Staying Ahead of the Snowball

By Brent Blake, President, Acendas Travel

Legendary hall-of-fame pitcher and amateur philosopher Satchel Paige famously said: “don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”

At the risk of raising the ire of Mr. Paige’s soul, when I look back at my years in the travel management industry I see a big snowball careening down the mountain picking up steam with each revolution. If you take that snowball as a metaphor for change, then, you really only have three options as it gains pace: a.) get out of the way (leave the industry); b.) get run over (fail in the industry); c.) keep ahead of the snowball (prosper in the industry).

At this point in my life (a member of the dwindling baby boomer workforce), A and B are not realistic options. I like the people I work with, the subject matter intrigues me plus I enjoy the interactions with clients; and too many people have invested too much to fail. So, how does Acendas Travel stay ahead of the snowball?

I’d like to tell you it was the result of my ongoing brilliant thinking that has allowed us to survive and grow over 35-plus years. But that would be disingenuous.

Actually, it started with reading a book — many years ago — and then by being disciplined in our actions. As Acendas Travel sought to better itself, I was struck by the concept of Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great.” We were quite comfortable being good, but what if at some point down the road, it was not good enough? What if the snowball gained so much speed we became too slow to react? Becoming great, Collins said, comes from injecting the proper DNA into your culture. The DNA is the intersection of the answer to these three questions:

  1. What can you be the best in the world at?
  2. What drives your economic engine?
  3. What are you deeply passionate about?

After a series of exercises, we arrived at the conclusion that this intersection (what Collins calls the “Hedgehog” concept) was our ability to create and develop lasting relationships. It would become our DNA – the information woven into the business allowing us to develop, prosper and grow. How does that translate to strategy? I could cite numerous examples, but a few include: 

  • We enter into relationships with clients with a long-term perspective and focus on mutual goals that lead to growth, even if it comes at the expense of short-term gains.
  • We have a workplace culture where we invest in teammates, look at failure as an opportunity to learn and improve, and see change as the impetus for innovation.
  • We seek like-minded partners in our vendor relationships knowing that we are investing in each other’s success.

Acendas Travel has doubled in size over the past 10 years. While a strong economy has helped facilitate that, a conscious effort to cultivate lasting relationships has been the driver to our success. Our retention and referral rates for corporate and leisure travel are well-above national averages. It is ironic that in an industry so highly focused on the transaction (air tickets, auto rentals, hotel bookings), our success is because of the attention we pay to people. Whether it is the travel manager or the traveler, we are driven to deliver cost-savings, time saving efficiencies and improved service because those are the outcome of win-win relationships.  

If you google “Satchel Paige,” you will  be amazed by the wisdom of this man who had but six years of formal education. When talking about his pitching strategy, he said: “just take the baseball and throw it where you want to. Throw strikes. Home plate don’t move.”

Our focus on lasting long term relationships is our home plate — and Satchel is correct, it doesn’t move. We’ve been fortunate to throw more strikes than balls.