30 In Their Thirties: Charlie O’Neill, President, CEO, Next Travel, Ann Arbor

It was 2010, Charlie O’Neill’s sophomore year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, when it occurred to him that he just might be able to create a business out of a passion for travel and exploration.
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Charlie O’Neill. // Photo by Trever Long

It was 2010, Charlie O’Neill’s sophomore year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, when it occurred to him that he just might be able to create a business out of a passion for travel and exploration.

“My family took trips to different places over summer breaks and other times,” O’Neill says. “I knew a lot about travel from doing it growing up, and I really saw an opportunity to put a travel company together and plan group trips for spring break to Mexico, the Caribbean, and areas that weren’t being targeted by larger companies at the time.”

Initially, O’Neill called his company HD Travel, for High Definition. “I operated it at U-M as I was struggling to decide if it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. When I graduated, I decided to stick with it.”

O’Neill was the sole owner and employee until 2018, when he merged with another travel business in Ann Arbor and created a new joint venture, Next Travel. “We grew that significantly,” he says. “Then COVID-19 hit, travel went to zero, and everybody said what a horrible business (it was) to be in.”

But O’Neill had a vastly different take on the situation.

“It was a great time to go out and acquire companies,” he says. “Everyone thought we were crazy. They’re like, ‘What are you doing? You’re increasing your overhead at a time where there’s no profit.’ But we were very strategic, and we believed eventually people would be getting back on airplanes.”

Beginning in January 2021 and continuing over the next two years, Next Travel gradually  expanded. It now has four locations in Michigan, one in Indiana, and more than 40 employees.

“Our winters are big drivers for people to do trips,” O’Neill says. “The bulk of our revenue is generated in Q1, when people want to get out of the cold. We do a lot of group trips, and run incentives for (off-site) meetings during that time of year.”

O’Neill is well on his way to accomplishing a goal he set for himself years ago: to be one of the largest travel agencies in the Midwest. “I want to keep acquiring more and more agencies, but only in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. It’s much easier to manage when we can drive to the offices and see our people and meet with our clients in person.”

The personal attention means everything for O’Neill. “It’s a relationship business,” he says. “Plus, we have great relationships with our vendors and suppliers, so we can make things happen for our customers that are outside of the ordinary.”

Which reaps a welcome benefit for O’Neill’s bottom line.

“We spend no money in marketing,” he says. “All our business is the result of repeats and referrals. We have a great client base; they’re very loyal. Once you take care of someone and fix a problem, it really goes a long way in building goodwill and they keep coming back.”