BY LIZ HUNTERHow the Orlando company goes beyond transportation to deliver an experience in a city known for its hospitality
When you think of the hospitality industry, a few brands immediately come to mind: The Four Seasons, The Ritz-Carlton, Disney. These companies have mastered what it means to do more than check a guest into a room for the night or offer some amusements for children of all ages. These companies deliver the intangible—an unforgettable experience.
In the early ’90s, Nour Elotmani was able to get a behind-the-scenes look at one of these companies while taking part in Disney’s cultural exchange program. The then-22-year-old student of Morocco’s Hospitality College/Tourism Institute distinguished himself enough to earn an invitation from Walt Disney World to participate in a program that would bring him to America and put him right in the middle of the “happiest place on Earth.”
“While I was at Disney, I learned the little tricks about what makes a dream come true. Part of Disney’s ‘magic’ is how much energy and effort the company puts into the little details that make or break a guest’s experience,” says Nour. It was the foundation for his future in the hospitality industry, which has culminated in his role as president and CEO of Destination MCO Transportation Logistics & Management in Orlando, a company now in its 16th year of business.
“Quite frankly, I stumbled upon transportation after I left Disney and was recruited to handle VIPs for an airline that flew into Orlando a few times a week,” he says. “They needed transportation for their dignitaries and royalty clientele and I was finding the right tour operators, but after almost three years I saw an opportunity to expand into another side of the market.” Nour, with the help of a partner, opened his first hospitality-focused company, receptive tour operator, which targeted travel agents bringing large groups into Orlando. His company handled group travel itineraries across North America, from room blocks to city tours to theme park tickets and more.
“September 11 happened and the Orlando hospitality market came to a screeching halt,” he says. “The tour operator business dried up and you could literally count the number of people within your sight at a theme park.” At this point, Nour decided that it was time to pivot to a different hospitality sector and founded Destination MCO to focus on the transportation side. While Nour’s experience dealing with transportation as a client helped his transition, it took time for the city to bounce back and the company experienced some growing pains, accepting work wherever it could be found—tourists, conventions, hotels, and concierges—as it struggled to find an identity for itself.
“While I was at Disney, I learned the little tricks about what makes a dream come true.”
– Nour Elotmani, President and CEO of Destination MCO
During that time, Nour was joined by his younger brother, Sami, who had moved to Florida in 2000 and drove part-time for Destination MCO while attending college. After graduating in 2007, Sami worked for a short time in corporate America but something drew him back to his brother’s business.
“There was an appeal to working for a growing company, and seeing the focus the company had on delivering a unique experience, making people happy, not just transporting clients. One of Nour’s most polished skills is his ability to paint a picture for others of what the company will look like in two, five, or 10 years. I wanted to be a part of that,” he says. Sami rejoined Destination MCO as operations manager in 2008 and is vice president of operations and global partnerships today. “Working for AMEX was a great experience but, as is the case with most large companies, earning the right to be at the big boys’ table takes a while to get to AND a considerable amount of luck—to be honest, I was too impatient to wait for that,” Sami quips.
At that point, the company was past the “hustle” phase, according to Sami. “After 16 years in business, I categorize our history into three distinct periods,” he says. “The first five years were about surviving. The second five years, we felt like this was going to work out long term and began developing a distinct identity and, by extension, a brand. The past five years have been about growing our brand’s reach and establishing the physical infrastructure and, more importantly, human capital necessary to take the next step in our company’s growth path.”
The City Beautiful
“We live where people go to vacation, and we take it for granted sometimes,” says Sami. “But a quick call to one of my industry friends in the Northeast makes me realize how lucky we are.”
In the central part of Florida, the city of Orlando—also known as The City Beautiful or The Theme Park Capital of the World—has a thriving economy that may surprise some people. It is more than “just the land of Mickey Mouse,” according to Nour.
More than 60 million people visit Orlando annually, and who can blame them? Between the subtropical climate, golf courses, and tourist attractions, there is plenty to keep people occupied. Everyone is familiar with the likes of Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld but what they might not realize is Orlando’s prominence in the technology industry. It’s nationally recognized for innovation in digital media and software design—aided by nearby Disney and Universal, but also universities like Full Sail and UCF College of Arts and Humanities—as well as aerospace and agricultural technologies. Central Florida Research Park is among the 10 largest in the country, and is a hub of military training and simulation. Lockheed Martin also has a missile manufacturing facility nearby.
“There was an appeal to working for a growing company, and seeing the focus the company had on delivering a unique experience, making people happy, not just transporting clients.”
– Sami Elotmani, Vice President of Operations and Global Partnerships of Destination MCO
While there is no local NFL team, the city will host the NFL Pro Bowl for the second consecutive year in 2018, and Sami says large-scale sporting events are something the city is looking to attract more of.
Orlando’s reinvention and its particular focus on appealing to meetings and events have transformed the city’s standing in the business travel world. The Orange County Convention Center is the second largest in the U.S., featuring more than 2 million square feet of exhibit space.
Beyond Chauffeured Service
In 2010, Destination MCO created a dedicated meetings and events department to the company. “Meeting planners are a demanding breed of professionals. They speak a different language and if your team isn’t able to speak their language, they’ll know it fairly quickly,” says Nour.
One of the best ways to make this a success was for them to bring on former DMC managers to run the department. Nour foresaw the opportunity to expand into meetings and events transportation early on, and in Alice Klinger, a former client, he found the perfect person to lead the newly created department. Shortly thereafter, Dana Cross came on board as guest experience manager.
“Having been on the receptive side of our services from their days as DMC managers, they brought a client-centric perspective that has helped the company take the next step in its growth path,” Nour says. Each played integral roles in the company and had taken on additional responsibilities to become invaluable, he says. Dana’s laser focus on service excellence, a “people first” attitude, and her bubbly personality help keep the rest of the team motivated even in the most stressful of times. Sadly, Alice Klinger, who both Nour and Sami referred to as “Mom,” passed away in May 2017. “Alice’s influence on Destination MCO is beyond measure. She left her mark on our company and everyone she has touched along the way. She will be missed,” says Nour.
“We added Transportation & Logistics Management to our company name because handling large groups has as much to do with logistics experience as it does with ground transportation knowledge.”
– Sami Elotmani
Around the same time this department was created, Destination MCO added some new words to their moniker. “We added Transportation & Logistics Management to our company name because handling large groups has as much to do with logistics experience as it does with ground transportation knowledge,” says Sami. “We have sometimes even been confused for a DMC, which has a little to do with the name, but really it’s the level of expertise. Our secret sauce lies in the details. We make sure clients know we are the local experts. We provide them with the peace of mind of knowing that the transportation logistics are in good hands so that they can focus their energy on everything else that requires their attention. For our clients, the peace of mind that comes with seamless execution is priceless and they keep coming back for it.”
Delivering this level of service and experience couldn’t be done without the right people in place, in all facets of Destination MCO. In 2010, they operated with eight office staff employees; today, that number is closer to 30. With a focus on the three Ps of business—people, products, and processes—Nour and Sami are adamant that directing their energy on people and processes would lead to an improved product.
“We always believed people are and always will be our biggest asset,” says Nour. “We had ‘butts in seats’ but we were still struggling and needed the right staff in place to take us further. We decided to put the people portion on the front line, and that meant hiring the right human resources person.”
Destination MCO began the hunt for a qualified HR manager in 2014. It took more than nine months and countless hours of interviews. “We needed someone who embodied our culture and skill set to lead the HR department not only now, but also in five to 10 years,” says Sami. As the interviews went on, they would tweak their description of what they were looking for, adding more attributes, behaviors, and skills to the list of requirements.
Then they found Juliet Wilkes and hired her in 2015. “We felt that she was the best fit because of her academic background as well as her experience. We knew she would be that first solid step toward bringing the right people into the company,” says Nour. “She has done a tremendous job for the company so far.”
A top priority for Wilkes was figuring out how to find and hire chauffeurs. “In some cases where candidates had experience, they came with bad habits. Unlearning bad habits is much harder than teaching new ones,” says Nour. In 2012, the company decided to establish an employee model for chauffeurs in order to have total control of the service delivery process and consistency. “We began hiring chauffeurs with little to no industry experience, but with the right attitude and, most importantly, integrity. It was an uphill battle; things that we used to take for granted—like where to pick up at MCO airport—had to be taught from scratch.”
However, in a market like Orlando, candidates aren’t exactly vying to be a chauffeur. “No one grew up saying, ‘I want to be a chauffeur,’” says Sami. “Orlando has one of the fastest growing employment markets and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, so we have to get very creative as far as finding talent. And we are competing with some heavy hitters in hospitality—Disney, Universal, The Ritz-Carlton.”
In order to keep and attract new talent, Destination MCO has focused on the prospect of the chauffeur role as a career, not just a job. Sami notes that although companies like McDonald’s, Starbucks, and American Express appeal to different clientele with highly diverging expectations, they all have one thing in common: product and service consistency. “We try to strive for the same at Destination MCO, and in order to maintain consistency, we focused a lot of energy on our chauffeur team, specifically fixing the issue of high turnover by turning the job into a career,” he says.
“We always believed people are and always will be our biggest asset ... We decided to put the people portion on the front line.”
– Nour Elotmani
“The benefits we offer are simply unmatched in our market,” says Sami. “We offer the highest hourly rate, health benefits, and vacation time. Our best chauffeurs are our key recruiters and they are invested in the company’s growth as much as the executives are. During our quarterly company-wide meetings, our chauffeurs are some of the most engaged participants, asking questions about the company’s plans for next few years, growth rates, etc.”
It’s this career growth path that has turned former drivers into brand ambassadors in the company. Beginning as drivers, they move on to the role of chauffeur, then senior chauffeur, and ultimately brand ambassador. “In addition to the standard health care and vacation time benefits, our ambassadors are the highest-paid chauffeurs in our market, guaranteed 40 hours per week—a desirable benefit in a highly seasonal market—receive preferential shift schedules, and are prominently featured on our website,” says Sami. “They also serve as lead trainers and mentors to all new drivers.”
Other people who help move Destination MCO forward every day include Simo Elotmani, Nour and Sami’s older brother, who is the accounting manager, and Sean Gara, operations manager. “Simo had single-handedly overseen our accounting department until 2016 when we decided to bring on a co-controller,” says Nour. “Sean started as a part-time chauffeur in 2008 and moved into dispatch. Nine years later, he is the orchestra conductor when it comes to all operations-related activities. His days as a dispatcher during some of the company’s most hectic, early growth years have helped him hone the skills necessary to stay cool under pressure.”
Over the past few years, both Sami and Nour have made a concerted effort to work on the business as opposed to working in it. They say it requires discipline and time management skills, but also, the knowledge that they can rely on the team around them to keep operations running smoothly. “As a business owner, if you can’t trust the team supporting you, you are unlikely to let go of the operational management of the business. I feel very lucky in knowing that I am not needed day to day. The business runs perfectly fine without my involvement and it’s all because of the management team we have in place,” says Nour.
Agree to Disagree
Both Nour and Sami concede that, when it comes to the daily grind of running a business, they don’t agree on much. “We are both driven by a desire to ‘win the right way’ and that keeps us rowing in the same direction even when we don’t see eye to eye on how to best do that.”
Nour’s strengths lie in operations, so he naturally spends time focusing on new ways to generate operational efficiencies and coaching existing team members for success. Nour’s obsession for service excellence puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the team to stay focused on maintaining and improving high service quality standards.
Sami dedicates his time to sales and marketing efforts as well as finance and analytics. “This labor specialization of sort allows us to optimize the use of our differing skill sets as much as possible,” he says. “We both believe in the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of results are generated by 20 percent of an individual’s activities—being mindful of it is a step in the right direction, but the ever-present challenge is figuring out what the key 20 percent activities actually are on a daily basis.
To show appreciation for the support system around them, Sami and Nour created a Destination MCO Wall of Fame, where chauffeurs who go above and beyond are recognized. Client testimonials are displayed on the wall and updated weekly by the HR department. It’s been such a success that they have decided to make a competition out of it. “We are working on introducing the idea of Destination MCO Bucks, which employees can trade in for prizes. This is an idea we’re permanently borrowing from our friends at Best Transportation in St. Louis,” Sami says with a wink.
In 2017, they also introduced a health and wellness incentive to encourage the team to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle by reimbursing them for monthly gym membership fees.
Destination MCO is in a period of transition, so say the Elotmanis. “Our industry has been permanently disrupted and, while it took a few years, there is a collective sense that the tide is turning in our favor. You see operators across the country making the necessary adjustments to succeed in the new marketplace and we are no different,” says Sami.
Instead of focusing on growing revenue for its own sake, Nour and Sami focused on being efficient and profitable at the current size, even cutting ties with large clients that did not contribute to the company’s bottom line. As a result, they are happy to forego reaching the same 30+ percent average growth rate of the company’s first 15 years, and the past two years have been all about fine-tuning operational processes and establishing the necessary structure to succeed going forward.
“We feel confident we have done just that and are ready to pursue new revenue streams that will complement our existing client base,” insists Nour.
“I know we all take it for granted, but this intra-industry collaboration is not common in other industries, and we should all be proud of it.”
– Nour Elotmani
Driven by Technology
Destination MCO has always been an early adopter of technology, the Elotmanis say. In the midst of the Great Recession of 2008, Nour says most companies reacted by cutting costs. “We sat down as a team and made a decision at the time not to lay off a single person,” he explains. “Some took pay cuts. We didn’t just want to ride the storm out but come out in a better position, and one way to do that was investing in technology.”
This included Livery Coach software, which helped the company manage its meetings and events business more efficiently. They also got in on iPad integration when it was in its infancy. “In 2011, we were one of the very first companies in our industry to adopt iPads for signage as well as communication,” says Sami. “We started by buying a few units and haven’t looked back since.”
For a new technological tool to be adopted by Elotmanis, it must serve a value-added purpose. “Technology is not a sustainable competitive advantage in and of itself,” he continues. “Technology’s true value is in the processes you put in place to utilize it in order to provide a seamless experience for your clients.”
He provides an example like ZipWhip, a tool that turns your business landline into a textable number. “In itself it’s not a huge investment and not a game-changer, but by adding the right processes to maximize its use, we lowered the volume of calls into dispatch by 20 percent,” Sami says.
The industry does lack in some aspects though, Sami says, which has been obvious as they strive to become a more data-driven company. “As much as we try, we are limited by the constraints—as all operators are—which is the lack of connectivity across platforms,” he says. “The company’s most crucial data are split among multiple software, and that’s holding back our ability to use data to find actionable insight.”
Powered by Relationships
Thankfully, Sami and Nour have a network of colleagues, friends, and mentors to lean on and commiserate or share information on similar struggles. It’s one of their favorite things about being in this industry.
“From the first time we attended a trade show over a decade ago, we were welcomed with open arms and mentored by so many great people,” says Nour. “There probably isn’t a day that passes without one of us either asking for help or helping an industry colleague. I know we all take it for granted, but this intra-industry collaboration is not common in other industries, and we should all be proud of it.”
In those early years, one of the most influential mentors for Sami and Nour was the late Tom Mazza. “His influence on Destination MCO is still present in how we conduct business, to this day,” says Nour. “Besides encouraging us to take part in benchmarking groups, he pushed the company to get involved in shaping the industry’s future from the inside by getting more involved on a national level.”
More recently, Andi Gray at Strategy Leaders has helped shape the company’s trajectory. She has been a valuable sounding board for all of their major decisions—from going to the employee chauffeur model to expanding the management team. “Her strong focus on creating a robust structure has set the company on a growth path driven by pre-set profit goals versus blind revenue growth,” Nour says.
Both Sami and Nour are involved in industry groups. Sami is a Going Global member and Nour is active with the Enterprise Strategy Group. Nour also sits on Chauffeur Driven’s Advisory Board, and Sami has served on the Show Committee and is currently on the Education Committee. “The unique nature of our industry is a collective strength that Destination MCO has benefited greatly from, so we do our best to give back to the industry as much as possible,” says Sami.
All of these connections and all of this knowledge don’t help the Elotmanis predict the future, though. “Trying to predict what the industry will look like in the next few years is a futile exercise,” says Sami. “But there are many trends we believe will continue to accelerate.”
Consolidation is the first. “Many large operators will lose auxiliary business to TNCs then to each other as markets get more cutthroat, and more mergers and acquisitions will take place. Medium-size operators are moving into the bus business. The combination of changes is still playing out but we wouldn’t be surprised if the industry ‘middle-class’ shrinks significantly,” says Sami.
The company—and the industry as a whole—must also prepare for changing client personas. “As the pace of retirement for Baby Boomers and Gen X accelerates, so does the pace of change in our clients’ tastes,” he continues. “Convenience has already trumped safety and compliance. Will it also win out against the buttoned-up, formal nature of our services?” Sami sees this as being the likely outcome in certain segments.
It’s hard to imagine how Nour and Sami ever unwind, but they do, and if you know their very different personalities, you realize that you won’t find them spending time in the same place. Nour is more laid-back and loves spending time with his wife and three daughters, ages 10, 9, and 3—which is why he appreciates a good nap every now and then. And Sami, well let’s just say he’s never met a stranger in his life, and prefers to hang at happy hours, playing sports, or traveling. The quasi-opposite personality types create a dynamic that has served them well.
No matter where the road takes them, one thing’s for sure: Destination MCO will be ready for it. Nour and Sami have created a people-centric culture, focused on creating memorable experiences for their clients that will continue to move them forward. [CD0817]