News Column

Olga Ramudo, Travel Agency Co-owner, Talks Policy, New Markets

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Olga M. Ramudo found her career by going on vacation. She was a stay-at-home mom in the mid-1980s when she and her sister organized a ski trip with a group of about 30 friends. The next year, the crowd grew to 110.

"The third year, we were chartering two planes and taking them to Vail, Color., over New Year's week," she said.

Figuring they might at least try to turn their work into free trips, Ramudo and her sister, Cristina Jacomino, became independent contractors for a small travel agency. They met partner Rosa Maria Delgado, who is now retired, at that agency and the three formed Express Travel in November of 1989.

Delgado has witnessed huge changes in her profession with the rise of online travel sites and do-it-yourself vacation planning. But she said her business has continued to grow, even during the recession. She has some of the same people on staff as she did in 1989, with 21 full-time employees and nine other part-time contractors. While the agency as a whole sells all types of travel, Ramudo said some agents specialize in cruise, corporate, study abroad or group-meeting travel.

The key to staying relevant, she said, is offering value beyond what a traveler could find with a Web search.

"The agent needs to know more than her customer," she said. "Education is key, being informed is key, because if not, sure, you lose your value."

Ramudo's work has won her plenty of recognition: Just last week, she received the Governor's Business Ambassador Award from Gov. Rick Scott. She earned the 2011 Travel Agent of the Year Award from the American Society of Travel Agents, or ASTA. Hispanic Business Magazine ranked Express Travel No. 192 in its list of largest Hispanic companies in the country.

And her involvement stretches beyond her own company. In January of last year, Ramudo was named to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, a two-year appointment with the option for two-year reappointment. In an interview in her South Miami office, she spoke about her role on the national board, critical issues facing the industry and her favorite vacation.

Q. What do you do as a board member?

As a board member, we meet quarterly, we have different task forces. Tourism is on everybody's radar because tourism does create jobs. 14.4 million jobs in the United States are related to the travel industry and everybody, from the Department of Commerce, Interior, White House directly, is involved and supports tourism because it creates jobs. It's jobs that you cannot outsource; it's steady jobs. And my board does exactly that, we have different task forces, most recently we got the visa waiver approved for Taiwan. We have worked very hard at reducing wait times for Brazil. So that's the type of thing we are working on supporting very much, additional officers for different airports. Particularly, I for one push MIA very much. The CBP officers, Customs and Border Protection officers, we all know that the wait in immigration is a problem.

Q. With your viewpoint from being in Miami, what are some of the issues that you know about uniquely and can kind of bring to that national table?

The wait at MIA is definitely in the forefront and on the radar and actually we laugh because our chair starts the meetings and says, 'Olga has promised not to talk about MIA in this meeting.' I'm passionate and I love my city, I love what I do and I'm a firm believer of what the industry has to offer and what it brings to the table.

Q. What are some of the big issues that you think are going to be at the top of everyone's minds at the ASTA convention that's coming up here next month?

One is education for the agents and obviously creating value for the customer. Our industry as travel agents, that's where the change has been. It's a value proposition now. We're a fee-based and service-based industry. We're now like accountants, like attorneys, you need to justify what you do. It's education, education, education.

Q. I know Hillary Clinton will be speaking at the event. As a businesswoman and a businesswoman in the travel industry, what are the things that you really want to hear from her both with her background as secretary of state and the first lady and with her potential future -- whatever that turns out to be-- but rumored presidential run in 2016?

I think that what I would like to hear from her is not that much in the politics but more in our industry. How does she plan on supporting our industry, how does she plan on supporting the small business? How does she support the woman-owned businesses?

Q. Was that kind of a big get to have her speaking at your conference?

I think so, I think it brings national attention. I think it brings recognition to the association. We have varied topics -- I chair the joint ASTA and [National Tour Association] Hispanic initiatives committee and it's basically to get more Hispanics traveling in the U.S. Some reports say that Hispanics are not growing in their travel patterns like other populations are. I mean, there's a report from Nielsen that shows, I know it by heart already, in 2010 the purchasing power of Hispanics in the U.S. was $1 trillion. And Nielsen is forecasting that by 2015 it will grow to $1.5 trillion. So the travel industry hasn't really gotten that concept. Everybody else is after the Hispanic purchaser; the travel industry is still getting there and that's what this joint committee is doing. We're going to have Emilio Gonzalez, director of the Miami airport, as a speaker at our caucus. He was director of [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] under George W. Bush. I'm hoping that in that part of the meeting, we get to discuss if the immigration bill passes, what will that do to our ports of entry. We can potentially have 11 million more people authorized to travel. If half of those travel, what's going to happen to our ports of entry as well?

Q. What is your theory about why that market isn't really being tapped by the travel industry?

I just think that there hasn't been an outreach. For example, the national parks in the United States -- they haven't reached out to Hispanics at all. I remember I spoke to former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar [about a year ago] and immediately he put a Latino heritage tour in the national parks. I think it hasn't been on anybody's mind.

Q. You said you still grew, the company during the recession?

Half a percent; a little bit.

Q. How did you see the recession affect your business?

It was smaller growth and also our growth was probably more in passengers, but people were spending less. So whoever used to go to Europe for two weeks maybe was now going to Mexico for six days or five days. Whoever used to go to a four-star hotel maybe went to a three-star hotel. So that's where we saw people were more cost-conscious, they were watching more what they were spending. More close-in bookings. I guess the general population thought, 'I don't know if I'm going to have a job six months from now,' so it was more like people booking very close-end.

Q. What clued you in that things were getting better? Was there a moment you realized there was a new pattern emerging that made you think people were more comfortable? Or have you not gotten there yet?

We definitely have. We see the confidence is there. We see more people booking more expensive vacations, we see the corporate traveler traveling more. We are there.

Q. Miami has been growing a lot in the last few years its own tourism numbers. Do you have any thoughts about what the destination itself can do to continue that momentum?

Our partners at the bureau do such a fantastic job. They're so good at what they do. I think that Miami's an easy sell. Look outside this window, look at the weather. And I think that the diversity of the cultures we have to offer, I think that that attracts so many people. You can go around the world in Latin America by coming to Miami, basically. As to what we can do to continue, I think just what we have been doing until now, promoting ourselves as we have as the best destination there is. We have come a long way in the arts... restaurants, every single major restaurant and chef is in our city, we have the different areas to offer, so it's not only about the beaches. And also we used to be just about flamingos and beaches and now we're a great business destination as well. Not too many destinations have the strength in both, and we do.

Q. Do people ask you all the time for travel advice?

All the time.

Q. What kind of questions do people ask you?

You can be at the lane in Publix and have somebody in back of you while you're waiting. 'Oh, what do you do. Oh really? When is the best time and the cheapest airfare to Mexico?' You feel like answering, 'I don't have my computer with me.' Everybody wants value, value value. Even if they can afford it or they can not, I think that this economy has educated everyone on looking for the best value out there.

Q. What's a place that, say, someone asks you for a recommendation for a honeymoon or an anniversary, a special occasion trip. What's a place that you know is going to be a winner?

It all depends on what their budgets are. Italy, Florence, all that area. The Amalfi Coast, that's incredible. I personally love Spain. It depends on the budget people have. Mexico, even though some people really don't understand that the security issues in Mexico are just in pockets, the country's so huge, and so big, and there are places that are perfectly safe to go, great values. Mexico's wonderful. Here in the U.S., we have wonderful places: California, San Francisco -- gorgeous. There's so, so many. And of course, the cruise industry offers a great value as well.

Q. Do you have a most memorable trip that sticks out in your mind?

Yes, and it was driving to the coast up in Spain, the area where Cudillero and all those places are. I'm biased to Spain. And also going to little towns like Toro where my grandfather was born, the winery area there as well.

Q. What about the drive that includes Cudillero -- what about that makes it so memorable for you?

The scenery. Spaniards are so friendly and so much fun and you just go to a plaza and everybody from seven on is out there drinking wine and having the best time ever.

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