When the Apple Leisure Group (ALG) and The Mark Travel Corp. merged a year ago, six significant travel brands were brought together under the Apple Leisure Group umbrella: Apple Vacations, Travel Impressions, Funjet Vacations, Southwest Vacations, Blue Sky Tours and United Vacations. Overseeing these brands and hence, “anything that touches the travel agent community,” is Jacki Marks, ALG’s executive vice president of trade sales and engagement.
This week, she brought the top executives of each travel brand to New York to meet with the travel trade media and a select group of top-producing travel agents.
It was a bold move to mix advisors and media, however, ALG handled all the questions put forth with transparency and clarity as it makes its move to let the travel trade know where things stand for the sizable company, which moves 3.2 million travelers a year.
Along those lines, one of the first questions from a travel advisor was whether, under the merger, there would be an equalization of commission tiers across the board for each brand. Marks said the plan is for commission plans to remain in place; however, a strategy has been put in place to reward top ALG producers by putting them in a “super tier” that allows them to earn the highest commissions.
“We think it's achievable; it will give you benefits to aggregate more of your business within our six brands and that would give you the highest commissions on all brands,” said Marks.
If this top tier isn’t attainable for all, then ALG will instead make sure that an agency can reach the highest commission levels possible by aligning it with the ALG brand the agency is going to book the most. “We’ll really make sure we help you get there,” she said.
Another advisor concern was whether ALG as a whole will now negotiate with agency consortia to get more leverage as a much larger company.
Marks said that issue is something that ALG has spent a lot of time on, considering it has 19 agreements with agency networks. “The challenge is we are a very large organization with six brands and the consortia look at that and say, ‘If I make all six brands preferred, then everybody's preferred ultimately because they’d have other companies that would have to be removed so that there is a more scalable model of preferred. Potentially, if everybody's preferred then it becomes diluted to them. If everybody is preferred then nobody is preferred.”
She doesn’t see that changing anytime soon unless going in to 2020 there’s some sort of breakthrough in negotiations with the networks, she says. For now, she says, each ALG brand has strong legacies and history with their existing, individual consortia, “and we think those are going to continue.”
The First Year: A Look Back
Melding all six brands together under one umbrella has been more of a marriage than a merger, says Marks. She said at the onset of the deal, executives wrote the core values of each organization on a white board and while some of the words were different, a strong similarity pervaded the messaging.
“We all felt the same about what we believe our people should believe in and what we represent to the travel agent community,” said Marks. “A lot of what was said is we're a ‘people company;’ we're about relationships with our suppliers, our travel agents, our team members, and we're an entrepreneurial company.”
There is still work to be done on messaging what the “new” Apple Leisure Group is all about and so ALG has hired an executive from Pepsi to roll out its new vision of the entire company. “We’re right to the point where we're ready to push it over the finish line,” said Marks.
One advisor questioned what the ALG leisure sales team looks like now. Marks said that Barbie Groves oversees the Northeast and Southeast U.S.A. while Mike Ehlers oversees the Midwest and the West Coast.
“Barbie and Mike are ‘multi-line,’” said Marks, “So they oversee the country on behalf of all of our ALG brands. Ultimately underneath them, we have very brand-specific salespeople. We really believe that maintaining the integrity of our individual salespeople's relationships with their accounts was important.”
One fundamental change, however, was to create regional people “pods” that get together to discuss what's in the best interest of Apple Leisure Group overall. “They look at their goals established for their region and what's best for ALG,” said Marks. “They know their brands, but they very much know their sister brands as well. They’re trying to align the best brand for the travel agent's business.”
That's a bold change in how salespeople do business, said Marks. “Salespeople are used to being individual contributors. Let's face it, they're competitive, so we really had to make a fundamental cultural shift in the sales team to say, ‘You need to work together now because in the end if ALG wins, you win as a salesperson.’”
That took some time but after pulling the sales teams together a few times, the concept of “If ALG wins, you win,” became the company’s mantra.
Supporting this unified strategy is the fact that there’s enough business for all six of ALG’s brands to be successful and that it will all come down to aligning each brand with each travel agency in the best possible way so the travel agent will be successful, said Marks.
A more specific example of how the sales teams have begun working together came about when the folks at Apple Vacations and Travel Impressions needed to learn how to use the VAX VacationAccess program, the booking platform that the Mark Travel Group was using. (Apple and TI had been using Quest.)
The Funjet team from Mark Travel jumped in and volunteered to help with training. “There was this immediate teamwork in looking out for each other that I couldn't have planned for,” said Marks. “It’s what you hope for when you build this structure, and they really delivered as a team.”
An advisor questioned the longer wait times on the phone for customer service from Travel Impressions since the merger. That’s a big switch, she said, because the tour operator was known for its stellar service before. She was in particular concerned about dealing with this in times of crisis, such as a weather-related issue.
In response, Travel Impressions president Scott Wiseman admitted that the switchover in systems caused delay times, especially last fall.
“The good news is though, things have settled down,” said Wiseman. “We have put more autonomy and decision-making back in the hands of the front line agents to be able to take care of things instead of relying on some of the teams behind the scenes.”
He said fixing the technical problems took trial and error. “We’ve rolled out a lot of changes, thankfully, to benefit all the brands, not just Travel Impressions, and there is now a quicker response time and less shuffling around.”
Wiseman said the true problem was that it was taking Travel Impressions too much time to get back to advisors with answers and that that is a fixable issue. “Those are things that procedurally and process- wise, we've been able to address and shrink that time from getting you what you need.”
And for those times of stress, when mother nature, or some other external issue might be causing problems for the travel industry? Marks said that ALG is now using a third-party, on-shore company to supplement its staffing. “We will bring them in and train them so we’ll have people ready to go in the times that we need them,” she said.
More Communication to Come
Travel advisors will get more updates when ALG hosts its fall shows, said Marks. “We are saying that 'We’re One ALG' is our mantra, but what does it mean and why do six brands still have differences? We have to answer that question. I can't tell you I have it all figured out yet, but I will say that the table stakes for us are ‘product, technology and policies.’ We are trying to do everything we can to have the best of those three things. We want all of our six vacation brands to be equal. Once we get that figured out and make sure that we're equal, then we've got to figure out where the differentiation points are and make sure that we are very clear in saying, ’Okay, beyond those three things, why would you book Travel Impressions over Apple Vacations?’”
A goal going forward is to not let service drop as it did last winter, said Marks. “Travel Impressions was always the epitome of what everybody in the industry wanted to be, which was the high-touch, high-service. I believe going forward, Travel Impressions will still be a bit higher-touch than the rest of the brands up here. It is the brand that appeals to more of the luxury sector in that it has unique product with its villas program. So we will probably still differentiate it, but there won’t be a case where one brand doesn't provide exceptional service.”
In closing, Marks promised that despite recent challenges over the winter, travel advisors will see a new ALG very soon.
“It is a company that suffered through some growing pains, through some attrition and through some technology changes. These are all the things that caused us to slip a little bit, but I know we've built a strong foundation and it will get back to where it was. So watch for more to come when we roll out some more definition this fall at our shows.”
One of those events will include a learning conference at the Valley Forge Casino in King of Prussia in Pennsylvania. About 1,000 travel advisors are expected to attend the event September16-18, a week after the Apple Vacations Gala, which will be held in Chicago on September 9.