Alexandre Chemla came to the United States from France armed with the determination to achieve his vision of the American dream. He started his travel business, Altour, in a 20 sq. ft office with just a table and a phone. Twenty years later, he has 1,200 employees and is reporting $1.2 billion in annual sales. Chemla tells BusinessNewsDaily how he did it and why he feels the American dream is still alive.
BusinessNewsDaily: What one personality trait of yours do you think has benefited you the most in terms of your success?
Alexandre Chemla: I have always been a risk-taker, and more than anything, that quality has allowed me to take advantage of opportunities whenever I see them, and expand Altour quickly and effectively.
BND: What special challenges did you face when you immigrated to the United States?
A.C.: The greatest difficulty for me was getting past the language barrier. But it was also a challenge to adjust to the American mentality, which is very different from France.
BND: You were raised in Paris. Do you think you could have attained the same success there as in the United States?
A.C.: I absolutely can’t imagine building a company like Altour in France. The spirit of progress behind this company is a very American one .
BND: Did you come to the United States with a vision or did living in the United States give you a vision?
A.C.: I came to the United States with the classic vision of “the land of opportunities.” I was lucky because I was already working for Club Med abroad, so I was able to continue working with them when I moved to the U.S., and from there, the abstract vision of opportunity translated itself into the reality of opportunities, and the work you must put in to take advantage of them.
BND: As a successful entrepreneur, do you feel a responsibility to give back? And if so, what do you do?
A.C.: Altour has always been very active in philanthropy; we developed the Altour Goes Green initiative, which supports charitable organizations working to combat climate change like the Nature Conservancy. We’ve also regularly conducted matching campaigns for disaster relief funds in response to major natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti. I’m also a passionate supporter of the arts, so Altour is a sponsor of the Hamptons Film Festival and contributes to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and a number of other cultural institutions.
BND: What was the top destination your clients were traveling to five years ago, what is it today and what do you think it will be five years from now?
A.C.: Five years ago, we were sending tons of clients to beautiful hotels in Costa Rica, which has tapered off somewhat. Africa and South Africa in particular, have been really huge this year. As for the next big destination, Brazil certainly looks promising with both the Olympics and the World Cup in the near future.
BND: What sets your business model apart from a traditional agency model?
A.C.: We have built our company as a corporation with strict rules and a substantial foundation; as we’ve gained clients and added new companies and agents, we’ve always had a consistent style and strategy, rather than functioning on a client-to-client or trip-to-trip basis.
BND: Is the whole belief in the American dream still alive?
A.C.: I think that the American dream is more alive than it’s ever been. With all the countries I’ve visited, I know without a doubt that there is no other place I would rather live — nowhere with more potential or opportunity.
BND: If you went back to Tunisia and sat down with a classroom of children, what single piece of advice would you give them?
A.C.: I would tell them that regardless of what class or location or family you’re born into, the most important thing you can do is believe in yourself and your ability to be an entrepreneur.
BND: How do to remain profitable during recessions?
A.C.: Of course, dealing with a recession always involves reducing costs to their absolute minimum and increasing revenue. But I think it’s even more important to keep up the morale of your troops. If they believe that they’re succeeding and the company is succeeding, they will present it to clients as a successful company, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
BND: What is your most effective marketing tool?
A.C.: There’s no question that Altour’s most effective marketing tool has been providing good service; at the end of the day, there are few tools better than positive word of mouth, and that’s how we’ve developed our entire business.