Opinion: Innovation Is What Keeps This Industry Thriving

Vacation.com and its 5,100 agency members will celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary at its Conference in Las Vegas,June 16-19. The event will honor the 10 consortium leaders who joined Vacation.com and helped it grow into a marketing powerhouse.

The recognition of the “founders” underscores the continuity in the industry and how organizations—in this case, consortia—have adapted to new market realities. It also recognizes the dynamic importance of innovation and initiative.

Agency groups such as Vacation.com are at the cutting edge of new technologies, marketing initiatives and innovations. This year, for example, Vacation.com is expected to focus on EZguider, a new desktop booking system. (For more on Vacation.com, see our story on the company's partnership with Hertz.)

Vacation.com has a history of innovation, including its pioneering Agentnet technology and Engagement marketing system now used by 2,100 of its members. And under the leadership of president and CEO Steve Tracas, the company can be expected to sustain its record of initiatives.

As praiseworthy as Vacation.com is, it isn’t alone. Virtually every agency and company in the industry innovates. Innovation in the travel industry and among travel agents is alive and well and may be the key to the future. Some examples:

Nexion, the Sabre Travel Network host agency, recently launched its NexionTown online community-networking capability for member agents. Its parent, Sabre Travel Network, has a reputation for new initiatives, including the formation of TRAMS Marketing Alliance (or TMA), which is focused on building profitable sales.

Travel Counsellors, a major U.K.-based host agency, announced its entry into the U.S. market with an innovative program that includes award-winning technology. Like many host agencies, such as America’s Vacation Center (AVC), Travel Counsellors seeks to break new ground.

• The formation of the Travel Acquisitions Group (TAG) by Carlson Leisure Group in January offers a dramatic, new and innovative framework for growth and expansion. TAG has already made its first acquisition, and more are expected.

• The National Tour Association launched an initiative to encourage inbound travel from China and won support from the China National Tourist Office. The NTA is also aggressively urging the industry to support its grassroots campaign to encourage political candidates to recognize the economic contributions of the travel and tourism industry.

• Virtually every tour operator—from Trafalgar to Globus, Insight to Sceptre—offers innovations in their 2008 programs, including new destinations, itineraries and features. Plus, new online booking tools are regularly being introduced.

• Despite its current problems, the airline industry has a long history of innovation and enterprise. Airlines such as American are testing new programs that allow passengers in-flight use of cell phones while introducing new international routes, such as flights to China.

Hoteliers and car-rental firms must be forward-thinking, while destination managers are constantly searching for the new, unique and salable. Add to the mix aggressive advertising and promotion to consumers and the innovations of major GDS systems, and you have an industry addicted to innovation.

Perhaps the most innovative segment of the industry is the cruise business. New ships, destination options, itineraries and onboard services have opened up sales and marketing options to agents. River cruising is booming.

There is little that’s static in agency operations. Agencies are developing new or enhanced websites, new telecommunications, e-mail promotions and booking tools. What’s more, agents are offering new cruise, tour, hotel and car options on a daily basis.

Is there a downside to innovation? The real challenge for many agencies is sorting out these new initiatives to determine how they fit—if at all—into their operations and marketing strategies. Will it benefit their customer base? Will it sell? Implementation of the best-designed new program often takes time. Training has to be factored in, and implementation costs are often a barrier.

Skilled agency owners and managers often develop a special sense about what will work and what won’t and whether an innovation matches their needs. One certainty is that the pace of innovation and adopting new initiatives will continue to challenge agencies and may well accelerate.


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