Collette, one of the best-known travel brands in America, takes a few days each year to host a trip with its Presidents Club members as a reward for their loyalty. Typically, the company introduces a featured destination, like Ireland or, in 2019, a European river cruise.
This year, for its 100th anniversary, Collette showcased its home in Providence and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and Joe Cappuzzello and I went as guests.
President and CEO Dan Sullivan Jr. was there for most events, including a tour of the company’s sprawling headquarters in Pawtucket, where 353 employees of its 607-member workforce have their offices. Collette was founded by Jack Collette, who owned it from 1918 until 1962, when he sold it to Dan Sullivan Sr. The Sullivan family has owned and run the company ever since.
Sullivan family members have always held key positions in management of the company, but there are nonfamily executives as well, people like executive vice president Paula Twidale, who just completed two years as chair of the United States Tour Operators Association, and Bob Colucci, who presented Collette’s financial information as its executive vice president and CFO.
I was impressed by the nature of the content Collette offered the clients on the trip. It became apparent early on that this gathering was more than a sales seminar. Presentations included in-depth discussions of Collette’s approach to technology, financial accountability, airline relationships and social responsibility. Collette treated these guests like industry partners, not order takers.
Twidale led off by asking attendees, “Who is chipping away at your business? You must realize that Google, Priceline and Expedia have become competitors of yours.” Then she exhorted them to be bold.
“It’s time for many of you to venture out,” she said. “Consider places like Vietnam, Morocco and Jordan.”
I spoke with Dan Sullivan Jr. and referenced the noncommercial approach to the weekend’s agenda.
“There are many reasons a company lasts 100 years,” he said. “Sales is only one. We want these clients to know we are financially sound and that our approach has never changed. My father went into hotels 50 years ago and contracted for rooms himself. Today, we still do that. We have our people on the ground all over the world. We do the work ourselves.”
Two breakout sessions were run by family members Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, executive vice president of product and tour management, and Diana Ditto, director of product design, who discussed Collette’s Explorations division.
“We love the option of choosing between bike riding or walking,” a client told Leibl-Cote. “That’s become very popular with our groups.”
“Great, let’s talk about pacing,” said Leibl-Cote.
“Younger people don’t want to get up and start until 9 a.m. or so,” said a client. “The older ones are ready to go by 7:30, so that’s a balancing act.”
“Our older travelers are starting to like free time,” said another, “but they want a list of options beforehand so they can plan for it.”
Ditto’s observations about Collette’s Explorations trips spoke to the future.
“We’ve moved from a maximum of 24 to 19,” she said. “These are active versus passive trips. We emphasize gastronomy, quality over quantity and use native transportation, things like subways, trains, tuk-tuks and camels.
“We sleep on the Erin Islands in Ireland,” she said. “We chase sunrises and sunsets. We visit the salt flats in Bolivia and women’s cooperatives in Jordan; we ride Vespas in Tuscany and do Switzerland entirely by rail. In Morocco, we get to the hotel by camel because there’s no other way. We mush to breakfast in Finland and eat street food in Vietnam.”
Social events, sightseeing in historic Newport and a gala dinner enlivened the weekend, but it was the give-and-take between Collette and its customers that impressed me.
Sullivan summed up this year’s message to these Presidents Club members succinctly:
“We think the future is about choices on tour,” he said. “We have to facilitate choices for people in destinations today. They want that freedom. That’s where the industry’s headed.”