She sure makes a good case for the honor: After a fair number of friends and colleagues suggested to INBOUND that we feature Elaine Kellogg in our monthly profile series, we took notice, especially when words and phrases used to describe her included “intense,” “hard working,” “no-nonsense,” “direct” and, “witty.”
Where does “witty” fit in here? “I could be perceived as intense and very competitive, but being witty often eases the intensity of those traits,” says Kellogg, executive director, business development for Gray Line/City Sightseeing New York City, “but it comes in very handy, I think, when used in the appropriate manner with clients or in negotiating situations—plus I just enjoy having a good time with it. It’s something I try to use to help soften my directness.”
Hard working? When we called to set up a time for interview, she replied, “How about noon on Sunday?” One would think that doing an hour-long, work-related telephone call at mid-day on Sunday qualifies anyone as hard working.
Our interview that Sunday, along with the e-mail exchanges and telephone calls that preceded and followed it, made it clear that this direct, hard-working-and-intense, yet witty New York tour and travel industry professional has some strong feelings on a number of matters—from why she became a part of the industry to her assessment of relationship marketing, the role of international tour operators, receptive tour operators and her favorite travel buddy—her 14-year-old grandson.
So, what drew her to the tour and travel industry? “Like a lot of people, I think it was destiny,” she says, recalling a school bus trip from Memphis (she was a senior at a Catholic high school for girls in Memphis, Tennessee) to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. There were, she vividly recalls, “two Continental Trailways buses, 76 girls, two nuns and four lay teachers who set off on this week-long journey.”
And then: “I knew the minute I saw the skyline … that I was going to like this place. The legend in the family is that I came home from the trip and announced to the family that, someday, I was going to live in New York.” So, ‘twas the city, not tourism, that drew the young Memphian into the industry. Whatever it was, she does not have a West Tennessee accent). Kellogg now speaks in familiar, rat-a-tat-tat New York City fashion. It takes her less than a half-second to say, “New York Minute.”
Until the early part of the 2000s, she had another career in sales in New York City. Then, she decided to take a year off, ease up and recalibrate. Toward the end of this period, she spotted a three-line ad in the New York Times and answered it. She soon found herself selling theatre tickets in a New York hotel lobby.
Explains Kellogg: “This was a pretty great deal, because it opened up to me a life I didn’t know existed. In those days, I made $6.50 an hour plus some very good tips, and I got to see every Broadway and off-Broadway show I wanted to see. Then, one opportunity lead to another as I learned about the industry and here I am many years later, loving the heck out of it.”
About what percentage of her work time is on the road or outside of the New York City area? Outside of the U.S.? She estimates that about 50 to 60 percent of her time is spent outside of New York. It’s mostly international. “Sometimes I make some calls in the U.S.” she points out, adding, “and I sometimes attend a marketplace somewhere in the U.S. But mostly it’s international.”
Kellogg markets and promotes two very well-known brands: Gray Line and CitySightseeing. The Gray Line brand itself is more than 100 years old. How do these help her when she’s selling abroad? It certainly does help, she acknowledges: “Brand recognition and an excellent global reputation are a huge plus in our selling efforts. It often opens doors more easily than if I represented a new company or some company that was not as well know.” But, as a salesperson, she notes, “I cannot assume that just because they know the brand that they know New York and they know Gray Line City Sightseeing New York. So, it eases the way for me, but it doesn’t it doesn’t solve all of my obstacles sometimes.”
New York is the most popular U.S. destination abroad. Does she see this status improving, remaining the same or changing in some way in the near-term future? “No doubt that New York is going to remain the number one destination … there is something so very special about visiting New York, about living in New York, that I don’t think will change,” Kellogg says. “It is the place that you must visit and, fortunately, for many people it is not a one-time destination. It is ever-changing there is so much to see and do that you come to the destination a hundred times, and a hundred times it would be different.”
Kellogg lives at 56th and Broadway. She is 1.1 miles from office. She tells us, “I can get anywhere in the world from the Columbus Avenue subway station.”
What’s the easiest sell when she’s talking about NY? Without hesitation, she tells us: “It’s really more about the diversity of the city. About everything the city has to offer. There is something here to offer everyone. With the products that I represent, we can help people—in this case the tour operators or individuals—to put together a trip that’s going to be meaningful for them.”
About the USA brand: What do international operators tell you are the most challenging aspects of selling the United States in their home countries? And what do the they like most about it? “It’s always been a challenge,” she explains. “I’ve been doing this long enough that I have seen cycles. I have seen repetition of different things.” It could depend on what country or what part of the world one talking about on any given day, she notes. In some cases, people are talking to her about the rate of exchange being difficult. Right now, some are concerned about the uncertainties that are coming with the implementation Brexit next year. As a result, they are staying closer to home.
And—it should come as no surprise—she tells us, “Some people are concerned and vocal about our politics, but that’s always been the case to a greater or lesser degree. At the same time … the other half of the world seems OK with the rate of exchange.” As a result, concludes, the people she deals with “seem OK with the politics, and they don’t have that kind of uncertainty going on in their part of the world. So, I think the challenge is pretty much the same.”
China will soon be the largest overseas source market for the U.S.—probably in the next two or three years. How long has Kellogg been working the market? And what would she identify as the top challenges of selling the U.S. to Chinese operators? Kellogg believes there are challenges in working with the Chinese market as there are in working with any unfamiliar or culturally different market. “The number of Chinese who are now traveling here as FITs often have enough English to get by,” she says. “But you need to be able to provide them services in their language.” For Gray Line City Sightseeing, it means offering recorded sightseeing tours on its double-decker buses in Mandarin. The company also provides private tours with Mandarin speaking guides for those who are interested in that type of service. “Usually in a sedan or an SUV type of setting,” Kellogg points out. “Sometimes for small groups, it would be on a van.”
The important thing, she emphasizes “is to recognize is that the way the Chinese like to work is in a step-by-step method. They want it laid how one to 10 or one to 20 how something is going to work – what’s going to happen, in a logical sequence. And Sometimes that could be … sometimes, it’s important that we utilize our patience. Let me put it that way.”
If she had to tell tour operators as a group what they could do to make it easier for them to sell USA product, what would she tell them? “Oh, I wish I knew,” she says with a sigh. “We would all certainly have a lot more sales if we could figure that out.”
When a supplier is able to sit with a client one-on-one over a period of time, she explains, “sometimes you can figure that out. You can find a way to help them increase their sales either of activities or sightseeing in general or your product in particular, or even your destination … but … that’s just not always the case.”
What about Receptive Operators? Kellogg believes that “the number of receptive operators is dwindling, as far as those who are handling on a worldwide basis.” Those who seem to be doing well, she notes, are those that are really focused on particular markets—”not that they don’t accept work for other markets—but they are focused on working with particular countries in Europe, in China and elsewhere.”
In today’s environment of acquire-and-merge, she suggests that it is difficult for many receptives, who operate on small margins, to compete against online travel companies and other channels of distribution. Those receptives servicing smaller levels of FIT business have a challenge when it comes to delivering activities and sightseeing.
Kellogg indicates that she does not know the answer to what to do strengthen the role of receptives, but believes that, historically, they have been a creative lot, able to re-invent themselves when the business environment requires it. “Just think,” she tells us, “they survived 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009—they have what it takes … “
She has also found that, once both international tour operators and receptive tour operators realize the value of activities and sightseeing, they are more inclined to make it a part of their product mix. The sector is, she points out, valued at billions of dollars worth of business.* “And that,” she adds, “is even more than car rental and cruise ships combined.”
If receptives are going to are going to compete with online travel agencies, she adds, “it might be something that they might want to look at. Where they can all things to their customer. They won’t have a need to go anywhere else. The customer has the ability to buy everything from the receptive.”
In the sightseeing and ground tour business, suppliers have gone from point-to-point tours to hop-on and hop off … from cash and hard copy tickets to a reliance on plastic to smartphones and QRCs. What’s next? “I’m one of those people who likes to imagine things, but I have to say, honestly, that even 10 years ago, I would not have imagined where we would be in the industry at this point … as far as technology is concerned. I wish I knew.”
As do other serious international travel marketers, Gray Line City Sightseeing uses WeChat and other channels. “We have all of the social media covered. Who would have thought (10 years ago) we would have WeChat. Who would have thought that?”
One part of the tour and travel industry that we hear emphasized repeatedly is that personal relationships are both important and necessary. So, just how important then, are they? “I agree to a certain extent, but it is changing. Personal relationships are helpful. People, in some cases, have to get to know you. It just depends on the size of the operator.” But, with technology, many of the people who are now buying and making decisions at a middle management level or lower are basically following marching orders from the top.” With technology, Kellogg suggests, “these relationships and the parameters that they have and the discretion that they have is less now when they were the ‘sole buyer’ or ‘sole marketing manager.’
“So, while it’s great to have a very nice relationship with that buyer—and we certainly enjoy many excellent, friendly relationships—the reality of it is that how they make decisions or how they work with you is no longer entirely up to them.”
“In ‘olden times,’ as I like to say, that relationship was often the end-all be-all. In that relationship, you worked together to increase business for the both of you. You worked together to solve problems. You worked together to tackle the market. In that situation, your relationship, your contact often worked to protect you because they knew that you had a great product or a great relationship that was good for their business and wouldn’t even entertain anyone else come into the market. That’s been changed—not by that buyer, but by the company’s way of doing business.”
How important does she regard IPW? “For us, it’s very important,” she responds. “It’s an opportunity to see over 65 percent of our existing clients at IPW—Not our appointments, but of our existing clients we get to seat IPW. That’s very important because we only do World Travel Market and IPW as far as trade shows go. IPW is an opportunity to both discover new business, but also to see our existing clients. And we are finding that some of our clients are at shows—especially ITB—just don’t have time to get to everybody. So, we look forward to seeing t hem at IPW.
Kellogg sees IPW as “the only marketplace of its type. We make a big investment in IPW in order to see our clients. And, fortunately, we get to meet a lot of new people there. This means large and small. It means huge volume tour operator as well as some of the smaller operators that focused on a particular country. That’s really important.”
Gray Line and CitySightseeing also does its own sales missions and its one-to-one meetings, noting that the there is a mix of seeing existing clients but, just as important, it is about developing new business: “We are always mining for new business in particular markets.”
For a person whose business involves a lot of travel, we wondered where does she go for a vacation. ”Well, I’m kind of running out of new places because I’ve been to over 85 counties and I’ve been to 49 of the 50 states (Montana will be No. 50)—either for vacation or business or both over the years. In recent years, my interest has been in kind of more exotic places—combining train and land tours, or river cruises with land tours in places like Vietnam, Myanmar, Zimbabwe and South Africa—always by myself. But now I have my new travel buddy, my 14-year-old grandson. That’s allowing me to look at things a little bit differently. So, we’ll probably be revisiting some of those countries. Together we added a new country on our recent vacation: Mongolia. I had not been there. He had not been there. And so it was an opportunity to experience a new country for both of us.
Finally, another anecdote about working hard: Last May, as the Wednesday luncheon at IPW was winding down, INBOUND’s editor left early, looking for some photo opportunities. We happened to pass by the Gray Line City Sightseeing booth and there was Kellogg and two members her team, eating boxed lunches. They were going over the day’s business. “Yes,” she recounts. “For the three of us, It was an opportunity for us to kick our shoes off—you may have looked under the table and seen that we had our shoes off—and to relax and have fun and discuss what has been going on. We’ve been doing for a couple of years now. I find that it’s much more relaxing.”
So, there you have it. The hardest working person in the business, Elaine Kellogg, actually does relax.
* Kellogg points to a Phocuswright report, Tours & Activities Come of Age: Global Travel Activities Marketplace 2014-2020, which says, among other things, that the sector will be worth $183 billion by 2020.