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Executive Profile

At Home, Abroad

Perhaps it's because Nancy Dunn regularly travels the world
that she finds so much to appreciate right in her own backyard

By Jerry Blackwelder

Growing up on a tobacco farm in rural eastern North Carolina near Rose Hill taught Nancy Dunn two valuable life lessons. First, farm life convinced her that she did not want a career that left her “covered with tar and dirt from head to foot at the end of a long, hard day.” Foremost, she developed an appreciation and tolerance for hard work; she firmly believes that everyone should at some time in their working life experience manual labor.

“It's not that manual labor is the only form of hard work, but it strengthens you in a way that you don't feel fragile when you really do have to work hard at your job” says the president and founder of Aladdin Travel and Meeting Planners.

It was inconceivable for that farm child to imagine that one day a major interstate highway would pass through Rose Hill. It was just as inconceivable that she would head one of the state's largest and most successful travel agencies, one that sends corporate and leisure travelers to the far reaches of the globe — strange and exotic locales that she also has been able to visit.

Dunn prepared herself by majoring in International Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and landing a job as a travel agent.

At 22, “I couldn't believe that somebody would actually pay me to travel and talk about travel,” she recalls now. “I was so enthralled with travel that I couldn't even imagine making a living doing it and selling it because it seemed like way too much fun.”

A few months into the job she was dispatched to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to arrange a meeting for clients. Being that far away from home for the first time, “I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” she remembers, and her first international experience hooked her on a never-ending “journey of a lifetime.”

Just two years into her career and with the “arrogance of youth” in her favor, Dunn left the job to form Aladdin. Now she looks at her oldest daughter, 24-year-old Catherine, and thinks, “Gosh, that's awfully young.” Then she thinks of herself at the same age and the drive that got Aladdin to where it is today — accountable for $35 million in annual billings and the provider of 60 jobs in Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Atlanta.

Aladdin understandably began small. Travel was, after all, much more difficult in the 1970s — that was long before budget airlines had carved a niche and business travelers felt the need to get there yesterday. Still, Dunn found the Winston-Salem area hungry for another travel agency. Her early exposure to hard work and long days came in handy and her business quickly took off as she focused on marketing leisure travel for families and groups.

Today's travel industry bears only a slight resemblance to the way the business was conducted three decades ago, and that brings a smile to Dunn's face as she remembers the early days.

“When I first got into this business,” she says, “we looked up air schedules in one book, international domestic fares in another book, and the government only allowed air fares to change twice a year, which we thought was way too confusing and complex to manage.”

Two almost simultaneous developments of the 1980s resulted in a revolution in the way the travel business operated — the federal de-regulation of the airline industry and the computerization of the reservations system.

The new structure and technology led Dunn to pursue corporate travel more aggressively. With only a small staff, fulfilling corporate needs had been virtually off limits prior to that time because of last-minute and often changing requests for travel arrangements.

“Client-driven travel is really something that only when you have the speed of the computer can you do it quickly enough,” she says.

The travel industry soon jumped on the technology bandwagon, and today is one of the most automated businesses in the nation.

Aladdin has had some growing pains. Dunn recalls preparing for a corporate meeting for the largest group she had ever served. Organizers had told her to expect up to 2,400 attendees, a staggering challenge. The guest list eventually exploded to 3,700.

“It was the only time in my life that I've pulled an all-nighter at the office,” she chuckles. The overtime produced a successful meeting, the client was happy, and it was “a defining moment” in Aladdin's growth, Dunn says.

With a growing company, Dunn discovered that part of being a successful young entrepreneur included an “almost obsessive need to be the best you can be and get all the business you can.”

The hard work and perseverance paid off as Aladdin flourished, evolving into one of the top travel agencies in the country in terms of volume. Wachovia Bank became a valued corporate client, with Aladdin establishing in-house offices for the bank in its Winston-Salem and Atlanta corporate headquarters. Acquisitions in the past few years also accounted for significant growth as the company bought Winston-Salem's North Point Travel to use as a second office in the Twin City and then purchased Greensboro Travel, providing a substantial presence in the Gate City.

Buying out another travel agency, Dunn found, encompassed much more than purchasing desks and computers.

“What you're really buying,” she says, “is the right to recruit the agency's employees. That's really the key, because those people who deliver the service are the ones who make the difference.”

She compares an acquisition to adding “a new sales person who was suddenly enormously successful and brought in a number of new accounts at the same time.” To make the marriage succeed, “you have to work hard at keeping both the employees and the accounts happy or you've bought nothing,” she says.

While women who served as corporate chiefs were scarce in the business world during Aladdin's formative years, Dunn found her gender to be an advantage. “There were any number of doors that I've had held open for me that males would have a tough time getting through,” she admits.

Today, it concerns Dunn when she hears about women who “believe they have to turn themselves into a man in order to function well in the business world,” since she found the opposite to be true. She maintains that in today's business climate, gender isn't a factor.

“I'm in the relationship business. When you are forming relationships you are focused on getting to know a person, recognizing their needs and meeting those needs as opposed to thinking about extraneous issues like male or female. It just doesn't make any difference.”

Nevertheless, she is noted for pioneering female leadership of many civic and community groups. Among her accomplishments was being handed the gavel by John Davis as the first woman president of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.

Gayle Anderson of the chamber, who has known and worked with Dunn for many years and describes her as a sounding board for ideas, says Dunn's contributions are especially significant because of the nature of her business. “Taking time away from running a service business is particularly difficult and she's done it not only for the chamber but for many other area groups,” Anderson says.

Likewise, Dr. Thomas Hearn, president of Wake Forest University, praises Dunn for her civic achievements.

“One of the things that strikes anyone looking at Nancy Dunn is how widespread her civic involvement has been,” Hearn says. “She has served in a wide variety of capacities and organizations and has sustained her involvement over a long period of time.”

Hearn adds that Dunn's “footprints are all over this town” because of her “extraordinary commitment to civic stewardship.” Nor are those footprints likely to fade anytime soon. Dunn was elected to the NCCBI Board of Directors one year ago this month, and is frequently approached by other organizations looking for her support.

That Dunn is a people person is obvious to anyone who knows her. And she is quick to point out that relationships within her company are just as important as those with the agency's clients.

She describes Aladdin's employees as “my internal clients,” and believes that, “My job is to support them, which is as important for me as supporting my external clients. If I'm doing a good job with those internal clients, the external clients are going to be as happy as they can be.”

As a means toward that end, as well as a way to enrich her own life, Dunn discovered a valuable tool in a psychological/spiritual mechanism known as the enneagram. Not unlike the Myers Briggs method of identifying personality traits and characteristics, the enneagram classifies individuals into nine different categories.

Dunn admits she is “quite passionate” about the program, with its main benefit being that it “helps you get to know yourself better and in so doing understand and accept the differences among people.”

“I think it is very difficult for us to make real changes in our own behavior unless we see very clearly what that behavior is, and see that it's not getting the responses that we want,” she says.

The enneagram system “de-personalizes the negative aspects of one's personality,” she says, helping those who study it to realize that unpleasant interactions with others may not be the result of one's own actions but rather the internal character traits of the other individual.

She has put the system to work in her personal, civic and business life. While chairing the Novant Health Systems Triad Region Board, Dunn “helped us focus on relationships and kept us communicating on a regular and honest basis,” says Greg Beier, president of Novant's Triad Region. “She always stresses good communications, and has been particularly helpful to us in managing the diversity on our board, making sure we get all aspects of an issue on the table and making sure everybody participates.”

So sold is Dunn on the enneagram that she recently made a three-hour presentation to her agency team leaders so they too could reap the benefits from it. She took a chance as well, promising her managers ahead of time that it would be the only occasion in which they would be required to be exposed to a tool she found extremely valuable. “I was really pleased at the reaction of folks who instantly gained insight into themselves and others that has already made a difference in how they react to others,” she says.

Dunn's formula for success has worked both for herself and for Aladdin. To keep the agency's growth going, she meets periodically with CEOs and high-ranking officials of other large non-competitive travel agencies across the country to share and brainstorm new ideas.

To stay on top of one's game in such a competitive arena is a constant battle, with new technology coming on line often. Many view the Internet as a competing force, as web-savvy travelers can now research and book their own travel arrangements with a few clicks of a mouse.

But rather than view the Internet as a threat, Dunn sees it as a tremendous research tool for both her and her clients. “I'm not concerned at all as long as we remain in the relationship business,” she explains. “We even give our clients the option of booking their own travel online. We're here to help them manage technology effectively.”

One aspect of Internet travel planning that she feels has been slow to emerge is virtual reality. For instance, she often goes online looking for sites for hotels' computerized brochures and is disappointed in what she finds, expecting that they would be more interactive and allow surfers to take a virtual stroll.

Another area of electronic travel planning that Dunn feels has lagged is an airline's “e-ticket,” which goes smoothly when all the stars are aligned. But in the event of delays or flight cancellations that might require a change in carriers, trouble often ensues, she says, because some airlines do not recognize e-tickets issued by competitors.

Despite her longtime success in the industry, Dunn has no current plans to expand her corporate and leisure travel base outside the Piedmont Triad.

“We're not interested in becoming another American Express,” she says, adding that Aladdin instead will focus on providing “the best possible service to people planning vacations and meetings, groups traveling together and businesses right here in the Triad.”

Having said that, in the next sentence she is quick to add that if the right deal presents itself for expansion to other North Carolina locations, she would be foolish not to listen.

With all the demands on her time from her company and civic commitments, it's hard to imagine Dunn with much free time. But to prove she has her priorities in perspective, she describes her daughters, both of whom live in Raleigh, as “the lights of my life” and enjoys a close relationship with both. She beams when she describes the accomplishments of Catherine, who was involved in Gov. Mike Easley's successful run to the governor's office. At the same age as Dunn when she started the business, her daughter is “bringing to me things that she has accomplished rather than operating in my shadow,” she says.

And with both children away from the nest, Dunn, who divorced 10 years ago, finds herself accepting invitations to visit exciting ports of call around the globe. Picking a favorite destination is difficult.

With the disclaimer that her favorite vacation spots change with age and where she has visited recently, she says that “I've been to Italy three times in the last 18 months, and I'd have to say Rome has just moved up to at least equal with Israel and the Middle East” in her current standings of ideal getaways.

She's also anxious to explore regions of the world that she has never visited, such as the South Pacific and the African continent beyond Egypt and Morocco.

Chances are good those opportunities will present themselves down the road. Chances are equally good that no matter the distance that she travels, her heart won't stray too far from Rose Hill and the life lessons that she learned those many years ago.

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