Travel Agency Lands Big One with Notre Dame’s Dublin Trip
By Cheryl Hall
The Dallas Morning News
For years, David Handler has kept a pad and pen handy next to his bed so if nocturnal inspiration strikes, he can write it down and go back to sleep.
One October morning in 1988, the University of Texas grad awoke to find a cryptic midnight scrawling: Notre Dame, football, fans, travel.
Clueless to its meaning, Mr. Handler called his childhood chum and Fighting Irish alum, John Anthony, for interpretation.
The message was clear to Mr. Anthony, even if the answer wasn’t. “How do all those people get to Notre Dame football games?”
Five scribbled words and a business plan outlined on a napkin over burgers at a Bennigan’s has spawned a Dallas-based travel company that is now the official, on-campus agency at the University of Notre Dame and Southern Methodist University.
And precisely eight years after “The Dream,” Anthony Travel Inc. is one-upping the folks who toted coals to Newcastle.
It’s bringing the Fighting Irish to Ireland.
When Notre Dame plays Navy on Saturday, university officials and 2,500 loyal fans will cheer in the Dublin stands thanks to tour packages put together by the people at Anthony.
Some 1,300 FedEx boxes have been shipped to travelers in all 50 states, a touring staff of 22 trained and the inevitable, last-minute kinks ironed out.
“This is a chance for us to show that we can handle a full-service, international event for extremely large groups,” says Mr. Anthony, the 32-year-old founder and CEO of the travel agency that bears his name. “It moves us into the big league.”
His travel company has grown from meager beginnings of a Sabre computer and two phone lines on McKinney Avenue into a three-office, 40-person agency with nearly $19 million in gross revenue this year by concentrating on university-related sojourns.
That places it among the city’s 10 largest.
While airline commission caps have sliced profits for many travel agencies, Anthony Travel is maintaining margins by arranging tour packages that get fans and bands to games, students to studies abroad and alumni to traveling lecture series.
“This Ireland program is the biggest one yet,” Mr. Anthony says during a rare breather in the agency’s SMU student center office. “It’s our product, our price and a real growth area.”
Going on the cheap
Just how a group of thirtysomethings from Dallas maneuvered their way into the heart of South Bend is a tale of persistence and imaginative ticket routing.
Nothing turns heads on campus – or anywhere else – like cheap airfares.
Mr. Handler, Mr. Anthony and his travel agent sister, Cynthia Anthony Stoutenburgh, were intrigued by the thought of loyal legions making their way to Notre Dame games.
The 59,075 seats for home games always sell out, and when the Fighting Irish travel, the faithful follow. The question was how to get a piece of that action.
But before Mr. Anthony ditched his day job as a CPA for Ernst & Young, his sister left her agency spot and Mr. Handler invested his limited life’s savings, the trio wanted to test the water.
As luck would have it, the Irish were undefeated in the fall of 1988, and destined for a January national championship showdown at the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix.
Before the bowl bids went out, Mr. Anthony had his sister block 10 to 20 seats from 12 cities on various airlines at round-trip prices under $400 – using tricks like routing passengers through El Paso or Albuquerque and then having them hop on Southwest Airlines to reduce the cost.
The gamble panned out when the Fiesta Bowl did, in fact, invite the Irish to town.
“We did some really aggressive marketing like take out a classified ad in the student paper,” recalls Mr. Anthony.”It was all of about four lines and said, ‘Cheap fares to the Fiesta Bowl,’ and gave one or two examples.”
Any doubts were quickly erased.
“Cynthia’s phone rang a hundred times a day. There were so many people wanting to go, and nobody could find a way to Phoenix for a good price during the holidays.”
It got so zany that one night they booked students by calling the Notre Dame dorm prefix and any four numbers and asking whoever answered if they wanted to go to the Fiesta Bowl.
“It was as easy as a prank phone call,” Mr. Anthony says.
News of cheap fares spread like wildfire in the Indiana cornfields, with word reaching Notre Dame’s athletic director and executive vice president, who were having difficulties with their itineraries. Ms. Stoutenburgh solved the problems and gained two important friends.
“That was our first big in, and we hadn’t even opened our doors yet,” Mr. Anthony says. When they finally took the plunge in July 1989, they worked campus contacts and hooked up with the alumni association to get discount fares to get to games.
Anthony Travel cooked so many deals with the now-defunct Midway Airlines that the agency had a specially negotiated fare into Chicago’s Midway Airport from 24 markets.
“Someone would call us maybe a week before a football game and they couldn’t get to South Bend for less than $700 – if they could even get there at all,” Mr. Anthony says.”If they were in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, wherever, we could get them there for around $200.”
The handful of university officials using”this guy in Texas” to book travel grew into dozens. Coaches from other sports started to call.
“The university didn’t know a whole lot about us,” Mr. Anthony says,”but they knew they were sending a lot of checks to Dallas.”
After months of trekking to Indiana, opportunity landed in the form of Notre Dame’s marching band, which needed to get to the Orange Bowl for less than the $200,000 that had raised eyebrows the previous year.
Since the bowl was in the middle of the holiday break, the tiny, six-person agency had to arrange 250 individual tickets from different hometowns to Florida during a peak travel season.
“Part of it was blocking cheaper seats in advance,” he says,”but another part was being willing to spend 15 minutes per reservation trying to get someone from Montana to Miami without simply choosing the most direct and expensive flights.”
Kids were routed through Tallahassee and Tampa.”Remember these are students going to Florida on break. They’re not going to complain,” Mr. Anthony says with a laugh. To get people back to Chicago on Jan. 2, they stumbled on a cheap American Airlines flight through New Orleans.
“It was a fluke. There was nobody on it, so we booked every seat we could,” he says.
The long and the short of it was that Anthony Travel cut the band’s costs in half, saving the university almost $100,000.
“That got the attention of the powers that be,” Mr. Anthony says.
But did he ever figure out the profit margin on that time-consuming deal?
“Yeah. In the long term it was great,” he says.”I was looking for any revenue that could pay my salary.”
In the summer of 1990, Anthony Travel was invited to bid for the official university business.
“We were with the second-largest agency in Indiana at the time,” says James Lyphout, associate vice president of operations at Notre Dame.”We were just one customer of many. That’s OK if you’re willing to put up with that. But we felt we deserved more.”
The winning volley was Mr. Anthony’s pledge to move to South Bend to personally supervise the account, Mr. Lyphout says.”John’s personal commitment makes the difference.”
That hands-on attention has cemented the relationship, says associate athletic director Bubba Cunningham, who’s drawing up plans to get 1,500 faithful to tag along with the team to the islands when it plays the University of Hawaii during the Thanksgiving holiday next year.
“John is great at anticipating what the customer is going to need,” he says.”That’s why he has the reputation for being forward-thinking.”
After two years on-campus at Notre Dame, the Dallas company decided to go after other universities that had international programs and that drew students from around the country.
“It was a very detailed process,” says director of sales Brian McNulty.”We asked people on staff, ‘Where did you go to school? Let’s call them.’ We probably could have spent $10,000 on a market study, but it wouldn’t have come up with better answers.”
Someone had gone to SMU, which was scouting prospects for its travel services. Glowing reports from South Bend certainly didn’t hurt, says Julie Wiksten, SMU’s director of auxiliary services.”We want Anthony Travel to be the travel agency of choice, not by mandate.” And so far, she says, it’s worked out that way.
Less than a quarter of Anthony’s business today is typical travel-agency clientele.
This summer, for example, Anthony made travel arrangements for the 40 participants who visited the Cezanne exhibit in Philadelphia as part of SMU’s Godbey Lecture Series. A similar group is headed for the Carnivale in Venice in February.
Also, during the summer, it arranged schedules for nearly 200 people associated with the University of Dallas who were flowing into and out of its campus in Rome during a three-month period.
There are a number of advantages to working with universities like SMU, Mr. Anthony says, especially with 50-buck commission caps in place.
“It’s not necessarily something to be proud of come profitability time, but we’re used to doing $300 tickets and getting $30 of revenue instead of $800 and getting $80 – particularly on this campus where [you] do a lot of tickets for $78,” he says.
Groups are generally more profitable than individuals.”If you’re dealing with one person for 25 tickets, you should be able to do that more profitably than if you have to handle 25 calls.”
Universities generate a fair amount of international travel and those tickets aren’t under the commission restraints.
That’s one of the reasons the Shamrock Classic was so important. That international foray should mean more than $5 million in revenue with a profit margin that exceeds the usual 1 to 2 percent.
“We expect to make good money on this,” Mr. Anthony says, then adds a quick caveat: barring any other unexpected twists.
Two charter jumbo jets had to be found in a hurry after Rich International Airlines was grounded last month.”That cost us an extra $30,000,” Mr. Anthony says,”and in our business, that’s a lot of money.”
And there have been a fair share of logistical nightmares.
Dublin doesn’t have enough hotel rooms to handle the Yankee invasion. In addition to the official Notre Dame tours arranged by Anthony Travel, an additional 10,000 Americans are expected to make their way to the game.
So, half of Anthony’s tour group will visit the city before the game while the other half tours the countryside. The only time all 2,500 will be in Dublin together is at the game.
But forget “home field advantage” – the Irish are technically the visiting team, while Navy is the host.