Charting a course for growth has business taking off at CTS, a Minnetonka-based corporate travel agency, despite industry-battering economic turbulence.
Guiding the way is local industry veteran Lisa Buckner, who arrived as president and COO in 2009 after a brief early retirement that followed nearly three decades in leadership at larger corporate business travel agencies.
CTS, an American Express-affiliated agency founded in 1974, offers managed travel services for midsized and larger companies nationally with a reputation for providing one-stop, "high-touch" customer service, Buckner said.
The company also offers vacation travel booking, creative and production services, customized events and meetings and trade show planning and operation. CTS is a certified woman-owned business, owned by two local women with Buckner also having an ownership stake.
Buckner first focused on building her management team and then developing a growth itinerary that includes new (but experienced) hires, new services, new technology, a new revenue model, a new partnership with the largest global travel booking system and a new headquarters, moving to a newly remodeled building Minnetonka from downtown St. Paul.
"I spent time listening to the customers, putting processes and infrastructure in place and positioning us to grow," Buckner said. "Because  was such a down year and companies were cutting their travel back, it was a hard year to hit the pavement and get new business. But it gave me a year to get to learn where we were at. That next year is when we went full steam ahead and started growing."
With the plan gaining momentum through 2010, CTS ended the year with revenues $6 million, up 30 percent from a flat 2009, Buckner said. Much of the rest of the industry, by comparison, was flat or up perhaps 10 percent. A hiring push has raised the number of employees from 45 when Buckner started at CTS to about 70 today.
Expecting the upward trend to continue, Buckner projects that the company's revenue will double within three years. That will come largely through organic growth and maximizing relationships with the new network of preferred travel suppliers that Buckner has assembled.
"The travel industry is coming back now," Buckner said. "Our existing business is up and new business is starting to pick up. I'm hearing that from my friends and my competitors -- they're all saying we're having a good year, relatively speaking."
The new preferred supplier network may be the most significant addition since her arrival because suppliers now are travel agencies' main source of revenue, Buckner said. Airlines, rental car companies and other travel suppliers had to submit bids to be part of the group.
"Our customers pay a fee when they book a ticket, but that isn't our revenue growth," Buckner said. "We make money from our suppliers. We have to keep reinventing ourselves and figuring out where our revenue is going to come from."
Airlines stopped paying commissions to travel agencies in the late '90s and now base compensation on performance against contracts, Buckner said.
A contract optimizer service provided by the Sabre Travel Network, the global travel booking system that CTS alone uses in the Twin cities, enables the company to help clients optimize contract performance, benefiting both the client and CTS.
Buckner has ushered in technology improvements that include synchronizing the agency's online booking tool and the booking system its agents use, offering clients more robust reporting to help reduce expenses and using online tools to help track CTS' new business leads. The company also has added creative, production, trade show and customized incentive programs.
For Buckner, coming to CTS is a return to her entrepreneurial roots in the travel industry.
Before CTS, Buckner had held executive positions with Northwestern Travel Management, Navigant and Carlson Wagonlit Travel, where she was vice president of operations and account management. A mother of five, she retired as her youngest was finishing high school, then returned to work at the persuasion of CTS' owners.
"I just knew that it would be fun to take a small company to the next level," Buckner said. "What's happening here is a good thing. We're growing organically, we invested in our people in a downturn."
CTS has provided personalized service and solutions to meet the needs of corporate and group travelers since it began managing travel for International Dairy Queen in July, said Missy Schrupp, director of meetings, events and travel at Edina-based IDQ.
"CTS provides our company with a feel and culture much like our own, of family and service," Schrupp said.
The expert says: Dileep Rao, president of InterFinance Corp. in Golden Valley and professor of entrepreneurship at Florida International University, said turning around or growing a business in a mature, highly competitive industry is one of the toughest assignments in business.
One key lesson is that the company seems to have found what customers want and how to offer it to them. "Get close to your customers and keep them there," Rao said.
Another is to "find the trend and jump on it," as Rao said that CTS seems to have done, using Web-based and mobile tools and webinars to get maximum effectiveness out of the latest technology.
"It is interesting to note that CTS invested in new people, service, technology, new partnerships and new revenue streams in a down year," Rao said. "Typically, many businesses cut expenses to survive and often leave themselves vulnerable to a competitor who has invested for the upturn. CTS seems to have benefited from this gutsy move."
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.