In business, timing is everything. The successful ones know when to get into it, and when to get out of it.
This is an instinct Frank DeMarinis, CEO of H.I.S-Red Label Vacations, which includes TravelBrands and Merit Travel, has mastered over his more than 40 years in the travel industry.
DeMarinis’ career – an achievement shared with his brothers Joe and Enzo – is a masterclass in good timing, defined by striking deals when the iron was hot, at a pace that matched the travel industry’s own evolution.
Still, the art of achieving a fulfilling career is also about knowing when to slow down, and step down, which Frank DeMarinis, after leading Red Label for almost five years ever since it was acquired by Japan-based H.I.S Group, will do at the end of this month.
The decision was orchestrated just like every other transaction DeMarinis has navigated.
“The timing was right,” DeMarinis said in an interview with PAX over the phone last week. “It was my own personal choice.”
Our conversation with DeMarinis took place just days before his farewell party Wednesday night (July 19) at the TravelBrands office.
DeMarinis confirmed with PAX that he isn’t retiring, despite the optics of it all. Rather: “I’m just taking time off,” he said.
Is he leaving the travel industry for good? Maybe, maybe not.
“It depends on life,” he said. “I just want to focus on my family, my friends, my granddaughter, and spend time with them. It’s been over three decades, and I haven’t been able to do that. I’m really looking forward to that opportunity.”
DeMarinis’ last day is July 31, and the very next day, on Aug. 1, he has only one thing planned: to pick up his granddaughter at two o’clock in the afternoon, after she wakes up from her nap, and take a stroll in the park.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that every moment counts, so it makes sense that Frank DeMarinis, whose been hustling since the early 1980s, would want to take a pause.
After all, the timing is right – business, after years of financial hits brought on by the pandemic, has finally stabilized, DeMarinis said.
“Over the past year, we have recovered financially from the lows of COVID,” DeMarinis said of the company’s performance. “We have a strong balance sheet, the fundamentals of the organization are very high, and we’re continuing to strive on innovation.”
DeMarinis clarified that his exit has nothing to do with a contract expiring. He said his contract, in fact, expired during COVID, but was extended so he could continue to lead the company through the crisis.
“When I look at my exit, everything is in the proper place for me to leave the organization,” DeMarinis said.
H.I.S. Japan, on behalf of Red Label Vacations, TravelBrands, and Merit Travel, first announced DeMarinis’ departure in a company memo on June 21.
“Frank has been an important figure in the Canadian travel industry for many years, and we are grateful for his contributions, leadership, and dedication to our company during his time with us," the company wrote.
TravelBrands’ parent company, Red Label Vacations Inc., was acquired by a subsidiary of Japan-based H.I.S. Group in 2019.
It’s one of many transactions that define Frank DeMarinis’ travel career, which PAX profiled three years ago, in print, when Frank posed for the cover of Pax Magazine’s April 2020 issue.
Here’s a behind-the-scene video from that fabulous photoshoot, straight from the PAX vault.
Fundamentals & flexibility
Frank and his brothers, Joe and Enzo, entered the travel biz in the 1980s with the formation of Bel Air Travel.
Frank, back then, had already found success in the landscaping sector, but his love for travel eventually won out.
After shadowing his brothers, Frank opened his own Bel Air branch in Mississauga, ON, in 1991, marking the start of an eventual expansion to eight locations across Ontario.
In 2001, the business was bought out and folded into what would become Thomas Cook Canada.
The DeMarinis brothers returned in 2004 with Redtag.ca, which embodied a strategy of adapting to change, while covering fundamental industry principles by providing high-level customer service in an online booking environment.
The website was an “instant success,” DeMarinis told PAX back in 2020.
Within 18 months, redtag.ca generated the same amount of business as Bel Air had done in 10 years, he said.
“We were obviously on the right trajectory in terms of understanding our clients’ needs and demands, how this new behaviour was coming into the industry and how it would change things,” DeMarinis said at the time.
“It was something that was totally different, but you need to reflect that, in business, the fundamentals stay the same, but every so often, the requirements and behaviours of consumers change over time.”
“This is what makes entrepreneurs successful – understanding those behaviours and the changes that need to take place, reflecting where your business needs to be and positioned in accordance to those demands.”
Embracing change is also what transformed Red Label’s dealings with the travel trade.
After the company accepted an offer to purchase Thomas Cook Canada in 2013, it was apparent that the brand needed an upgrade.
Not only had the company’s profitability declined in recent years, but a lack of cross-selling opportunities between its individual brands made for a sometimes-frustrating interaction with travel advisors.
This is where DeMarinis saw an opportunity, and with that, TravelBrands was born.
“We knew that changes had to be made within the organization. It had the topline sales – we just had to manage everything, including how to turn the bottom line around,” DeMarinis told PAX previously.
“We looked at it and knew that we had to break down those silos. We created a portal for agents to come in and shop all of our products in one central location. That was, in itself, an instant success.”
In 2016, Red Label grew its holdings with itravel2000. After the deal with Japan’s H.I.S. Group three years later, DeMarinis stayed on as TravelBrands' president and CEO while Joe and Enzo DeMarinis stepped away from the company.
The next chapter will see Nathalie Tanious, chief operating officer at TravelBrands, take over Frank’s role as company CEO.
And Tanious is the “right choice,” DeMarinis told PAX.
“[Nathalie] and I have worked closely for the past eight years. She has a full understanding of the organization, and the importance of the travel agent community. She’s well versed on what’s important, and the next steps,” he said.
Aside from the business, there’s a treasure chest of memories from over the years that DeMarinis holds near and dear.
TravelBrands’ cross-country Travel Agent Appreciation Events, where DeMarinis could spend time with his sales team on the road, and connect with travel advisors, is one highlight he speaks fondly of.
“Those events allowed me to meet and speak to all the agents and listen to their concerns. It really helped me understand their point of view,” DeMarinis said. “From my perspective, the takeaway always was, ‘How can we improve our organization and empower travel agents to a higher level?’ That’s what I found to be the most memorable. When we were able to provide agents with something they were looking for.”
His “most gratifying” moment was when TravelBrands resurfaced, transformed, after filing for protection under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) in 2015.
“To this day, I am still humbled by the support we had from the agency community and employees during that period,” DeMarinis said. “We were very precise with our communication, we were open and honest. Integrity meant everything to us – my two brothers and myself – and we held true to that.”
“The industry is going to thrive”
DeMarinis’ exit comes as the travel industry enters a new era of structural and technological change – two ongoing themes in Frank’s career.
From the rise of low-cost carriers to post-COVID booking patterns to how “influencers” promote destinations and sway the market’s decisions to the introduction of artificial intelligence: “The industry is going to change at the fastest pace it has ever seen in the last three decades,” DeMarinis said. “And it will continue to change.”
While change isn’t easy, it can also open doors to new opportunities, said DeMarinis, whose own career is a testament to that.
“What I can say is that the industry is going to thrive,” he said. “Travel agents will have to embrace the changes that are forthcoming, especially when it comes to new technology, like AI.”
“It’s about understanding what is current today, while also providing that service level.”
Travel "has a light to shine"
As he takes his final bow, DeMarinis’ advice to Nathalie Tanious, his successor, is to “continue with the pillars we’ve built, promote that work-life-home balance that is important to all employees, and create that transparency that we started.”
As for his parting words to Canadian travel advisors, DeMarinis encouraged the trade to “embrace change” as it comes.
He also expressed his sincere gratitude to the trade for their support and feedback over the years.
“I want to thank each and every one of them for their contributions and kinds words they’ve given me,” he said. “I’ve gained a lot of strength and encouragement from that.”
And lastly, some words of wisdom. With so much negativity in the world, DeMarinis believes travel advisors have the power to inject some much-needed optimism in the communities they serve – through travel.
“A lot of people focus on the world being a dark place, but the travel industry has a light to shine,” he said. “It’s that passion that exists within travel.”
“We have to continue shining that light.”
With files from Blake Wolfe.