With close to 30 years of experience in the marine travel industry, Louise Kawaler has deservedly earned the reputation of an expert. So when the opportunity arose to represent ISSGMT Global Marine Travel in Canada, she and General Manager of North America Chris Podolsky both jumped at the chance to take the company to new heights. “ISSGMT is the clear leader in the field of marine travel,” said Kawaler. “In addition to a corporate culture that thrives on service and the collective knowledge of a professional team, the proprietary tools available through ISSGMT are unmatched in the industry.” In an interview with BC Shipping News, Podolsky elaborated on Kawaler’s comments.
Podolsky himself has had a long career in the marine travel industry. Since 1985, he has worked with cruise lines and marine travel companies to provide crew and cruise passenger travel logistics. He moved over to Global Marine Travel (GMT) in 2010, one year prior to its acquisition by Inchcape Shipping Services (ISS). “GMT’s President, Tim Davey, recognized that the company needed to go through a major growth phase,” said Podolsky. “Upon joining, we undertook a significant transformation of our technology components which allowed us to go after clients of all sizes globally.”
Once acquired by ISS, GMT expanded its presence. In addition to their existing North American travel centre in Fort Lauderdale and another centre in the Philippines, an office was opened in Singapore in 2012, followed by an additional office in Palma that was opened in 2014. Now boasting 140 staff in 11 countries, the company has grown 13 per cent year over year. “Most importantly,” said Podolsky, “we’ve done this while maintaining a high standard of customer service. We do not outsource phone calls and all calls are routed through North American office. And a live person answers, no matter what time of the day in any part of the world.”
Additional growth was also seen in 2016 when ISSGMT established its Global Air Charter Division. “The Air Charter Division is comprised of fully licensed and insured air charter brokers,” noted Podolsky. “We can find an aircraft of any size, any place and at any time. Whether it’s for a few executives who need to be at a meeting and there’s no scheduled service or if it’s for 1,000 passengers of a cruise ship that has had to unexpectedly disembark passengers into an unscheduled port, we’re able to handle it.”
ISSGMT’s client base stretches across many facets of the maritime industry and is largely comprised of commercial marine, private yacht crews, and cruise crew and passengers. One area that has really “ramped up” over the past five years has become their specialty, dry dock logistics. Podolsky described the tight timelines and scheduling that often goes into dry dock contracts. “When a cruise line goes into a dry dock, they have allocated the various blocks of time for contractors who must get to the ship and work within their assigned timeframe. There can be upwards of 200 workers who need flights and hotels. It’s very structured and requires a lot of attention to detail to get them there on time and on budget.”
As noted, a large portion of ISSGMT’s business is with cruise crew and passengers. Indeed, they provide bookings for cruise travel agents based all over the U.S. and Canada. “When someone books a cruise, they also have the option of booking the air and the cruise travel agent will work with us to arrange that,” he said, adding that they don’t deal directly with consumers.
The complexities of marine travel
A key logistical component for any global business is the ability to move its workers around the world quickly, efficiently and within budget. “The scope of knowledge required by a travel specialist goes well beyond simply issuing an air ticket,” said Louise Kawaler from her office in Vancouver. “You need knowledge of the area, an understanding of various contracts that relate to marine carriage regulations, crewing policies, and even baggage restrictions. We also make sure that each one of our team is an expert in getting the most out of our proprietary booking system to the benefit of the client.”
The system Kawaler refers to is ISSGMT’s very own online booking tool. “For clients who qualify (i.e., are large enough and have a company travel policy and approval process in place), we install the web-based platform with a user interface,” said Podolsky. “It contains all of our marine fares and employees who travel or manage the travel can access flight availabilities and price in real time. They can book and confirm travel directly through the portal. Once the reservation is confirmed, it will go through the approval process established by the company before the tickets get issued.” He further added that approvals can be made on any type of device.
When asked how large a company needed to be to be eligible, Podolsky said that the number of employees and the amount of travel are both taken into consideration. “We don’t charge for implementation, training or software fees but in order to do that, there has to be upwards of 30 staff travelling regularly – say 30 trips per month in order for it to work well. Otherwise, it’s too much work for both the company and us to administer. An administrator within the company needs to be trained; all of the travellers need to be loaded into the system; and it requires continuous updating with new employees being added and set up so that when the booking comes in, it can move through the system of approvals right away.”
In addition to the booking tool and the “live person 24/7/365,” Podolsky highlighted other strengths of ISSGMT’s service, including automated trip notification and approval processes (through either online or by phone); encrypted and secure data transfers to a specified duty of care partner so that if there is an international incident, the employee and the company are notified right away; and extensive in-house training for all ISS employees on a wide variety of issues – ethics and compliance, anti-bribery, new laws on data privacy, training on the technology as well as standard practices.
With the priority put on customer service, Podolsky noted that the company is continuing to grow at a healthy pace, including expansion into new areas of Europe, South America and, of course, Canada.