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Jackson’s Bryan Tours growing through non-profit niche

JACKSON — The travel company that started in the 1960s as a hobby for a retired minister and his family in Jackson has, through mergers and acquisitions, become one of the largest travel agencies in the U.S.

Established in 1964 by Dr. Clyde Bryan, a retired Baptist minister, Bryan Tours grew from a one-room family-owned operation at Camelot Apartments in Jackson to a major southern region travel firm with 45 employees in three offices — in Jackson, Indianola and Knoxville, Tenn. — before it became part of the MTS Travel Management Group of Pennsylvania in 1998.

“We were each other’s biggest competitors, with the same type of clientele and travel philosophy, so it was a great merger,” said Bill Bryan, 53, president of Bryan Tours and vice president of international travel for MTS. “We recently found out that, of more than 30,000 travel agencies in the U.S., MTS is in the top 100, and the airlines tell us that we’re the largest travel agency in the country that handles religious and non-profit travel.”

In 1969, Bill Bryan, then 21, was one of the youngest professors in the U.S., teaching international finance, accounting and economics at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn. and study programs in Switzerland every summer. A Hattiesburg native, Bryan had graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s degree in finance and an MBA. (Today, he teaches economics and finance part-time at Belhaven College in Jackson.) In 1973, Bryan entered the family business full-time.

“The family business was getting too big for my parents to run by themselves, and then a very interesting event occurred,” Bryan said. “During the course of a few days, my dad and I wrote letters to each other that crossed in the mail. It was the first letter I’d ever written him, and I sent him a note thanking him for everything he’d done for me, and I mentioned that if he needed extra help in the business, I would be interested. At the same time, he had written a similar letter, telling me how proud he was, and said if I’d like to make a change, to let him know. Even though I had escorted groups to Europe in the summer from the beginning, I’d never been involved full-time.”

Even though Bryan Tours is a full-service travel agency, about 70% of its business is focused on leisure and international travel, with about 70% geared to religious and non-profit organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, volunteer missionary travel and disaster relief missions, Bryan said.

“Since I’ve been in the travel business, airlines have cut commissions over 50%, and are expected to cut them even more,” Bryan said. “That had a tremendous impact on the travel agencies that typically have 70% corporate travel and 30% leisure and international business. To compensate, agencies have had to charge a fee to run tickets. We initially lost some business to the airlines and to the Internet, but it’s amazing how much of it came back.”

One reason: travel agents have immediate access to information that can save clients money, such as checking alternate cities close to original airport destinations, Bryan said.

“For example, from Jackson to Baltimore, the airfare is as low as $186,” he said. “At normal times, Baltimore is much cheaper than Washington National because Southwest flies to Baltimore from Jackson non-stop, but not to Washington National. To make it competitive, Delta will match the rate to Baltimore, but not to D.C. We tell clients they can fly into Baltimore, which is 26 miles from Washington, take a taxi or shuttle and save several hundred dollars for an extra half hour of travel time.”

Reduced fares via the Internet, on Priceline.com, for example, are valuable only if the flight saves time and money, Bryan said.

“You can’t be assured of the airline,” he said. “My sister recently bought a Priceline ticket from Atlanta to Jackson, and they put her on a seven-hour connection through Memphis. She ended up forfeiting her ticket and driving to Jackson in less time.”

Another reason MTS/Bryan Tours hasn’t been affected by commission cuts is because of its long-term contracts, as wholesalers and consolidators, with many of the world’s largest airlines, Bryan said.

“We buy wholesale and sell at our own price, which is lower than the Internet or even airlines can offer,” he said. “It allows us to have the lowest prices to almost all world destinations. But you won’t see us advertise the airline and airfare together because the contracts will not permit us to promote our own airfares. We have to do that through direct mail or personal contact. It would also upset the other travel agencies that do not have the same deal.”

The economic downturn has not affected leisure and international travel – so far, Bryan said.

“To a lot of people, travel becomes almost a birthright, more important than purchasing a fancier car or a bigger home, so we haven’t seen a decrease,” he said. “Corporate travel is down, will probably continue to be down and should be down because most of it is unnecessary. Today, it costs $1,070 for a 50-minute direct flight, back and forth in a day, to Atlanta. For the same cost, I could send two people to Paris – and even route them through Atlanta. With e-mail and video teleconferencing, a lot of meetings are necessary. Fewer and fewer vendors are calling on us in-person because of the expense, and frankly, we’re fine with that.”

Travelers are no longer shelling out extra bucks for first and business class travel on airlines because of the exorbitant rates.

“The airlines aren’t selling much first-class domestically, and almost none internationally,” Bryan said. “The majority of people in those seats have used miles to upgrade to them. For example, today, a trip to Paris on Delta Airlines is $428 for coach. Business class is $8,032. First class is $12,860. You could take 25 or so people on the lowest excursion fare versus one person in first class.”

Companies have reduced incentive travel programs, Bryan said.

“When the economy is turning down, it’s hard to justify to a board of directors to take 500 salesmen to Scottsdale for the week,” he said. “Those types of things will get cut in favor of meetings closer to home and more reasonably priced.”

Labor activity at the airlines – Northwest baggage handlers threatened to strike last month; Comair is canceling seven-day advance flights; Delta is in a cooling off period – is cyclical, Bryan said.

“A lot of airline union contracts have come up, but I think they’ll settle before it becomes a problem,” Bryan said. “For example, I understand Delta has offered its pilots quite a package. But if airline unions threaten to strike, President Bush, will halt or delay it. Remember when President Reagan fired air traffic controllers that went on strike during his administration? Union activity was quiet as a mouse after that. Also, I don’t think the public will tolerate strikes, even if there is only one air carrier in the area. People are sympathetic to a degree, but will take care of themselves if airlines get too greedy and drive to Memphis, Biloxi, or New Orleans if they need to.”

MTS Travel Management Group was established in 1947 as the travel department of the Mennonite Central Committee, initially formed to facilitate travel for relief and development workers assigned to Europe for World War II reconstruction.

Recognizing that key religious market segments was a growing, specialized niche, the company developed operations throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, the Middle East and Africa – including establishing offices in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Beirut, Kinshasa, Zaire and Nairobi – from the 1950s to
1970s. By the 1980s, MTS had established itself as the primary provider of travel management services for the spectrum of Christian denominations, local and independent churches and organizations supporting

About Lynne W. Jeter

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