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Staying Grounded in the Travel World
Whoever says fairy tales don't come true hasn't met Gloria Bohan. Her story reads like a fairy tale of grand proportions: a school teacher from Manhattan meets the man of her dreams and plans the wedding. The couple saves enough to host their reception and honeymoon on the cruise ship, the "Queen Elizabeth." The newlyweds move to a sleepy Virginia town named Fredericksburg, and Gloria, still elated from her cruising experience dreams of running a small business that allows her to travel. In 1972, she starts Omega World Travel. Twenty-nine years later, with 200 offices, 1,000 employees worldwide and $612 million in sales last year alone, Bohan reigns supreme as queen of all metropolitan Washington woman-owned businesses (according to the Washington Business Journal, June 15-22, 2000).
"I never thought about making it an empire," says Bohan, a soft-haired blonde with baby doll eyes. "I guess you just have to give yourself to something you really believe in. I wiped out a lot of other things in my life to devote myself to business," she says, adding quietly that she sometimes regrets never having her own children. "You have to look at the good things that happen in your life and count your blessings and go on from there, however. It crosses my mind that I am a businesswoman and I'm not ashamed of it…The thing I really do enjoy is having some control over what I want to do. I don't have investors or directors to answer to."
It's oddly obvious that Omega is the child Bohan never bore – she mothers her company with every shred of care and attention. And Bohan has survived every growing pain and temper tantrum Omega could throw her way. A study of her company is like a history lesson – Bohan lived through the dawn of the computer age in the '70s, a wrenching economic recession in the '80s, and the dawn of the Internet age in the '90s. Her thoughtful beginnings are a textbook example of intelligent business management – Bohan studied her industry and the competition. The only other travel agency in Fredericksburg at the time wasn't delivering tickets and closed its doors at 5 p.m., just as the rest of the workforce was heading home. In turn, Omega stayed open until 7 p.m., and Bohan went door to door introducing herself and delivering brochures about her services. She took the work whenever she could get it – whether it was chartering a plane to Disney World or securing a bus for a tour of the Amish country – no task was considered too large or small. Within a year of starting her business, however, Bohan realized that her customer base in Fredericksburg was limited. She jumped at the opportunity to purchase a tiny agency in Woodbridge for $2,000 – one that came complete with an ad in the Yellow Pages. Overhead was low – the monthly lease payment, a few office furnishings, and "a huge plant for $120, which I thought was overpriced," – and she was in business. Thus began Bohan's commute between offices, adding to her workday and subtracting time from her personal life. In 1978, after working yet another night until 9 p.m., Bohan arrived home to a quiet house and her husband already tucked into bed. "I haven't had my dinner yet," he grumped. "I haven't had my lunch yet. We need to talk," Bohan retorted. They worked out a schedule for meals, and within a few years, her husband, Daniel, was employed at Omega.
Common sense has been the mainstay of many of Bohan's business decisions. When personal computers first emerged on the scene in the late '70s, Omega was among the first travel agencies to switch to automation. When a major air carrier began presenting travelers with "buy one, get one free" travel vouchers, Bohan sent members of her maintenance crew down to the airport, with their pockets and socks bulging with cash. There, they met travelers at the exit gate and bought "buy one, get one free" vouchers for $40 or $50 from those with no future travel plans. Omega then sold thousands of these transferable flight coupons to their customers, saving them 50 percent of the cost of a regular flight, which amounted to substantial money and built a cache of funds for Omega's growth into offices in downtown Washington, Bailey's Crossroads and other high-visibility areas. "My concept was that you need to be close to your customers," Bohan says.
Her vision of human touch and easy accessibility led to a last minute offer to bid for government travel services. It was 1982, and a large travel agency that had previously won the U.S. government's $26 million contract was failing. "If the government doesn't understand their bills, they don't pay," says Bohan, adding that the prior contractor failed to maintain careful invoicing records, which led to its demise. On a Friday night, Bohan got the call that the government's travel business would be split into smaller contracts. On Saturday morning, Bohan presented her bid and was awarded a $6 million contract at a time when her whole company was logging $8 million in travel sales.
The notoriety from this overnight success threw Omega into a whole new working arena. As president and CEO of one of the largest government travel contractors, Bohan was instrumental in forming the "Society of Travel Agents in Government" in 1984. Last year the group changed its name to the "Society of Government Travel Professionals" to include car rental companies, hotels, and other organizations that cater to the government.
She attributes Omega's success to her family of qualified employees, some of whom have been with the organization since the very beginning. "If you don't have a loyal staff to call on, you're in trouble." Bohan travels regularly, often with her husband, to various offices around the country (and to the extension office in London, which was added in 1995) to get to know her agents and build team spirit. "People want to know what you're about, what your story is and what you believe in." Because of that, Omega's website includes pictures of agents to personalize the act of Internet travel window-shopping, and Omega is a supporter of affiliate agents who telecommute from home.
These days, Omega has sacrificed some of its glitzy, high-profile storefronts for efficient telephone and web support centers to meet the demands of high-speed business travel. The company shaves overhead by consolidating nearby offices and developing new worksites in secondary cities and less urbanized locales where employee turnover, standard of living and office rent is often lower.
And Bohan has jumped on the Internet bandwagon, with Cruise.com, which was formed in 1998. As the number one cruise seller on the Net, this website can be seen as a return to Bohan's roots – to her happy honeymoon memories. For more information about Omega World Travel, visit www.omegatravel.com.
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About Omega World Travel
Omega World Travel is a woman-owned, diversity supplier, and one of the largest travel management companies in the US. With worldwide headquarters in Fairfax, VA, Omega serves corporate, government, meeting, and leisure clients throughout the US., Europe, and the Middle East. Omega World Travel also owns Cruise.com, one of the largest sellers of cruises on the Internet, and TravTech, a software development company and Omega Meetings and Conference services.