LOPEZ Group companies are known for being leaders in their field. There’s First Gen in power generation, Energy Development Corporation in geothermal power, and ABS-CBN in broadcasting, just to name a few. But not many are aware that another Lopez Group company is the top-drawer name when it comes to travel, specifically marine crew travel: Griffin Sierra Travel Inc. (GSTI). LopezLink recently visited the cozy GSTI headquarters on Rockwell Drive, Makati. Upon entering the lobby, one is greeted by a wall of glossy brochures touting a plethora of exotic, exciting destinations. A life-size representation of the Griffin logo—a stylized drawing of the mythical half-eagle, half-lion accentuated by bars of vivid green, blue, red and orange—proclaims GSTI’s ties with Griffin Marine Travel Ltd., the leading marine and offshore travel specialist in the world.
At the helm of GSTI are two women, Presentation Presy Lopez Psinakis as company president and Marilu Q. Ngo as vice president and general manager. With its team of 49 people, the company is a one-stop shop for everyone’s every travel requirement, including passport and visa assistance, ticketing and after sales support.
Sierra Tours, the forerunner of GSTI, was the brainchild of Psinakis, the only daughter of Eugenio H. Lopez Sr., and three oth- Turn to page 6 Griffin takes the world er partners, who put up the travel company in January 1967 to handle the growing corporate travel business, as well as local travel and tours. It soon ventured into another lucrative market and then established itself as the leader in that market in the Philippines some two decades later.
Ngo, who has almost 30 solid years of experience in the Philippine travel industry, joined Sierra Tours in 1992. Before coming onboard, Ngo said, she practiced her profession as an accountant for a year before finding her niche in the industry by way of a travel agency owned by the Delgado family.
In 1989, marine and offshore travel specialist Griffin Marine Travel Ltd. was looking for an established local partner in the Philippines. Harnessing what Ngo described as the Greek connection (Griffin CEO George Boyes and Psinakis’s husband Steve both trace their roots to Greece), it put in an initial 10% equity in Sierra Tours. Major change. It the same time, another major change was in the offing for the then 22-year-old company— it was going to specialize in marine crew travel, managing the travel requirements of seafarers travelling to and from assignments on board vessels or rigs.
“Before Sierra partnered with Griffin, no other travel agency in the Philippines was servicing marine and offshore travel on a global scale. And since we were first in that line of business, we were getting all the accounts,” Ngo recalled. “When Griffin was getting shipping principals on board, and they would definitely have Filipino crew, we would always be there at the forefront servicing their travel requirements.”
As the business grew, Griffin increased its shares in Sierra Tours until it topped out at 50% in 2004. In 2005, Sierra Tours officially became Griffin Sierra Travel Inc. following the United Kingdom-based company’s expansion, formally aligning it with the Griffin Global Group.
Aiming to be No. 1
As GSTI, the rebranded company aimed to become the No. 1 preferred agent of corporate accounts and shipping clients by striving to As the enhance customer experience, and boosting efficiency and profitability.
In the Philippines, about 20 out of the estimated 500 travel agents are in marine crew travel, with the rest concentrating on corporate leisure and domestic travel. While the company still services other markets, Ngo points out, in the absence of a core business or specialization, GSTI would be reduced to just being one in a crowd of 500. In addition, GSTI has the leverage of the Griffin global network to source the cheapest marine fares, allowing it to offer the best price for crew travel to its clients.
“GSTI’s approach to servicing marine crew travel is better than a traditional localized model that limits available alternatives to solve extraordinary problems. Clients perceive the advantages of Griffin’s integrated global approach because it minimizes unexpected surprises and provides peace of mind,” Ngo explained.
“As well as making the required reservations, GSTI’s service also involves helping our clients to better understand and manage their crew travel through provision of management information. In doing so, GSTI adds value to its service provision by helping customers to effectively manage their expenditure on crew travel— commonly the third largest cost incurred by customers in their day-to-day businesses—and their internal resource related to handling crew travel.”
Marine crew travel now comprises 89% of GSTI’s business. The remaining 11% is made up of corporate and leisure travelers, although the GM said they hope to boost the latter to as much as 30% for a more balanced market composition.
GSTI’s team of 49 includes 13 marine travel operators who are on call 24/7 via mobile phones and laptops, and another five agents assigned to the corporate sector. The company also boasts of fully mechanized operations with Amadeus, Galileo and Abacus computerized reservation systems that contain their shipping and corporate clients’ profiles.
Compared with corporate leisure travel, Ngo observed, the turnaround time for finalizing marine crew travel is very fast but the work put in is highly intensive because of frequent changes in the schedule of vessels.
Banking on adaptability, flexibility
Indeed, its steadily growing numbers attest to the GSTI team’s adaptability and flexibility. The marine and corporate travel departments handle a combined average of 3,500 bookings a month or almost 40,000 bookings a year, according to the latest figures (2008).
Marine clients include Maersk, Chevron, Doehle Shipmanagement Corp., Anscor Swire Ship Management Corp. and Tidewater, while on the corporate side, ABS-CBN, First Philippine Holdings Corp., Bayan, Bank of the Philippine Islands, New Tribes Mission, the Department of Agriculture, and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources have tapped GSTI for their travel requirements. Ngo noted that since coming onboard GSTI 17 years ago, the company has booked doubledigit growth of as much as 20% year on year, thanks to its virtual monopoly on the marine crew travel market.
Asked how the company fared in the wake of the economic downturn and the H1N1 scare, Ngo quipped: “I wish you were interviewing me last year rather than this year!” However, the travel industry veteran expressed optimism, saying in effect that the present situation is merely a bump in the company’s largely smooth ride.
“This is only an interruption, and hopefully when it settles down, we will resume our double digit-growth again,” she said. “We still aim to be at the forefront of marine crew travel, to solidify our strength in that respect. And, as with marine crew travel, we will also still be a one-stop shop for our corporate and leisure travel customers.”