So, do you have any advice for our listeners on how to have a good partnership? How to find good partners and kind of ensure that the partnership works?
I’ve found the best way to ensure the partnership works is to put everything out there up front. Set the proper expectations right up front. If you do that, then the partnership works. If you don’t put out every single I and T and every little part in place, that’s when things can go sideways. And then that partnership, which could be a great partnership for years down the road, blows up before it even gets a chance to go. I’ve seen that more than a few times. But if you set up the proper expectations and if you set up the groundworks of how you’re going to work together, it works. And that has definitely made those relationships with other tour operators that’d be like, “Well, you probably shouldn’t be working with them. But because you did set up that groundwork, that’s how those partnerships have stayed and grown over the years.
“The best way to ensure the partnership works is to put everything out there up front. Set the proper expectations right up front. If you do that, then the partnership works.” - Justin Osbon #podcast Click To Tweet
I think that’s really solid advice. Setting up those proper expectations. Really talking about how are we going to work together so that everybody understands. And really just laying that groundwork up front is so important. Then you have that foundation to build from. I think that’s really great. Great advice. I appreciate you sharing that.
So, Justin, before I let you go, I do want to actually ask you a little bit about NTA. Because you have been so involved with NTA over the years, I’m wondering if you can share with our listeners the value of NTA from your perspective. What you get out of it. There might be listeners who are part of NTA and then there might be some who maybe are considering perhaps going to Marketplace, or becoming a member.
And I thought maybe your insight into what you get out of it and, and kind of your perspective on NTA would really help.
Sure. Like I mentioned earlier, my very first NTA event was 2005 in Detroit and it kind of opened my eyes on what this travel industry is really all about. I only knew my little tiny piece of what we were doing, and then to realize how much there really is with the hoteliers, the attractions, the motorcoach operators, the bus suppliers, the DMO’s. And they’re all there to work together to build more travel. And I was like, “Man, that is just cool.”
So then I decided to go ahead and get a little bit more involved and I talked to leaders that I looked up to. I said, “What’s the next step? Where can you go?” And they said, “Well you need to volunteer, you need to sign up and volunteer for some seminars. You need to volunteer for this. You need to do that.” I said, “Okay. Well, that’s easy.” So I got more involved.
And just like travel gets in your bones and you can’t get it out, same with NTA. It has not only helped me as a professional, but it’s helped my company by helping me find partners that help build my business.
So, with NTA there are people there that want to promote travel. Promoting travel helps everything. It calms fears, it helps the economy, it produces jobs. There’s so much that travel does that it’s just glossed over. But it’s there and it’s so refreshing because when you talk about travel, no one has a frown on their face. Ever.
There might be a bad experience here and there they might be talking about, but you’re still … It comes from a positive place, more times than not. So, it’s so fun to talk about travel. I’ve developed great relationships out of NTA. I’ve received a great education out of NTA, working with suppliers and DMO’s, and learning about their business and how I can help their businesses work with other DMO’s and suppliers to have that co-opetition together. I’ve enjoyed showing them the value of that.
And then joining the executive committee and becoming the chairman, and learning everything that comes with all those relationships and partnerships. Plus, helping those members further their businesses. I mean, that was just so rewarding because, when you can help people do more for themselves, that’s better than doing anything for yourself in my opinion. I can’t say enough about what NTA has given my company and me as a professional in this industry. You know, that Travel Exchange once a year, that’s great, but they have the contact event, they have a leadership committee meeting where you’re learning from other peers while doing committee work. You’re getting a different perspective from someone halfway across the country that’s dealing with a different problem that you can help them and you didn’t even realize you could help them. So, it’s there and it’s so rewarding when you can do that and be a part of that community.
“When you can help people do more for themselves, that's better than doing anything for yourself.” - Justin Osbon #podcast Click To Tweet
That’s really awesome. I appreciate you taking us through that, through your experience and what it’s done for you. And I think there were a lot of really key points that you made there. I appreciated your reflection on being able to help others and how important that is and how much that really pays you back by being able to help others. I couldn’t agree more.
The other point I want to make sure listeners picked up on is, as you mentioned, there’s Travel Exchange or for other event the ABA marketplace or for TAP, the TAP Dance, these annual events that happen, but it goes beyond that to really get a lot out of it is how much you put into it. And so there’s all those other opportunities that you mentioned, getting on committees and participating in Connect and those other types of activities that really seemed to bring you the most return on investment of your time.
Absolutely. It’s like anything else in life. You are going to get out, what you put in. If you put more in, you’re going to get more out. It’s just a fact. We all think our challenge are unique, and they are to some extent. But if you talk to people you realize, “Well, they’ve got the same problems I have, they’re just looking at it from a different point of view.” You can work with them and help them with that, or they can help you with a problem that you have that you’re trying to figure out. But, you know, we all have relatively close to the same problems. They’re just from a different point of view. And if you work with people, you’ll find out you can solve them together.
“We all have relatively close to the same problems. They're just from a different point of view. And if you work with people, you'll find out you can solve them together.” - Justin Osbon #podcast Click To Tweet
That’s awesome. What a great way to wrap up our conversation. I love that, thinking about, others point of view and sometimes if you change your own point of view, you can get to that solution and being able to use your network and learn from peers is really what’s going to help you do that.
I knew this would be a tremendous conversation, Justin, and I appreciate your openness and sharing with us. Are there any final words that you would like to say before we say goodbye?
No, I appreciate the opportunity. Appreciate the time. This has been awesome just to say it out loud. It’s kind of fun. I think it and do it every day, but when you actually have a conversation like this it’s even more fun and invigorating. I’m ready to get back to work now.
Oh, that’s awesome. Well, that’s why I love doing these podcasts because you just get to chat about an industry that we love so much, so I really appreciate you being on today and we’ll look forward to connecting with you again in the future.
You got it, Nicole. Thanks so much. Have a great day.