Apple Vacations hosted its annual Gala at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago on Monday, September 10. At the event, Apple Vacations honored 12 Golden Apple property, airline and destination winners—but they also introduced a few new initiatives as part of the merger between Apple Leisure Group (ALG) and The Mark Travel Corporation (TMTC).
Travel Agent spoke with Tim Mullen, president, Apple Vacations; Jacqueline Marks, EVP trade sales & engagement, ALG, Vacations; and Lynn Torrent, executive vice president, ALG and president, Vacations, to get the latest on the merger.
What did we learn?
After some initial trepidation among advisors, the travel industry community is coming around. Marks tells Travel Agent that, at first, some advisors may have been concerned—or cautious—since they weren't sure what the merger would mean for their business; however, she says that now that more information is available, the concern has waned. Most notably, no brands will be dissolved; the only exception will be The Mark Travel Corporation name, which will be removed by the end of 2019. Technically not a “brand,” and rather a “holding company,” Torrent says, TMTC will wholly be operating as ALG by the new year.
Marks particularly notes the additional information that ALG has been able to release has been key in getting advisors on board.
“I feel like where we're at today, it's day and night because we've been able to share updates about, for example, all of our brands, that they're all staying, they're not going away,” Marks says. “I think that was an initial fear.”
Why the Merger?
Mullen tells Travel Agent that the fit for the two companies was natural. “Our [Apple’s] Achilles' heel had been our technology from growing,” he says. “Now, we have that solution that we've always wanted.”
Mullen adds that TMTC has “by far, the best group solutions and group products booking solutions,” and says that the product that they now have access to is better than anything Apple could have purchased. “We can’t wait to get on VAX [VacationAccess],” he says.’’
On the other side, “that benefit from brands that are represented under The Mark Travel Corporation is the ability to sell AMResorts,” Mullen says. “They have, overnight, 52 new hotels that they can sell, that before they couldn't sell one room. So, they're the two primary benefactors.”
Simply put, Mullen says, travel agents can now buy AMResorts if they're a big booker in the FunJet Vacations brand, or any of The Mark Travel brands, and if they're from Apple Vacations, they now have a much simpler reservation system.
Despite the size of each company, Torrent—who was hired in April to assist with the merging of the companies—says that there have been very few issues with brand management.
“I think initially there might have been some surprise, putting them (all of ALG’s and TMTC’s brands) all under one leadership,” Torrent says. “There might have been some questions in the beginning like, ‘How are you going to create differentiation if you're in charge of Apple and you're in charge of FunJet?’ And I think it's the opposite. I think what we're doing is we're bringing together the best of what we see, but we're also trying to make sure we keep some of the integrity of what made those brands so special.”
Marks agrees that one of the biggest positives of the merger—in addition to giving different markets access to new products—is the collaboration of minds between the companies, by which she means seeing how the other brands run their businesses and finding the most efficient ways of navigating a problem and making it a cohesive strategy throughout ALG.
The consolidation and collaboration “is great for travel agents, because as we get better, then we can make the experience better for the agents, as well,” Marks says.
New Booking Platform
As mentioned, one aspect of the merger that has Mullen most excited is bringing TMTC's technology to the Apple family of brands. Specifically, he's most excited about their group booking platform, which both Mullen and Torrent say is one of the fastest growing segments for them, as well as their VAX booking platform. Currently, Apple Vacations is still under Apple Online 4.0 but by the third week of November, all brands will be using the VAX platform for travel starting May 1, 2019. “So for winter bookings, for travel in the winter through April, it'll be the same booking engine as they use now,” Mullen adds.
“One of our biggest focuses going forward is going to be on groups,” Mullen tells Travel Agent. "It's the fastest growing part of the industry right now—whether it's small group travel, family travel; you name it—that's the way people are vacationing more and more. So, we have the technology, we have the process, we have 200-plus people staffed; we're the largest group department in the industry as far as tour operators go, so I think you're going to see a lot more coming out from us in the group space.”
Travel advisors can also expect a combined loyalty program, which will be drastically simplified, Mullen tells Travel Agent. The new loyalty program will likely be available in June 2019.
Before the new, combined loyalty program rolls out, advisors will have access to an updated Royalties program at Apple Vacations, which will also become available in November. In addition to the traditional gifts from rewards programs—beach towels, umbrellas, free trips—Mullen says the upgraded program will work on a VISA card, which will rack up advisors’ points, which can be used for any aspect of the trip. Come June, the new loyalty program will use a unified pointy system, and, like the upgraded Royalties program, advisors will be able to use the points however they choose.
It will be “like a one-stop shop,” Marks says.
As far as Apple Vacations, 2019 will be the brand's 50th anniversary, which Tim and his brother, Apple Vacations COO Jeff Mullen, soft-launched at the gala. For 2019, advisors can expect a few new rollouts and events such as new incentives, rewards, discounts, promo codes and more. For instance, all 220 Golden Apple hotels is offering a $100 per person discount. Additionally, advisors who attend Apple Vacations’ trade shows, which will visit over a dozen U.S. throughout the year, will have the chance to win 50,000 free Royalties points.
Earlier this year, TMTC partnered with Avoya Travel. Avoya, at the time, said the new partnership would allow them to use Mark Travel’s technology and product offerings to provide its customers with more full-service booking options, as well as to increase booking efficiency for Avoya’s member agencies. Marks tells us that although the partnership is still in the early stages, the Mark Travel Corporation has seen many positives, including (already) increased bookings on non-cruise vacations, which Avoya is so well known for.
“We have the technology to bring travel agents new solutions that they wouldn't have had otherwise, and it's been really exciting to watch travel agents want to grow and try different things, and really evolve,” Marks says.
She adds: “We definitely want to leverage our technology across any of the relationships that exist. So, I think each of our brands have different, what I would call kind of ‘primary relationships,’ in the industry—so some of our brands might be stronger with American Express, some of our brands might be stronger with Travel Leaders Network. So, I think with each of our brands, technology's going to be a key factor for us as we move those relationships forward.”
Among ALG's brands, Mullen says some of the biggest expansion will be from the charter flights segment, which will be adding numerous new destinations from a handful of U.S. gateways. Among the top of the list is Costa Rica. Guests will be able to fly from Chicago Rockford International Airport to Liberia International Airport in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, where Apple Vacations owns/plans to open six resorts in the Arenal Volcano region. Addition flights include two new charters to Jamaica out of Philadelphia; Port au Plata in the Dominican Republica from Pittsburgh (which previously operated only during summer and will now operate year-round); Milwaukee to Los Cabos; and Kansas City to Punta Cana non-stop.
Mullen adds that ALG is working with Sun Country to get “exclusive low prices everywhere they fly in Caribbean Mexico” from Minneapolis in the winter, which will transfer over to Dallas for the summer.