A Report from MLT U!
By David Cogswell
October 04, 2012 11:45 PM
MLT University in Minneapolis isn’t your average academic institution. In fact, it’s not even a university at all. Instead, it’s the annual educational conference of MLT Vacations. I’ve attended the event every year for a number of years, during which time I’ve watched MLT go through remarkable changes and achieve astonishing success.
Every year the conference serves as stage for the wholesaler’s introduction of sweeping initiatives, new partnerships, new brands, new products and other innovations. But this year heading into it felt a little different from the others because during the summer MLT announced that its new parent company, Delta Air Lines, was moving the company from Minnesota, its home since its founding in 1969, to Atlanta.
I have closely observed MLT’s breathtaking success over the past five years. In 2008, the year of the crash, MLT was a wholly owned subsidiary of Northwest Airlines that operated the vacation packaging brand of the airline and its own brand Worry Free Vacations. Over the next few years it took over the operation of Continental Airlines Vacations, Delta Vacations, United Vacations, Alitalia Vacations, Air France Holidays and Aeromexico Vacations. MLT not only took over those brands, it also navigated through two airline mergers, first of Delta and Northwest and then of Continental and United. It now has the largest and the second largest airlines in the world in its stable of airline brands, as well as other major airline brands.
When I heard that Delta was moving MLT to Atlanta, the narrative that came to my mind was the familiar story of the big corporation that acquires the smaller one, absorbs it and spins it off or restructures its subsidiaries while people, products and services sometimes fall through the cracks. I had watched MLT’s extraordinary success, a nearly vertical growth trajectory during the time the whole country was struggling through a deep recession. Does Delta know, I wondered, what it has in MLT? As a travel trade reporter who has closely followed MLT’s rise I couldn’t help but question whether Delta would be able to sustain MLT’s astonishing success if it dismantled the company in Minnesota and tried to build it up again in Georgia.
Indeed, it was a bit personal for me. The people at MLT had endeared themselves to me over the years. Some had become friends. It was fun to visit them every year and absorb their enthusiasm as they conquered the travel industry piece by piece. It was an exceedingly bright spot during troubled times. Every company’s success is a product of its people and some of them were not going to be able to make the move, even though they were offered the opportunity. They would be left behind and MLT would lose some good people. And these were people I knew really loved their jobs.
Those were my apprehensions as I headed out for MLT U 2012. I feared the worst. But when I went to Minneapolis, my fears were allayed. There were several reasons for that. Finding myself immersed again in the familiar high-pitched hum of energy of MLT U felt as good as ever. In fact, this year’s conference was the biggest yet. It drew 3,000 travel agents, up from 2,500 the previous year, and a large trade show floor full of suppliers. The energy had not diminished. On the contrary, the buzz was as powerful as ever.
By the time I got there, the people I had worked closest with who were leaving the company had already found good jobs and were happily re-employed. The people I spoke to at the conference who were still with the company but not planning to make the move next year were very positive about the change. Yes, they regretted leaving the company, but MLT was giving them good severance packages and Minnesota employers were snatching up former MLT employees eagerly, so they were finding good jobs.
But probably the thing that changed my mind most was meeting John Caldwell, MLT’s new president. I wasn’t conscious that I’d had any preconceptions about the man Delta had appointed to lead the company through its coming transition until I met him in person. At that point my preconceptions shattered, as preconceptions always do.
Caldwell was not a Delta man shipped in from Atlanta. He’s a Minnesotan with a history of working with Northwest Airlines. Beyond that, he somehow easily eludes the stereotype of the corporate chief executive. He comes off as modest, understated and compassionate. His attention is focused intently on the people to whom he was talking, is if he is more interested in learning than projecting his own ego. His intelligence is instantly striking, but he carries it comfortably and is eminently unthreatening. I had only been speaking to him for a very short time before I had developed the firm conviction that the company is in very good hands.
There were other reasons my apprehensions about MLT’s future dissolved. The company is not picking up lock, stock and barrel and moving to Atlanta. It will only be moving its corporate office to Atlanta. That office includes its marketing, finance, human resources and public relations functions. The rest will stay put. The company’s stellar call center in Minott, N.D., with about 300 employees, will stay just as it is. The IT department, with about 80 people managing the reservations system and our online booking system, will also stay in Minnesota. The product managers and sales team work virtually, so there will be no change there. The company’s human resources foundation is largely intact.
So I came away very happy. I thought I was attending a funeral but it was more like a christening. All’s well that ends well. Now for the new beginning.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours for TravelPulse.com.