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Skift: Certares’ Internova: Behind Its Strategy for Luxury Travel Agencies

By Dawit Habtemariam | 10-31-2023 |

Press & Media

Skift Take:

Internova Travel Group is owned by private equity firm Certares, and its CEO is the brother of Certares' CEO. How they are thinking about company strategy reflects insight into broader trends among the luxury travel agencies.

Internova Travel Group, a network of travel agencies owned by private equity firm Certares, plans to expand its investments in the luxury space. That will help give its more than 100,000 travel advisors more boutique hotel offerings and packages to offer customers.

“We’ll continue to double down on the luxury space,” said J.D. O’Hara, CEO of Internova — a network of over 6,000 agencies.

The luxury travel advisor space has several players, including Virtuoso, Amex’s Ovation, Scott Dunn, Abercrombie & Kent, Tully Luxury Travel, and Black Tomato.

It was highly unusual for a private equity firm to invest in the luxury travel agency sector when Certares acquired Internova in early 2020.

Certares, led by O’Hara’s brother Greg O’Hara, is a heavy investor in travel, holding stakes in companies that include Hertz, American Express Global Business Travel, Liberty TripAdvisor Holdings, LATAM Airlines Group, AmaWaterways, Voyageurs du Monde, Avoya, G Adventures, AHI Travel, and roughly a dozen hotels. Its broad travel holdings give it insights across categories, and that’s why industry observers are curious about its moves with Internova.

Internova's Luxury Travel Strategy

In an interview this week at Global Travel Collection’s Elevate Conference in New York City, O’Hara talks about Internova’s investment plans, how cruising is booming, an update on its recent acquisitions, the state of travel agencies in 2023, and why it launched a print magazine in a digital-first era.

Skift: How big is your network now compared to 2019?

O’Hara: So what we’ve seen, and this is kind of a normal course, we’ve seen fewer agencies in the U.S. market, but the average agency is quite a bit bigger.

So I don’t know how many years ago, 20 years ago, let’s say, there were 30,000 agencies. The last time I checked, there were slightly over 10,000.

On average, they’re significantly larger than before. There’s been a lot of consolidation, a lot of retirement.

Our network is 6,000 agencies that represent in total under our umbrella, somewhere over 100,000 travel advisors. That’s global. We’ve also now got an international network on the corporate side. If we count all of those and all the independent contractors of all the agencies under our umbrella, we have over a hundred thousand.

Where two agencies made a dollar in the past, now you’re seeing one agency making $2 — and often more.

Actually this is a growing industry, not shrinking.

We’ve been on a little bit of an acquisition hiatus. But when we get back to that, it’s just easier to buy bigger agencies than smaller ones to get the same outcome.

Skift: Since the pandemic’s start, you’ve done strategic mergers and acquisitions to expand your reach, like Protravel and Tzell Travel Group. What have those acquisitions done to help you?

O’Hara: This is a business where scale gets rewarded. And so specifically those businesses that you mentioned typically operate in a competitive market.

New York, L.A., and London are three of our bigger markets. That’s where our clients are largely based. And so we can partner with airlines, and our clients have choices.

The punchline is: Scale gets rewarded. And so that the more kind of volume that we can buy, but the right kind of volume, not just any volume, is really where we get rewarded. [Because Internova has so many clients booking trips on particular routes, thanks to the acquisitions, they can get more favorable terms from suppliers.]

Skift: You’ve said you’re focusing on high-demand destinations based on advisor bookings, such as Italy, France, and Mexico for 2023. What does that mean in practice?

O’Hara: So Italy’s always been number one. There are just so many options, but what we’re finding is complementary destinations, perhaps.

Italy will always be number one, but what we’re finding is capacity is an issue. So finding a room, finding a seat on an airline is becoming more and more hard.

I would say markets like Greece certainly have done extremely well over the last few years. I wouldn’t say it’s emerging anymore.

Emerging countries like Croatia would be one. Portugal is extremely popular now, and it wasn’t as popular five years ago.

So I would say alternatives to the kind of classic. But Italy, France, the UK — these have always been kind of number one, two, and three for us. And that continues. But we’re seeing the other, specifically European, countries catching up.

What’s really strong is cruising and touring. Cruising is through the roof. We’re finding a lot of new-to-market cruisers.

It has been the best year we’ve had in cruise by quite some margin, including 2019 and before.

Skift: You’ve launched a magazine called OLTRE. It has print, which seems counterintuitive today in today’s age. Why? And what’s the response to that?

O’Hara: Quarterly, we send a magazine. I think there are only three editions out. There’s an online component of it as well. It’s a tool for our advisors to touch base with their clients. We’ve got preferred partners that advertise, and we’ve got editorial content.

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