Jackson — When you work in the travel business, a ringing phone can mean anything.
Bill Bryan of Bryan Tours/MTS Travel found that out when he was asked years ago to organize an outdoor formal dinner for 1,000 people at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. To ensure five-star service for the dinner guests, Bryan hired Samoan people to sit high above in the trees with radios. If someone dropped a napkin, they radioed to the crew below and it was quickly taken care of. Afterward, the company president said he could not believe the level of service his company had just enjoyed, and Bryan pointed up into the trees where his workers were still posted to show him how he had pulled it off.
“That’s what I call the good old days of travel, when you just relaxed and the enjoyed the trip,” said Bryan, who is now semi-retired from the business.
This year, his family’s company celebrates 40 years in the travel business, not an easy feat considering Bryan Tours has endured the Great Flood of 1979, commission cuts by the airlines, heavy competition from the Internet and the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when the staff spent all their time refunding tickets instead of purchasing them.
The agency drew strength from its 1998 merger with competitor MTS Travel of Pennsylvania. Anita Nooe, manager of the Jackson office, said MTS is an excellent partner, leaving most of the management decisions to the local branches. MTS has 10 branches in eight states, including another Mississippi agency, Mainstream Travel in Greenville.
Like Bryan, MTS specializes in travel for religious groups, so the merger has proved to be a good fit for both companies. Fifty percent of Bryan Tours/MTS Travel’s business is church and mission travel, which has always been a large part of the agency’s business. Bryan Tours/MTS is the largest U.S. firm for religious, non-profit and cause-related travel management services.
Bryan Tours draws its religious roots from its founders, the late Dr. Clyde Bryan, long-time pastor of First Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, and his wife, Josephine. The Bryans had traveled extensively through Europe, South America, the Holy Land and the Middle East before they started Bryan Tours.
Their agency started quite unexpectedly when their church gave them a trip to Europe. The Bryans bought a little car there and drove all over Europe by themselves, and when they got back they showed slides of the trip to their church friends. They urged the Bryans to organize a group and take them to Europe, which they did. The next group they organized visited the Holy Land and before they knew it, the Bryans were in the travel business.
Last week, Josephine Bryan, who will soon turn a young 84, flew to Copenhagen to accompany a small group on her 34th cruise. “I still exercise every day, so I can still walk and see things…I’m just not as fast as I used to be,” she said laughing.
She has traveled to 123 countries, many of them more than once, like England and Australia, where she’s visited 11 times. Her intimate knowledge of countries comes in handy when people ask her to map out a trip for them. “I can just close my eyes and see the things you need to do in Australia,” she said.
Josephine Bryan has favorite countries for different reasons — Norway and New Zealand for the scenery, Austria because she is a musician. One of her favorite trips was off the beaten tourist path to the Galapagos Islands. Their group wore special shoes so their feet would not get cut on lava stones, but walking on the uneven terrain was still tough.
“You would get to a point where you needed three legs. You didn’t know where to step next,” she said, adding that the trip improved greatly when they started using walking sticks.
Bill Bryan has traveled to 68 countries, and he’s been to Europe more than 100 times. He loves Italy for its history, England for the countryside, and he’s a big fan of the Bavarian countries like Germany, but nothing matches Switzerland for beauty, he said. He still takes a few groups on international trips but mainly handles the business end of the business nowadays.
Bryan was a young professor of finance and business administration at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee when he decided to join his parents full-time at the Jackson agency in 1973. He had worked in the family business in the summers during college and after he started teaching, so he was well prepared for the hectic environment of a travel agency — without the convenience of computers.
The travel business is not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for people who like to work on one project at a time.
“You go to work and snap your fingers and the day is over,” he said. “You start a project, then the phone rings and you start another project. Then the phone rings and you start another project. You go from destination to destination to destination…and you hope you have it organized well enough so that someone else can pick up where you left off if you can’t be there.”
Bryan and his parents were working on Lelia Drive when the Easter Flood of 1979 hit Jackson. Their office was five feet deep with water and they had to throw away slides of their trips and travel books they had collected from all over the world.
“It was devastating. We had people drying things out for us all over town,” said Josephine Bryan. “Bill has a wooden rhinoceros that we brought back from Africa, and he has cracks in his back (from the water). Every time I see him I think of the flood.”
The next year, the agency moved into its current office on Dunbarton Drive.
Still more floods were still to come for Bryan Tours in the form of airline commission cuts and the Internet splashing unbelievable deals on hundreds of Web sites. Even though customers must pay Bryan Tours a fee — $35 for a domestic airline ticket, for example — Nooe said she and the other agents can beat the Internet fares most of the time. By being members of travel associations Vacation.com and Virtuoso, the agency can offer discounts to its customers on cruises, hotels, tour packages, limo services, transfer services and more. Bryan and its customers also benefit from contract fares from the airlines.
Bill Bryan points out that in most cases, a large travel agency can offer a lower rate for a cruise than the cruise line’s own Web site.
“When I meet a client, I have studied the Internet before I meet them and I know the rate they are looking at and I tell them I can do it for lower,” he said.
The agency emphasizes the theme that “without your travel agent you are on your own.” Customers who need to change or exchange Internet reservations pay heavy penalties to do so, which is often the catch for paying a lower rate, and some Web sites do not have phone numbers, where Bryan offers a 24-hour help line for travelers in trouble. Groups cannot be booked on the Internet and most meeting rooms can’t either, Bryan agents say.
The agency has rarely spent a dollar of advertising outside of Mississippi, but 70% of its business now comes from out of state, said Bill Bryan. He credits word-of-mouth advertising to the agency’s success.
“We’ve always had a theme of exceeding expectations,” he said. “We would rather people be surprised on the positive side. Some people come back and say (the hotel) was in a bad location or it was dirty. We feel like our pastors come back and say, ‘Wow, it was much better than we thought.’ We put more emphasis on the product than the promotions.”
Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.