When, as INBOUND’s editor, I first met Robert Graff—he’s vice president of sales and marketing at Las Vegas-based Bindlestiff Tours—several years ago at an IPW show, it was as if I had come upon an environment that belonged in to an era of black-and-white movies in which the setting was somewhere overseas in Beirut, which was once the multicultural and multilingual capital of the Middle East. Looking for someone who had some first-person experience in assaying the Arab-speaking market, a colleague had told me to go see Graff who, among his other talents, speaks fluent Arabic and has been working the international marketplace for several decades. When I came upon his booth, I realized right away that he was not speaking English, or Arabic. Rather, he was speaking French to a client visitor. When their session ended and he was able to talk to me for a few minutes, he seemed to know right away that I was not a speaker of Arabic or French and greeted me in English. There were mutual introductions along with a promise on his part to talk with me further at a convenient future date. It struck me that he conducted himself like one of those courtly gentlemen in one of those black-and-white movies (Think “Casablanca” or “Third Man” or David Niven or Rex Harrison in the 1940s) who is always neat, courteous and, well, gentlemanly. And he speaks your language. Following is an excerpted version of INBOUND’s long-time-in-the-making conversation with Graff.
INBOUND: You probably have been asked this question several times, but I will still ask it again: What drew you to the tour and travel industry and how and where did you get your start?
RG: Living in Las Vegas is perfect for me because I love living in this city and I love traveling the world talking about this city. Because I am also polyglot and there is a large number of international visitors, there were many opportunities. In the beginning, because I speak French fluently, that was my first opportunity as it enabled me to translate at high-profile trade shows. Sentimentally speaking, frequent flyer miles were another reason I came and stayed in Las Vegas. Years ago, when companies such as TWA had these programs, when I moved back to Las Vegas after living overseas, I was penniless and all I had was these frequent flyer miles. Thanks to TWA, I was able to sell them and that got me my first car and start here in Las Vegas. I attribute those miles to starting these special moments in my life.
INBOUND: What were you doing overseas before you migrated to Las Vegas?
RG: My dad was working overseas. He was involved with French and American companies and as a result, we were always based in different parts of the world – especially in the Middle East and Europe.
INBOUND: I’ve seen and heard you speaking different languages on the trade show circuit. How many languages do you speak?
RG: I speak seven—English, French, Arabic, Russian, Italian, Greek and I even studied Romanian. I can manage a bit in Spanish—I generally never really counted it before but people said,”You can manage it pretty well. You kind of mix it up with English or Italian, but you manage… “
INBOUND: That somewhat describes my feeble attempt at Spanish in which I have, at best, a third-grader’s level of competence. But I remember a quote I first heard many years ago which said, “Even if you just say ‘hello’ in someone else’s native language, you will have just scored your first diplomatic conquest.” Do you find that to be the case?
RG: Absolutely! I think saying hello or approaching someone in their own native tongue is helpful. I think the other international language is a smile. Wherever I travel, a simple “hello” or “thank you” and a smile is understood and breaks down the barriers. And that’s what makes the travel industry so special.
INBOUND: Most of the products you’ve been associated with suggest that you like being associated with tourism experiences or activities that are outdoors, such as your position with Bindlestiff Tours. Is there any reason that you find yourself drawn to this product, or was it just kismet? Or a preference?
RG: It’s kismet. When you look at the national parks and the outdoors—that always has an appeal to the international visitor. When you combine the ability to communicate with people coming from different countries and/or having to reach out to them and explain to the what our natural beauties are or what special activities we have to offer—I think that, automatically, that helps. And more importantly, I love the outdoors. What a perfect place to be. I live in Las Vegas, the city of lights and entertainment. And, then, I’m surrounded by all these national parks and outdoor recreation activities.
(Here, INBOUND and Graff talked for several minutes about the Valley of Fire State Park, a favorite of both located about 50 miles north of Las Vegas. The 46,000-acre park gets its name from red sandstone formations, the Aztec Sandstone, which formed from shifting sand dunes 150 million years ago.)
INBOUND: Is the Valley of Fire State Park on any of your itineraries, by any chance?
RG: Yes, it is. We offer Valley of Fire tours. There are a lot of day trips that we do out of Las Vegas since we are headquartered here. We have ghost town tours. We have Death Valley, Bryce, Grand Canyon, Zion … a lot on a customized basis, as well. What got me attracted to where I am now is –it’s almost like the next generation of sightseeing products are coming out here with that immersive experience.
INBOUND: I’m sure we could talk ad infinitum about the do’s and don’ts of international marketing, but let’s keep it brief for now. If you had to give a small-to-medium-sized business five rules for starting up and tapping into the top international source markets, what would they be?
RG: I think that, a lot of times, when people look into the international market, they should realize—
Rule Number One—Not one thing works for everybody. Not all markets are the same. You’ve got to adapt to each country.
Number Two—If you’re going to be tapping in to the international market, you’ve got to diversify. You can’t have all your eggs in one basket, whether it’s all your eggs in Europe or China. In my experience, the world has never hit complete recession, all countries, every part of the world, so diversify. Make sure clients are diversified, too—according to the type of business they’re in.
Number Three—Work with receptive operators. There’s no doubt the inbound receptive operators are specialists in their field. They bring together a great platform where you can meet people from different countries and everything. They can arrange escorted tour programs that take visitors through your destination or attraction.
Number Four—Look at suppliers that are in the same place and who are trying to accomplish the same thing.
Number Five—You need time. You can’t just turn around and think it’s going to happen overnight. Just one trip is not going to change everything. It’s about building that trust and those relationships.
INBOUND: On that last point, I’ve heard it said that, if your maiden voyage into the international market is, say, at IPW, then don’t expect any return for a minimum of 18 months.
RG: I think you’re right. That’s when you’re just beginning to touch the surface. It’s almost like year one goes by and it’s getting to know you, and the perception is “Let me see if they’re still around next year.” Year two goes around and, then, like “OK, hold on a second.” They tell me about the product. Darn, I really need to probably look at it more and maybe we should try to start working together. And I think that, as you’re moving into your two-and-a-half to three-year period, you’re pretty much into full swing. You’ve got the project out there. You’ve got the nuances all worked out. The client feels reassured. If you’re maintaining these relationships, they can put a lot more eggs in your basket.
INBOUND: A sidebar regarding your rule about diversifying and point that not everyone’s been in a recession at the same time: Australia hasn’t had a recession in 27 years, so this might suggest that you’re right.
RG: Well, they’ve also had massive currently fluctuations, too. Over the years, you saw the Russians come in, or new markets emerging, then it was Brazil. Then Brazil dropped and here came the Chinese market. Then came the Indian market. And obviously, the precursor to all of this is the European business. You get to see a lot of changes and I haven’t had a chance to see everything fall apart at the same time. It’s good for you to have to have a domestic U.S.-Canada-Mexico base business going, combined with an international, long-haul outreach to different types of markets.
INBOUND: Continuing with the subject—China; it was a blip on the charts 20 years ago. No one really had an idea that China would become such a market in the way that it has. Do you sense any potential in any other markets in the next five years or so?
RG: Absolutely. The growth you’ve see from China is amazing. The markets that are growing in my mind—one example is India. I think they’ll surpass China this year or next as the world’s largest in population. International air service is growing, with the hub and spoke areas that you have. Their economy is doing well. And in my travels there, the aspiration of Indians to travel to the United States—it’s the perfect storm. I’m also keeping an eye on the emergence of the Gulf region as well, primarily as it ties into Africa, believe it or not. If you look further down the road, I think you’re going to see a lot more African countries come with more air service coming non-stop into Africa. Royal Emirates has just joined the Oneworld (airline alliance) and has just launched service to Chicago and Miami. I think you’re going to see a lot more of that coming through. Ethiopia is coming out with flights to Dublin, then on to Los Angeles and Chicago. You’re opening a whole different sector of markets and everything.
INBOUND: As an aside, when it comes to India, as an experiment I spent several days with a tour group from India as their itinerary went through Pennsylvania (the editor lives near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) several years ago and it was easy for me to join in. Everything you’ve just said was affirmed by my experience with that group. They really like and know so much about the United States. For instance, I wondered why the operator would schedule a stop in Hershey … what special appeal would that have. Several people from the group told me that the Hershey product is known in every household in India. The applicability of English? This was not a pre-formed group; it was sold on the market, so you had people from different parts of the country—from Punjab in the north and from some of the larger cities in other regions. One man told me that the people in the group would speak different languages in India, but on the bus and during the tour, they speak English to one another.
RG: Yes, they have so many different dialects, but English is the main language. When you think about it, look how much effort we have put into growing the Chinese business–the tools, the resources that we needed. Now, you have a market that speaks the same language, with the same population demographics and a stronger middle class.
INBOUND: OK, we’re shifting to a different line of questioning now. Our industry is considered by many to be a proving ground for relationship marketing. Just how important do you believe relationships are in this industry.
RG: I think it’s one of the most important things. I think that’s what differentiates us from so many other of the businesses out there. It comes down to one thing: people like to do business with people they like and people who are liked. And I think that’s what gets so exciting about the travel-hospitality industry. That’s exactly the business we deliver. We like to do business with certain people. It comes from a handshake. It comes from that ability to pick up the phone and get things moving. Of course, we’ve evolved a lot like other businesses and have with rules and procedures and everything. But that communication is critical.
The other aspect that I find where that relationship element becomes so critical is: When I got in the business, I was shocked to think that I talk to a tour operator half way across the world, who will tell their clients “Hey, give me $3,000 dollars, present this little electronic voucher or this piece-of-paper voucher and someone half-way across the world is going to deliver your dream, just like we told you in this picture, or this brochure or website.” Ultimately, we’re selling dreams. And to be able to pull that off, you must have the relationship in place –to be able to fulfill someone’s expectations that way.
INBOUND: I’ve never heard it put so beautifully. You mentioned India. Is there any other place on the list of the Top 20 to watch out for?
RG: The world is pretty much connected now. You have service from almost everywhere. I do see business dramatically changing. It is evolving. You have mature markets, you have emerging markets, and you have consumers who are fully plugged-in—to the internet and everything like that. And they are moving into a whole different marketplace. They are customizing their product. They are customizing their vacations, their experiences. This is one thing that all of us will have to wrestle with. How do you capture that?
Things are moving very, very quickly. A product idea that might be great today may not be good tomorrow. There are so many startups in our business that can respond quickly. They’re innovative. They have technology. I think that puts a lot of pressure on a lot of the legacy businesses that are out there. You’ve got a lot of companies who’ve been doing it for a while. They’ve grown. The challenge that they face is that they’re unable to change direction. They’re so concerned about the profits that they’re driving on what they’ve maximized for a long time that they’re missing the boat on some of the unique opportunities out there and what that new customer wants.
INBOUND: Between you and me, it sounds like you’re talking about (mentions several major European tour operators).
RG: Let’s take it into the attractions space—myself, where I’m at. I grew up with the tour operators and the receptive operators—dealing with them. When I look at what attractions are doing well in the United States right now, it’s anything that’s experiential-based. The legacy attractions are all down. The areas of growth are coming in to anyone who’s providing that “experiential experience,” per se. It’s more personalized and more customized at the same time. That’s a challenge for us. We’re used to 50 people on a coach coming through. Now, we have an audience that says, “Hey, look. I’m a solo traveler. I want my own guide. I want my own experiences.” Or, “I’m a family.” Or, “I want to travel in small groups.”
I think that’s something new that’s been coming out there. That’s the base where our new business is in, and it’s been growing by leaps and bounds. That caught me off guard, because I really didn’t see that in the radar—how well the small group business has been doing. The adventure specialist that caters to multi-day itineraries and day trips … I was very surprised on how well they did.
You see other areas that are doing very well—like the traditional shows in Las Vegas that people have been doing forever, are becoming stale. That audience is now looking for new experiences. I talk to my friends who are in the club business in town here. The days of someone spending $500 for bottle service at a table are long gone. That environment’s changing, and I think it’s caused by the internet, by a customer half-way across the world saying “I want to pick and choose things. I want to stay in this hotel. I want to do this activity. But I want to go here.” That’s an area in which we’ve done very good packaging—in setting packages for people or telling them they need to do this. But I think the new consumer is telling us, “I’m going to do what I want to do, and, thanks to technology and the internet, if you can’t provide me this experience, I’ll go and tailor-make it myself.
INBOUND: Can I say that, in other words, Robert Graff is telling us that “Elvis is Dead.”
RG: Yes! (Laughter) I suppose when you do this for a while, you see the patterns change. I’m shocked to see, for instance, the gun-shooting business, the ATV business, the outdoor experiential business all doing phenomenally well. There is a whole new generation of clients that value that interpersonal relationship on a small-group basis. And I think that is the success that you’re seeing. For all of us who’ve worked for larger companies over time: How do you access those people? That’s our challenge.