The Ensemble Travel Group— a member-owned international organization of more than 900 professional travel agencies in the U.S. and Canada— is winding down its 2008 International Conference, held October 15-19 at Red Rock Resort & Spa in Las Vegas. Travel Agent sat down with a team of Ensemble Travel Group executives to learn more about an impressive array of initiatives, features and partnerships that were unveiled at the conference.
Introducing Ensemble Client Suite
Ensemble’s members now have a choice between two technology platforms. They can stick with the Ensemble Client Site, which remains free of charge, or upgrade to a platform christened Ensemble Client Suite, which costs members $35 a month. "At first there was some concern from members about paying a fee, but once they saw what they were getting, we got reaction like, 'Wow! This is a steal,' " says John Jessey, senior director of e-marketing and special products for Ensemble Travel Group. “Ensemble Client Suite is far beyond Web 2.0. It’s a content management system like a big onion, with layer upon layer upon layer.”
Ensemble Client Suite features includes a MY PAGE tool that allows clients to create their own personal travel page. Participating members will have access to this information, which provides key insights into customers’ thoughts and buying preferences. From here, the agent can enter into the discussion, as well.
This user-generated dialogue is what’s instrumental, as all content is being searched by search engine spiders, thus increasing the agency’s ranking in a user query. Monitorization is also built into the technology’s social networking capability, which allows the agency to totally control what’s being posted on the website, if they choose.
Ensemble Client Suite also enables clients and potential customers to select offers from one central search tool on members’ websites, which travelers can then save or send to their agent for more information. Once they’re registered on the website, the trip request function is prepopulated with all the necessary contact information, saving travelers from having to re-enter it every time. From the website, clients can e-mail the offer to friends and family for their input, comment, and reviews. The website uses familiar Microsoft Word-based word processing and Frommer’s content of 322 worldwide destinations. The Frommer’s content extends beyond travel information to include current events at travel destinations. The platform will also have a built-in language translator. “We vetted the quality of the language translation system and it’s excellent,” assures Jessey.
Ensemble Client Suite allows agents to network and hold one-on-one as well as group discussions with their clients. Chats will be part of a searchable archive. “If you’re talking to a client and you have to reference what was said in a previous chat, you can do so,” says Suzanne Hall, senior director of marketing and development, land products, for Ensemble Travel Group.
Jessey assured that the $35 price for Ensemble Client suite will remain firm through 2009, although there will be various upgrades available for an additional fee.
Ensemble hopes to convert all of its members to the new site by the end of the first quarter in 2009. The conversion process allows members to see the changes to their site in a staging area. The conversion process is completed with the help of an Ensemble representative, who will come to the agency to oversee the final details of the conversion, a process that usually takes about an hour.
”It’s never one size fits all," says Hall. “It’s always in a business consultative fashion. Everything we do supports building business for the members."
New Financial Targeting Tool for Ensemble Travel Group Members
The conference also introduced a new financial modeling tool available to Ensemble’s members that can identify household income from investments as well as salary. Salary often represents only a fraction of total income, and it reveals little about a client’s propensity to spend. The aim is to target the household's discretionary spending dollars, which is the key driver for purchase potential. The combined power of the Ensemble Travel Group customer segmentation capability with the new financial tool will enable the organization to differentiate the affluent empty-nester most likely to choose a high-ticket safari from the one more likely to choose a value-priced premium cruise with luxury amenities.
“The data is sound and the models are sound,” says G. Carol Black, senior director of strategic marketing for Ensemble Travel Group. "In any business climate, this fine-tuned segmentation tool eliminates waste and drives a much higher return on investment. In the current financial climate, it can be vital to helping members and suppliers find the guests most likely to continue traveling.”
Black also noted that the tool could be used to weed out unprofitable households that aren’t particularly good targets for business. Members can look for the targeting tool to be added to Ensemble’s 2009 marketing.
Message for Members
“Though our number of members is the lowest it’s been in years, sales are better than ever,” says Jack E. Mannix, president and CEO, Ensemble Travel Group. “We’ve added 30 agencies and culled out others, and have added agencies of size and profitability.”
With the economy in a severe state of the staggers, Mannix notes that Ensemble expects to see some shaking out over the next 12 months. “We’re reminding our people that we’ll get through this as well,” says Mannix. “We’re going to help you get through this. You have to look at shaping your business two or three years from now." Mannix notes that members have to remember that it is their expertise that they have to sell to their clients. He also advised them to concentrate on selling luxury and premium products.
“In times such as these it’s important to look inward, examine your database and take advantage of every training opportunity that is out there.” says Susan Gannon, senior director of marketing and development, cruise products, for Ensemble Travel Group. To that end, Ensemble mounts an average of one webinar a week. These are archived and members can access them at their own convenience.
“We embrace all kinds of educational opportunities, including fams offered by our partners,” says Mannix. Mannix notes that Ensemble will be presenting six road show seminars starting next month in major markets across the U.S. although exact cities and dates were still to be determined.
New Members, Products and Partnerships
Ensemble Travel Group announced plans for its first-ever charter cruise in 2010 with Regent Seven Seas Cruises, to be led by broadcast journalist Forrest Sawyer and Four Seasons New York Executive Chef Lynn Crawford. “The overriding concept is that these hosted cruise programs are very popular,” says Mannix. “Consumer expectation rises every year and we wanted to raise the bar again by offering something so unique they’ll come to an Ensemble member.”
A key differentiator for the 10-day Ensemble Grand Journeys Caribbean cruise charter is the fact that it’s the only ship in all seven ports during the cruise, thus ensuring an exclusive and private voyage for members’ clients.
“The cruise is also only available though Ensemble’s members,” says Mannix. “The halo effect alone will raise members’ profiles in their communities and with their customers.”
During the first 24 hours after the announcement at the convention, two bookings for the cruise had already been made. “We’re selling 225 cabins— we only need one in four Ensemble members to sell a cabin and we’re fully booked,” says Mannix.
“Our core branch pillars are all-inclusiveness,” says Sanjay Goel, president of Vancouver-based Cruise Connections. “We have fully loaded the pricing up front. The price you see is the price you pay.”
Customized shore excursions unique to Ensemble will be fully-commissionable, although they are not part of the all-inclusive price. Shore events include the America’s Cup 12 Meter Yacht Race in St. Maarten where guests will have the chance to crew on Dennis Conner’s America’s Cup-winning Stars & Stripes, Canada II or True North I; another event is a local market excursion, interactive cooking demonstration, and gourmet lunch prepared by a celebrity chef.
“Pricing integrity will be important,” adds Mannix. “If we have to take practical pricing protection our agents won’t have to jump through hoops to do it.”
As part of Ensemble Travel Group’s long-term strategy, the organization plans a series of luxury cruise and land departures, perhaps three to five major events a year for the upscale traveler. Venues may range from a personal wine journey of off-limits wineries in Napa to a private NASCAR adventure.
The Ensemble Hotel & Resort Collection begins 2009 with nearly 500 properties worldwide. This represents an increase of about 35 percent in partnerships over the last year.
Highlights of the new additions to the Ensemble Hotel & Resort Collection include:
* St. Regis New York
* Peninsula Chicago
* West Paces Group’s Capella and Solis
* The Bel Air
* Rocco Forte's Brown's Hotel, London and The Balmoral, Edinburgh
* Orient-Express Hotel - Villa San Michele, Florence
* Villa Magna, Park Hyatt Madrid
* Fairmont Singapore
* Banyan Tree properties in Bintan, Maldives, and Phuket
* Seven Stars Resort, Turks & Caicos
* Round Hill Hotel & Villas, Jamaica
* Blue Sydney, a Taj Hotel
New Partnerships announced at the partnership include Tripology, Variety Cruises, Air New Zealand, Echelon private jet charters, and Ya’lla Tours specialty supplier.
Five Ensemble On Location partners were also added: Alanaka Tours, Kinki Nippon Tourist Company, Liberty International, New York Vacation Packages, and Vanguard Travel Service.
The conference included an announcement about a new alliance with culinary adventure operator Tour de Forks. Tour de Forks was founded in 2001 and is known for delivering an insider's, hands-on experience for guests that captures the essence of the “farm to fork” culinary movement. 2009 Ensemble Inspired Journeys collection will feature five new epicurean adventure departures in some of the world’s most exceptional culinary destinations— Normandy/Brittany, Sicily, and Southern India. Ensemble Travel Group worked closely with Tour de Forks to develop new itineraries that will provide fresh experiences, such as “A Taste of the Countryside” festival held in Versailles, home to Louis XIV's Kitchen Garden.
In addition to the new epicurean adventures, the 2009 Ensemble Inspired Journeys departures also include a “Gems and Jewels” cruise experience from Port Louis, Mauritius, to Cape Town, South Africa aboard Silver Sea’s Silver Wind; a “Family Adventure” featuring a Galapagos Island cruise followed by an Amazon Rainforest lodge experience; and the Venice Carnavale, complete with the famous Chocolate Party, personally selected costumes for two masked balls, and a gondola parade.
To learn more about Ensemble Travel Group, call 800-442-6871 or visit www.ensembledirect.com.