As the Founder, President and CEO of JG Worldwide, Jena Gardner is at the forefront of the travel marketing space, offering clients a suite of services that range from PR and branding to sales. She gave us an inside look at how the integrated services model benefits their wide range of clients, including how this keeps JG Worldwide’s portfolio in step with the state of media and PR today. Plus, read on for her perspective on the biggest trends in travel right now as well as the emerging destinations she's excited to be working with.
You’ve built a portfolio of various brands within your JG Worldwide network. How did you get started in your career and how did those businesses evolve?
My first job in travel was with Triple Creek Ranch as their Director of Marketing. Funny thing was I knew nothing about travel or about marketing at the time. But the owner wanted me to work for them. It was a deviation from my degree (accounting) so I originally thought I would take this “fun” job for a while and then get serious again and go back to public accounting. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
I started JG Black Book when I was 33 with 2 clients. It grew organically over time. Our clients were the ones who pushed us to offer more services—so we added marketing, branding and PR and we opened up offices in London, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.
That was the impetus for a friend of mine who wanted to retire to ask me to buy his bespoke travel company, Heritage Tours. They had been in business for 23 years. His comment to me was the company could really grow to the next level if they had a professional doing their sales, marketing and PR. So we purchased Heritage Tours 2.5 years ago.
Then other businesses approached us and we bought ones that made sense and matched our philosophy and vision. Today we own two tour operators handling trips to North America including Revealed America and Millennium Voyages; an outdoor active adventure company, Discover Outdoors; an international tour operator, Heritage Tours; and two award winning marketing firms, JG Black Book based out of NYC and MercuryCSC based out of Bozeman, MT.
JG Black Book offers a suite of services such as PR, sales, marketing and branding services to clients in the travel space. How do you find being a full-service agency works to your company and clients’ advantage?
Our integrated services model was designed to maximize the impact our clients could have in the marketplace. And we have the expertise and industry connections necessary to deliver in this ultra-competitive industry. Through offering multiple services, we find it streamlines the process for a client to only use one agency. We can also help clients see the bigger picture and how important it is that we create one voice for a truly successful marketing plan.
How has travel been a catalyst for change and growth for you?
Travel was always in my blood, even as a young child. I planned and paid for my first trip to Europe when I was 22 and I haven’t stopped traveling since. Travel to me opens one’s eyes and makes us better global citizens. It makes you appreciate other people’s traditions and ways of life. And it makes you more invested in global concerns when you see it firsthand.
What are the biggest trends in travel right now?
There’s a shifting mood in tourism which is exciting. The search for sustainability and supporting projects and companies that promote conscious travel, is one of the biggest trends and this above all others, is affecting the paradigm and peoples’ attitudes around tourism.
Hotel brands and travel companies are also becoming more personal and focused on encouraging travelers to become insiders and experts in a destination themselves. Therefore, we’re seeing more immersive experiences that don’t follow a cookie-cutter template, and that’s proving crucial to pique today’s curious traveler.
On the tech front, we are bombarded every day by email, news, other people’s lives on Instagram feeds and their own adventures… so in turn it is pushing us to get out there and be more adventurous in our spare time. We don’t just want to lie on a beach, it’s not enough, we want something truly extraordinary that is off the beaten path and gets us off the radar for a while.
What are some destinations you will travel to in the coming months? And places on the top of your travel wish-list?
We are a passionate ski family so we will be skiing in Vermont right after the holidays. Then we are traveling to Paris for a weekend and then skiing in Courchevel. After that I am traveling to Egypt and Belize for work. Then to Big Sky with the family again to go skiing over President’s Day.
You co-authored the bestselling book Women Who Mean Business, where very high-profile women share their secrets to success. Were there a few common areas of advice you can relay?
I recommend taking the time to define your core values in order to take your company to the next level. When you start a company or own a small business, I think you tend to assume that everyone understands why they’re there and what the organization’s purpose is because they know you. JG Black Book had grown so organically when we started in 2002, that it never seemed necessary to have a formal meeting to discuss what we believed in or what our common vision for the future was. As time went on and JG Black Book grew, the values of my company were being shaped not by me or my vision, but through the daily interactions my staff had with our clients, our industry partners and each other.
Once we defined what our company stands for – a process that took over 6 months – we were really able to have a wider perspective. That ability to see clearly, to anticipate problems, to envision something bigger for my company – became stronger because of our core values and because of the time spent creating them.
The importance of defining a company’s core values will also consolidate a shared mission and direction that not just you but that your employees are invested in, and this is crucial to being able to do good work. Making sure you have the right people ‘on the bus’ and aligning your team’s vision, to me, is the one area all organizations get tripped up in, even ours, and it’s a never-ending process.
Can you explain the mission of The Bodhi Tree Foundation which you co-founded and how it came to be?
My partner and I co-founded The Bodhi Tree Foundation in order to preserve and protect the very reasons we travel. We felt it was important to give back to the people and places that make travel so rewarding. We’ve helped a number of grassroots organizations in fulfilling their missions over the years.
The goal of The Bodhi Tree Foundation is to harness the power of the travel and tourism industry and its significant resources to help people in need, protect cultural heritage and conserve our planet’s biodiversity.
What are some of your current projects you’re excited about?
We are very excited to be adding Egypt to our offering at Heritage Tours this year. We are also looking to round out our North America offering through Revealed America with a focus on the American Southeast and trips that follow specific themes like the blues, bourbon and BBQ trails.
At JG Black Book we’re excited about our newest adventure clients and introducing them to the US media landscape in 2019, from Kachi Lodge, the first permanent luxury camp in the Bolivian salt flats, to heli-adventures in Alaska at the newly renovated Tordrillo Mountain Lodge.
How are your businesses staying in step with the huge recent changes in media and PR?
We embrace change and don’t get stuck in the times. We strongly value traditional press but the challenges we see playing out in the print media, we also see as exciting opportunities. With digital moving so fast, editors are looking for fresh and regular content. We aim to anticipate trends, make new, valuable connections and friends in the industry and make ourselves useful to them. We’re learning about new podcasts and IGTV series opportunities at the moment and these are new and exciting mediums for our clients. We also don’t stop there, we look beyond the media and how else we can reach the consumer directly, whether it’s through a unique brand partnership or an event. Our end goal is to move the needle for our clients so we look at both traditional and non-traditional approaches to get the results we need.
Do you plan on growing your portfolio further and if so, how will you do it?
If the right opportunity comes to us, we would definitely consider growing our portfolio of companies. We intend to build out our Western presence in our new office in Bozeman, MT. This will enhance our national presence for our marketing and PR clients. We also intend to grow our current business by adding additional services or new destinations to travel.
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