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A 100-YEAR JOURNEY: In Conversation with Dan Sullivan, CEO, Collette
2018 marks a pivotal milestone for Collette as it celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Back in 1918, founder Jack Collette started Collette Tours. At the time, World War I had just ended, the Red Sox won the World Series and a porterhouse steak was a mere 54 cents per pound. The first Collette tour to ever run took a group of travelers from Boston to Florida for a three-week adventure for just $68.50. With that tour, a travel industry leader was launched.
From those humble beginnings, Collette began running tours throughout New England and into Canada. 44 years after its inception, Dan Sullivan Sr., who had worked with Jack over the years, bought the company. As Dan Sullivan’s family grew, so did the company. Today, it is helmed by Dan Sullivan Jr. who took the reins as President and CEO in 1990. In a conversation with AARP Member Advantages Insider, Dan takes us through the past 100 years, what lies ahead and chats everything from hot travel destinations to Collette’s passion for philanthropy.
Member Advantages Insider (MAI): Collette is celebrating its centennial this year, congratulations! Looking back at its beginnings in 1918, how has it evolved from a regional tour operator into the global company it is known as today?
Dan Sullivan (DS): When Jack Collette started the company 100 years ago, he first ran an advertisement on a trip to Florida in Boston and Rhode Island newspapers and ended up taking 14 people down on a jitney. The jitney was really the start of it all – just a year after it was introduced, there were more rides by jitney throughout cities like Los Angeles, Kansas City and New York than there are Uber rides today. Its heyday was short lived, though. By 1919, most jitneys were out of business due to regulation.
Exploring new modes of transportation, Collette continued to evolve under Jack’s vision until he sold it to my father, Dan, in 1962. My father had seven children and understood that family business has always been the backbone of America. Today, family is still at the heart of what we do and it shows in our attention to detail and the quality we try to put forth every day. I have eight total family members at Collette, all of whom are very active in the company, as well as my mother Alice, who is the chairwoman of the board.
MAI: How did it feel stepping into your father’s shoes as President and CEO of Collette? In what ways have you continued to follow his vision for all these years while putting your own mark on the company?
DS: I played baseball in college and the minors and had dreams of going into the major leagues. At the same time, I always loved the travel industry and wanted to be a part of it from a young age. Both my father and I had a deep love for God, family, Collette – and, of course, sports. My family has always been very philanthropic and I’ve continued that vision in many ways, including our commitment to giving back and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Through The Collette Foundation, which was founded by my mother in 2007, and Collette Cares, we’re able to help kids in need across the U.S. and around the globe, from schools in Peru to Cambodia and South Africa. We also have several CSR programs in the communities where we have a presence to make sure we leave a positive mark on each location. Our main areas of focus are on nutrition, education and children. We do a lot in the U.S., particularly in the Northeast with soup kitchens, the elderly, military, hospices and Hasbro Children’s Hospital in our home state of Rhode Island.
MAI: What would you say is the main reason consumers keep coming back to travel with Collette? What makes a Collette tour special or different from your competitors or going it alone?
DS: We’re constantly changing and evolving to meet customer needs. That’s why people choose to travel with Collette. We deliver a high-end experience at a reasonable price that allows you to travel in style. We always capture the flavor of each destination by visiting local restaurants, artisans and shops that give that local experience – even if it’s an intimate dinner at someone’s home in Beijing or small-group tours with local families in New Zealand to learn about their daily lives. Our tour guides have a deep understanding of each location and their fields to create truly unique itineraries. We want to give people an immersive, customized cultural experience with the insider tips they wouldn’t receive if they booked on their own.
MAI: What are some of the ways Collette is celebrating this historic milestone anniversary?
DS: In January, we had over 600 employees and partners come to Rhode Island. Together, we partnered with Bank of America and took over the convention center where we packaged over 30,000 meals to send to our partner communities nationwide and around the world.
MAI: The travel industry has endured many changes over the past decades, especially with the dawn of online bookings. What makes Collette continue to stand out today and provide a valuable service to consumers?
DS: A century later and we’re continuing to stay relevant and provide the quality experience our customers know and love. One of the ways we’re accomplishing this is through more personalization and customized options for our customers. When people first start their tour, they typically dine in twos and fours. By the end of the trip, after bonding with and befriending their fellow travelers, they end up gravitating towards big tables to dine as a group. They leave feeling like family. Our tour guides are on a mission to create this atmosphere for our guests. This personal passion breeds loyalty and we find that our customers want to go on tours again and again with Collette. We make a point of seeking out destinations and organizing trips of a lifetime. In 2020, we’ll host a trip to Germany for the Passion Play festival which occurs every ten years. So far, we already have 3,000 people signed up and anticipate that it will sell out faster than the last one from 2010. The trip features tours of old Germany and small Bavarian villages.
MAI: Do you have a favorite travel destination or tour? What destination is at the top of your personal travel list for 2018 and why?
DS: Morocco is one of my top global destinations. You have everything from the desert to the mountains to the Kasbah in Marrakesh. The country has great people, great cuisine and amazing culture at a reasonable cost. It’s a place I’m hoping to revisit. In May, I’ll be in Australia for nearly two weeks. I also love going to New Orleans and walking the French Quarter and dining out. In our own backyard, visiting the National Parks is an incredible experience as are the Canadian Rockies. In South America, Buenos Aires and Rio are at the top of my list. It’s hard to just pick one.
MAI: What advice do you have for AARP Members looking to book a new adventure in 2018?
DS: With 165 tours around the world, the most important piece of advice for those looking to book their next adventure would be to follow your interests and go where your passion lies, whether it’s the National Parks or Iceland to see the Northern Lights. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of interest in the three I’s: Italy, Iceland, and Ireland. The thermal springs of Iceland are such a big draw. If you’re from Ireland, for instance, and want to explore your ancestry, you can take a trip and see the spectacular castles. If you’re from Italy, you can experience the country through its famed cuisine – take a visit to Florence and stroll the leather markets, dine out and see Michelangelo’s statue of David. My advice is to start traveling now, because once you go, you’re going to want to see more of the world and your bucket list will continue to expand!
These articles present general information and are for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for legal, financial, medical, or other professional advice.