A Lesson in Determination from Duluth Travel
After finding there was no travel agent in his town of Duluth, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, Arthur Salus decided he would open one. With no knowledge of the industry, one employee other than himself, and $5,000 to his name, Salus opened Duluth Travel, a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB). The year was 1993 and he still remembers how hard it was assembling the two desks he purchased from Staples.
Duluth focused on leisure travel business, before meeting suppliers who connected him with co-op money that helped him go after corporate accounts—which he did by fax. Lots of fax. This was before broadcast faxes, so for each fax sent he had to type in the number then put in the paper to be faxed, and wait for confirmation that it went through before moving on to the next number. With a Chamber of Commerce list and help from his family each weekend, this was how Salus built his business which has grown to become the top SDVOSB in government travel.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly in a category all its own, the travel industry—and agencies like Duluth—have experienced difficult times before. The company has survived airline commission cuts of the 1990s, the advent of travel websites that took a significant amount of travel booking business, two economic recessions, and the 9/11 attacks which resulted in reducing travel for several years.
It was during one of these particularly difficult periods that Duluth first got into the government travel space. In a recent chat, Salus share the interesting tale of how he got into the government travel business and his thoughts on making it through the COVID-19 pandemic:
“I read an article in Travel Weekly that talked about government travel. Of course, I knew nothing about government travel at that time. I was still working on leisure and corporate, but then I started investigating it. I went to my Congressmen Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, who were our Senators at the time, I introduced myself, and they kind of guided me on what I needed to do.
“They first directed me to GSA [the US General Services Administration] because the only way you could do any business was to get on the GSA schedule. I had to register with [GSA]. Back then these things were still done with paperwork, not through computers and emails, so it was a slow process. Contracts were going out and I just kept waiting on my approval to come through with no luck.
“One day I came home and was watching a movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Jimmy Stewart. In it, the main character gets elected to help change Washington politics. It was really inspirational to me. It made me think, let me go to Washington and see what I can do and see how I can get some work from the government. So, I decided I was going to do that.
“Three days later, I came home to find my wife crying at the table. When I asked what was wrong, she said that we were out of money. I decided that was it, so I got an appointment with Isakson’s office and at five o’clock in the morning the next day I went to Washington. I got there with my carry-on bag around seven or seven-thirty in the morning and just started walking the halls of the Congressional office building.
“When you walk around, you see all the different offices and committees of both Republicans and Democrats. I figured I would just go in and knock on doors. And I brought two things to help me—two pins. When Jimmy Carter was running for president, he had a volunteer force called the Peanut Brigade. They gave out peanuts because he was a peanut farmer and there was a little peanut tiepin that signified that you worked on his campaign. I brought that and brought a Republican pin. As I walked up and down the hall, I would switch my tiepin depending on what office I was going to enter.
“I’d introduce myself, just seeing who I could talk to and they would either listen to me or kick me out of the office. I kept going back and forth across the hall, switching my tiepin, looking for people to hear me and help.
“Then I just happen to see the office of the Chairman of the Small Business Committee, his name was Don Manzullo, from Illinois. I walked into his office and as I’m talking to his staffers, I had a tap on my shoulder and it was him asking what I was doing. I said ‘I’m a service-disabled vet, trying to get business from the government and I can’t get GSA to respond.’ He said ‘tell me your story,’ so we went into his office and he listened to me. And then he said he wanted me to testify in front of the committee, so I did.
“When I testified, I was really nervous. They ask you to provide your testimony three days before and I must have read it 25 times to get it under the eight minutes allotted. But the thing that really threw me off was this little box you have sitting right in front of you with red, yellow and green lights. When they introduced me, the light changed from red to green.
“I was reading slowly like my wife had said to do and then the yellow light came on. I didn’t have enough time to finish. I was so worried the red light was going to come on and stop me, that I put my paper down and asked the Chairman ‘Would you mind if I don’t read my testimony because you have it? Can I just talk to you from the heart?’ The Chairman said ‘absolutely.’ So, I never finished my report, I just spoke from my heart about my experience.
“As luck would have it, when I testified, I sat next to a Deputy Secretary for the VA [US Department of Veterans Affairs]. We were all there to help wave the flag for vets and small business. During the break, I asked him who was doing the VA’s travel. He responded it was American Express, so I asked ‘why are we up here advocating for small business and vets, when you aren’t even practicing what you preach? A vet and a small business capable of doing your travel is right next to you.’ Well, I must have hit the right nerve because six months later we won that contract.
“Having that VA contract put us on the map. Since then, Duluth has also worked with the Department of the Interior, IRS [Internal Revenue Service], HHS/ASPR [the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response], the Smithsonian, FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], and TSA [the Transportation Security Administration].
“I’m incredibly proud of what we have accomplished over the years. It wasn’t easy. One problem I have found in our world of travel is that often major companies say they have supplier diversity programs, but I have been applying on these sites for years with no response. Our company is just as capable of providing the same services as the bigger companies, with great customer service and often at lower costs. But we get overlooked, especially by corporations. So, it has taken a lot of determination to make it.
“Of course, with COVID, we are in another difficult period. In the travel industry, we all get hurt when there is a downturn. For Duluth, the government business has been our saving grace during this time. We have been helping to move people for FEMA and [the Department of] Homeland Security for major events like natural disasters, the January 6th riots at the capitol, the Super Bowl, things like that. I think other travel business will come back, but it will take a big push from the government and widespread vaccinations to make travelers feel comfortable.
“We are down to only 10 percent of our normal volume. But, we remain optimistic and we have adjusted. Having the flexibility to adjust quickly is one benefit of being a small business. In a big business, there may be layers to get through before you can get a decision. At Duluth, the buck stops with me and I pride myself in being involved in all facets of the business. We have been through difficult times before and I know that we will survive this too. We can’t give up.”