Insight - Agency Groups Continue Innovation and Leadership

travel agentTravel Leaders' announcement of a new advertising campaign for its member agencies has real marketing advantages for its members, but it also represents a vote of confidence in the future of “traditional” travel agents. 

The branding campaign is anchored by the tagline “Travel Better” and features national television commercials, new radio spots and will be used in Travel Leaders’ online presence, direct mail and other marketing vehicles.  

The campaign is also a dramatic – and welcomed - evidence of the continuing investment that agency consortia, including franchisers, continue to make in their member networks and in their own organizations future.

Clearly, new technology and marketing tools make for substantially stronger agencies – building profitability and improving performance. But it also increases the always-laudable goal of improving client service quality and the resources available to travelers.

A few note worthy recent examples include:

New Markets: Agency groups are helping members penetrate new marketing niches. Ensemble Travel Group, for example, has formed a new partnership with The Knot offering a print and online advertising campaign designed to generate leads for Ensemble’s U.S. network of certified Destination Weddings & Honeymoon Specialists.

Another example is offered by Cruise Holidays. Last year it launched its Platinum Program for luxury-focused agents and has provided a year of luxury training and marketing support.  The program has now been opened up to additional luxury-focused agents. The program includes monthly networking calls and is proving helpful in the competitive luxury sales market.

Culinary cruises and tours are an important part of Signature Travel’s program and Virtuoso has long ranked as a force in luxury travel – a much-coveted market. Several groups who see profit potential in increased hotel sales are expanding hotel programs rapidly.

Independent Agents: As independent agents have proven their value – and productivity - the major agency groups have moved to support their member agencies recruitment and management of IC’s. A promising initiative is Signature Travel’s launch of its new member recruitment campaign focused on attracting independent contractors to participating member agencies. Signature says it wants to recruit enough IC’s to add upwards of $100 million in preferred supplier revenue to the network. Signature notes its independent contractor recruitment parallels Signature’s ongoing member recruitment. 

Another program to recruit ICs was launched earlier this month by Travel Leaders, who announced the launch of its “Independent Contractor (IC) Center of Excellence” for member agencies. The initiative will help member agencies attract and retain successful independent contractors. Travel Leaders says it will streamline the management of their traditional and IC businesses while increasing sales. 

Management Support: Another noteworthy initiative is consortia and franchise groups providing management counsel and training to agency owners and managers to systematically achieve profit goals. Signature, for example, said it would analyze each member’s performance in four categories, establishing benchmarks. Members will get detailed information on their company's position in relation to the entire membership. The group also has specific training programs to aid members and their front line sales people to achieve the benchmarks. 

Ensemble Travel takes another approach, reporting it will conduct confidential, detailed sales and customer-service research on a test group of Ensemble members, suppliers, and clients. The results, best practices, and solutions learned from this research will be released next year and guide the creation of future workshops and keynote materials that are specific and relevant to the agencies.

Travel Leaders Franchise Group takes still another path. Its new proprietary training program, Associate Consulting Evaluation (ACE) assists Travel Leaders members to learn how to maximize the variety of programs, products, services and supplier relationships offered through and negotiated by Travel Leaders to help them grow their agency's sales and profits. 

Best practices are offered as training suggestions and Travel Leaders says the agencies have been able to increase cruise sales and yield, as well as request co-op marketing dollars to increase sales and offset their costs.

MAST Travel Network also reports that its preferred supplier strategy is being reviewed as part of an ongoing project to measure and analyze supplier sales support, commission scales, override programs and sales goals. The project's objective is for greater understanding of expectations, more accountability on both sides, and increased revenue opportunities for members as well as the organization.

Technology: Cruise Holidays pinpoints still another asset: the investment of the agency groups in technology. Cruise Holidays reports it has invested more than 20,000 enhancement hours into CruiseWeb – the groups proprietary technology over the past four years.  Cruise Holidays’ also admits that commitment to CruiseWeb technology has also been a factor in attracting new franchise owners and affiliates. The program is also linked the group’s client relationship management and marketing programs. 

Social Media: Virtually all of the agency groups have tackled the use of social media by member agents, including Virtuoso. Partnering with 23TouchPoints, Virtuoso recently introduced a new social media collaboration tool termed "Compare & Share." The project is aimed at further integrating consumers into the travel planning process by offering the opportunity to compare travel components. Once chosen, the choices can be shared via email or social networks.

The basic question is if all of the new initiatives – most based on already established programs - are paying off? The evidence suggests they are – especially when accompanied by training to manage innovation and new, fresh approaches to marketing.  Learning has become a way of life for agency owners, managers and staffs., as an example, has a strong record of innovation and reports its 2012 membership growth is outpacing 2011. says it added nearly 350 members so far in 2012. That signals record growth, outpacing the same period in 2011 by 70 members, notes.

In 2012 alone, Signature reports growth in preferred supplier sales by 17 percent in terms of same store growth, as well as expansion of the Signature network. Signature has added a number of new members, as well as 78 new partners. 

American Express Travel’s U.S. Representative Travel Network has also reported consistent growth, with a 36 percent increase in sales from 2009 to 2012.  The network also has added agency members and is a powerhouse backed by the resources of American Express.

Innovation also appears to help with acquisitions and alliances. In October, Cruise Holidays International announced a new alliance with Quebec-based Groupe Atrium. The agreement provides Groupe Atrium with access to Cruise Holidays’ technology and marketing solutions for its franchise network and consortium members in Quebec. Groupe Atrium, which is made up of the Vasco Travel franchise, the Gama Travel consortium, and Premium Tours, will become Cruise Holidays’ master franchisor in Quebec. 

There are lots other innovations being reported, including Travel Leaders Franchise Group’s new partnership with a major insurance company to offer Errors and Omissions (E&O) policies to member agencies. Interestingly, the program includes a Network Security endorsement and Cybercrime Insurance Protection Policy. Included is coverage for independent contractors working for Travel Leaders member agencies under the E&O policy.

The bottom line is that the agency groups, franchisers, consortia or agency owned groups are thriving and despite the problems of the economy can be expected to turn in solid year-end performances. Travel agents and the traveling public benefit from outstanding managers and professional staffs who are building outstanding organizations.

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