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Head of travel empire knows change is constant


Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social networking are changing the way people plan vacations and business trips.

In many cases, they’re relying on the opinions of others they think have similar interests to make their buying decisions.

That’s the latest in a long string of changes that Gloria Bohan, owner of Omega World Travel, has seen in the travel industry since opening her first office in Spotsylvania County in 1972.

And, true to form, she is already working on ways to integrate social media into her company, which now has more than 100 offices, 1,000 employees and

$1 billion in annual revenue.

“You have to be willing to make changes,” Bohan said in a phone interview from her Fairfax office. “You have to be willing to learn new products and adapt to new technologies.”

That’s an attitude that’s served her well. Omega World Travel is now the largest travel agency founded, operated and majority-owned by a woman, as well as one of the top 500 woman-owned businesses in the United States.

Bohan was inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame in 2011 and named a Silver Winner for Lifetime Achievement in the Ninth Annual Stevie Awards for Women in Business for her accomplishments last year.

Not bad for a former teacher who was inspired to go into the business after taking cruises on the Queen Elizabeth 2 with her husband, the late Daniel Bohan.

They had their wedding reception and honeymoon cruise on the ship, and had followed relatives’ advice to get one of the less- expensive cabins and then ask the purser for an upgrade.

“He said, ‘So many people say that they’re honeymooners, but I can tell you’re for real,’” Bohan recalled.

Not only did he give the couple an upgrade, but the ship’s newspaper wrote an article about the newlyweds.

“We were like little celebrities,” Bohan said. “All of a sudden all of this glamour was hitting me.”

The Bohans tried the same tactic on their second trip a year later, but it didn’t work. Travel agents onboard, however, seemed to be having a great time.

“I looked at my husband at the end of the cruise and said, ‘Those people were loud!’ He turned to me, and I’ll never forget this, said ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’”

Bohan decided to apply for a job at Fredericksburg Travel, the only travel agency in town, but the owners didn’t have an opening for someone with no experience. Undaunted, she signed up for correspondence courses and investigated how to open her own business.

Omega World Travel got its start in an old stone building on farmland that is now the site of Spotsylvania Towne Center. Back then, it specialized in leisure travel, and customers would come into her office on State Route 3 to discuss plans and order plane tickets.

When airlines stopped paying commissions to travel agents in the mid-’90s, Bohan realized she had to find additional sources of revenue. She expanded into the business and government travel sectors, and embraced the Internet early on.

Omega World Travel created its own computer reservation system and was a pioneer in 24-hour customer service. Other innovations included introducing the concept of an on-site travel office at corporations, developing the field of business travel management, and creating ways to centralize billing and reporting electronically.

When Bohan and her husband, who was Omega’s CFO, realized that nobody had developed a good booking engine for cruises, they bought the domain name and created their own in 1997. It has since become one of the Internet’s largest sellers of cruises.

“Keeping the company diversified is really important,” Bohan said. “You have to look beyond having one type of service or product.”

Investing in technology, diversifying her business and having an entrepreneurial spirit have been the keys to her success, she said.

“If I were to take one of them,” Bohan said, “I would say that having an entrepreneurial spirit is the most important. I believe that people, once given an opportunity, can do great things.”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407