Axial's Growth 100 : James Shearer

James Shearer

COO, Travel Masters

Mastering the Business of Travel

Technology has completely changed the way people plan travel. The idea of consulting a human and giving them license to book hotels and airfare and plan a daily itinerary is not the way the average traveler approaches trip-planning. But in the days before Expedia and travel blogs, people were at the very center of the travel planning business.

Travel Masters was born in 1994 after its founder identified a gap in the market. At the time, his wife was a travel agent and a large percentage of her earnings were going back to the agency that employed her. Travel Masters was founded on the idea that travel agents could keep a more meaningful piece of their profits.

James Shearer, who came into Canadian-based Travel Masters as COO in 2007, recounts the early years of the innovative company. In the 90s, before James arrived, Travel Masters counted hundreds of agents and while they were very successful, the market was changing. “Hobby agents,” professionals who would take on the business of travel planning as a second job, were much more plentiful than professional agents, says James. They were also starting to see the shift towards online booking. When James first joined the business as an outside consultant there were many questions left to answer about the direction of the business.

Reintroducing the Human Touch

Today, Travel Masters counts both leisure and corporate travelers as clients. They’ve successfully established a brick-and-mortar business built around the role of the expert and professional travel agent, whose job is to help its customers plan once-in-a-lifetime experiencesnot just great trips.

Travel Masters customers aren’t booking trips on their computers at 11:00 p.m. “We don’t want to compete with Expedia or AirBNB,” says James. When you call Travel Masters, no one will ask for your reference number. “It’s that personal touch that enables us to deliver that level of service and stand out from the crowd,” says James.

Rebranding the Travel Agency

About a year ago, Travel Masters started thinking carefully about how to upgrade their brand alongside their unique view on professional travel planning. “We looked at our business with fresh eyes,” says James. Studying both current and would-be clients, they asked themselves why travelers should book with them, and more importantly, why should they not?

Through the first half of the year, most of the work was focused internally. In December of 2015, Travel Masters unveiled some of the external proof points of a rethought brand including a new website.

James recalls when they first brought on a branding consultant. “One of them asked, ‘Why would I use a travel agent?’” The couple in question planned to get married overseas. Little did they know that the target date happened to fall during hurricane season for the destination they had in mind. James suggests that with all the crazy things going on in the world today, travel experts have never been more important. When a member of his team relayed the news to help their new branding agent avoid a soggy set of vows, James said they responded like so many of the travelers they help everyday — “I didn’t even think about that.”