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Santuza Bicalho, CEO, STB in Brazil

Everyone in the industry will know STB, a travel agency giant based in Brazil which specialises in study abroad and operates in 70 locations. Santuza Bicalho, CEO of the company, answers our questions about the company’s history and eye on the future.

The PIE: STB celebrated its 40th birthday last year..

"We understood social media very early. I thought, if we want to be a good company we have to be transparent"

SB: Yes, STB was “fathered” in 1971 by an English man, who sold the business to my brother-in-law in 1986. When he bought it, it was really small, and Jose Carlos [Hauer Santos], who is a major shareholder and the owner of STB, managed the company until 2007 when I went to head office, and we had a two-year transitional phase and I took over from him in 2009 as CEO.

The PIE: Why do you think STB has been so successful?

SB: I think it is a combination of factors. I think the first factor belongs to Jose Carlos because he is a very clever man. He put the seeds of our core values in place. We focus on the client’s experience; we are very solid, financially speaking; we deliver what we promise; and we never go for huge growth, we go for steady growth. We never make a revolution but we make innovations.

After Jose Carlos and my sister, Cristina, who is an excellent marketing & sales person, there is a second generation of committed people like me, my management team, Marcia, the queen of language travel, Bruno… dealing with high school and higher education, and [others] on the travel side. Our managers are incredible. We have a lot of people who are passionate about what they do.

The PIE: How do you see the agency market in Brazil changing?

SB: Brazil has a very fragmented market. You have big names in regions that are wealthy, like Sao Paulo, like us and a few others. What is very interesting about the market overall is that it is very regionalised. So if you go to the northeast of Brazil, you have one type of market that is different from the centre-west. So you really respect the regionalism of the cities of Brazil.

“A big brand can be good, but it can be bad, because they want to know who you are”

The PIE: So do you mean in different areas of Brazil there are different appetites of what people want to study?

It’s the same appetite. What we see is localised companies. Belo Horizonte, where I come from, is a very traditional city. So a big brand can be good, but it can be bad, because they want to know who you are. How are you operating the business and how are you going to deliver? People are kind of sceptical in smaller cities. So it depends a lot on the credibility and trust of those people in the city.

The PIE: How have you managed to conquer the trend for regionalism and be a successful chain nationwide?

SB: That is a good question. Half of our offices are own offices and the other half are distributors. And the thing is we found the right people in the right place. Because this is a service industry, we depend on people, and we were lucky I think to find good people. We are not successful everywhere, there are some regions in Brazil where we are there but we are [not strong].

“Half of our offices are our own offices and the other half are distributors. And we found the right people in the right place”

I will give you an example, the north-east of Brazil is a very difficult area to develop. Now we are on the right way in the north-east, but it took us a while you know, to find the right local people and develop.

The PIE: Does STB use social media now to interact with its clients?

SB: Very good question. In 2009, I took the decision to go green, so let’s leave printed media. We decided not to advertise on anything that was hard, we would go 100 per cent to social media.

The PIE: Really? In 2009 already?

SB: In 2009. Everybody thought I was crazy, and I had to respect again the regionalisms, because in Sao Paulo, Rio, Belo [Horizonte] that was ok, but in the northeast forget it because they are years behind us, so we couldn’t do that in the northeast. That was a decision I took because in 2009 I went back to school, and I decided, ‘let me understand what social media is’. And I found this guy who has this company, and he was the CEO of this very large organisation, and he quit his job, and he decided to deal only with social media.

We have to have an open dialogue with our customers, and have the courage to do that

And then I spotted him and I said ‘I want you to work for me’. I told him, ‘Listen, I believe that there is no place for losers in the future, we have to have an open dialogue with our customers, and we have to have the courage to do that. If we really want to say that we are the best, not the biggest but I want to be the best, we have to engage in dialogue with our customers. Can you help me do that?’

I think we can do it because our DNA is customer service. I said, ‘We may be surprised, we may have problems, but let’s face the problems’. So we started in 2010 a project called STB Ambassador. We recruited over 20 ambassadors to travel around the globe, experiencing our products, but they didn’t have to say good things about us.

The PIE: Did you pay for them to do it?

SB: Yes, but they had to tell the truth. Just tell us the truth. [more >>]

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