AS THE SIXTH ANNUAL SANDALS TRAVEL AGENT RECOGNITION (STAR) AWARDS WRAPPED UP at Sandals Grande St. Lucian Spa & Beach Resort, we got to thinking. Sure, the plaque agents receive at such hotel-sponsored ceremonies makes a great decoration in the office, but do awards from suppliers actually help business? When Travel Agent visits agents' offices, we usually notice certificates, plaques and other awards on the walls or on the desk, but do clients?
Randy Petersen, publisher of Inside Flyer magazine and www.WebFlyer.com, believes the accolades can serve as a deciding factor when a consumer is mulling over several agents. "They are often seen as a differentiator, given the status of commission and other changes to the industry," says Petersen. "It does put the non-biased attributes of a professional travel agent at a quandary, but like frequent flyer programs for the individual, there seems to be a middle ground where they can exist. The way these make sense is when there needs to be a tie-breaker for a decision to show the customer."
Rose Marie Spatafore, owner of E-Z Travel in Ansonia, CT, says clients definitely see the writing on the wall. "I haven't won any awards, but I did complete the Sandals courses offered to become an expert in hotels and received their certificates," Spatafore says. "I frame the certificate and put it on the wall in my office. Clients sit and look at the different certificates. They always say, 'That is why I come to you, because you are an expert.'
"I feel they [awards programs] are worth the time because they reward you for keeping up on the product, for being aware of what is current and happening," Spatafore adds. "I am pleased that Sandals awards its agents. I would also like to see courses online."
A Form of Advertising
Awards programs like STAR may be designed to grab agents' attention more than their clients'. "They are really nothing more than today's advertising medium, designed to attract the attention of the travel agent [to a brand], when there are so many options for them to recommend," says Petersen. "If not for these programs, it would be other methods of advertising."
Penny Sheldon of Penny Sheldon Travel in Boise, ID, who's won STAR awards for six years, says they are important marketing tools. "My clients are impressed with my knowledge of the properties and the extended service that I provide them," she says. "This is an affirmation to them when I am acknowledged by the industry that I represent."
An award from a supplier serves as affirmation to agents, too. "I am rewarded for my hard work and dedication," Sheldon says, "along with the honor of being in this elite group."
There were 275 agents from the U.S., U.K. and Canada at the Sandals festivities this fall. More than 50 U.S. agencies received the "Best of the Best Agency Recognition Award," given—according to Sandals—to those that have "excelled and made an outstanding contribution to the Sandals, Beaches and Royal Plantation resorts" through sales of their products.
Sandals also recognized the Top Suite Concierge Travel Agency in each region (Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, West). This went to the agency whose suite concierge bookings represented the highest percentage of their overall Sandals bookings. Three of the winners—Honeymoons, Inc. in Atlanta, Twinsburg Travel & Cruises of Twinsburg, OH, and Penny Sheldon Travel—also were recognized at the worldwide level among Sandals' Top 10 Travel Agencies. Twinsburg Travel also took home honors as Top Butler Suite Travel Agency and Top Booking Travel Agency Worldwide.
Other awards were given for most sales of each of Sandals' three resort brands. Twinsburg won one of those as well, getting named Top Beaches Travel Agency. Travelennium/American Express in Memphis was cited as Top Royal Plantation Travel Agency (it also won a STAR award as Top Group Booking Agency), and Enchanted Honeymoons in Omaha won the Top Sandals Travel Agency award.
Rising Star Makes Debut
A STAR award was given to a Rising Star agency. Sandals this year introduced another program for agents who show promise as producers for the company. The first Sandals Rising Star Luxury Experience, taking place this month in Jamaica, comprises a week at Sandals and Beaches resorts in Ocho Rios, Negril and Whitehouse dedicated to learning the product and understanding what sets Sandals and Beaches apart from their competitors.
The "up-and-comers" in selling Sandals and Beaches who are participating in the Sandals Rising Star Luxury Experience receive rigorous training on the resort group's marketing efforts, upselling opportunities and partnership programs to grow business, and get an in-depth look at the Sandals and Beaches vacation experience. Sandals said this new initiative will promote the next generation of Sandals STARs—those agencies that have indicated potential to excel in sales and develop marketing initiatives to increase business for the supplier.