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Helping Minority-Owned Firms Take Off

September 22, 2005
travel agency

Judy Pusch (left) and Kathy Clements own Four Corners Travel, the oldest travel agency in Evanston. Photo by Stephen Anzaldi

By Lee Prater Yost

From their 20th floor location in the Bank One building at 1603 Orrington Ave., Four Corners Travel co-owners Kathy Clements and Judy Pusch have panoramic views of Evanston and Northwestern University, their major clients.

The oldest travel agency in Evanston, founded in 1953, had long aspired to be vendors for the University, but in the end “they called us,” says Clements. And, as Clements says of the woman-owned agency, “we fill a niche for people who need more hands-on service.”

Intra World Travel and Tours is located on a lower level at 1740 Ridge Ave., but it, too, has a view -- beautiful artworks from the owners’ native India. The Gidwaney family also sought a share of the Northwestern travel business and approached the University directly. That was in 1987, two years after the company was established, and at a time when Northwestern was also working with American Express.

“They wanted another vendor, but not another giant company -- just one that could provide more personalized service,” says Ajay Gidwaney, who works with his brother and father.

Intra World and Four Corners, two of Northwestern’s approved travel agencies, are just the types of companies Northwestern seeks out as part of its commitment to minority-owned, woman-owned and local business enterprises (M/W/LBE).  Ten years ago the University established the Supplier Diversity Program, managed by John Marshall, who says that departments are encouraged to include M/W/LBEs in the purchasing process. University personnel meet potential suppliers by researching business lists, visiting companies and attending trade shows and the annual Supplier Diversity Conference held on the Evanston campus.

“Vendors also contact the University directly, just as Gidwaney did, to show their interest in doing business with us,” says Marshall.

After the University closed the two on-site American Express travel centers in June 2003 because of high operating costs, Brian Peters and Jeffrey Levin of University Services visited a number of Evanston travel agencies. When they learned that Four Corners had a good reputation among University travelers who did business with them, was competitively priced and was woman-owned, they pursued a contract because “we are committed to institutional spending with competitive minority-owned, women-owned and local businesses that are service oriented,” says Peters.

The University encourages faculty and staff to use Four Corners and Intra World for both business and leisure travel.

Consultants at the two full-service travel companies are themselves well-traveled, knowledgeable and connected. They can hook up travelers with local guides overseas, secure front row theater tickets, tailor cruises to specific needs and provide “private tours of the Sistine Chapel before it opens to the general public,” says Clements.

Both agencies acknowledge that “India has become hot!” Gidwaney is more specific, saying he has begun booking yoga tours to India.

Northwestern tracks faculty and staff business travel expenses, but University personnel can bring spouses and families for “tag-along” leisure travel, says Gidwaney, whose business also specializes in “VFR” (Visiting Friends and Relatives) travel. “First- and second-generation immigrants to the United States usually have relatives abroad whom they visit at least once a year -- so this is an important niche for us” -- as is the partnership with Northwestern.

These partnerships are win-win situations. Marshall tracks dollars spent and figures that the University spends more than $20 million a year with local Evanston businesses and with minority-owned and woman-owned enterprises in Evanston and elsewhere. That’s big bucks staying in the neighborhood.

Lee Prater Yost is a freelance writer

Topics: Opinion