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Opinion: Vacation.com Continues Breaking New Ground for Agents

January 22, 2009 By: George Dooley


 

Vacation.com has marked its 10th anniversary, and is well on its way to its 11th year as one of the largest and most successful travel agency consortia.

Led by Steve Tracas, president and CEO, and based in Alexandria, VA, the consortia has achieved what seemed impossible when it was formed from a group of smaller, disparate organizations widely regarded as commission clubs serving members with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Remarkably, Vacation.com did not fragment despite the tug of regional preferences in preferred suppliers, nor did it succumb to the temptations of expanding too rapidly. The group’s management— including Tracas’s predecessor Dick Knodt— did not seek to become a consumer brand by exploiting the Vacation.com name. Instead, Vacation.com has focused on enhancing the value of the travel agency distribution channel. It invested in technologies such as AgentNet, its web portal, and more recently launched EZguider, a desktop booking system. Vacation.com also broke new ground in marketing support of agents with its Engagement program.

As Tracas views it, Vacation.com remains driven by its ability to serve its agency membership. And it’s succeeded with strong diverse programs, including education and training programs that, like its marketing and technology tools, deliver measurable gains in productivity and profitability. Today’s Vacation.com member agencies are better equipped to cope with the economic downturn, service clients and to prosper— and agents are not "nickeled and dimed" with fees.

To understand Vacation.com’s approach, agents can look at two core programs: the Engagement program, now with 2,100 participating member agencies and 40 participating preferred suppliers, and its newly launched EZguider desktop selling platform.

Engagement is defined as an integrated business-to-business and business-to-consumer solution for agents that combine agency communication, promotion and education with a pull strategy of targeted consumer marketing.

In 2009, Engagement will involve about 62 percent direct mail and 38 percent e-mail. It now has 6 million consumer mail records, and users can drill down to major buying influences such as consumer discretionary spending patterns. Agent support is excellent as is supplier participation. Vacation.com reports that suppliers are investing more in Engagement than at any time in the consortia’s history.

EZguider, introduced last year, is also succeeding with 1,100 agents registered and activated. One sign of interest and the effectiveness of Vacation.com’s training is that 250 members were enrolled for EZguider training in one week. The new tool is viewed as a major productivity gain for agents, including side-by-side comparisons and an easy launch from AgentNet. Agents also get an incentive in the form of a $3 booking bonus beyond supplier booking incentives.

Said Tracas, “Our members recognize that, in an effort to become more efficient and to improve productivity, a product like EZguider is a must for their offices. With side-by-side product comparison, a fully integrated system with Trams Clientbase back office and scheduled air on the horizon for the first quarter, this product clearly provides the right tool at the right time for our membership.” In 2009, Tracas hopes to offer monthly enhancements and to ramp-up as many members as possible onto the platform.

Both EZguider and Engagement underscore Vacation.com’s belief that they are providing the tools and services needed to survive and prosper— especially in a downturn. The addition of air to EZguider taps into the need of agencies that do not have Airlines Reporting Corporation appointments, a GDS contract, monthly GDS fees or productivity goals.

Vacation.com sees technology helping agents cope with new realities: the rise of independent contractors, new agents entering the business unfamiliar with GDS, the drive for greater efficiency and productivity in a downturn, and the need for innovation. Perhaps best of all, EZguider is part of Vaction.com's membership and offers consolidated management, reporting and sales tracking.

As Vacation.com’s 2009 program makes clear, the era of commission clubs who made minimal investments in services, staffs or members is long gone. The "new" Vacation.com offers agency members— and their agents— an array of quality programs as they do suppliers, backed by education and training and encouragement. This is all supported by an outstanding professional staff in touch with agency members and the new competitive dynamics.

The recent history of Vacation.com is the history of innovation. This ranges from newly announced alliances with Tripology (lead generation) and Dunhill (mailing lists) and earlier deals with World Connect (customized FIT’S) and its Hotel Elite program. Vacation Vignettes is a success and has expanded. Vacation.com also has a relationship with Uniglobe Travel for agencies needing business support.

The inevitable bottom-line is results. In a case study, one Vacation.com agent reported 17 new bookings and three groups in one week as a result of using the Engagement program— along with19 new bookings the prior week. Strong supplier offers coupled with agency marketing add up to revenue generation. The Engagement program clearly works for member agents. As does Vacation.com.

Eleven years after its founding, Vaction.com exemplifies the strengths of agency marketing groups. Like Vacation.com, they are investing in their member agencies and agents. They are launching new technology tools, marketing initiatives and professional training. They are helping suppliers and agencies collaborate to deliver quality services to consumers. In sum, high integrity groups like Vacation.com are defining the future of travel retailing. They deserve agent’s support and loyalty - especially in an economic downturn.


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