A human touch enables KHM Travel Group to thrive in a tech-dominated industry

An entrepreneur’s path doesn’t always progress along a straight line. It zigs and zags, goes uphill and down, and sometimes dead-ends. And sometimes it leaves engineering school in Akron, winds through travel school in Florida, and takes a 25-year detour in the construction industry before terminating into a wildly successful travel agency in Brunswick.
Rick Zimmerman is the president and CEO of KHM Travel Group. He co-founded the company in 2005, and has grown it despite the general decline of the industry, which has been besieged by popular book-it-yourself websites.
Between 2012 and 2017, KHM more than doubled sales while adding 1,000 agents to its bullpen of 3,000, in large part by putting a premium on personalization to compete with the impersonal technology that has become so dominant.
But getting where he is today wasn’t always a given. Having studied engineering at the University of Akron, Zimmerman was set for a career in drafting. He came by it honestly — his father and brother were both engineers — and took to it naturally.
He’d been working in engineering from a young age. While at a soils and concrete lab, he was exposed to the legal nitpicking and financial hand-wringing of the business. By age 21, the field no longer excited him.
Rather than finish his degree, Zimmerman left his native state and preordained career for Kissimmee, Florida, where he attended Southeastern Academy, a travel school run out of a converted Howard Johnson. He breezed through the year-and-a-half program, headed back home to Parma and took a job with the first travel agency that offered him a position: ’Round the World Travel.
“They tapped into the fact that I was a numbers guy, so they let me do what was called the IATA report back then. Now it’s called an ARC report. I got to break down the commissions that we would make for all of our airline tickets,” Zimmerman says.
It was essential, but tedious work, and not at all what Zimmerman wanted to do. He thought he’d travel the world and plan spectacular trips for clients. Instead, he was sitting in front of a typewriter doing reports and air ticketing for minimum wage.
Disillusioned and barely eking out a living, Zimmerman stepped out of the travel business and joined his brother who, wanting to start a construction company, dangled an attractive carrot in front of his brother: more money. But a couple years in, his brother took his business to California to retrofit buildings for earthquake standards. Zimmerman didn’t go with him. Instead, he launched a home remodeling company.
His business, Diversified Services, grew through word of mouth, largely based on work he and his small crew would do for folks he knew from church. Looking to accelerate his growth, he started placing ads in TV Guide.
“One of the things I was noticing was the client that I would get from the TV Guide was not the same kind of client that I was getting from word of mouth,” Zimmerman says. “I was getting a shopper from advertising.”
These shoppers chased price, unlike the word-of-mouth clients who pursued him based on the quality of his outfit’s work. That led to an important revelation and change of tactic, which would inform his later venture.