When Olga Ramudo and her family fled Cuba after the revolution, she had no idea that 50 years later she would be at the helm of Express Travel, a South Florida agency that is among the nation’s top 250 Hispanic-owned businesses.
Along the way, Ramudo also emerged as an industry leader, partnering with the National Tour Association in the United States to create awareness about the Hispanic travel market. She would also win numerous accolades, including ASTA’s Travel Agent of the Year in 2011, and World Trade Center Miami Woman of the Year in 2012.
Based in Coral Gables, Florida, Express Travel has grown over the years to a staff of 30. Ramudo started the agency in 1989 with Cristina Jacomina and Rosa Maria Delgado, fellow part-time travel advisors who also came from Cuba as children. Jacomina is still active in the business, but Delgado has retired.
“We were gutsy, but we had no idea about what we were doing and that it would grow into what it has,” Ramudo said. “We started by doing small trips for family and friends. In three years we were chartering planes for group tours.”
A few years into it, a leisure client asked if the agency could also handle business travel. Deciding to take a stab at it, Ramudo and her partners invested in training and research, over time developing a corporate division that now accounts for 65 per cent of the agency’s business.
“Our goal now is to encourage more crossover between the leisure and corporate sides,” Ramudo said. “We definitely want to take advantage of the growing trend for bleisure travel.”
About 80 per cent of the agency’s customer base is comprised of Hispanic travelers, including many who are the children and grandchildren of the original clients.
Millennials Coming on Strong
“At one point most of our business was 50-plus, but now we’re seeing the Millennials coming on stronger,” Ramudo said. “They recognize the value of getting professional advice and also seem to like the time-saving element.”
Building the client base has been the result of making the most of relationships forged through family and community involvement, said Ramudo, who is active in the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and local business organizations. She estimates that nearly 95 per cent of the agency’s business comes through referrals, sometimes from people the agency has worked with for decades.
“Relationships are very important in the Hispanic community,” she said. “A lot has to do with creating trust. I would say we sell trust even more than service. We want our clients to know we are always going to do our best for them.”
What worked for Express Travel can work for any agency, regardless of who its target market is, Ramudo added.
“I would advise any travel advisor to get involved in whatever you can — your alumni association, church, etc.,” she said. “The more people you know, the more you can open your services to.”
Along with running the agency, Ramudo, a board member of the American Society of Travel Advisors, has worked to encourage the travel industry to reach and serve the fast-growing Hispanic market. A few years ago she chaired a joint task force for ASTA and the National Tour Association aimed at educating advisors and suppliers.
“Unfortunately, it’s dormant now, but we were able to create some awareness about how to sell to Hispanics,” she said. “We advised tour operators on the importance of using hotels that are geared toward families, as we tend to travel in herds. We urged them to not start tours too early, allow free time for shopping and schedule a later, longer lunch.”
Over the past 30 years, Express Travel has seen numerous changes affecting how travel agencies operate. If there is a key to survival, Ramudo said it has to do with staying current and finding new ways to create value.
“I tell my staff you are either moving forward or moving backward,” she said. “These days it’s all about instant gratification, as nobody wants to wait for anything. We’re living in an on-demand culture.”
To keep abreast of changes, Express Travel invests heavily in in-house training for advisors.
“We have one or two training sessions a week, usually early in the morning and including lunch,” Ramudo said. “It’s essential that the advisors know what’s going on — the new flights, the new destinations. In serving your customers, you have to have knowledge and be faster than Google.”