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The year that Collette was established, a newspaper ad proudly touted the company’s first-ever itinerary. Interested travelers could hit the road from Boston to Florida by jitney bus and sightsee in destinations including Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami and Palm Beach, Fla., along the way. The sticker price for this 21-day, round-trip bus tour? $68.50. (And the driving speed? About 25 mph.)
That was 1918. Of course, since its inaugural tour, a lot of things have happened for Collette: a change of hands, the introduction of guided touring for the company and the steady strength of family-led proprietorship, to name a few. And 2018 marks 100 years of its progression, evolution and success. But considering all the Enrons and Pan Ams of the U.S. economy, what has enabled Collette — the country’s longest-running tour operator — to not only survive, but also to thrive?
One key ingredient in the company’s secret sauce, says CEO Dan Sullivan Jr., is being able to change with the times.
“Collette was a motorcoach operator in the beginning, running out of New England, but that eventually went away as the last century came to a close,” he said. “So, as we began offering products all over the U.S. and Canada in the ’70s, Collette became more of a national brand. In the late ’80s and ’90s, we became a global brand; by 2003, we added Antarctica, so we sold to all seven continents. Our travelers and travel agent partners knew that they could call Collette for pretty much any destination that wasn’t just Las Vegas or Disney, and we would provide a great four-star product and the best value for the money.”
Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, president of Collette, notes that travel has markedly evolved, particularly in its accessibility for people of all walks of life. There’s also significantly more information available to consumers, which, in turn, has piqued their curiosity to explore different areas of the world.
As today’s savvy agents know, such a surplus of information can be overwhelming for travelers — but Collette works to narrow the focus, in addition to offering boots-on-the-ground knowledge.
“We challenge other tour operators with our way of thinking through guided travel,” Leibl-Cote said. “Competition is healthy, and it keeps us on our edge to keep innovating and be different. For example, we were one of the first, if not the first, U.S.-based tour operators that went international. We took risks throughout our 100 years to expand and broaden our portfolio, and it has been tremendous.”
However, above all, at the heart of Collette is its people. Today, the tour operator has 610 employees worldwide, including 350 based in the U.S., 120 based internationally (in the U.K., Australia and Canada), 70 full-time tour managers and 70 full-time traveling sales managers. (Compare that to 1962, when Collette founder Jack Collette sold Collette to the late Dan Sullivan Sr., and there were only three full-time employees and three tour guides.)
“We constantly look at every facet of the business and at what we can do to make the employees want to work here and want to contribute, and we let all of them know — all some-odd 600 of them — that they make a difference,” Sullivan said. “That person who starts tomorrow can be a leader of the future.”
Sullivan may as well be describing his younger self. Though his family owned Collette, he still climbed the company ladder by way of good, hard work: In 1973, while attending college, he began his tenure as a tour guide on day trips.
“Travel was a family business,” he said. “I loved it. I had grown up in it.”
The same applied to his daughter, Leibl-Cote, who was named president in June. In her 13 years with Collette, she has covered almost all the bases: from working in the mailroom during summers in high school to honing her craft as a product manager, familiarizing herself with different sales distributions in the call center and much more. Today, in her current executive role, she works closely with Sullivan in strengthening the business and its offerings.
We took risks throughout our 100 years to expand and broaden our portfolio, and it has been tremendous.
Courtney Iannuccilli, vice president of global marketing for Collette, is confident that Leibl-Cote will bring a fresh perspective to the business.
“She looks toward the future to see how we can really get our guests what they need before they need it,” Iannuccilli said.
Sullivan adds that Leibl-Cote, who already knew all aspects of the business, was truly the right fit for the role.
“We are doing all of this not just for ourselves, but also for our employees, our guests and for all of the Sullivan family,” Sullivan said. “That goal has helped us get from generation to generation — and we’ve already got that down to the third generation. We’re always going to do the right thing for the long-term, not for the short-term.”
This dogged mentality was on display during Collette’s two-day global travel forum in Providence, Rhode Island, which took place June 21-22 as part of the company’s yearlong centennial celebration. The event included a tour of the longtime Pawtucket headquarters, showcasing to attendees the well-oiled machine that is Collette.
In place were clear practices catering to the well-being of employees, such as an on-site gym with fitness classes and personal trainers. A leadership committee regularly tends to a community garden, also located on campus, and they harvest and donate its produce to a local soup kitchen.
Yet these are only two small components of the tour operator’s substantial dedication to its employees and overall corporate social responsibility.
Manuel Paulo, global contracting manager for Collette, has been a proud employee for 30 years. (His daughter also works in the company’s product department as a product manager.) He praises Collette’s stance on communication and transparency, as well as its open-door policy.
“Anyone can set up a meeting with Dan, Jaclyn or any other executive,” he said. “Collette cares about its employees and the community and is very customer-centric in all it does. Employees look forward to going to work because they not only feel great about making travel dreams come true, but also about giving back to the world we live in.”
Paulo’s relationship with the company is also deeply personal. In the late ’80s, after sharing his stress of affording a house down payment with Sullivan Sr., he found a check — in the amount needed to close the house — from the then-CEO himself.
“He simply said I could pay it back when I could,” Paulo said. “It impressed me very much that an employer — with seven children himself — cared and trusted one of his employees to that degree. To this day, I thank Mr. Sullivan Sr. for his generosity and trust in me. I was and continue to be a very loyal employee.”
Collette also runs in the family for John Sutherland, manager of corporate social responsibility. Sutherland is a third-generation Collette employee (his grandfather and father once worked for the business, too), and his excitement in helping to lead the cause of giving back is palpable.
Employees look forward to going to work because they not only feel great about making travel dreams come true, but also about giving back to the world we live in.
Philanthropy — such as the Collette Cares initiative, which officially celebrates 11 years this month — has been an ongoing effort for the company. However, launched in January, Collette’s corporate social responsibility platform is intended to be more holistic. It focuses on four pillars: people, community, product and environment.
According to Sutherland, the corporate social responsibility team is taking a two-pronged approach: The first is reducing the potential negative impact of travel, including developing policies around how guests interact with indigenous people, as well as lessening the company’s carbon footprint. Meanwhile, Collette intends to increase its positive impact, too.
“For many of our 2019 tours under our Explorations brand, we have included something called an ‘Impact Moment’ into the tour, which gives the guests an extraordinary travel experience,” Sutherland said. “It’s focused on guests having a great experience with the local people, and it directly supports an organization or a local business that has a social mission.”
Outside of Sutherland’s three-person team, volunteers are who power many of the platform’s efforts. More than 10 percent of Collette’s workforce — about 80 employees — are on various committees, working on either the policy or the strategy side of the company’s volunteer work. An even higher number of employees put in the physical labor as needed.
Though Collette works with a large number of organizations, both local and global, one of the company’s biggest projects to date is the 1 Million Meals Campaign with nonprofit firm Rise Against Hunger. In the last three years, Collette team members have packaged 350,000 meals by hand with the organization; in July, the tour operator hit its goal (early) of donating a total of 1 million meals.
Sullivan says he is most excited about the responsible-travel component of Collette’s corporate social responsibility platform.
“It’s one thing for a business to give grants to local businesses that are doing great work,” he said. “It’s another thing for a company to sit down, really assess its own supplier network and factor in the impact the product will have on other stakeholders. And in travel, the stakeholders are local communities that guests visit.”
Ultimately, though, Collette would not have reached its centennial without the constant support of travel advisors, Iannuccilli says.
“Behind the scenes are the people behind the product,” she said. “We want to make sure we are always servicing agents to the best of our ability.”
“They have been great partners for many years, and their value to Collette has continued to grow,” he said. “Together, we’re better as a team.”