A lot has changed in 15 years. 1998 was literally and figuratively another millennium ago, and we feel that, especially in the travel industry, every day. But the old saying goes that no matter how much things change, they also manage to stay the same, which is a key undertone at this year's Vacation.com 15th International Conference and Trade Show in Orlando, Florida.
"Over the last 15 years something within our company has remained consistent," President John Lovell said to a room of about 1,300 attendees at this morning's opening general session. "The consistency lies in our commitment to innovation, technology and ultimately to agents and businesses."
Vacation.com formed in 1998 to create what was then, and continues to be, an industry powerhouse. In 15 years the company has grown to include 5,100 members, pulling in impressive figures like $2 billion in annual cruise sales and over $1 billion in tour and wholesales.
But even an industry giant is not immune to the challenges that face all of us in today's world. Lovell addressed the four biggest challenges that we are facing as a community: 1. Advancing pace of technology; 2. Changing compensation models; 3. Over reliance on existing client base; and 4. 58 percent of leisure agents are over 55 years old.
"In terms of advancing pace of technology, we have always had wonderful parent organizations," says Lovell. "We are going to work over the next 12-18 months to come out with a branded mobile app, which will apply to our CruisePRO tool first and then will expand to the other travel verticals. We need to make sure we are giving you, the agents, the tools you need to sell."
Lovell also addressed that the model of compensation is going to change. Maybe not today, maybe not next week, but at some point there is going to be a change. "Look at what happened in the airline industry," he says. "It was forced on a distribution channel. I do not want anything forced on us. I want to be proactive to make sure you all stay viable as we move forward." The key, says Lovell, is to sell your preferred suppliers. That is how to remain at the top.
Another challenge, which is is never going to go away, is how to generate more leads. More business will always be better. The team at Vacation.com is moving forward to harness an important asset that it already has in its tool box - the URL Vacation.com. "We are going to partner with preferred suppliers that choose to support us on the tool," he says. "We are seeking third party partnerships that can take millions of consumers and funnel them into your businesses, as well." The idea is to make Vacation.com more consumer-facing, which will ultimately drive consumers back to you, the member agent. This is something that is expected to be delivered in the next 12 months.
A final challenge, which proves to be a buzz topic in the industry as of late, is how to bring new, fresh talent into the community. At the conference, Vacation.com highlighted Travel Leaders Group's Travel Leaders of Tomorrow school, which was launched in March and is designed both for people looking for new careers and as a way for current agents to identfy new talent. "This will put them through a core-structured training on the basics of travel," Lovell told the media during a press conference directly following the general session.
So let's see just how far Vacation.com has come in the last 15 years. At the general session, attendees enjoyed a brief presentation skyrocketing us through from 1999 until the present day. "We are, by far, a much more complex organization than we once were. In our beginnings, we ostly focused on getting our members enhanced commission opportunities by way of our supplier relationships," says Lovell. "While that's still a key part of our organization today, we have become a much more critical partner to today's agency owner. We have adapted an implemented a variety of solutions to help them run their businesses more efficiently and make them more profitable."
Some of these solutions include Engagement, which has evolved from solely a direct-mail database marketing program to one that sends specially targeted email Engagement offers to clients on behalf of their respective Vacation.com members. Last year, Vacation.com introduced Retargeted Marketing, which puts supplier offers in front of the traveler in the form of banner ads that link back to the agency-branded supplier promotion landing page. The program has seen more than half of the record 170 promotions incorporating retargeting.
The company's In-Sites program has surpassed 1,000 member agencies taking advantage of the designed microsites. In-Sites are embedded into an agency's existing website, and once a consumer clicks on the site, that member agency's expertise in various destination categories will be showcased.
AirPRO offers ARC and non-ARC accredited member agencies competitive commissions on a wide variety of airlines, as well as access to a support team. Fifty-four airlines participate in AirPRO and agents are earning anywhere from 3 to 22 percent commission. There are also no enrollment fees for the first year.
A Blend of Old and New
One of Vacation.com's crown jewels is its cruise space program, of which there are three components: Culinary Collection, Amenity Departure Dates, and what was previously Vacation Vignettes but will now be referred to as Distinctive Voyages.
"Vacation Vignettes was a name that did not really connect," says Stephen McGillivray, chief marketing officer for Travel Leaders Group. "After a lot of deliberation, we changed the name of Vacation Vignettes and we want to say hello to Distinctive Voyages, which more accurately reflects the uniqueness and exclusivity. It has the luxury cache that appeals to premium cruisers."
In 2014 there will be 300 Distinctive Voyages departures, which is the highest amount of hosted cruises for agents to sell. Participants include Silversea, Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises and Holland America. New to the program are Cunard, Windstar and Seabourn.
There is a total of 1,450 amenity-enhanced departures for 2014.
There is much more fun to be had and exciting announcements to take place at this year's conference. Attendance is up, attitudes are positive and the Vacation.com team is amped to bring its members to the front of the industry.
Stay tuned to www.travelagentcentral.com for more updates.