As Signature's annual Sales Meeting and Trade Show entered its second day in Las Vegas, several of the consortia’s leaders spoke at the general session about the state of the association and, more importantly, how it reflects the state of the industry.
Alex Sharpe, Signature’s chief operating officer and executive vice president, kicked off the general session noting that Hurricane Sandy, which had devastated the northeast two weeks earlier, had helped remind people of the value of travel agents in the wake of disaster. “If there’s ever a time when we earn customers for life, that’s the time,” he said. “It’s the time to reinforce the value of agents to their customers and to their friends. This is an industry built on reputation and referrals.”
Sharpe also listed some numbers about the Sales Meeting: Suppliers from 52 countries were attending, along with 1,134 Signature consultants. 92 percent of member agencies have representation at the Meeting. Among the 723 supplier partners, 365 hotels are represented. There are only 20 Signature staff on site (with 20 more back home), but they are all supported by 10,000 employees at the MGM Grand. Perhaps the best number was 30, which is the number of cancelations the show saw in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. “That’s a testament to people wanting to be here,” Sharpe said.
For 2012, the overall network growth for cruises and tours was 17 percent, and futures are up more than 20 percent vs. the same time last year, he continued. “People are booking both for tomorrow and next year,” Sharpe added.
Several new supplier partners are attending the Meeting and Trade Show, including Europe Express, Swain Tours, Ker & Downey, Ski.com, the American Queen Steamboat Co. and Shore Excursions Group. New destination specialists include Viviani for the Napa Valley and Sonoma regions of California.
The main message of the Meeting, Sharpe concluded, is that member agents should take the value that Signature works to create in terms of partners and technology—“and run with it. Pass that value along to your customers and differentiate yourself. Add value. Tell your clients why they should book with you. We’re not selling a logo or a brand—we’re selling you.”
Next: New Hotels
Ignacio Maza stepped up to share the latest developments for Signature’s hotel partners: There are currently 790 partner hotels and properties in 430 destinations across 85 countries and six continents. “We have nothing in Antarctica,” he admitted, “but we’re working on it.”
Signature has added 62 new properties to its portfolio this year, including properties in New York (the JW Marriott), Washington, DC (the Jefferson), Hawaii (the Modern Honolulu) and Sydney (the Langham). For the fifth year in a row will be the first consortia to release its hotel directory for the next year. Agencies can get the directory with their own name on the cover as an added step of personalization.
In addition, Signature launched a new Private Sale program last month to compete with Groupon, LivingSocial and other flash-sale sites that offer travel. These sales are only offered every other week, and are sent to clients in the agent’s name. Clients must register in advance, and Signature members must “opt in” to participate. All sales are commissionable, and clients have six days to book.
Another new initiative, First, supports new hotels and major reopening with comprehensive sales and marketing campaigns. Training and PR support is also provided. The launch hotel for this program is El Encanto by Orient Express.
Next: How can new technology improve your business?
Karen Yeates talked about technology, and how agents could make the best use of Signature’s e-programs. Cruise Track is a new proprietary program that lets agents stay on top of changes for a cruise, including price, itineraries, amenities and more. This helps prevents comparative pricing among cruisers (clients won’t be furious when they find out the family at the next table paid $1,000 less), or random changes like ports of call that a family had especially wanted to see. Agents can opt to use the Express Track, which monitors everything, or custom track for specific elements. They can also add other waters from their agency to the program in case multiple agents are working on a trip.
The main tech goals for 2013, Yeates said, is to get the Client Reach program setting up triggered messages for clients. The program triggers “Thank You” emails to a client on an agent’s behalf with multiple featured content sites and products, including recommendations for buying travel insurance. (Good to know: This feature can be turned off if clients want a minimum of contact.) Every 30 days, a triggered email will recommend one product for clients to consider, like upgrades or shore excursions.
Coming up, automated triggered messages will be sent based on what client clicks on in the initial email. “It might be intrusive, but you’re giving them what they need and what they want,” Yeates said. Signature is also looking to simplify its sign-up process, letting agents add clients with just a name and an email address. With these new programs, clients will get specials that match their interests as determined by their behavior, rather than what they tell their agent.
“When developing technology, we always ask if [what we’re building] will help build and strengthen client relationships,” Yeates said. “How can we lighten the load?”