On Saturday, the curtain rises on the upcoming FBS college football season with a Big Ten matchup between Nebraska and Northwestern at Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
The event, called the Ireland Classic, is set to take place after two previous attempts to hold the cross-pond series were thwarted by COVID-19. In 2020, the Classic between Notre Dame and Navy was canceled, while last year’s scheduled contest between Illinois and Nebraska was tentatively moved to Champaign, Ill.
While the burden of these disruptions fell heavily on the teams and the host country, perhaps the biggest loss was Classic co-owner Anthony Travel, the Dallas-based college sports travel agency acquired in 2016 by On Location Experiences and subsequently swallowed up . on the entertainment enterprise Endeavor three months before the pandemic.
John Anthony, the company’s eponymous founder and enduring CEO, described the canceled Classic 2020 as “the greatest event anyone has ever seen.” Among its scheduled spectacles, the game was supposed to play the first production of ESPN College GameDay on foreign soil.
Instead of a multimillion-dollar windfall, the case started what became one of the largest refund operations in Anthony Travel’s 33-year history, with at least 10,000 people having made gaming-related purchases through the company.
All of this has only raised the stakes for an event that is central to Anthony Travel’s growth ambitions: turning college sports fans into general travelers.
Of the more than 30,000 fans expected to be in attendance on Saturday, Anthony Travel estimates that about 16,000 of them will have the company’s services engaged in some way as part of their trip. This involvement can range from simply booking plane tickets to purchasing an eight-day, three-city, all-inclusive Irish tour package.
“This is just the next and biggest evolution in the whole life cycle, if you will, because it’s a global world and universities are protecting their global presence,” said Anthony, who has spent much of the past month in Dublin, attending logistical meetings. in anticipation of this weekend’s festivities.
This year’s Classic heralds an expected return to a degree of normalcy for college sports travel, which has faced constant disruption over the past two and a half years. For the two companies that have come to dominate the college sports travel industry — Anthony Travel and Iowa-based Short’s Travel Management — this coming academic year will showcase their different approaches to both serving and profiting from the space.
Anthony Travel gained ground in the early 1990s by taking on the college athletic travel needs of the University of Notre Dame, John Anthony’s alma mater. The company currently contracts with nearly 90 Division I athletic departments, providing nearly all of the country’s account managers, for an annual fee typically around $75,000 per staff member per year. That’s one aspect that makes Anthony Travel a more expensive option for athletic departments, though the company insists that’s more than offset by its volume cuts and versatility.
Indeed, where COVID once seemed to be an existential threat to travel agencies, Anthony says the pandemic has ultimately strengthened her business: Over the past 12 months, 47 athletic departments have renewed their contracts and 10 new departments have signed an agreement.
“Our value is highest when someone is in a time of need,” Anthony said.
The Ireland Classic builds on Anthony Travel’s long-standing effort — pun intended — to track college sports fan travel, in addition to the difficult handling of moving teams between competitions.
To that end, many of Anthony Travel’s agreements with athletic departments have included specific terms that give the company the rights to serve as the exclusive travel agency for the school’s fans. Anthony Travel also separately engages in specific fan travel arrangements with university alumni and booster organizations, as well as with major campuses or entire university systems to serve the travel needs of faculty and staff.
While it has continued to grow its university operation, there have been hiccups. Earlier this spring, University of Pittsburgh faculty protested the school’s pandemic-era policy requiring all university travelers to book through Anthony Travel or Concur, the online expense management tool. In April, after several faculty leaders complained to school administration about their experiences with Anthony Travel, the school withdrew the policy to allow alternative booking options in case university travelers can find a better rate.
“From Anthony Travel’s perspective, service levels have returned to what they would consider a high standard,” a company spokesman said. SPORTS.
While Anthony Travel has consistently tried to grow beyond the athletic department, its main competitor has kept its ambitions in check.
Short’s Travel Management, founded in 1946, made its foray into college sports in 2003 when it won the NCAA travel management contract for all of the association’s end-of-season championships. Two years later, the company began approaching individual schools for their regular season travel needs, which now form the core of the business.
Then, about a decade ago, Short made a strategic decision to focus more on the corporate client side, giving a large portion of the college sports industry to Anthony Travel. Ryan Dohmen, president of Short’s charter airline division, attributes Anthony Travel’s boom in customers in the late 2010s and early 2010s to his company’s unilateral demerger. Short’s eventually returned to the intercollegiate fray about five years ago and, after the pandemic, made college sports his dedicated focus.
“We decided the corporate side of the business wasn’t where we wanted it to be,” Dohmen said.
Short’s currently holds about 70 travel management contracts with athletic departments but, unlike Anthony Travel, has declined to pursue fan or other university-related travel.
Last year, the company made headlines when it acquired the Florida State athletic travel account from Anthony Travel. Rosey Murton, FSU’s chief procurement officer, said that amid the financial strain of COVID-19, the school was motivated to find cost savings, particularly on charter flights, which it did by moving its business.
Contrary to Anthony Travel’s norm of physically involving its employees in athletic departments, Short’s handles nearly all of its university accounts remotely, believing it allows the company to attract a better talent pool.
“One of our slogans is that we were remote before the remote control was cool,” Dohmen said.
In FSU’s case, however, Short agreed to keep an agent in place at the school’s request.
Anthony Travel claims that, even with advances in technology, the constant situations involved in college team travel are still more prone to having an agent in the hallway than coaches and athletic directors. Anthony says that since the summer alone, a dozen of her schools have requested an additional on-site agent as part of their ongoing relationships.
Right now, travel agencies are in DI client acquisition mode, creating some noticeable consternation in SEC land. Last year, Anthony Travel announced an agreement to serve as the official travel partner of the conference office and last January won the competitive bid for Vanderbilt athletics, which had previously been a client of Short’s. In that time, the Commodores gave Anthony Travel his sixth SEC program, along with Arkansas, Auburn, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Missouri. Six months later, however, Short left Missouri with Anthony Travel; Short’s also holds contracts for Mississippi and South Carolina.
Florida and Georgia currently handle their team’s in-house travel. Tennessee uses World Travel, Kentucky uses a local agency, while LSU and Alabama both employ corporate travel management company Christopherson.
In the Big Ten, Anthony Travel is influential, serving every conference athletic department except Minnesota’s—a loyal client of Short’s. Anthony Travel also contracts with projected 2024 Big Ten members USC and UCLA, and rumored hopefuls Stanford and Oregon.
Antony said SPORTS consolidating fortunes in college sports will likely guide his company’s future partnerships. Over time, the company may see fit to limit its contracts to only certain types of college football powers.
“We want to be where it makes sense,” Anthony said. And where it makes sense it can include more overseas destinations.
Antony said SPORTS that he has been in serious discussions with at least one other foreign city to host an early college football game besides the one in Ireland. He declined to provide additional details.