When anti-government protests in Egypt turned violent in January 2011, 160 travelers with Pawtucket-based Collette tours were among an estimated 1,900 U.S. citizens temporarily stuck in Cairo.
Such crises are potential nightmares for any travel company, but Collette is better prepared for the unexpected than most.
The 100-year-old company maintains an around-the-clock, international-safety department to monitor political hotspots and weather threats around the world. The team worked throughout the weekend with ground operators and tour guides in Cairo who stayed with the travelers to get them all safely out of the city and back home within days of the unrest.
“We are adept at dealing with crises,” Collette Executive Vice President Paula Twidale told Providence Business News soon after the local travelers returned home. As a result, she said, those 160 people “are our customers for life now.”
The self-described longest-operating tour company in the nation attributes much of its success managing tours on all seven continents to adapting to 21st-century international travel developments – including cybersecurity, terrorism threats and natural disasters.
“Terrorists today are getting more creative … [but] you can’t prohibit yourself because of common threats,” said Michael J. Vendetti, Collette’s director of property, safety and security. “We want the experience to resonate with guests and the way we do that is to make them safe.”
That around-the-clock commitment and a focus on immersing travelers in the local culture have turned Collette into what CEO and President Dan Sullivan Jr. called “a global powerhouse,” with offices in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Australia employing nearly 600 people. That includes more than 480 at its local headquarters, making the company what Pawtucket Foundation Executive Director Jan A. Brodie called an “anchor employer” in the city.
It’s a long way from the small, guided-tour agency founded by Jack Collette in Boston in 1918, with the goal of escorting New Englanders to other parts of the United States. The first tour Collette sold was a three-week excursion from Boston to Florida costing $61.50 per ticket.
The company relocated to Providence in 1927 and, almost 50 years later, in 1962, was purchased by Dan Sullivan and Arthur McWilliam. The pair established the company’s current headquarters along the Blackstone River, significantly expanded the company’s employee base and built tours to new destinations across the globe.
In 1990, Sullivan stepped down as CEO to serve as president and chairman of the board. He was succeeded as CEO by his son, Dan Sullivan Jr. Today three members of the family’s third generation work with the company: Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, executive vice president of product and tour management, and Nicole Diebold, manager of corporate social responsibility marketing, are both daughters of Dan Jr.; and Diana Ditto, director of product design, a niece of Dan Jr.
Susan and Timothy Magill aren’t seekers of “fun and sun” when they travel. They want to learn when visiting another culture.
A Collette trip to Ireland stands out in Timothy Magill’s memory because he felt his guide “knew more about Ireland than Saint Patrick.”
Stamps from Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Greece, among others, are listed on the Narragansett couple’s passports thanks to the breadth of Collette programming.
The Magills continue to book through Collette because of the experience. “It’s an education, something that stays with you,” said Timothy.
Susan recounted an excursion during their Greece trip in which Collette guests watched an olive oil company produce the fragrant liquid. “It’s amazing,” she said, “you learn so much about what it takes to create what we buy in the [U.S.].”
Sullivan said he considers Collette a “unique” brand in the national guided-travel industry because of the depth of its product.
Most tour operators are “specialists,” he said, offering trips to Europe or New York, “most have a niche” – but that’s not Collette.
Collette offers 179 guided tours – Africa (seven), Antarctica (two), Asia (12), Australia (six), Europe (82), North America (64) and South America (six) – ranging from five to 27 days – and the list continues to grow.
During the second half of the 20th century, when programming was expanded to include cultural experiences in Hawaii, the Canadian Rocky Mountains in 1976 (the company’s first international tour) and its first European tour, to Switzerland in 1986, Sullivan said “immersive” programing was pursued to grow the consumer base and pave the way for subsequent tours.
The most recent additions include Christmas celebrations in Finland, views of the northern lights in Iceland and visits to Colombia’s coffee region.
Unlike their constantly refreshing tours, Sullivan said their target market remains the “mature” crowd – baby boomers and retirees in their 60s and 70s.
He said today’s Collette travelers are “a little older” than previous demographics, but because of medical advances these individuals won’t age out of traveling as fast as customers did in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Collette’s success, said Sullivan, stems from the talented employees and the “five-star” product they sell “at a three-star price.
“It’s why people buy Collette,” he said.
“Twenty years ago, people came in at age 65 and only took a couple trips” before they were unable to travel due to age, he said. Today “that person will be traveling for another 20 years.”
This target market isn’t unique to Collette.
“Irrespective of if it’s an expensive vacation … as people [age] and lose motor skills, they want something planned,” said Kevin Higham, director of sales at Conway Tours in Cumberland. Conway is located less than 10 miles away from Collette’s headquarters.
Higham said the guided-tour “niche” targeting older, less-mobile generations is “very healthy” and business has held up “quite well” for the company. While he would not provide financial data, he said Conway was smaller than Collette.
Collette and Conway compete for international air travel, said Higham, but Conway still offers regional motor-coach tours – the service on which Collette was founded – and Collette does not.
Conway is less than a decade away from its own centennial anniversary. Higham was reluctant to discuss his competitor, though he acknowledged it’s “unusual” for a travel company to be in business that long. He believes both companies are successful because they are family owned.
“There are ups and downs – terrorist attacks, profit margins – that would be difficult for a public company to sustain,” he said.
A major revenue setback for Collette, to the tune of $30 million, occurred after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. When booking their travel, Collette customers have the option of enrolling in a waiver policy – for $250 this service allows them to cancel their trip up to the day before departure – and in the wake of those events many customers reconsidered.
Many transferred their credit to another Collette tour, though the financial hit led to approximately “10 percent” of workers getting laid off, said Collette Chief Financial Officer Bob Colucci, a 19-year Collette veteran.
Seven years later, approximately 30 people were laid off during the Great Recession.
In 2009, Collette brought in close to $118 million in revenue. Eight years later the company had more than doubled that figure, bringing in close to $289 million – a 145 percent jump.
Colucci expects 2018 to be the first time the company surpasses $300 million in revenue.
“The U.S. dollar and health of the economy” help Collette stand out from competitors, he said, explaining 10 percent of business is booked by foreign customers, with the rest accounted for by U.S. customers.
Collette’s revenue growth has been matched by the expansion of its workforce.
Collette data shows employment doubled from eight people in 1962 to 16 in 1970.
Fifteen years later, employment in Rhode Island grew to approximately 33 and to 126 within another decade (1995). In 2005 Collette employed 332 people in Rhode Island and by 2015 that employment had grown to 442. As of December, the company employed 489 in Rhode Island – a 200-worker increase from 2009 – with those positions focused on marketing and information technology.
Retention of talent has never been an issue for Collette – a perennial PBN Best Places to Work winner. In addition to travel perks, employees can access an on-campus wellness center, enroll in tuition-reimbursement programs and are allowed paid time off to volunteer.
In recent years, “[More than] three-quarters of our [employee hires] have been made in Rhode Island,” said Colucci.
This year, the company plans to add another 60 employees globally. The number of hours per week and role of these workers have yet to be determined, said a Collette spokesperson.
The company purchased a 26,350-square-foot building at 90 Middle St. in Pawtucket, adjacent to its current Middle Street campus, in 2015.
But Colucci said his “biggest challenge” remains physically accommodating the company’s growth. Even though Collette owns 5.7 acres in Pawtucket, “we are maxed out,” he said.
Jeanne Boyle, director of commerce and redevelopment for Pawtucket, said the company is “a really visible presence” in the state’s fourth-largest city.
From the refurbishment of old mills to investment in technology, Colucci said the company has spent $15 million in the city since January 2013.
It’s “a huge capital investment,” said Boyle.
Sullivan is both a founding member of the Pawtucket Foundation and a member of the city’s 20/20 Vision plan.
“We [have] a long history here … and, philanthropically, we’re very involved in the city’s economic revival,” he said.
The Pawtucket Foundation’s Brodie agrees the company is crucial to the city’s economic success.
“By employing so many people and keeping that employment base in Pawtucket, it’s a major help on property taxes and makes a major difference to a struggling city’s budget,” she added.
One of the most important things Brodie believes Sullivan does for the local business community is share his “enthusiasm” for Pawtucket with others.
“He’s doing what he can and getting other people excited too,” she said.
Sullivan hopes more companies come to see the benefits of operating in Pawtucket, especially because of its proximity to both Providence and Boston. He is particularly hopeful the development of a riverfront bicycle path and the proposed new Pawtucket Red Sox ballpark across the street from the historic Slater Mill site, also part of Pawtucket’s downtown, will attract new economic development.
Collette is still working on plans to celebrate its centennial. A kickoff event is planned this month in Providence. A weeklong group-leader celebration will be held in April, followed by a global summit in June.
In a post-Sept. 11 world, any conversation about international tourism cannot ignore the threat of global terror.
Sullivan said there are five incidents in recent world history that were “serious challenges” to Collette’s international business. In addition to Sept. 11 and the Great Recession, the hijacking of the Italian ocean liner Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt in 1985 by the Palestinian Liberation Front, followed the next year by the hijacking of Trans World Airline flight 847 en route to San Diego and the 1991 launch of Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War all negatively impacted international business.
Iran and Russia are two of the countries in which Collette does not pursue or book tours. Early in 2017, the company relaunched tours to Egypt, ending a self-imposed ban that began in 2012, and Sullivan said that program’s popularity is “coming back slowly.”
From a safety perspective, said Vendetti, who helps track the safety of Collette customers near and far, when weighing a situation such as Egypt and restarting a tour in a country that experienced turmoil, there are two things to keep in mind; “demand for the product and the risk taken as a company.”
Sullivan said most Collette business takes place overseas today. He explained there were 80 Collette tourists in Paris at the time of the November 2015 attacks by the Islamic State, but “terrorism,” he insisted, “is not affecting the American traveler now.”
Even after an incident such as the attacks in Paris, he said, U.S. tourists continue to travel the world.
Twidale, a 26-year Collette veteran and former chairwoman of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, agrees.
“People are still traveling, more than 50 percent of [Collette’s] traffic is to Europe,” where some of the most egregious global terror incidents have occurred, she said.
Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Twidale began to oversee global safety and security of Collette customers. Vendetti came aboard in the summer of 2016 and has augmented the use of technology by the global-security management team. In recent years the team has responded to a host of security threats, including in Barcelona, Spain, and Madrid following the 2017 Catalonian vote for independence, the attack on pedestrians crossing Westminster Bridge in London (also 2017), as well as the multipronged Paris attacks in November 2015.
When a dangerous event happens, she said, “tours generally will proceed. It’s rare we have to move people off the [itinerary]” due to dangerous circumstances.
Collette leadership believes technology will become an increasingly influential factor in the travel industry – especially as the younger generation ages.
“Flexibility, personalization and choice” will drive innovation in the travel industry, she said, with Collette expecting to lead the way.
1927: Collette relocates its base of operations to the New England Transportation Co. terminal in Providence.
1962: Looking to retire, Jack Collette sells the eight-person company to brothers-in-law Dan Sullivan and Arthur McWilliam.
1970: The company doubles employment to 16 people – 12 in Rhode Island and four across the U.S.
1976: Collette sells its first international tour – an air-and-land package – to the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
1980: Collette passes $4 million in revenue and expands to Toronto, where it opens its first international office.
1985: Approximately 33 people are employed by Collette in Rhode Island, with another seven across the nation. The hijacking of the Italian ocean liner Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt in October hurts Collette sales.
1986: Collette expands its portfolio to include European destinations, the first of which is Switzerland.
1991: The Gulf War discourages Collette customers from traveling to the Middle East, also causing dips in company sales to European destinations.
1995: Local Collette employment grows to 126.
1998: Collette surpasses $100 million in revenue and opens its second international office, this time in Uxbridge, England.
2001: Dan Sullivan Jr. is a founding member of the Pawtucket Foundation. Collette Tours rebrands as Collette Vacations.
Sept. 2001: Shocked by terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, Collette customers seek refunds on booked travel amounting to $30 million. Ten percent of the company’s workforce is laid off. In addition, Collette Executive Vice President Paula Twidale begins to oversee the safety of Collette customers traveling across the world from the Pawtucket headquarters.
2005: Rhode Island headquarters employment grows to 332.
2008-2009: Between 25 and 30 employees are laid off during the height of the Great Recession.
2009-2017: Starting in 2009, Collette hires 200 new IT and marketing employees to work at its Rhode Island headquarters, part of 217 IT hires across the globe through the end of 2017.
2012: Collette halts all tours in Egypt as the country experiences internal strife connected to the Arab Spring. It lifts the self-imposed ban in early 2017.
2013: Collette passes $200 million in revenue and begins to spend on improvements to its Pawtucket site and surrounding community. By late 2017 it has invested $15 million in land, buildings and technology.
2015: Local employment at Collette continues to grow, reaching 442 at the Rhode Island headquarters. To accommodate the growing employee base, Collette purchases a 26,350-square-foot building at 90 Middle St. in Pawtucket adjacent to its existing Middle Street campus.
2017: Two years later, Collette employment in Rhode Island reaches 489.
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