The Montreal Gazette, September 7, 2003

Entrepreneur builds Franair Travel into one of Canada’s top agencies

By Warren Perley

PHOTO: Courtesy of ZénonThe tree-lined, white sand beaches on the western coastline of Barbados are lapped by the translucent, turquoise waters of the warm Caribbean Sea.

Travel information is one of the most popular research topics on the Internet, especially among Canadians, who, according to Statistics Canada, make more than 3 million international trips every month.

The topic’s popularity reflects the reality that tourism is big business, accounting for 2.4 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic production in the year 2000, the last year for which full figures are available through Statistics Canada.

That 2.4-per-cent figure represented $21.8 billion in economic activity and about 546,500 jobs created in Canadian tourism and associated industries such as travel and hotel services. Statistics Canada says that growth in tourism spending outpaced the growth in gross domestic production in three of the four years prior to 2000.

The diversity of tourism facts and figures available online is staggering, but information overload at the research level does not necessarily equal happy results for travellers. Some discover when they arrive at the airport days or weeks later that their “ticket-less” flight booked on the Internet has not been confirmed and there is no airplane seat reserved for them.

For Montrealers such as Linda Rodgers, a psychiatric nurse at the Allen Memorial Institute, and Joseph Stratford, former head of neurosurgery at the Montreal General Hospital, nothing can replace the objectivity and service provided by a knowledgeable travel agent, such as Omar Ali, president and founder of Franair Travel.

PHOTO: Courtesy of ZénonLinda Rodgers, a client of Franair Travel, is seen in front of the Schoenbrunn Palace Gardens in Vienna during a trip in June, 2000.

Until the death of her elderly parents earlier this year, Rodgers visited her home town of Gander, Nfld., at least twice a year. In June 2000, she asked Ali to also organize a “fun” one-week trip to Vienna, where she met up with a friend and visited several historic sites such as the magnificent opera house and the Schoenbrunn Palace Gardens.

“I’m really happy to have Omar advising me,” Rodgers said in a recent interview. “I don’t want to book my own trips online. Omar is dependable. He gives me such solid travel advice. I trust him.”

Rodgers, who has been dealing with Ali since 1992 (five years after he founded Franair Travel in Cours Mont-Royal), also likes his sense of humour.

“He’ll start a conversation as though he’s telling a story that he heard on the news,” she says. “By the time he reaches the punch line, he usually has me in stitches. Believe me, he has a great sense of humour.”

But what really cements the loyal relationship is the level of service she receives at Franair, which has 21 employees at its three locations in Cours Mont-Royal, Place de la Cathédrale and at Notre Dame St. near Atwater.

When her dad passed away last March, she called Franair on a Saturday, frantic to get a flight back home in time for the funeral.

“I called the office and he (Ali) answered,” Rodgers said. “He told me it was better to go through Air Canada in order to be eligible for the airline’s bereavement rate. He took care of all the details for me and reserved my seat without getting paid a cent. I paid directly to Air Canada. But that just shows you the kind of character he has. He takes such good care of his clients. He’s very sweet.”

Stratford, the retired neurosurgeon, is also a longtime client of Franair. He first walked into the Cours Mont-Royal office a year after it opened.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Swiss International AirlinesAmong the preferred airlines used by Franair Travel because of their service and reliability are Swiss International Airlines (above), KLM and Air France.

“Omar is low-keyed, but he gives good advice,” Stratford recalled in a conversation in his Sherbrooke St. apartment. Both before and since his retirement 10 years ago, the doctor has been a globe-trotter, visiting his son in Hong Kong and his daughter in France twice a year, as well as making a memorable trip to Ethiopia in the late 1980s.

Barbados is ‘paradise’

Every November, Stratford makes a two-week pilgrimage to Barbados, the windward Caribbean island which he describes as an “idyllic tropical paradise” with 70 miles of white sand beaches and an average of more than 3,000 hours of sunshine per year.

“I started going to Barbados in the early 1960s,” he said. “It’s an incredible island. They have everything there for the perfect vacation - fabulous weather, wonderful people, amazing cuisine with fresh fruits, vegetables and fish.”

When asked why he books all his trips through Franair, he replied: “I know Omar will dig out the best possible deal for me and he gives me good advice which helps to avoid problems. If you’re going to travel, it’s best to hire someone who is knowledgeable and experienced to advise you. Omar has a very pleasant character. I like speaking with him and I appreciate his advice.”

Since 1996, Franair Travel has been a member of the Air France Five Star Club which honours the top achievers among accredited travel agencies.

Stratford and Rodgers are not the only ones to recognize the quality of service provided by Franair. Each year, the Air France Five Star Club honours the top achievers among accredited travel agencies committed to excellence in the tourism industry. Since 1996, Franair Travel has been a member of that exclusive club.

Another indicator of its success is the fact that Franair is among the top one per cent of Canadian businesses in the tourism sector, based on its annual revenue in excess of $12 million. That sales figure represents a lot of satisfied travel clients.

There probably weren’t too many people who would have bet on this entrepreneurial success story 30 years ago, when Ali was fleeing for his life and his liberty from the military dictatorship that had seized control of his native Somalia.

Likes to laugh

The first thing that strikes you about Ali when you meet him is that he is a big, broad-shouldered man - 6 feet 3 inches - with a sense of humour to match. He tends to poke fun at himself and to tease those around him. He prides himself on being a gentleman and a tireless worker who does right by his clients.

PHOTO: PHIL CARPENTERFounder Omar Ali with his wife, Francine Laurin, whom he persuaded to leave her job with the federal government to join him in building Franair Travel.

His wife, Francine Laurin, formerly of Gatineau, Que., says he started cracking jokes the first time he met her - in 1979, at Altitude 737 atop Place Ville Marie.

“He was my style,” she recalled with a smile. “Very funny, a real charmer.”

So charming, in fact, that he persuaded her 10 years later to leave her federal civil service job, where she had worked for 27 years, to take over the bookkeeping and administration duties at Franair Travel, which Ali founded in 1987.

Although he grew up in a predominantly Muslim country, Ali is westernized after 25 years in his adopted country of Canada. He still recalls his impressions when the aircraft in which he was travelling approached the airport at Mirabel on Aug. 4, 1978.

Coming from a middle-class family that owned a small transportation company and a farm in Somalia, the first things he noticed were the plentiful rivers and farmland surrounding Montreal.

“Wow, what a beautiful country,” he thought at the time. “Lots of water, beautiful farms, healthy-looking cows,” he recalls with a laugh.

He quickly fell in love with the ambience of a soft, hazy Montreal summer replete with its gregarious, European-style sidewalk cafés and its cosmopolitan mix of polyglots.

Ali, 49, who speaks English, French, Italian, Greek, Somali and Arabic, was especially happy to be in a country which was democratic and free. His flight from the Somali military dictatorship that had seized power in 1969 under Maj.-Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre had been arduous and perilous.

Somalia, colonized by the British, French and Italians in the 19th century, gained independence in 1960, only to see its standards of living decline under the socialist state established by Barre.

Ali, who as a child learned English from American teachers in Somali private schools in Mogadishu, was always interested in learning about other cultures. In 1968, at the age of 14, he joined the aviation sector of the Somali department of transportation while continuing in school part-time.

He was sent off to Nigeria for a one-year course in air traffic control conducted by the United Nations. At the same time, he earned a private pilot’s licence.

Travel bug bites

“That year in Nigeria was my first foreign trip,” Ali recalled in a recent interview. “To get to Nigeria, we first flew to Italy because there were no direct flights between Somalia and Nigeria. I discovered that I loved travelling and wanted to get involved in that industry.”

Upon his return to Somalia, Ali worked 40 hours a week as an air traffic controller at the airport in Mogadishu. He enjoyed the international flavour of the experience, having contact with airline pilots and with air traffic controllers from other countries.

There was one hair-raising incident in 1970, when he helped guide a Somali Airlines Boeing 707 to a crash landing on the airport runway after a fire erupted with 130 passengers aboard.

“I was scared,” he recalled. “We cleared the runway for a crash landing. I wanted to make sure that they could bring the aircraft down and get out the emergency chutes without anybody dying.”

The plane managed to crash-land. No lives were lost, although the aircraft was a write-off. “For me, that was a big success because nobody died. My concern was the passengers.”

Ali remembers those years as active - both socially and professionally. He had lots of girlfriends and three jobs, including one as a part-time operations officer at Somali Airlines that entailed his checking the weight and distribution of cargos before takeoffs.

But Ali’s lifestyle did not conform to the norms of a socialistic, military dictatorship in a Muslim country divided by fierce clan rivalries. In short order, he found himself under arrest. The government confiscated his passport and forced him to leave his job with Somali Airlines. Another part-time job teaching air law and navigation procedures at an Italian-owned flight school dried up when the school closed due to the political and economic instability.

Other liberal friends of Ali’s were also arrested. Even after they were released with no charges, the military and the secret police continued to keep a close eye on Ali, whom they suspected of being involved with the CIA and the French military in a coup attempt.

Ali knew his days were numbered. It was only a question of time before he would end up in prison or dead. After managing to obtain a new passport through a Somali consulate outside the country, he fled to Yemen, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and on to Canada via Italy, arriving at Mirabel that August afternoon in 1978.

The journey to freedom was one of epic proportions, taking six years - from 1972 to 1978 - to reach Canada. The first leg of the journey in 1972 was a harbinger of the difficulties which were to follow.

Ali bought passage aboard a small truck travelling from Mogadishu to the city of Hargeisa in northern Somalia. The 1,000-mile trip, which would normally take three days, dragged on for two weeks because of torrential rains that turned the roads into muddy ruts.

From Hargeisa, he hopped on a propeller-driven DC-3 for Aden, Yemen. “I felt happy, free when I arrived,” he said. “I knew I had opportunities ahead of me.”

Surrounded by ‘crazies’

What he didn’t know was that Yemen was rife with Somali military officers and security people who had flown Somali dissidents there to prevent them from fomenting a coup while the military dictator Barre was on a state visit to China.

“Aden was crawling with all the crazies I was running away from,” Ali recalled with a laugh. “Some of them saw me there and asked what I was doing. I told them I was there for training. But I was scared to death that they would find out I was running away and they would catch me.”

Next day, Ali caught a flight to Lagos, Nigeria. He had a job lined up with the Nigerian government as an air traffic controller, subject to approval by the Somali government. The approval was rejected so Ali fled to Kenya, where he had another offer as an air traffic controller. When the Kenyan government asked the Somali government for a reference, Ali knew he was in trouble.

“Some of my colleagues in Mogadishu told me I would be kidnapped by Somali agents in Kenya and brought back to face justice in Somalia.” By this time, justice would have meant the death penalty because the Somali government had passed laws making it a capital offence to resign a government job while travelling overseas, or to leave Somalia in a clandestine manner. Ali knew he was guilty on both counts.

He fled to Tanzania, where he stayed underground, doing odd jobs, for three years. Then he fled to northern Yemen, on to Bahrain and back to Tanzania. By this time, it was 1977 and Ali was getting tired of running. He applied and was accepted for a student visa to complete his commercial pilot’s course in Canada.

After arriving in 1978, he took the one-year pilot’s course at St. Hubert, during which time he lived on $15,000 (U.S.) that he had saved over the years. When he completed his course and the money ran out, he applied for refugee status. Six months later, he was accepted and went to Hull to study French and to take courses in tourism and travel. “I thought that my ability to speak several languages and my travel experience were suited to this industry,” he said.

Ali pounds pavement

Although he studied in Hull, Ali wanted to work in Montreal, so twice a week he would rise at 5 a.m. to take the bus to Montreal, where he would visit various travel agencies, dropping off his résumé. After a few months, he landed a job with a small travel agency on Park Ave., which catered mainly to a clientele with a Greek background.

Ali, promoted to manager after a short period, stayed there seven years. During this time, the agency’s annual revenues jumped from about $800,000 to $4 million.

One of the first things he learned about working in the travel industry was that “you have to have passion and make time to serve your clients.” That lesson has become Ali’s mantra, allowing him to succeed with Franair Travel, which he started in September 1987 with $40,000 of his savings and a $30,000 small-business loan guaranteed by the federal government.

PHOTO: PHIL CARPENTERFranair Travel will also organize tours and special packages for Africa.

Part of making time for his clients involves working weekends. Ali and his wife are at their Cours Mont-Royal office every Saturday, taking care of potential travellers.

He recalls one client calling him at home toward the end of a workweek, saying he wanted to fly to Africa on the upcoming Sunday in order to attend the funeral of his father, who had died suddenly. Despite difficulties in arranging such a long flight on short notice, Ali succeeded in getting the man to Africa in time for the funeral. To this day, the man is still Ali’s client.

Franair’s three locations - in Cours Mont-Royal, Place de la Cathédrale, and the office on Notre Dame St. near Atwater - are conveniently located, especially for business people who work in the downtown core or adjacent to it.

Another attribute highly valued by clients is honesty, Ali said. “You have to refer clients to the right services - be it for hotels, airlines, car rentals or package deals.

“For example, some airlines overbook on a regular basis,” he said. “You have to know which of those airlines will provide upgrades allowing those they overbooked to fly in first class or business class. You have to know which airlines will go out of their way to help the client transfer to another airline if there is a problem with overbooking.”

Although travel can be for pleasure or business, logistics need to be organized ahead of time, and that can be stressful when a traveller tries to do everything himself or herself, dealing directly with the airline, hotel and rental car company via Internet, fax and voice mail.

No unpleasant surprises

For example, who is to say whether the bargain hotel room being offered on the Internet complies with industry standards? Hotel rooms and vacation packages confirmed through a travel agent such as Franair are verified ahead of time for both quality and reliability.

“I want to sell my clients the service or product that meets their needs,” Ali said. “Clients want reliable service and good value. When you’re spending money to travel, you want to know there is someone out there who can answer your questions and who will make the effort to ensure that your travel experience is a pleasant one.”

One of the keys to success in the travel industry is recruiting and keeping good employees, having them available in conveniently located offices to serve clients six days a week. When you call Franair, you speak directly with a receptionist who passes you on to an agent or takes a message for a prompt callback. Voice mail is not used during business hours.

The multilingual Franair staff members are kept informed of the latest vacation packages, cruises and sales prices - information which they then pass on to clients.

Franair makes a point of sending its staff on trips to different destinations to gather data before recommending such destinations to clients. All information about such travel experiences is shared among all the staffers.

Having come to Canada as a student and then as a political refugee, Ali knows what it’s like to live on a shoestring budget. As a result, he makes sure that his staff is taken care of financially - all full-time employees receive a base salary and a bonus, unlike some travel agencies where agents must survive on commissions.

Ali knows that happy employees make for happy clients. The proof is in the fact that most of his staffers have been with Franair three to 10 years.

It’s hard to talk about travel these days without discussing the threat of terrorism. Ali acknowledges that air travel is down worldwide because of those fears, but says the problem is more pronounced in Asia, where air travel has dropped about 60 per cent since the bombing in Bali last year.

In the U.S., air travel has dropped about 20 per cent in the last year and in Canada about 10 per cent, he said. North American travellers are talking less about the threat since increased security measures have been implemented at airports and on aircraft, he said. “But we still have a long way to go,” he added. “People are well informed on this issue.”

Meanwhile, one of the safest and most popular destinations for North Americans is the one chosen by Franair’s longtime customer, Joseph Stratford. “Barbados is stable and safe,” Ali said. “It has beautiful weather 12 months of the year with lots of beach properties and first-rate facilities for water sports, golf, tennis and horseback riding.”

Franair’s vacation remedy for autumn blues

PHOTO: Courtesy of Paradisus Resorts

Everyone knows that when Indian summer casts its charming spell, late September and early October in Montreal can be beautiful. But what about when the strong winds and storm clouds of autumn start blowing in the days and weeks leading up to and following Halloween?

One of several vacation-package destinations offered by Franair Travel, Melia Varadero is a 41/2-star Cuban beachfront resort geared to the tastes and pocketbooks of Canadians looking for a warm fall getaway at a reasonable price.

Well, Omar Ali, president of Franair Travel, prescribes the following vacation package in Cuba, organized by Tours Mont-Royal for those Montrealers looking to beat the autumn blues - people who have some vacation time available between Thursday, Oct. 30 and Wednesday, Dec. 3:

Seven days at the 4.5 star Cuban beachfront resort of Melia Varadero

  • Return airfare from Montreal
  • 490 air-conditioned rooms
  • Two 3/4 beds per room
  • Each room has a hair dryer, mini-fridge, telephone, balcony, colour television
  • 3 meals per days, buffet and à la carte
  • Bar services
  • Wine and beer with meals
  • Complimentary massage
  • Beach lounge chairs
  • Hotel pool
  • Fitness centre
  • Safe-deposit boxes
  • Internet access
  • Water sports including sailing, kayaking, waterskiing, scuba diving
  • Tennis courts
  • Daytime activities
  • Live after-supper entertainment
  • Restaurants
  • Bars
  • Boutiques
  • Golf packages available

Warren Perley, a former career journalist, is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a marketing and graphic design studio (