Zwiers Tackles Travel Challenges

May 15, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — To be honest, Bob Zwiers doesn’t travel a lot, which might seem odd for the guy who heads the city’s top corporate travel agency. But at the same time, the 36-year-old president of Navigant International – Grand Rapids thoroughly enjoys playing a vital role in the local travel business — an industry that still fascinates him after 11 years.

Like many others, Zwiers didn’t start out in the business he now happily finds himself in. After he became a CPA, he went to work for BDO Seidman. One of his clients back then was a fledgling agency called Travel Consultants, which was founded by two pioneering travel-business gurus named Greg Vogel and Chuck Cox. Those two, Zwiers said, gave him the career break that changed his life.

“They really taught me about business and how to serve customers,” said Zwiers. “They really have been a driving force for me.”

That connection was made over 11 years ago, when Zwiers began his successful climb up the Travel Consultants ladder. Sent there as a temporary replacement by the accounting firm, Zwiers found himself being calculatingly drawn into the business of travel.

“I helped fill in at Travel Consultants as an employee of BDO Seidman in late 1989, and I just really found the business fascinating. And I found Greg and Chuck to be just outstanding individuals,” he said. “I decided to leave BDO Seidman and go to work for Travel Consultants full-time, which was a relatively small company at the time.”

Zwiers started as the firm’s controller. As the company advanced, so did he. He went from controller to director of finance to vice president of finance to company president in less than a decade, moves he wouldn’t trade for anyone’s frequent-flyer miles.

“It’s an extremely dynamic industry. Travel is just fascinating. It’s a huge industry. It’s a rapidly consolidating industry on the supplier side — with airlines, car companies and hotels — and the actual travel-agency business,” said Zwiers.

When Zwiers started, he said there were more than 30,000 travel agencies worldwide. But that number has diminished greatly since then — largely through some form of consolidation, a movement that will likely continue. Zwiers feels that in future years there will probably be just a few agencies booking business travel.

“There are lots of companies that have gotten involved in the travel business and thought that it’s a relatively easy business. Bit it’s a very challenging business,” he said.

How challenging? Well, one of the country’s biggest companies with the deepest pockets and the largest ad budgets gave up and decided to walk away.

“Wal-Mart recently closed their travel Web site because they really couldn’t compete in the industry,” said Zwiers.

Travel agencies and e-bookers aren’t the only players in the field fading away; the airlines are, too.

“It is very likely that by the end of this year there will only be three major airlines operating in the United States, which is the way it was prior to deregulation,” said Zwiers.

Much of the challenge Zwiers faces is having to depend on others. He has to be able to count on the airlines and hotels to meet his customers’ travel needs.

“Absolutely. We’re really an enabler for corporations, and corporate travel is the vast majority of our business. We probably do in excess of 50 percent of the corporate travel in the West Michigan market, and a big part of our job is coordinating and contracting with multiple suppliers and vendors to provide what we hope is a seamless product,” he said.

Even the weather plays a role in Zwiers’ plans to create the Navigant product.

“Right,” he added. “There are lots of things that are certainly not under our direct control.”

Navigant International added Travel Consultants to its line in October 1997. Navigant has 4,000 associates across North America and bases in Europe and South America, making it one of the largest agencies around. With that size usually comes a demand for a bureaucracy, that each office and every associate do things exactly the same. But Zwiers said that’s not the case with Navigant.

“It’s a large corporation with lots of resources for technology and for the infrastructure that is necessary in travel. Yet, it’s very local in its approach to servicing the customer. So we’re very autonomous here in Grand Rapids to serve our customers in West Michigan,” he said. “It’s different. The customers are served on a local basis, just like it has always been.

“We couldn’t have invested the resources necessary for the technology required before, in the vendor-supplier relationships as a smaller, stand-alone company. So, as we’ve seen in so many other industries, consolidation is very important.”

Zwiers graduated from Calvin College as part of its first class of grads in its Bachelor of Science in accounting program. After graduation, he passed his CPA exam and spent three years working at BDO Seidman as a tax consultant in the firm’s audit department.

The Grand Rapids native lives in Walker with his wife, Jeanne, and their four children. Most of the traveling that the family does takes them up north to their cottage where the Zwiers sail together. On a more personal level, Zwiers enjoys learning about technology and he reads a lot. In fact, he has a subscription to every car magazine that is published.

“I’ve just always loved cars. I’ve just kind of had an interest in cars and boats, too, over the years,” he said.

As for the future, it doesn’t seem to intimidate him. Zwiers is ready for it, planning to simply take it as it comes.

“I love things that are challenging. So I guess I see my future tackling challenges, whatever they may be, and whether it’s in the travel business or some other type of business,” he said. “But I really enjoy this business, and feel that we have a great team. So I just see myself pushing that forward.”           

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