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D.C. Firm Charts New Territory On Visas

Washington Post
By Alejandro Lazo
May 5, 2008

When Jan Dvorak left Czechoslovakia three decades ago, he found asylum in the United States and a job at a District-based travel agency. There, he saw Americans struggling with the myriad requirements from different countries.

So Dvorak founded Travisa Visa Services in 1981. The company has grown to become a big player in the small world of visa and passport processing, helping leisure, corporate and other clients obtain the documents necessary for trips overseas.

Now, after years of serving companies, organizations and individual travelers, Dvorak, 51, is taking on a foreign government as a client.

The Indian Embassy, in an effort to streamline its visa applications for travel to India from the United States, has outsourced all of its visa processing to Dvorak and his start-up, Travisa Outsourcing. It is the first time an embassy in the United States has outsourced its entire visa operation to a private company, according to the National Association of Passport and Visa Services, a Silver Spring group that represents the interests of the industry.

While Dvorak said he thinks the move could start a trend, others said it is too early to tell.

"It is certainly an important new development," said Robert L. Smith Jr., executive director of the passport and visa association. But "it is unclear at this time whether any other government will follow this approach."

A visa is an official approval from a nation to travel, work, study, conduct business or live in that country. Obtaining a visa from a foreign government can be bureaucratic and procedural, a vestige of the pre-digital era, requiring specific documents and often long waits in line.

Requirements for getting a visa can vary widely by embassy, and the ease of getting one often depends on the relationship a foreign government has with the United States, said Jeff Fine, president and chief executive of McLean-based CIBT, a competitor to Travisa.

CIBT offers visa and passport services to a variety of clients, including companies, humanitarian groups and individual travelers. Fine bought the firm in 2003 and with an equity partner, American Capital Strategies of Bethesda, and has expanded by acquiring other visa service companies.

CIBT and other visa-processing companies also bid on the Indian government's contract April 2007. CIBT ultimately withdrew, unsatisfied with the terms the government was offering, Fine said. He declined to elaborate.

"It is too early to draw any conclusions as to whether other embassies of other governments are going to want to outsource the way India did," Fine said. "There has not been, at least in the U.S. or Europe . . . other major visa-requiring governments that have gone this way."

Rahul Chhabra, minister of press for the Indian Embassy, said the embassy sought to outsource the processing of its visas to free up staff and streamline the process. While all visas are ultimately approved by the embassy or consulates, Travisa collects the paperwork and ensures that the proper documentation is available. India now issues same-day visas, whereas the old process would take at least two days, Chhabra said.

"We were coming up on physical limitations and space constraints, so we wanted to see what we could do," Chhabra said. "Outsourcing it seemed to be a viable solution and seemed to work."

Travisa Outsourcing will be paid $13 for each Indian visa it processes. The company started in October and estimates it will have processed 400,000 Indian visas by the end of the year. Dvorak would not disclose further details of the deal but said the venture was profitable.

To process the visas, Dvorak has hired 70 workers and opened offices in every city where the Indian government has a consulate: New York, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco.

Travisa also designed the online application and credit card payment system for the Indian government, where applicants must provide their age, marital status, date of birth, employer and passport number. Applications must be mailed to Travisa or printed at one of the new centers.

"This is fantastic, and I have applied for visas all over the world," said Karl Pierson, 69, of Great Falls, last week as he passed through Travisa's D.C. visa center, which is based in the basement of the same house as Travisa's headquarters.

Dvorak came to the United States after fleeing Soviet-controlled Prague through East Germany and Poland in 1978. The cheapest airplane ticket he could buy from Europe to the United States brought him to Baltimore, where he then caught a bus to the District.

He found work as a dishwasher and later a busboy. He gained asylum a year after his arrival, and his first office job was with the travel agency Travel Advisors of America, formerly on K Street NW. After a year, Dvorak founded a business in a one-room office in another downtown Washington office building.

The company built itself by helping travelers, companies and other organizations get visas for governments that required them, particularly Soviet-controlled countries in Eastern Europe. One of its first big clients was AAA, processing visas for clients of the association's travel agency.

Travisa Visa Services has offices in San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Puerto Rico, and is opening offices in London and Shanghai. Dvorak said the private company has been profitable since its first year but declined to divulge specific financial information.

Dvorak believes visa processing will be more automated and digital, similar to how travel Web sites made it faster and easier to buy plane tickets. Last week, Travisa Visa Services struck a deal with Travelocity Business, a unit of Travelocity.com, to embed in each itinerary information on whether a visa is needed and how to get one.

"Technology and electronic automation as a way of doing business will be the future of this industry," Dvorak said.

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