Selling health tips to globe trotters

Dispensing advice and vaccines for world travelers is paying off for this growing franchise business.

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(Fortune Small Business) -- While running health services at the University of Baltimore in the early 1990s, Fran Lessans met a law student who was petrified about the prospect of attending her mother-in-law's funeral in Ghana. The young woman had visited the country once before but ended up getting sick and spending two weeks in the hospital. For the funeral trip, she'd done her homework and gotten the right shots, Lessans recalls. But no one had counseled her about water purification and what foods to avoid.

In 1994, Lessans founded Passport Health to provide counseling and vaccines for travelers headed overseas. "I noticed that when people got good counseling they stayed healthy, so we spend about an hour with each of our travelers," says Lessans, 61.

In 1997, she started franchising the company, which has since grown to more than 160 locations nationwide. Franchisees pay a onetime $35,000 franchise fee, as well as 7% of all revenues. Altogether they deliver 30,000 to 40,000 injections a month.

The franchise network has landed contracts with such national corporations as Macy's (M, Fortune 500) and PNC Bank (PNC, Fortune 500), driving revenues from $5 million in 2003 to $37 million last year. About 60% of the company's sales come from providing vaccines to travelers, and the rest from flu vaccines delivered during the fall.

"Doing both was an intentional way to balance revenue streams," says Lessans. "I didn't think travel would be enough to sustain the revenue model."

That turned out to be a canny choice this year. An international travel slump provoked a 10% slump in Passport's travel vaccine sales, Lessans says. But franchisees have seen a 10% increase in flu shot bookings because the swine flu scare has reminded people to get their regular flu shots as well. She expects 2009 revenues to be about level with last year's.

Before swine flu arrived, the influenza vaccine market "was already growing pretty consistently," says Bruce Carlson, publisher at Kalorama Information, a medical industry research firm. He attributes some of that growth to America's aging population. According to Kalorama, flu vaccine sales hit $3.2 billion in 2008, up 15.1% from 2007, and should rise 16.6% annually through 2013. To top of page

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