We spent the weekend on location at the American Express Retail Travel Network Learning Forum 2013 in Nashville, where travel agents are hurrying to a range of quick 20-minute classes that cover everything from destinations to tour operators to cruise companies, followed by a trade show for follow-up questions and one-on-one discussions.
We sat in on several classes to get an idea of what the agents would take away from the brief sessions—here is a sample of what an agent can gather in 20 minutes at the Learning Forum:
Jimmy Murphy of AmaWaterways discussed the challenges and limitations of the river cruise industry (ships can only be so wide in order to fit through river locks, they can only be so high in order to fit under bridges, and there are regulations on how long they can be). But he also noted some of the perks of this particular niche of cruising: The ships stop right in the middle of cities (“These towns grew from the river out,” he explained) and the small size guarantees a more intimate experience.
River cruising is also changing the industry's demographic, Murphy said, with a notable rise in younger travelers and families taking to the waterways. As such, Ama has adjusted its activities (both on board and on land) to suit their interests: Walking tours can range from gentle to active, for example, and there are even tours for late-risers who would rather spend the morning in their cabins. Bikes are available on board, so bike tours have also become popular. (Sightseeing is included in every stop, he added.) On board, all cabins have complimentary Internet access (along with computers, so guests can leave their laptops behind if they want); and unlimited wine, beer and soda is also included. (Dedicated wine rooms for up to 12 oenophiles are also available.)
Ama is getting several new ships next year, and will be launching cruises into Myanmar. (The ship is under construction now, Murphy said.)
Throughout Europe, train travel has long since eclipsed airlift as the way to get around the continent. In fact, said Rail Europe's Jennifer D'Ippolito, 95 percent of train passengers are European, and a full 50 percent of people in Switzerland don't even own a car. (We've been there, and yes, the public transportation system in Switzerland is fantastic.)
The slowest train is 25 percent more efficient than a car, and a typical Eurostar journey emits an impressive 90 percent less CO2 than flying on the same route. High-speed trains are three times more energy-efficient than regional trains, and the high-speed networks are growing.
These facts can be used to convince a wide range of travelers to consider seeing Europe by train rather than flying: Those concerned about the environment will appreciate how much greener rail travel can be, while those who want to experience Europe like a local will enjoy sitting and dining with Europeans onboard. And just about everybody can appreciate the convenience of taking the train between European cities: Rather than landing in an airport (after driving to the airport to get there an hour before departure, going through security, waiting and then flying) and then driving into the city, passengers simply walk out of the train station into the middle of town. (Often, D'Ippolito noted, passengers can simply walk from the train station to their hotel.)
Rail Europe's network of European trains includes almost every government-owned rail line as well as Italy's new privately owned line, Italo. The company also offers incentives to agents who sell train tickets at agent.raileurope.com, and is offering special perks this month (a French/Swiss Deluxe Pass that includes three days of rail travel in each country; a Britain Triple Header that offers 20 percent off a Eurostar Standard Premier, 15 perent off British e-tickets and 10 percent off select city passes; 20 percent off first-class TrenItalia tickets; 20 percent off a Eurail Italy or German Rail pass; and a five-days-for-the-price-of-four Swiss deal).
Charles Mest and Karen Burke shared some benefits AmEx agents can get from booking trips with Delta Vacations. Most notably, they have access to the lowest available (often unpublished) airfares on Delta in all classes—and all airfares are commissionable at 5 percent. Prices are guaranteed and deposits are flexible, and there is a 24-hour hold option.
Clients who are members of Delta's SkyMiles program will get bonus miles (as many as 7,500) on all packages, and American Express is the official credit card of Delta Air Lines, so members get two miles for every dollar spent on all Delta purchases.
Good to know: Specialty packages are available, like exclusive access to Walt Disney World vacations, and Delta offers several incentives to agents.