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Generations of excellence

Family defines Collette as Leibl-Cote steps forward

Worried that there’s nothing new under the sun in group travel? Relax, says Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, the new president of Collette, the country’s longest-operating tour company.

“There’s plenty of world left out there,” she said assuredly.

Igloos and dog sleds in Finland

Take Finland. When Leibl-Cote and the Collette team saw how popular the company’s tours to Iceland had become, they ventured into Finland. No other tour company was showcasing the country. In Finland, Collette’s travel experts found igloo hotels and Finnish log cabins for overnight stays and added dog sledding, reindeer encounters, Northern Lights viewings and other experiences a traveler would wish for on a trip there.

Another travel surprise? Colombia.

Colombia has been another pleasant travel surprise for Leibl-Cote.  Collette has a new 10-day tour of the South American nation. “There’s still the stereotype of Colombia that everyone remembers from the ‘80s, but I was there last year, designing and developing our program and the country is amazing, a wonderful place to travel and visit,” she said.

Born into the business

Leibl-Cote is no newcomer to travel or to Collette. She grew up in the business, the daughter of Dan Sullivan Jr., CEO, and granddaughter of Dan Sullivan Sr., who bought Collette from founder Jack Collette in the 1960s. Collette turns 101 years old this year and has some 700 employees around the world.

A broad work experience, from the mailroom up

Leibl-Cote’s first job with Collette was in the mailroom at the company’s headquarters in Rhode Island, when she was just a teen. Over school breaks and summers, her experience with the company grew. She graduated from college, earned an MBA and returned to Collette full-time 13 years ago. Although she’s led tours, designed itineraries, worked in customer care and inside sales, much of her recent focus has been on product development, tour management and marketing.

“I have a broad perspective because I’ve been a part of the business in different ways,” she said.

She knows that Collette must anticipate what travelers and travel planners want, delve into destinations and create itineraries that hit a chord. Not every group wants the same kind of tour, she realizes, which is why Collette has developed options like Explorations, its line of tours for 19 or fewer people.

“There are destinations that should be traveled with fewer people if you want to bring the experience to life,” said Leibl-Cote.

Collette relieves burdens of complex tour planning

Group leaders who have planned trips abroad appreciate having a knowledgeable company handle the details.

“We take a lot of the burden away from the travelers having to create this themselves,” said Leibl-Cote. “People can go online and look things up, but that can be overwhelming. They might not have any clue about going to Vietnam — where to go there, what to see, how long to stay, where to stay. It is very complicated if you don’t have the time to really understand the area to which you are going.”

Collette crafts and owns its experiences

Collette’s teams go into destinations and work directly with prospective hotels, restaurants and attractions.

“We handcraft the experience and are doing research all over the globe,” Leibl-Cote said. “We don’t buy through a local operator because we want to own our brand, own the experience. We have boots on the ground going in to experience these other cultures. That sets us apart. It is how travel should be developed.

“In Vietnam, our team has gone to all those cities and asked, ‘Which are the best hotels?’ and ‘Does it meet our brand’s expectations?’ We go into the hotels and contract everything with them, so we can put trust behind the product we develop.”

Collette delivers authenticity

A company doesn’t thrive for a century without a popular product, and Collette has always monitored group leaders’ needs and desires and adapted its tours to meet those needs. Today’s groups want authentic experiences, Leibl-Cote said.

“Expectations are changing and people want to really be a part of the experience. They want off the bus. You can’t just stop for 30 minutes anymore. They want to be able to connect.”

Street food hits chord with groups

A good example of that authenticity is the street food tour on Collette’s trips to Vietnam.

“Our street food experience is optional but most people choose to do it and love it,” said Leibl-Cote. “Our team vetted it, curated it and picked the vendors. Going local like that requires research, collaboration and due diligence.”

Finland is another example of how Collette’s boots-on-the-ground approach enriches the travel experience.  A tour group never forgets the feeling of flying across the snow in a dog sled, for example.

“You aren’t sitting on a bus; you are getting out and connecting with what Finland is all about,” said Leibl-Cote. “You probably have a big smile, a frozen smile, on your face. It’s one of those things that you didn’t know was on your bucket list until you did it!”

Leibl-Cote prepares to lead Collette in its second century

Collette is among the few major tour companies with a woman at the helm. And, as Leibl-Cote points out, Collette is also a rarity because it has had only three leaders in 100 years, unlike many public companies, where CEOs change every few years.

“With Collette,” she says, “there’s stability. But, looking forward, I can assure our customers that we will also pivot and change as needed, to stay relevant to an ever-changing market.”

Exotics are Trending

Jacyln Leibl-Cote grew up with suitcase in hand. Her dad, Dan Sullivan Jr., often brought the family along as he traveled the world for the family business, now known simply as Collette.

Now, Leibl-Cote is doing much the same with her three young children, as she steps into her role as Collette’s president and prepares to succeed her dad in the next few years as CEO and president.  She will assume the reins of a tour company that is more than 100 years old.

So what does such a world traveler suggest to tour planners looking for new travel destinations? “Vietnam, Morocco, Japan, Iceland and South Africa,” she recommends. “The exotics are trending.”

She is also enamored of Colombia, South America, after traveling there last year to create Collette’s 10-day Experience Colombia tour. “Colombia is one of those places where I was like, ‘Wow, I had no idea!’”

Each city and region has its own flavor, she says: the colorful markets of Bogota; the hills and valleys of the coffee region; Cartagena, a tropical port with “unbelievable Mediterranean style food”; and Medellin, where travelers visit the neighborhood Comuna 13.

“It used to be a gang area with lots of issues,” says Leibl-Cote, “and it has reinvented itself through art and music. You go there and see how an area that seemed to have no opportunity for the future has turned itself around.”