Mango Tours is the retail arm of TravelFast International, a travel agency acquired 40 years ago by a young, amiable Filipino immigrant named Johnny Francisco. A De La Salle University accounting graduate, Francisco was a budget system analyst for San Miguel Corp. before he decided to migrate to the US in 1976. As is the immigrant’s wont for risk-taking, it took some leap of faith to turn his back on a comfortable corporate job to the uncertainty of surviving in a different country.
After dipping his hand in the freight forwarding business, Francisco saw potential in the travel business – something he initially knew nothing about, so he had to learn the ropes from scratch. Longtime friends and customers like community leader Polly Cortez and public relations specialist Lorna Dietz remember Francisco in his tiny office at the Flood Building in San Francisco’s downtown, singlehandedly booking airline tickets for balikbayans who, then as now, would insist on getting the cheapest fares available. To get his name out there, the then-one-man operator would distribute fliers himself to Filipino passersby and during Filipino gatherings.
While he had to invest a lot of effort and determination to establish himself in the highly competitive travel business, Francisco’s natural amiability and patience helped him build a customer base that eventually became substantial enough to be noticed by some airlines plying the Asian routes. Thus, he learned the other aspect of the business – not only do you provide low-cost tickets to your retail customers, but you also have to build relationships with the airlines so you can be classified as a consolidator.
Francisco explains, “Airlines think of us as a consolidator and therefore give us the rock bottom rates to Manila and Southeast Asia. In return, we give these rock bottom rates to our market so they can enjoy very good rates. We just maintain a decent margin for our overhead. With the volume that we provide the airlines, they see us as volume producers. We in turn deliver this volume by increasing the amount of tickets we sell through our distribution channel, which consists of our branches scattered within California, in Nevada, and in Washington state.”
Four decades after Francisco entered the travel business, Travelfast, through its retail arm Mango Tours (established in 2004), now operates 16 branches in the US – 7 in Northern California, 7 in Southern California, one in Las Vegas and one in Tukwila, Washington. It has a total of 45 employees in the US and 110 in the Philippines where most of its customer service calls are handled 24/7.
Mango Tours deliberately focuses its marketing and services on the Filipino American market which, according to the latest census figures, is 4 million strong. Francisco estimates that his outfit owns 35 percent of the Fil-Am travel to Manila business. Breaking the numbers down further, he says the California market alone, where Filipino-owned travel agencies proliferate, gives him a 38 percent share. A large majority -- 65 percent – of its bookings is with Philippine Airlines. This lucrative relationship with the Philippines’ flag carrier has resulted in better rates for Mango Tours customers. Polly Cortez attests, if a traveler wants to take PAL, it’s better to book with Mango Tours rather than PAL itself because apparently PAL ticket agents are bound to its published rates, not consolidator rates.
Indeed, Mango Tours is a familiar name among regular balikbayans from California. Some who return to Manila multiple times a year rely on the company for their ticketing needs because of the convenience Francisco offers repeat customers: a dedicated travel specialist assigned to a regular traveler, who knows the traveler’s needs and wants, and can get a good rate at a moment’s notice if need be.
Those who were privy to Francisco’s early solitary service feel a sense of loyalty to the man even as they hail the evolution of the company from a paper and telephone-based operation to a fully developed online retailer whose booking site is able to hold its own with such industry giants as Expedia, Orbitz, and Priceline.
What sets Mango Tours apart from these behemoths? Customer service, asserts Francisco. Its online presence notwithstanding, most of its business is still done through telesales and walk-ins. Filipinos are funny that way, it seems. They want the assurance of talking to a person before they part with their money, and the ability to call someone when they encounter travel problems. Meaning, they require some handholding. As Francisco explains, “Since we have an office in the Philippines, there are a lot of Filipinos traveling who change their return schedules or would want a refund of their tickets. We provide the solution there by giving them the real cost to reissue tickets and/or refund penalties given to us by the airlines. Most other consolidators and Online Travel Agencies (OTA) do not provide this service and therefore regard all unused segments as nonrefundable. We have known a lot of travelers complaining to us on this issue. This is why a lot of travelers are moving to Mango Tours.”
A particularly hailed supplementary service that the company started a few years ago is the airport transfer service at NAIA: customers who sign up for it can be brought from and to the airport to/from various destinations in Metro Manila, with assistance when necessary. No need to bother anyone for “sundo” or “hatid.” And mercifully, no more dealing with dishonest taxis or limo drivers.
Looking at reviews for Mango Tours on the web confirms that its customers are generally satisfied with the service. Although there are a smattering of critics and complaints – mainly about not getting call backs – the comments show that in the niche market of balikbayans, Mango Tours rocks.
Moving to the Future
Having nailed its niche as the go-to company for travel to the Philippines, Mango Tours has started to expand its offerings to include tour packages and pilgrimages to Europe and other popular destinations. This fall, it will introduce tour and sightseeing packages to Manila and other parts of the Philippines, and to other Asian destinations.
There seems to be a hesitance even among Mango Tours loyal customers to book their European travel with the company at this point, an issue that Francisco tries to dispel. “Although we are just getting into that field now, we have received a tremendous response [to the European tour packages]. We have just started marketing these destinations full-time. Expect to see and hear more about these destinations being served by Mango Tours in the near future. It was difficult for us to concentrate on these destinations before since we did not have enough manpower to do it, but a lot has changed.”
Change is the challenge and the clarion call of Mango Tours these days as it consolidates and expands its web presence through clever marketing. Mango Scoop catches attention, the constant drip of postings whets the customers’ appetite for seeing the world.
The moving force behind these updated and upgraded approach to web and social media marketing is Juan “Jappy” Francisco, Johnny’s only son, who was groomed to join the family business ever since he was a kid. He officially joined the company in 2007 as marketing director and now holds the title Vice President of Operations (although he jokes that every time he orders new business cards, he changes his title).
As the man in charge of catapulting the company to the new century, the 37-year-old Jappy uses the trendy word “disruptive” to describe his marketing initiatives. “We’ve had the MangoTours.com url as far back as 2004 but in 2012, I led the initiative to be disruptive and overhaul our website in 2012. We did a redesign but focused specifically on the user experience while making it as simple as possible. Along with this, we also went big on digital marketing with Google and Facebook. Recently, I decided we needed more infrastructure investment to make sure our data points are all taking with one another. We refer to this as Data 360. What this means is everything from sales, to accounting, to digital marketing analytics, to our extensive phone data bank all talk with one another. We also have omni channel reports to easily analyze the data, and more importantly, make data-driven decisions.”
Embracing new technology means moving toward new markets – the tech-savvy, millennials, world travelers – different, but not necessarily contradictory to the traditional Mango Tours market that Francisco, the senior, has nurtured with great success. Jappy recognizes the need to meld the two tracks. “My Boss and Father has always taught me to be conservative. While I plan on doing that, I also plan to be aggressive when needed. Getting to the top is difficult, but staying at the top is the real challenge. In order for us to keep our growth trajectory consistent, we will have to be aggressive.”
There is no denying that Jappy is his father’s son when it comes to recognizing and grabbing opportunities whenever they loom. That’s how the elder Francisco built up the business from scratch; now it’s the son’s turn to conquer, so to speak. When asked about his goals for Mango Tours in the next five years, the younger Francisco speaks his generation’s language. “Be open-minded, stay hungry, keep building. Open-minded because consumer tastes and industry norms are always changing, so we can’t put all our eggs into only one aspect of the business. Staying hungry is one of the primary reasons I’ve found success in life. No matter how high our market share is in the USA-Philippines travel corridor, the moment you feel comfortable is when the competition will take you down. Building technologically can support being open-minded to new trends/ideas, as well as keeping you out of your comfort zone, to keep ahead of the curve.”
This full-throttled use of technology is indeed required of companies competing in the highly volatile, highly competitive travel arena. There’s no other way. But a technology-focused and [data] science-believing Filipino-owned operation is still a novelty in the overall Filipino American market. This is what makes Mango Tours a beacon of inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs beyond the travel industry. This is how the company is setting the standard by which Fil-Am businesses can aspire..
Tips for Travelers from Johnny Francisco
When you find a good fare, buy it right away.
Go with a known travel agent.
Make copies of all travel documents.
Make sure to contact your travel agency before your travel, just to make sure that there is a ticket attached to your reservation. Better confirm with the airline.
Buy travel insurance. This is very important.