Insider Interview: A Talk With American Marketing Group Founder Rick Mazza

In 1970, Rick Mazza was a former engineer-turned-successful Brooklyn travel agency owner seeking a way to exponentially grow his business. He joined a national franchise and quickly realized that the products and services they offered were very limited with a one-size-fits-all approach and set out to create an alternative.

Fifty-two years later, Insider Travel Report caught up with Mazza, founder, president and CEO of American Marketing Group (AMG) at AMG’s 50th anniversary, celebrating the company’s 19 travel brands, including TravelSavers, NEST and the Affluent Traveler Collection. We asked him to reflect on his life in the travel industry and his AMG organization over the past half-century.

ITR: Since you are part of the “old guard,” your perspective is so important. Over the last 52 years, what changes have you seen in the travel industry for the better and for the worse?

Mazza: Oh my God, the changes have been extraordinary. We went from…not quite horse and carriage, but I would say we went from validating paper tickets to what it is today. You had so many suppliers that were in business for many years that aren’t with us anymore, so major changes in the airlines…and major changes during financial crises. Over those 52 years, I remember at least three years of disasters for the travel industry. There was 2008; problems around 1977 and 1978, and of course, you had 9-11. And then what we just came through, I mean, I never thought I'd see something that lasted as long as the pandemic. It’s incredible. And the pandemic hurt a lot of people and it really stressed them out. Some people had to retire from the field of play, and it's really a shame. Competition is a good thing. When you see [competitors] come off the field of play, it’s a loss for the industry.

ITR: What would you say were some of the high points over the last 50 years?

Mazza: Well, the high point is the evolution of the industry. From getting the computers that you had to beg for and pay for just for the right to do business with the airlines to where we are today, with all the electronics that are in place, the Internet. There have been major changes in the way you do business. But we’re still selling the same dreams, that's for sure. There’s the personal touch, absolutely, and that will always be there. There will always be a need for professional travel sellers. Remember 9-11 where you had this disaster, and the Internet was pulled out? It was the travel agents that got all those stranded travelers home. You never hear too much about that, right? Wall Street doesn't like to tell that story. It kind of hurts the stock market a little, but those are the facts. The agents got them home.

ITR: So let me ask you, why do you believe that TravelSavers stayed the course and survived when some other agency groups did not?

Mazza: I think it's the model. When we came into the business, we didn’t want to come in as a commission club. I kind of view consortia as such. We weren't here to make a quasi-union out of the agency network. We weren’t going to be a threat. Some of the proposals I saw in the very beginning...I mean if anybody did business with us, they would have had to be crazy. They would look for us to disappear off the face of the earth. We came up with a marketing plan. We asked what makes the wheel go round? Everybody has to get something out of it. Everyone's got to walk away from the table feeling that they've gotten something out of that whole program. And that's what we did. We were here for the agency community, but directing preferred vendors’ products to consumers. We went out and we actually went after the consumer on behalf of the agency community.

We had all sorts of programs…AMC Theaters Frequent Moviegoer Loyalty Program, which we put in place was highly successful. The NFLPA where I had access to all the football players, and I was able to put them onto group programs on the ships, and that was exclusive to my agencies. We provided the first packages and gifts for about four or five years with Wheel of Fortune.

Then we did the Wheel of Fortune cruise. The show’s producers wanted to do a shoot aboard the ship and they wanted free cabins. They gave me a list and I said, “Well, just a moment. You know, no one’s just going to give you something like that. If there's a marketing program, what’s the return?” So I said we would think of something and we put it together. We said you have to guarantee that 100 percent of all the people that we put on board get on the show, that's number one. Number two, bookings were exclusive to TravelSavers agencies.

It was on the Norwegian Cruise Line December 15 sailing and the Norway was just coming out of drydock after being expanded by a deck. And it was now so large that you could have fired a cannon on board and I don't think you would have hit anybody. We sold that ship at full price when everybody else was selling it at a discount—and we were full. And everybody got something out of it. They got to do their shoot, NCL got the bookings, and our agents had an exclusive situation that was a hot seller. That's my job and that's the way it works.

ITR: Looking back, what were some of the best decisions you made steering this consortium? And what are some of the things you would like to have done differently?

Mazza: Everything was an experience. Let’s put it this way. I brought in people who knew how to market, okay? I mean, I'm an engineer. I came into the business as a franchise with travel benefits and I got hooked. And I bought into a concept. Of course, in unity there is strength. You wanted to have “image,” you wanted to have access to leads, and the Diners Club travel franchise system was giving me all of those things. The only problem was that it was Diner’s Fugazy, and the second part of that fell apart. But the idea was right.

We just said they spent millions and failed. Three of us put in $15,000 apiece and we said let's see if we could do it on a shoestring and not charge the agencies because they’re a point of sale. Why are you going in there and charging this guy to do business with you? The airlines charged if you wanted to do business on a computer. They wanted point of sale, but they weren't willing to pay for point of sale. I'm talking about suppliers. It was insanity.

And there was never any strength… unless you were a national, corporately owned company like an American Express or the Diners Club, and that's what I had bought into at the time. So we said, let's create an oxymoron. Let's have an independent owners’ chain. We didn’t want to be a consortium. We were going for the long term, the long run. And it paid off because we’re still here and we’re still doing exactly what we started out to do.

And what changes would I have made? I don't know if I would have made that many changes. You know, we started businesses that just didn't take off, but we didn't throw them away. We put them on a shelf. The ideas were good. The timing was bad. So from time to time, we'll take something off the shelf that we had started with, because when the timing is right, we bring it back in.

ITR: So what should industry leaders be doing now that they're not?

Mazza: That's a tough question. I don't think I can answer for the others. As far as what we do, it's more of the same. It works. Why would you change it, right? And the people that have survived these last two and a half years, I give them kudos. You know, these are leaders, these are people who know how to get out there and make it happen and survive. And there were those who should have survived that didn't survive. And it's a shame. It really is. I like competition, it’s very healthy for an industry. So you know where the losses are, I would like to see somebody fill those slots, even if it's a competitor.

ITR: Final question: what are your hopes for AMG’s next 50 years?

Mazza: Ask my kids. They're really taking it forward. They've been in the business now for many years…Nicole’s executive staff has been in the business a minimum of 25 years. And they’re relatively young, I mean, in comparison to me, but that’s another story. I’ve got 52 years in this business, and we’ve had our ups and downs, and our hard knocks. It's been exciting. I wouldn't have changed one minute. Now I’ve built skyscrapers, I was in the steel construction business. I'm a builder by education. But there[s nothing more exciting than this travel business. When people give you cliches like we're dream fulfillers and dream builders…and it goes on and on. But it's true. I still think I get a twinkle in my eye when somebody says, hey, where's a good place for me to go travel? It’s in your blood. And there’s so many places yet to see…which I'll probably never get to see them all, but I’ll just keep going and it’s fun. So I’ll let my kids continue now. And I'll do all the running around.

ITR: Thank you, Rick, for your insight, and congratulations on your 50th anniversary!


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